Name: Donna Meador Cotton
Date: August 2, 2018
Circumstance: Phone Call. Ms. Meador was at her home in Louisiana. I called from Silver Spring, MD.
Details: The first thing Donna Meador Cotton told me in our pre-interview correspondence was that her father was “el jefe”—the boss—in the camp she grew up in. We talked about adolescent life in the camps. I am very grateful for her time and candor in speaking to me.
Donna Meador Cotton (DM): I was born in Maracaibo in 1955. My parents waited until I was out of high school until my dad retired and that was 1972. When you grow up there, it’s just home. It was great. I thought we had really good teachers. I always did pretty well in school; I applied myself. Most of us went away to boarding school after we graduated from eighth grade. I thought that Creole paid part of the tuition, but I’m not 100% sure about that. Being kids down there, we didn’t think too much further than what we were going to do that night. But as an adult, I can look back and see how some American influences might have developed in a negative way. If you’re asking about the current government, how American influence has affected that? Is that what you’re asking?
Trent Kannegieter (TK): Most of my work is before the Chavez era. My particular research starts in 1937 so I’m more interested in generally the environment, especially the camp, that you grew up in.
DM: Ok. The camp was great. Especially that country club that they put together; it was really really nice. I wish I could scan more pictures in; my dad had a whole lot of slides. When we were young, we had these little mopeds, Honda P50s; you were just free to go anywhere in the camp. It seemed real big when you were a child, but when I look back, it was really small. In the teenage years, you start driving and you get out of the camp and get to places where you can get in trouble. I think there were times when we could have got ourselves in a bad situation, but it always seemed to turn out. It was the 1970s. When we would go back for the summers as teenagers and we could go anywhere we wanted, I can see how it might have caused resentment, looking back as an adult. That’s really too bad. I’m sure today they’d give anything to have that back.
There was one big highway. If you go one way, you go to the beaches. If you go the other way, you go to the mountains. We didn’t have the big waterfalls that you see on the other side of the country, but there was plenty of jungle and mountains to explore.
The daily routine was sleep until noon, get up and eat something, lay out by the pool all afternoon, go home and eat, and go out all night. It was a lot of contained freedom; I always felt very protected. One time, we were somewhere we weren’t supposed to be, and we got pulled over. They wanted to know what we were doing and who we were. Then they took us into this little police station, and they started pulling the car apart. We were all getting scared. They were asking our names; when they got to me, I said Donna Meador, and the policeman asked if I was Senor Jaime’s daughter. I said “yes”, and he goes to make a phone call. He comes back and they start putting everything back together, and we were on our way. At that time, my father was in charge of the Tia Juana camp. That was probably the closest I ever came to getting into some trouble.
Another time, my sister and I were going to a Colombian beach with a group of friends. We had to take ferry across the river/border. Some of the guys were talking with some Venezuelan men; they thought it would be funny to sell me and my sister to these Venezuelan men for maybe a donkey and a couple goats. That could have turned out bad too, but they were pretty good natured about it.
There were some organized sports, especially baseball, mainly for the boys. I don’t remember playing organized sports for the girls. I don’t know if anyone has talked with you about the carnivals? I can put pictures of the carnivals in too.
TK: I don’t know much about the carnivals.
DM: Ok, it was as big as Santa Claus. And what you did is, the kids all dressed in costume and you walked around in a big circle where the outdoor movie screen was (at country club, presumably). The best costumes were awarded on stage, it was really fun, we did it every year, and it was a big deal.
Santa Claus came in the summer in Venezuela. He would land on the roof in a helicopter. We would sit on his lap. They pretty much gave us everything we would get if we were living in the States. I’m sure we probably should have seen how real Venezuelans were living/celebrating.
TK: On that point of not feeling as connected to broader Venezuela, obviously you feel like the bulk of your experience was with the Americans, but did you ever have places where you would go to interact with Venezuelans?
DM: Oh yeah. We had Venezuelan friends. Venezuelans lived in the camp with us. It’s just that there was such extreme poverty, and that’s what I’m talking about. But, yes, you could go out to restaurants, and you could go a town near Tia Juana called Ciudad Ojeda. Ciudad Ojeda had restaurants, movie theatre, shopping; it was about 15 minutes away. We had a commissary at the camp to buy food from, but we usually went to a grocery store at another camp called Tamaro [editor’s note: ?]. It was actually like a grocery store from the US.
I remember going to Maracaibo to go shopping, and you would pass pueblos where you would see little children with bloated bellies. I think about that now. I know the oil camps did things to help them, but I think they could have done more. And that’s what Chavez promised everybody, a chicken in every pot. The way we lived and the way they lived were so very different. I see that now. I see how it could happen. And Chavez was growing up during that oil field heyday, and he would have witnessed that.
TK: On that note, with that pronounced divide there, I’m wondering how much the American oil camp community would have discussed Venezuelan politics? When it came to current events, would you be more likely to talk about what was going on in the States? Or broader Venezuela? Or did it [discussion of current events] stick to the camp itself?
DM: All our parents got newspapers from Miami or New York, and they kept up that way. When there was a presidential election in Venezuela, you’d talk about that. I don’t remember ever personally discussing local politics, mayors, etc. As a kid, I found that boring. We did know it was a democracy. When I was at boarding school, I did get thrown out of a class because I was arguing with a teacher that it was a democracy, and the teacher insisted it was a dictatorship. The teacher took me out of class and said she was a Rhodes scholar, and I said I lived there….
The ties to Venezuela, for me, are just the kids I grew up with. The Creole Reunion is like a high school reunion for me. It’s a different way of growing up. It was a great way to grow up, and I was very happy. I know the Venezuelans will never read this, but I just wish now that there had been a different form of outreach. Maybe then the country wouldn’t be in the situation it is in now.
TK: When you went to boarding school for high school, what things stuck out to you as being different in the school system? Venezuelan vs. U.S. culture? The academic structure?
DM: I really did not see a lot of difference. Creole made sure they had good teachers down there. I never felt behind, ever. For Spring Break, I always got another week because I was going to Venezuela, but I was never behind when I missed that week of school. My parents would come up at Christmas time, and I would go back to Venezuela during the summer.
I don’t know how much you want to learn about our social life down there?
TK: Yes, very much.
DM: Well, there were laws down there, but they weren’t very well applied. It was the 1970s. We were teenagers. Basically, you could walk into any pharmacy and get anything you want. I’m sure there were laws against it, but they were never applied. At the country club in Tia Juana, you had to be 18 to drink, but Venezuelans never asked for IDs.
TK: Did you find that different than being in the States at that time? I don’t know where you went to boarding school.
DM: In the Deep South. No, you couldn’t get alcohol. I remember being 14, and my sister and cousin taking me to a nightclub in the States, they did stop me and question me. I know I didn’t look 18, but they did let me in. In Venezuela, they didn’t question you; you could do anything you wanted outside of the oil camp. Drugs, like weed, were pretty easy to get. That was about it for drug use. Venezuelan guys who we didn’t know would come to the camps selling cocaine and other drugs. As far as being a teenager and growing up down there, it was a lot of fun.
You remember the night at the police station I told you about? On the highway at the entrance to each of the oil camps, there was a guard shack; we called it “the hut.” We called the Creole guards “the vigilantes.” We got back to La Tia Juana, and the vigilantes pulled me out of the car and kept me in the hut until my dad came to get me. It turns out the police had called the guards; the guards called my father… That was the night I realized, they really know who I am.
When I think about my life at boarding school and my time in Venezuela, I really don’t feel like there were many differences to me. Other than being in a foreign country, so Spanish is the common language. Creole made it so much like home. I’m trying to articulate that it was so much the same but so different too.
I was bit by a snake down there too. This was pre-teen years. I was at a slumber party and we decided to sneak out and see what kind of mischief we could get into, and I stepped on a snake. Now, everybody’s parents know we were out. My parents were out at a party, and they had to find them. They put me in an ambulance for Maracaibo, and I could tell that the hospital was not as good as what was in the States. I was in a big ward for three days. There were many deformed children and a lot of babies with hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain).
The golf greens were a really good place to hang out, smoke weed and drink beer. I’m surprised we didn’t tear them up, but they were ok. I know some of the parents were complaining about it. There was a dyke on Lake Maracaibo near Tia Juana, and a lot of partying went on at that dyke. You could drive cars up there; it was a big dyke. Before you were 18, you had to find places where you could hang out and drink and smoke weed. The monte (little jungle) was a good place to go. When we went, we would go by the carloads, as many as six cars. Gigi’s Discotech in Tia Juana. I don’t remember going too much farther than (Cuidad) Ojeda to hang out, unless we were going on a trip to the beach. The fact that it seemed to be such a protected environment set us apart from the general population. Sometimes Venezuelans would come in wanted a side job (day labor). I’m sure there was a lot of resentment. I do see what could happen; I understand the bad feelings from Chavez toward the United States.
I really don’t know what else to tell you.
TK: This is great. One last question. You kind of hit on some of this. What are misconceptions about Venezuela or Venezuelans that you hear frequently?
DM: I don’t hear much about Venezuela. I’m in Louisiana, only sometimes you’ll hear something on the news. I only discuss Venezuela on Facebook or in texts with the people I grew up with. It’s not like you hear people being racist about Venezuelans like they are about Mexicans. The VICE channel has had several things about Venezuela over the past few years, but that’s about it. They talked about Venezuela during the last Venezuelan election, but you kind of have to go looking for it. What got you interested in it?
TK: One of my professors is a Middle Eastern woman who studies Saudi oil politics. I speak a little Spanish, and she suggested I put those two things together and study petro-states in the Spanish speaking world. I fell down the rabbit hole into Venezuelan oil camps. There’s been work on the oil camps before. There’s a professor at Pomona who has done some really good work. I started studying his work, and I’ve taken it from there. Part of the fascination for me is because it’s so understudied. Accordingly, it makes it easier to find original stuff, but it also is important to record and archive these testimonies.
DM: I’m glad people are still thinking about it. It has been in the news more than ever lately. I don’t know when or if it will ever be what it was when I was there. Have you seen that thing on Facebook about Venezuela and English?
TK: I don’t think I have.
DM: I posted it and Johnny posted it. It’s interesting. It starts out landing at the Maracaibo airport, you walk out on tarmac… That’s another thing, there are always buzzards flying on the tarmac at the Maracaibo airport because there’s an adjacent slaughterhouse. One-time coming home we ended up with a layover in Colombia because they couldn’t get the cows off the runway while we circled the airfield for an hour.
The first 15 minutes of that Facebook video is about the area near where we lived. I lived at Lagunillas for a little while. The video is dated 1956. It shows houses on stilts and mobile homes (I never saw those). The video was produced by Creole; you can tell how Americanized it was. It looked like Little Havana in Miami. If you look at that video, you can clearly see what the oil companies built.
TK: I don’t have any more questions now. I really appreciate your time. Thank you.
DM: Well thank you. I’ll try to get more of those photos posted.