Editor's note: I arrived at the Ft. Worth Hilton on Wednesday afternoon, about 20 hours before the reunion actually began. At around 3:30, I first walked over to the concierge desk to ask whether a few guests I was supposed to be meeting on Wednesday had arrived yet. (Okay, I also needed a wifi passcode.) Anyways, when I walked over, I noticed someone else checking in, someone whose face I recognized from a Facebook profile. Suddenly, I realized that it was Laura Wilcox Bryant, who, weeks beforehand, had connected me to her parents, perhaps the only people in my home of Baldwin County, Alabama who had previously lived in Venezuelan oil camps. Nevertheless, this didn’t reduce the fact that she herself had also spent her first ten years in the camps. When I bumped into her at the reunion, I caught up with her the best that I could.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a recorder going at the time of this conversation. (I didn’t start one when we started talking, and it felt inorganic once the conversation hit a good stride. However, I tried my best to take a few notes about some of the most interesting points about her time in Venezuela, as well as her transition back to Alabama and the US when her parents (whose story you can find here) moved back home.
The school she went to was a charter by Exonn.
The school had segregated classrooms — the Spanish and English speaking kids were siphoned into different boats from the beginning. Despite the fact that she took Spanish classes, she never directly shared a classroom with the Venezuelan constituency of her staff school.
Television in Venezuela - She remembers watching the television streaming a Venezuelan channel. She remembers that they used to always play old Pink Panther clips, mainly because the lack of dialogue meant that they wouldn’t have to spend any money on dubbing. Sometimes, she remembered Casper the Friendly Ghost, as well as El Gato Felix—a dubbed iteration of the classic Felix the Cat—as well as telenovelas like Maria de la Noche. She remembers specifically how Blanca, her maid who functioned like another parent in her eyes, consistently watching Maria in particular.
Laura mentions something really important here. Since she left Venezuela so young, her memories and perspective of the place are very different from the other “oil brats” who attend these reunions. (She doubts, for example, that others remember cartoons with such vividly.) However, this uniqueness is exactly what makes her experience so important to record.
Going back to her maid, Blanca, she said that her maid was “like her mother,” bringing her up from a very young age. Moreover, Blanca was barley 18 years old when she was hired. Laura echoes her parents’ sentiments, saying the vast majority of maids stole frequently. Thus, most were replaced within six months. Blanca was the exception, staying on for more than ten years. Two reasons were attributed to this.
First, that Laura’s mother caught Blanca stealing something very early on in the relationship, and she simply said that if Blanca needs something, she simply needs ask for it. This stopped the stealing.
(Related to this, Laura mentioned that they always bought and had two copies of everything, since it was such a question mark when they would ever be able to access another copy of missing things. This was a common tactic among US transplants in the camps, and perhaps something that emboldened maid stealing.)
This was also stopped when Blanca’s mother stopped visiting, as it was somewhat assumed that Blanca was carrying out the wishes of her mother.
Second, Laura’s father insisted that the maid take secretary classes to learn a skill. This both ensured that she was able to move on and up once she left their service, and also helped give her a certain sense of stability, as well as extra utility to the family.
The transition to rural Alabama was tough for Laura, who was born in Venezuela. She tells of how in her fourth grade classroom, the class size nearly doubled, from 14 kids in Venezuela to 32 in Robertsdale.
Race was also a big change. She remembers on the first day of her school, in 1976, learning about the brutal reality of Southern slavery. She remembers being horrified, amazed that any people had inflicted this brutality. She told me about going to a K Mart in nearby Pensacola, Florida not long after, and seeing a pair of African Americans speaking in what she described as “jive talk.” Since she had only before met people of African descent who were from South America, and thus spoke Spanish, she did not even recognize the southern African American dialect, thinking it was a foreign language. (She asked her mother “what language are they talkin?”) Nevertheless, she remembers her mother explaining that this was simply how some circles of African Americans spoke English, and then that being it.
While speaking to me, she recalls reading a piece, later in life, about a sensation of “TCKs”, or “Third Culture Kids.” She tells me about how she feels and thinks differently from both those who she grew up with and those she lives with now in Laurel, Mississippi. She mentions that she has shared this source material with many others, especially parents whose kids grew up in another culture and can feel left out by both their origin and their destination: trapped (and confused) within a third medium.
Still, she has vivid memories from quite a young age. She remembers things that she self-describes as “strange.” For example, when she was four, she remembers taking a ferry across Lake Maracaibo and seeing the Guahira native people, who had a unique dressing style featuring dresses that were very rectangular but came together at the waist, giving them (in a paraphrase, but a close paraphrase, of what Laura told me) “shape but also lack of shape.”
Recalling this memory gave rise to my favorite quote that Laura gave me: “If you don’t do anything interesting, you won’t remember it.”