2018-02-01 / Life in Leelanau

Homestay

José, Venezuelan exchange student, finds comfort in Leelanau County
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


THE COLD, clear water of Lake Michigan at Glen Haven was too cold for Venezuelan exchange student José Acosta when he arrived in September. He hopes it will be warm enough for swimming before he completes his exchange in July. THE COLD, clear water of Lake Michigan at Glen Haven was too cold for Venezuelan exchange student José Acosta when he arrived in September. He hopes it will be warm enough for swimming before he completes his exchange in July. Editor’s note: Veteran staff writer Amy Hubbell and her family were hosts to Rotary exchange student José Acosta for his first semester at Leland Public School. Below, she tells the story of his experiences here as well as the decaying of his native country.

Leelanau has long been called the “Land of Delight,” and for Rotary exchange student José Acosta, it’s lived up to the billing.

José, 17, came to the county from Venezuela, 3,000 miles and in many ways a world away from our placid peninsula home.

Oil-rich Venezuela, once an economic driver in the Western Hemisphere, is on the brink of civil war. And before coming to the United States in September, Jose witnessed the political upheaval up-close.


FREE IN the wide-open spaces, José Acosta is pictured here in one of his favorite county places, Overlook No. 10 on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. FREE IN the wide-open spaces, José Acosta is pictured here in one of his favorite county places, Overlook No. 10 on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. “One block from my house, there are burned-out buses, bullets and blood on the streets,” he said. “On the buildings, you can see where government grenades exploded.”

José comes from Valencia, a city of about 2 million about 100 miles west of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.

He is the oldest of three children born to Alexander and Maria Acosta. His younger brother, Diego, is 11; sister, Antonella, 9.

The Acostas are among the country’s middle class. Alexander works in electrical utilities and his mother is an accountant.

At one time, there were family vacations abroad and trips to the Venezuelan countryside. But those have been few and far between for the past four years as the country’s economy headed downward.

“We came back from a trip to Sao Paulo (Brazil) in 2014 and my father said, ‘I hope you enjoyed the trip, because it will be the last one,’” José said.

Newspaper headlines indicated hard times were ahead in the country.

The exchange rate in September when José arrived in the U.S. was 600 bolivare to $1. However, in the past four months, the economy has continued its death spiral. An inflation rate of 13,000 percent has rendered the bolivar nearly useless.

“Today, $1 is equal to 223,000 bolivars (on the black market),” he said.

Consumers face empty shelves in the grocery stores which lack basic staples like flour, oil and milk.

José explains that in order to get groceries, Venezuelans line up outside after stores close for the night to assure themselves first crack at the food the following morning.

“If you’re poor, you ‘make the line.’ They line up outside the store and fill an area as big as the parking lot at Walmart. They’re like animals,” he said.

Even those in line aren’t assured they’ll get the food they seek, leading to frustration.

“They waste a whole day and come home with nothing,” José said.

Clothing — even underwear and socks — are hard to come by. Shoes are also scarce.

Goods purchased garner a pretty price on the black market.

Water is rationed and electric blackouts are common throughout the country.

While this is happening, Venezuelan President Maduro has been working to consolidate power, install a new rubberstamp legislature and crackdown on those who would challenge his authority.

While José’s family has not been in involved in the protests, they have been impacted. After graduation in July, a friend of José’s with whom he played soccer, was shot in the head during a peaceful protest.

“Nobody gets permission to protest,” he said.

The 17-year-old boy was hospitalized and needed money to get what was expected to be a lifesaving surgery.

José and his soccer team went to the streets and sold baked goods and tamales to help raise money for their friend and were pursued by the government police force.

“They thought we were protesting,” José said. “We didn’t do anything… and they had weapons. We all ran home as fast as we could.”

With the help of the town mayor, his friend, Tito, got his surgery, but died not long before Jose took off for the U.S.

He was just 17 years old.

José was originally scheduled to make the trip in August. However, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas turned down his request for a student Visa.

“They didn’t think I’d return to Venezuela,” he said.

It took a second attempt — and another application fee — before José received State Department OK to enter the country.

A noticeably gaunt José arrived in Traverse City just after Labor Day and dove in head-first into his role as an exchange student.

“I just remember how beautiful it was driving along the bay to Suttons Bay,” he said. “The water is so clear, but so cold.”

Lack of body fat proved difficult for the boy from the tropics. He shivered his first week here when high temperatures were in the 50s and 60s and night-time lows dropped to the mid-40s.

But he’s slowly acclimated to northern Michigan weather — first playing soccer with the Leland Comets, and now snowboarding at the Homestead as part of the 4-H ski/snowboard program.

José said he was overwhelmed by the language, despite having started English instruction at age 6.

“I didn’t understand what people were saying,” he said. “The words went right past me.”

But as the weeks passed, he grew more confident in his language skills.

“I don’t say I have to ‘make’ my homework anymore,” he said, joking.

Highlights of his exchange thus far have been visits to Sleeping Bear Dune’s Pierce Stocking Drive, where he “could go every day” and a New Year’s Eve trip to Detroit to watch the Lions beat conference rival, Green Bay.

He has also experienced the beautiful isolation of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, but he may not be able to secure the Visitor Visa needed to attend a youth exchange conference later this month near the Soo, Ontario.

Canada has no embassy in Venezuela.

José’s scheduled to return to his homeland when his exchange concludes in July.

What does he want Americans to know about Venezuela and its people?

“I don’t want people to think we’re all like Maduro,” he said. “Even through the worries, we’re a happy people, always with smiles on our faces.”

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