“I think it does feel like home”: Valerio Mendoza Guillén on his 14 years in Prague
When Valerio Mendoza Guillén first arrived in Prague in 2009, he had no intention of staying away from his native Venezuela for long. Fourteen years later, the documentary filmmaker and teacher at FAMU has laid strong roots in the city and has even co-founded an NGO - La Casa Venezolana, that helps Venezuelans who are new to the country. I met Guillén in a Vinohrady cafe to learn more about what led him to make Czechia his second home.
How has integration into Czech society been for you over the years you spent here?
“It has taken a lot of time - after 14 years I would say it’s going well. I think the key element is the language, and I think you either have incredible self-discipline to learn it, or you're forced to learn it from family or work - and neither have been the case for me.
“My work is 100% in Spanish and English, and my partner is also from Venezuela, most of my friends are not Czech, so I’m really never in a daily situation where I need to listen or speak in Czech, so my learning curve has been quite slow. I think if you don’t have great language skills, integration can be a challenge.”
Let’s rewind the clock back 14 years. Why did you originally come to Prague?
“I moved here for my studies. Back in Venezuela, I was working as a documentary filmmaker, and my studies were just in media and communications, but I always had an interest to study film in a proper film school. I had heard about a really good film school in the Czech Republic. After three years of working, I found FAMU, and met former students, and everything seemed right about it. In 2009, I came to do my masters, and it was never my plan to stay in Prague, I thought I would study, maybe spend a year or two working and then go back home.
“I think it [Prague] does feel like home in the sense that when I go back to visit Venezuela, I miss Prague. But a part of me has not embraced or accepted the fact that I am not going to live in Venezuela anymore."
“I graduated in 2012, and it was at that moment in Venezuela when things started to rapidly deteriorate - economically, socially, and politically. At that moment, I thought it wasn’t a good time to go back home so I would wait and see what happens - and now I’ve been waiting for ten years or more.”
Do you feel settled in Prague now? Does it feel like home?
“I think it does feel like home in the sense that when I go back to visit Venezuela, I miss Prague. But a part of me has not embraced or accepted the fact that I am not going to live in Venezuela anymore, because when I first left, I never had the plan of not returning. I still hope that maybe in five, ten or 20 years, the conditions will be better and allow me to go back.”
Can you tell me a bit about the conditions in Venezuela right now?
“It’s a very complex situation with a tangled chain of cause and consequence events. But I think it can be summarized into the life conditions. Just to give you an idea, over a period of seven years, Venezuela suffered more than a 70 percent contraction of the economy - that has never happened in a country that didn’t go through a war or suffered through a natural disaster.
“We’ve had hyper-inflation for five years, we went through a lot of scarcity in supermarkets - the shelves were completely empty. Everyday millions of people have to leave their homes with huge buckets to get the water they are going to use for cooking and showering. Sometimes people queue for five days in order to fill their cars with petrol.
“And we also basically have a dictatorship - and that implies a lot of human rights violations - from imprisonments, tortures that have ended up in murder, exiles, the closing of radios, newspapers - directly attacking freedom of speech. All these factors have contributed to over 7.5 million Venezuelans leaving the country.”
You’re a part of an NGO that works with Venezuelans here in Prague, can you tell me about it and what you do?
“Yes it’s called La Casa Venezolana, which means the Venezuelan home. It was started by a group of Venezuelans, myself included here in Prague. Since the migration and the exodus of Venezuelans became more massive, even countries like the Czech Republic saw an increase in the number of Venezuelans coming to the country, and it wasn’t people like me coming to study, or for work.
“It’s different of course when a Venezuelan immigrates to a country like Spain, Portugal, or into the Americas, than into a country that is so radically different than your cultural background. We started to hear stories of people struggling with starting their lives here - simple things like going to the doctor, or getting kids into schools. We thought it was time to do something, and it was 2016 when the Venezuelan Embassy in the Czech Republic closed, so we were all kind of left helpless here.”
Why was it that the Embassy closed?
“It was due to budget cuts - the Venezuelan governments started to close different embassies, and the Czech one was one of those that got closed. From there, we decided that we needed to get organized and find a way to give some support and help. Since we are a community here, our cultural heritage and traditions needed to be kept alive.
“In August 2020, we finally registered as an NGO and it’s 100 percent voluntary. So all of us who work there do it in our spare time, we all have other jobs and duties. We have done much less than we would like to do, but what we have managed to do has been quite meaningful for the Venezuelan community, but also for the Czech and international community in the city that gets to learn and benefit from Venezuelan culture.”
I’m sure Czech culture and Venezuelan culture must be so different…
“Yes they are very different. But I think that most of the Venezuelan community understands, or at least is starting to understand, that part of integration into Czech society requires adaptation, and that they need to know the local culture - to value and understand it. And at the same time, Czech society can sometimes be perceived as closed, but I also think Czechs are very curious about internationals.”
Roughly how many Venezuelans are currently in Czechia right now?
"I think that most of the Venezuelan community understands, or at least is starting to understand, that part of integration into Czech society requires adaptation, and that they need to know the local culture - to value and understand it."
“Roughly the number should be between 400-500. In 2010, there were not even 100, so it’s multiplied by four or five over the last 12 or 13 years. When I first arrived here, there were no Venezuelan restaurants, now we have two.”
How exactly does the NGO do its work? Do you provide consultations for clients, or help connect them with others in the city?
“We do different activities, for example last year one of the most impactful sessions we did was a mental health workshop for immigrants. We found a Venezuelan psychologist who specializes in the psychological impacts of migration, and we managed to bring her to Prague for this workshop. We could just see how much the Venezuelan community needed this, how much it helped to speak with a specialist who understands their pain, fear, and anxiety.
“As an NGO, we don’t have the capacity yet to give professional advice, but we try to be a connector, since we have relationships with other NGOs who have been around for decades. So many times we put individuals in contact with a certain expert or professional.
“We do many cultural events - movie projections, showing artists and musicians - iconic people in the Venezuelan community. We’ve also done some sports activities - Venezuelans love baseball, so we organized a baseball game in a park. Christmas is also very important for Venezuelans, and for four years we hosted a Christmas dinner for the community.
“But this past Christmas, we decided to do a Venezuelan Christmas market for the first time. It was incredibly successful and so many people from all backgrounds, Czechs included, got to get a glance into what Christmas is like in Venezuela. So as an NGO, we try to give support for practical matters, but at the same time, do more cultural heritage events.”
When you speak with Venezuelans who are coming over to Czechia, why are they typically coming to the country, of all other places?
“99 percent of people are immigrating because they want better living conditions. The Czech Republic has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU, so it’s fairly easy to find any kind of job that will provide you a stable salary on a monthly basis. So when some do their research, they find the country very appealing. Most Venezuelan migration is in Latin America, in Colombia there are over two million Venezuelans, in Peru over a million, in Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. But unfortunately, the Latin America region is fairly unstable, and many of these migrants have had to re-migrate if a crisis hits the region that they immigrated to. So some Venezuelans who end up in Czechia may have immigrated from a place like Colombia.”
Since you came here 14 years ago, have you noticed that the immigration process has gotten a little bit better or easier for Venezuelans coming to the country?
“I think in the Czech Republic, if you’re from Latin America seeking asylum, it’s very hard to get. In these terms, I don’t think it’s gotten any better. One of the many crises in Venezuela was that it was nearly impossible to renew or get a Venezuelan passport. If your passport expired, you could be waiting up to two years for a new one. Many of us had expired passports, and that limited our capacity to move inside and outside of Europe. The Czech government recognized this, and made steps to make a valid international travelling document for Venezuelans - we were so thankful for this, and it allowed many Venezuelans to travel.
“I would say since I got here - the whole process of going to the ministry to renew your visa has gotten more and more foreigner friendly, clear, and transparent. Ten or 12 years ago, it was very chaotic and very unfriendly. I think it’s still not exactly where we would want it to be, but it’s gotten better.”
What about the attitudes and mentalities of Czechs - have you observed that they are more open to foreigners?
"But I have also met 80 year old grandpas who are lovely and enchanted to meet you and want to learn about your country, and are fascinated by the fact that you live here."
“I think as the new generation has started to take over, I’ve noticed a change. It’s definitely very generational, the more the new generation is present, the more welcome you can feel. I think historically this is a country that has always been under the threat or the invasion or occupation of foreign entities. For many generations, the idea of foreigners meant some sort of danger, and I think you can’t blame people for still thinking that way sometimes. But I have also met 80 year old grandpas who are lovely and enchanted to meet you and want to learn about your country, and are fascinated by the fact that you live here. So you definitely have a bit of everything.”