Feature: Venezuelan Author in Exile in Pittsburgh Shares His Story

Author: Edymar Hurtado

Orderlies at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh can walk more than 10 miles a day, changing sheets and wheeling patients from room to room. Among them is an award-winning author from Venezuela. Despite publishing more than 20 books, Israel Centeno was forced to flee the oppressive government of his home.

Born in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, Centeno published his first novel in 1992. “I took really seriously the job of a writer,” Caracas said. “I didn’t think of it as anything I could do besides my work, instead I really intended to write, publish and make my life always around the fact of being a writer (sic).”

Centeno worked as a Cultural Manager at the literacy-promoting Fundación El Libro, and continued his own projects. But soon he began to feel pressure under the regime of Hugo Chávez.

When Chávez was elected president in 1998, he and his revolutionary party began to attack all dissenting voices. Centeno started to drift from his original political ideology and toward social democracy, attracting judgment and threats.

In 2002 he published “La Conspiración,” a novel about an attack on the president made by circle of dissenters.

The president and his supporters perceived the book as a call to assassinate Chávez, and sent threatening letters to Centeno’s family and friends. Two years later, in a referendum to determine whether Chávez should be removed from office, Centeno maintained his opposition and endured many threats as a result.

Centeno was attacked on his way home a few days after the referendum vote. A man jumped on him and tried to stab him, cursing his opposition to the government.

“On that same day my mother got 80 phone calls from a hospital in which they said that they were going to cut off my head and put it in a bucket of shit,” he said.

Despite all this, Centeno felt that leaving was not an option. He made what happened to him public while presenting complaints to national and international organizations. As the political spectrum in Venezuela became more complex, threats increased. In 2009, after an attack to his car by a man in a motorbike, he finally decided to leave.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in March 2016 there were 1,345 requests for asylum from Venezuelans, a number surpassed only by China. Centeno is now part of this figure. He left with a tourist visa as a way to escape and start a new life.

After six months he applied for the City of Asylum Program, which protects writers, journalists and others from political persecution and danger in their home countries. Once accepted, he received an Extraordinary Ability or Achievement visa, a special visa given to remarkable or widely recognized artists, scientists, educators, businessmen and athletes.

He received a residence, a monthly stipend and insurance as well as assistance for scholarships for his daughters. Although these entitlements lasted just 2 years, he stills lives in the same house. “I could (have) finished some personal projects, several books, but then the real life knocks the door and say ‘hey, if you don’t work you don’t eat,’ so I had to look for a job here,” Centeno said.

Putting his passion aside, Centeno got a job at Allegheny General Hospital as an orderly. His wife works in the kitchen.

“This was weird for us at the beginning and it does not fill us with joy,” he said. “But we are taking the most positive side, that is to improve in English, immersion, establishing other networks. But I still see myself in a future giving classes. It’s a matter of persistence.”

Centeno says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his experiences. While he misses Venezuela, he says that he does not see himself going back.

“I think about my country, I write about my country, I just do not believe it’s safe anymore,” he said. “I’d rather continue with my life here. But that does not mean I’m going to be completely separated from it: my stories will keep me tied to home.”

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