Escaping tough times in Venezuela, David Ramos returns to his birth country to learn English

Jeanine Poggi

David Ramos doesn’t remember much of his early childhood in the United States but his first words were in English – “mom,” “dad” and “apple.”

When Ramos was nearly 2 years old, his family returned to Venezuela.

Venezuela, the world’s fifth-biggest oil producer, was in turmoil last year when ordinary Venezuelans, who are poor and unemployed despite the country’s oil wealth, rebelled against President Hugo Chavez.

Ramos belongs to the disappearing middle class in a country whose population is polarized into rich and poor. He grew up in apartment complex in the capital Caracas, a city at the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains and dotted with “barrios,” colonies of where the city’s poor live.

These areas are the most dangerous, Ramos said.

Upon Ramos’ return to his native Venezuela, he didn’t speak much English until the urge to learn the language and search for opportunities brought him back to the country of his birth 16 years later. Now, at City College, Ramos is studying English and film.

“My parents tried to teach me both Spanish and English,” Ramos said. “I didn’t speak anything for two months.”

He started speaking Spanish soon after, but didn’t know any English until third grade when he learned the alphabet.

He left for Orlando, Fla. after graduating high school in 2002. He still could not communicate in English

“I was by myself for the first time, no friends, and didn’t know the language,” Ramos said.

He lived with his aunt for the first four months while he grilled hamburgers at Wendy’s and started learning English.

“When he came to our center, he was very independent,” said Feda Qasem, Ramos’ instructor at Aspect International Language Center in Orlando, Fla.

“Most students would have brought someone along to translate for them or to speak in their place because their English was not very strong. But David never did this. He always spoke for himself, and asked to be corrected.”

“Every day it took him two hours by bus to arrive at the center and two hours by bus to return. We had students who complained they had to walk for 15 minutes from the dormitories,” she said.

Ramos moved to Santa Barbara in September 2003, attracted by “the beauty and peace of the town.” He is one of the three students from Venezuela at City College this semester.

Julie Alpert, an associate professor who teaches Ramos advanced grammar, said, “My first impression of David was that he seemed like a bright, friendly, interested student.”

When Ramos isn’t studying, he’s working. He works nearly 45 hours every week as a receptionist at the Santa Barbara Tourist Hostel and also sells tickets at the Riviera Theatre.

Ramos spent his first night at the Hostel and still lives there.

“There have been times when both emotionally and financially it would have been easier to pick up and return to Venezuela, but he has never taken the easy way out,” Qasem says.

But Ramos’ finances are improving.

“I just got accepted for financial aid,” Ramos said. “The paperwork was difficult but nothing compared to the process in Venezuela, where generally the wrong people get aid – people with money.”

Ramos also plans to study film in Rome soon.

After finishing his late-night shift at the Riviera Theatre, Ramos walks to his hostel on Haley Street.

“Here I really appreciate walking around at 2 a.m. with my camera and not feeling fear,” Ramos said. “I wouldn’t do it in Venezuela. I would be scared.”

“I kind of wanted to try America out,” Ramos said.

“I was really excited to see a totally different place and starting something big. I grew up a lot here, for the first time came in touch with Asian cultures and I have learned English.”