When Your Country Is On Fire, There's Always Softball

When he lived in Venezuela, Freddy de Freitas played baseball every day of the week, except for the occasional Monday. He played and baked under the Caracas sun on weekends, and on weekdays after work he’d rush over to his local stadium to play under the lights. That was before the stadium lights stopped turning on.

By the end of 2016, Venezuela’s continued economic and political collapse had convinced Freddy that he and his wife, who was five months pregnant, needed to leave their home. Peru, with its relatively strong economy and favorable work visas, seemed like a good destination. Freddy didn’t have the money to pay for both of their flights, and he knew that a trip by land would be too strenuous for his wife. So, he got on a bus by himself and began the five-day journey, traveling across the borders of Colombia and Ecuador until finally arriving in Lima, the capital city of Peru.

Freddy had enjoyed a solid employment situation in Venezuela, working for the country’s largest brewery, Empresas Polar. When he arrived in Lima, though, he began working any oddjob he could find to save up the $340 he needed to get his wife to Lima.

“I never imagined I’d be living this life,” he said, two years and five months after leaving Venezuela. “To have a good job and to come to another country, feeling like an educated person, and suddenly you’re doing work that you’d never imagined, like cleaning a bathroom.”

When he first arrived in Lima, Freddy only ate rice, eggs, and bread, in addition to the occasional Peruvian salchicha. He saved as much money as possible so that his wife could join him, and he knew that if she reached the eighth month of her pregnancy in Venezuela she wouldn’t be able to leave the country. At seven months, Freddy finally had enough money to buy her a flight out.

Freddy’s daughter was born in Peru, and he eventually found stable work installing surveillance cameras. Freddy had his family and a job. He wasn’t home, though, because for Freddy, home was baseball. As Freddy tried to stabilize his new life in Peru, thousands of Venezuelans continued to immigrate into the country. He soon realized that he was far from being the only Venezuelan in Lima who desperately missed those days and nights on the diamond.

Freddy found plenty of other displaced Venezuelans eager to join baseball leagues, but Lima presented them with limited options. In Venezuela, baseball is as much a part of everyday life as arepas or Joropo, but the game hasn’t really penetrated Peruvian sports culture, which remains soccer-crazed. When Freddy started looking around for a way to play, he discovered that Lima did have a softball league, but restricted the amount of foreign-born players on each team to three.

So Freddy decided to take matters into his own hands. He teamed up with another Venezuelan migrant named Jesús Alberto Quintero, who had arrived in Lima a few months before Freddy got there, and the pair went about founding their own softball league.

Freddy and Jesús found playing fields in Lima’s Costa Verde, a generously named strip of sand running adjacent to the Pacific. In February 2018, a little over a year after they arrived in Peru, Freddy and Jesús’s league played its first game. Word of mouth quickly spread, and Freddy and Jesús realized they were building something desperately needed by the Venezuelan community in Lima. A few teams playing friendly matches soon grew to 18. In a year’s time, the league had almost 500 players. As Freddy puts it, the league has created a “a piece of Venezuela in Lima.” To honor the duality of their new lives, they named the league “Sóftball VenePeru.”

On a cloudless Sunday this March, with heat radiating from the sand fields, Sóftball VenePeru held its second official tournament. The teams—with names ranging from the traditional (Red Sox, Yankees, Braves) to the more creative (Titanes, Esperanza, VeneSoy)—all had their own uniforms and caps. There were umpires, water coolers, third base coaches, and double plays. Players joked around in between innings, pulling at each other’s jerseys and alternatively complaining about Nicolás Maduro and the heat. The weather was nicer in Venezuela, they kept repeating. Too much sun.

Freddy and Jesús stood like proud parents on the sidelines, overseeing the first games of the day. Freddy wasn’t playing until later, and wore a shirt emblazoned with two large photos—Derek Jeter batting in the front, and Derek Jeter fielding in the back. “His nationality doesn’t matter to me,” Freddy said, regarding the man on his shirt. “He’s a role model as a player and a person on and off the field.”

Most of the Venezuelan players disagreed, partial to stars from back home. The catcher for a team called Villa Alta favored Salvador Perez, and his teammate, who bore more than a passing resemblance to his favorite player, was a Pablo Sandoval fan.

The games were fast-pitch, and they were competitive, although still with a casual vibe. There were sporadic feats of athleticism—a ball hit over the outfielders’ heads, or a well-executed double play—but mostly the guys were happy to just hang out and shoot the shit. The dugouts (which in this case were just piles of equipment on either side of the field), were home to just as much action as the field of play. When we were there, the topic of conversation was usually making fun of Americans, with one spectator making a point to walk by and mutter about us being spies for Maduro. Everyone communicated in the universal language of simultaneous roasting and complimenting, all of it underscored by the faint hum of reggaeton from a speaker by the beach boardwalk.

Villa Alta won their game, but it didn’t seem like it would have mattered much if they had lost. They headed over to the boardwalk, joining their families and friends who had come to cheer them on. They settled back with some empanadas to watch the rest of the games.

Freddy likes to call days such as this one a “Venezuela Sunday,” an opportunity for the players on the field to forget that they’re thousands of miles from home, where many of their families still live and the political situation is continuing to deteriorate. Freddy’s wife and daughter may be in Peru, but everyone else is still in Venezuela, including his parents and sisters.

As time has gone on, Venezuelans in Peru have found themselves needing the comforts of home more and more. In the first years of the crisis, Peru was generally welcoming to Venezuelans. People like Jesús and Freddy came with the promise of a special visa called a PTP, which allowed them to formally enter the Peruvian workforce. The government couldn’t handle the wave of migrants, though, and set a final date for the visa of October 31, 2018, at which point 558,000 Venezuelans had already arrived, according to Roxana de Aguila, the director of Peru’s National Superintendence of Migration. Even after the deadline, Venezuelans continued to stream across the border at the pace of around 1,500 per day, all seeking asylum.

Peru is a country well-accustomed to migration, with more than three million Peruvians living abroad, many of them in the United States. It’s still not immune to xenophobia though, and Venezuelans have faced racism and accusations of crime and job-stealing. In some of Lima’s poorer neighborhoods, Venezuelans living in shelters work for subsistence wages in factories. One Peruvian mayor even declared that he would free his city of Venezuelans. Anti-Venezuelan graffiti covers the walls lining main streets, and multiple Venezuelans interviewed for this piece said they have been robbed since coming to Lima. They believe they were targeted because they were Venezuelan.

Deysa Roble is one such person. One day, while she was waiting for the bus in her neighborhood in Lima, some boys ran up and ripped her phone out of her hands. The process of replacing her phone was exhausting but necessary; it was the only way to keep in contact with her family in Venezuela. The robbery only made Deysa more aware of the threats of her new country. She believes the violence against women is worse in Peru than in Venezuela.

Deysa’s husband was a physical education teacher in Caracas, and she would always go to watch his baseball games on Fridays. When she sees him play in Lima, the only thing that’s changed is the day of the week. She works at a restaurant six days a week, but on Sundays she spends her day off at VenePeru games with her husband, selling empanadas and frozen ice treats. She proudly reveals that in order to prepare all the food in time for the games, she wakes up at 4:00 a.m. every Sunday.

The once-promising work status for Venezuelans, which drove them to Peru in the first place, has grown uncertain. Those without the PTP live in a state of limbo, and the PTP itself only lasts for a year. Freddy and Jesús are both in the process of applying for more permanent residency. Freddy is in a better position, because his daughter is a citizen of Peru. Still, they have a long road ahead, especially considering that Peru’s immigration offices never anticipated the number of Venezuelans entering the country.

People who lived in relative financial security in Venezuela now live without guaranteed access to medical care or housing. According to Oscar Pérez, the head of a Lima-based NGO aiding with employment and healthcare status of the asylum seekers, about six in ten of the Venezuelans coming to Peru are university-trained, but are now forced to work in menial labor. The streets of Lima are filled with Venezuelan asylum seekers pushing around carts selling candy and tortas.

Many of the players in the league are working as taxi drivers, delivery men, security guards, and other low-paying jobs. Life in Peru is expensive, and often the only housing options are in dangerous slums or overpacked makeshift hostels. Many send as much money as they can back to family in Venezuela, where hyperinflation is rampant. They have to work as much as possible, and their “Venezuelan Sundays” are usually the only day they get off in a week.

For Deysa, watching her husband play in Lima is a distraction—an opportunity to open herself up to nostalgia, one day a week. For Freddy and Jesús, it’s a way to shed the stress of the work week, the visa process, and the pain of leaving family behind.

The future of the league, and the players, is uncertain. They have permission from the municipal government of Magdalena to play, although Freddy says it hasn’t supported the league 100 percent. He sent a letter to the municipality asking for a meeting, to let them know everything they’re doing, but he hasn’t received a response. He wants to sit down with them and present a formal proposal to build a real stadium so that the league can have more tournaments, not just for its current players but also for kids and for older people. He believes that baseball can be a sport not just for Venezuelans living in Peru, but for Peruvians, too.

Freddy wants to maintain the Venezuelan community in Peru, but he also wants to prove to Peruvians that Venezuelans are good people, and not like the harmful portrayals he often sees in Peruvian media. Last summer, a news station ran coverage of a Venezuelan gang in Lima called Tren de Aragua, which allegedly came to Lima after being wanted in Venezuela with the plan of robbing banks and killing police officers. Much of the coverage focused on the fact that with so many Venezuelans streaming in, surely some of them had criminal records. Instead of those stories going viral, he wants stories of his league to go viral, to show the positive aspects of the Venezuelan community in Peru. This is why he wants to spread the league, and to open a stadium in Lima.

Freddy is still not ready to call Peru home, despite the fact that his daughter is a Peruvian-born citizen. “My future is with my family, but right now the truth is uncertain because of the situation we’re in,” he said. “I want to be in my country, and I want my future to be in my country.” After he returns home to Venezuela, though, he hopes to have left the gift of baseball, which is a tough sell in a country where soccer is king.

But it’s hard to imagine a better sales pitch than Sóftball VenePeru. The games were fun and competitive, and though the winners clearly wore their victories proudly, the losers seemed anything but. As the sun lazily passed overhead, exhausted players stripped off their jerseys and sat on the ledge overlooking the Pacific, tetas melting down their fingers. Their laughter mingled with the crack of the bats and the shouts of the umpires.

Additional reporting by Opheli Garcia Lawler.

Leo Schwartz is a freelance journalist and graduate student focused on Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Reporting made possible by NYU’s GlobalBeat class.

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