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In the Shadow of Government Change, a Haven for Venezuelans in Chicago

At Rica Arepa, a young couple slings tasty cornmeal sandwiches — and for many customers, recreates a world that no longer exists.

Above: Maria Uzcategui, 22, and her husband, Kharim Rincón, 24, blow out candles at a first-anniversary party for Rica Arepa, their restaurant in Hermosa.

On a cold evening in November, just before midnight, Rica Arepa Venezuelan Cafe sits in a cluster of shuttered storefronts on Armitage Avenue, in Hermosa. And though the streets have gone quiet for the night, inside, the restaurant is buzzing with life.

Having bid farewell to their final customers hours earlier, first-time restaurateurs Maria Uzcategui, 22, and her husband, Kharim Rincón, 24, lay out a spread of bite-size cheese arepas and empanadas. Over the speakers, Uzcategui’s teenage sister, Valeria, queues up a mix of Caribbean salsa and Latin pop.

At midnight, a wave of guests arrive for an after-hours party. The occasion? Rica Arepa’s one-year anniversary. Hugs are given, chairs stacked, and tables pushed to the walls to make room for an impromptu dance floor. Family and friends, some from out of state, turn out en force to celebrate the couple’s whirlwind first year in business. “I can’t understand a year could be that fast,” says Rincón. “I mean, we’ve been working very hard, [but] it doesn’t feel like a year.”

Since Rica Arepa’s opening in November 2017, the restaurant has become a haven for Venezuelan immigrants and asylum seekers in Chicago. Having fled a home country that grows more unrecognizable each day — one marked by an uncertain economy, crumbling infrastructure, and a growing murder rate under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro — Rica Arepa’s customers relive happier memories in the cozy neighborhood spot. Even since the ascension of National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó, who appointed himself President in January, 40 Venezuelans have died in mass protests.

At one end of the restaurant, Joe Avendaño, who drives two hours down from Waukesha to dine here once a month, watches his daughter. The seven-year-old, Sofia, signs her name on a Venezuelan bolívar banknote and tacks it to the wall, itself covered with the hyperinflated currency.

The wall serves as a visual museum of Venezuela’s economic crisis, with one and five bolívar notes covered up by 500s and 1,000s. By August of last year, when Venezuela rolled out a new currency, the value of the bills had fallen so far that a can of Coke reportedly cost 2.8 million bolívar.

A guest tacks a bolívar note, Venezuela’s hyperinflated former currency, to the wall at Rica Arepa.

According to the UN, an average of 5,000 Venezuelans leave the country each day. As of December, about 3.3 million people had fled the country since 2015, and the UN estimates two million more could follow this year. In the United States, the number of Venezuelans who have applied for asylum is almost three times greater than any other nationality, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum data.

“When I say I miss Venezuela, I don’t mean the land,” says Hector Cedeno-Indriago, 19, another regular. “Really,” he says, “it’s the people that I left over there.”

Cedeno-Indriago learned of Rica Arepa from his father, who found it on Facebook. The moment he stepped inside the restaurant, he says, he felt like he was back in Puerto La Cruz. “It was something in the air, like socializing with the people that I trusted back in Venezuela. Home is like a place where I have trust in friends and family.”

In a photo from Rica Arepa’s anniversary party posted to Instagram, Cedeno-Indriago stands in a celebratory black suit beside a painting of a Venezuelan and American flag. In his caption, he thanks the owners for fostering a “little bit of Venezuela that we want so much here.”

As night creeps into morning at the anniversary party, a lull in the evening is shattered by a chrous of “Ay, Qué Noche Tan Preciosa,” a Venezuelan birthday song. The crowd surrounds a cake, its candles glinting in a revolving disco ball. Holding hands, Uzcategui and Rincón inch closer, take a breath, and blow them out.

 

The idea for Rica Arepa was born in 2016. Rincón was tired of working construction, and Uzcategui’s older brother Andres, 27, felt the same about his factory job. With Rincón’s cooking skills and Andres’s experience slinging street food back in Venezuela, the pair teamed up to start making arepas. Uzcategui’s mother, Gloria, 52, stepped in to help.

The family began selling the griddled cornmeal sandwiches from a cart in Hermosa early in the morning, and later expanded to the evening to reach more customers. Soon, they learned of the Chicagoans’ affinity for what Uzcategui calls “Mexican hot sauce” (salsa verde). “It was, ‘boom!’ ” she says. The financial game-changer eventually helped Rica Arepa move from a cart to their storefront.

Rica Arepa’s menu has expanded considerably. The restaurant now serves drinks like chicha (a thick, sweet rice beverage) and papelon con limón (Venezuelan-style lemonade). They’ve also mastered a handful of regional dishes, and more than 20 variations on the arepa, stuffed with fillings like shredded Gouda, stewed black beans, and savory meat.

Rincón and Uzcategui show off their handy work.

Inside the café, daffodil-yellow walls are splashed with blue, red, and white accents, a tribute to Venezuela’s flag. A chalkboard hanging above the counter reads, “Castellano, ni español, hablamos Venezolano.” (“We don’t speak Castilian or Spanish. We speak Venezuelan.")

Behind the counter, Uzcategui shows off a handpicked selection of Venezuelan cereals and cookies, including Toops, a chocolate cereal, and Cocosette, coconut cream-filled wafers — rare finds in the Midwest.

Helping Venezuelans access the elusive feeling of home is at the heart of Rica Arepa’s mission. Everything must be perfect, the couple says, from the menu to the decor to the music. Their customers count on them to keep the old Venezuela alive between their yellow walls, and they struggle with the guilt of falling short.

“Like today,” says Uzcategui, “we are out of tequeños [Venezuelan cheese sticks].”

“That’s why people come,” adds Rincón.

“Two people called already, [saying] ‘I just called because of tequeños,’” says Uzcategui. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ But they’re like, ‘OK, what time will you have tequeños ready?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god. 1 p.m? I don’t know!’ ”

As Rica Arepa’s popularity has skyrocketed, the couple has struggled to keep up with requests for niche regional dishes they’re unfamiliar with — especially over social media.

One example? The patacón, a fried plantain sandwich popular in the northwestern state of Zulia. The handheld meal is stuffed with shredded beef, chicken, or ham, cheese, and lettuce, and topped with ketchup and mayo. Rincón had never eaten one before — let alone cooked one — so he relied on a customer to teach him how. Now, it’s a staple on the menu.

Uzcategui and Rincón run a mom-and-pop shop by the book. On a typical day, Uzcategui works up front taking orders, phoning distributors, and running inventory; Rincón helms the kitchen and sometimes goes out on deliveries.

In between, it’s bookkeeping, hiring, social media, stepping in for no-shows, and grabbing last-minute ingredients for the restaurant’s ever-growing menu.

The couple says the long shifts have put a strain on their relationship, but Rica Arepa’s popularity — especially among Chicago’s Venezuelan community — keeps them going.

“We are not perfect,” Uzcategui says. “We fight [about] stupid things or big things, but then we try to talk. We try to explain to each other why things happened that way. We’re like every other relationship.”

Behind the counter at Rica Arepa

Uzcategui and Rincón left Venezuela for America four years ago. She was 18 and he was 20, both of them college students. Their hometown, Porlamar, on Isla de Margarita, was once a bustling tourist destination, marked by its natural beauty. But when the couple recalls the end of their time there — and what Venezuela has become since — their smiles fade.

Beginning in 2015, President Maduro deployed 80,000 members of Venezuelan security forces across the country under the pretense of combating crime. But Human Rights Watch has reported widespread abuses of the military, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, forced evictions, and the destruction of homes.

Street crime, too, has skyrocketed. In 2017, the Venezuelan NGO Observatory of Violence found that the country had more than 26,616 homicides, or about 89 per 100,000 inhabitants. (The United States’ rate, by comparison, is 5.3 per 100,000.)

“I’ve even seen people killing people in the streets,” Uzcategui says. “It’s something that you never want to see.”

Such incidents became regular in Porlamar. And eventually, Rincón and Uzcategui bumped up against them firsthand.

Rincón had heard of express kidnappings, an increasingly popular crime in which victims are held hostage for a quick ransom, from some unlucky friends. “They just tell you to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you,” he says. “We never knew until we got robbed.”

It happened to the couple on a night in 2014. Rincón was dropping Uzcategui off at her home, which was tucked away in a gated neighborhood. When Rincón stepped out of the car to open the gate, like he had dozens of times before, a couple jumped out at him with guns drawn.

“They yell at us like, ‘Move, move! Get out of the car!’” says Uzcategui. “We tried to get out, [but] there was [another] car coming, so they said, ‘No! Go inside the car!’ They drive us around, and they took everything from us.”

Eventually, Rincón and Uzcategui were dropped on the side of the road in another neighborhood, which Uzcategui describes as “unsafe.” They ran until they came across officers in a police car, who ultimately drove them back home. “It was like a bad dream,” she says. “Like, really? Is this happening to me?”

“They can kill you for a bag, and that’s crazy. They don’t care. For a cellphone, for nothing. They can kill you.”

 

It was a breaking point for the couple. They didn’t have a plan, but they did have a pair of plane tickets and a place to stay in Miami, where most of Rincón’s family already lived. “We didn’t think about the real stuff in the moment,” Uzcategui says. “We’ll move there, and then we’ll see.”

In Miami, they moved in with Rincón’s brother. The couple worked round the clock, picking up jobs bussing tables or with moving companies. They stretched their paychecks, taking English classes at a local community college and trying to make friends in a new country. Quickly, stress and homesickness set in.

“Even here, even now, I want to go home,” Uzcategui says. “We like other countries; we like how America received us and stuff, but it’s not your ‘home-home.’ You want to be in the place that you [grew] up. Home is home.”

And so in 2015 in search of a place to call their own — and tired of living in Rincón’s brother’s house — they headed to Chicago. Since then, Hermosa has been home.

“There’s a lot of Venezuelans that are alone here in the United States,” says Rincón, who goes out of his way to befriend Rica Arepa customers. “It’s hard for them because they don’t have any family here in Chicago that can support them. So, they try to come in here and make new friends and see how they could feel better.”

Greg McMahill, who drove in from Naperville for the restaurant’s authentic Venezuelan cuisine, holds his son in Rica Arepa’s renovated dining room.

For the owners of Rica Arepa, the days of selling street food from a cart at Armitage and Fullerton are a distant memory. But Rincón keeps a memento from those days stowed in his car: an original sketch of Rica Arepa’s logo, its name etched in pencil on a folded piece of paper. The only flourish in the design is the “a” in Rica, which swoops upward into a doodle of an arepa — an easy homage to their business’s foundation.

Weeks before Rica Arepa’s one-year anniversary, the couple unveiled a newly renovated dining room to complement the sparse tables and bar stools tucked over by the kitchen. Bold decals border a large front window, which floods the restaurant in natural light. The area is meant for birthday parties, celebrations, and other gatherings that Rica Arepa is sure to serve as a nucleus for.

In just under a year, the Uzcategui and Rincón have amassed a loyal enough following that they’re toying with the idea of opening a second location. Or, they’ll head back to the streets — this time with a food truck.

“You know, that’s a dream,” Uzcategui says. “You always want something that’s yours.”

This story was reported a part of 90 Days, 90 Voices‘ Asylum City series on immigration and sanctuary in Chicago.

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