Gil and Simón Arends began serving Philadelphia their own slice of Venezuelan cuisine in March of 2017, just off South Street at 524 S. Fourth St. Their restaurant, Puyero, is one of the few in the city to represent the South American country.
“It was the political situation,” said Simón Arends. “Economically and socially everything was getting stuck or worse. So it was going to be easier for me to progress and grow as a person here than in Venezuela. There weren’t many opportunities for people to start their own business, unlike here.”
Now it is in the throes of drastic political change due to the promotion of their interim president which has thrust the country into the public eye. Yet for years now, the Venezuela has suffered civil unrest due to the lack of daily needs such as food and medicine.
“Once I left, everybody was thinking, ‘How could it get any worse?’” said Simón Arends. “But it constantly keeps getting worse and worse. Right now I’m wondering the same thing. ‘How could it get any worse?’ But if history has taught me anything, it’s that it can get worse unless things change.”
The two brothers grew up in Maracaibo, a western Venezuelan city that resides near the border between Venezuela and Columbia and is known for its oil industry. When they were growing up, Colombians were coming into Venezuela to work and live, compared to present day conditions where Venezuelans are fleeing the country to find better lives outside of their country.
“I feel that my life in Maracaibo was good,” said Gil Arends. “Even though back then we had a lot of economical and social problems, we were still better off than most of the other South American countries.”
They attended an Escuela Bella Vista in Maracaibo, leading to them receiving a more Americanized education compared to those studying in a traditional Venezuelan classroom. All of the classes they attended, from kindergarten to the end of high school, were in English, helping the brothers to become bilingual at an early age. In 2011, Gil Arends and his wife left the country for Philadelphia to escape an increasingly hostile environment in Venezuela. Since Gil and Simón Arends both came to the city for their summer and winter breaks as children, it was almost like a second home to them.
Simón Arends also moved to Philadelphia in 2015 to escape the same situation his brother had years before.
Since Gil Arends and his wife always enjoyed the food scene in Philadelphia, Simón Arends and his brother began to talk about opening an arepa restaurant since Venezuelan food was a cuisine they felt was missing in the city. An arepa is a traditional Venezuelan dish that is made from cornmeal which is mixed with salt and water to make it into a dough. That dough is then flattened into medium sized disks, cooked, and can be filled with almost anything from meat and vegetables to beans and cheese.
Gil and Simón Arends also saw their areperia as a way to not only bring a piece of Venezuela to Philadelphia but also their identity as Venezuelans to their new city.
“As you can see, we have the mural right here on the wall that has a whole bunch of sayings, and we want to try to express how everyone is witty and funny in Venezuela,” said Gil Arends. “The colors are also part of what we find in a Venezuelan identity being very colorful like the various building you could find there.”
Philadelphians also seem to not only be interested in the food from Venezuela, but also Venezuelan culture.
“I honestly don’t know a great deal about Venezuela,” said David Kranefeld, a customer at Puyero. “But it would give me a chance to learn more in a great way.”
This Venezuelan identity is something that could end up lost as citizens escape Venezuela seeking a better life in various other cities around the world, much in the same way Gil and Simón did in Philadelphia. In 2010, 215,000 Venezuelan citizens came to the United States, a 135 percent increase from 10 years prior according to the Hispanic Population Report from the United States Census Bureau.
Yet, even after then-President Hugo Chavez’s passing in 2013, the number of people emigrating only increased further when his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, took power. Chavez’s promises of a better life for the lower class remained unfulfilled as Maduro gained more and more power, becoming, what some consider, a dictator.
“It’s a very sad situation,” said Ricardo López, a Venezuelan chef at Puyero, “that my country has to suffer at the hands of a dictator whose only goal is to steal money without caring that people are dying in the hospitals due to malnutrition.”
More recently, Maduro has refused outside aid to the country, claiming Venezuela does not need it. But many people in the country have taken to social media to spread the word of hunger and illness overtaking the country.
“Venezuela is a country where you get off Twitter for 30 minutes and when you log back on, everything has happened,” said Gil Arends. “The country is collapsing. But at the same time, if you log off Twitter for a year, when you go back, Venezuela is still in the same situation where it was a year ago.”
Recently, the president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, has taken a public oath to be the interim president of Venezuela, opposing Maduro after what some believe to be a fraudulent election in 2018.
”Right now, on one side I’m very hopeful with what is going on but I’m also cautiously hopeful,” said Gil Arends. “I’m hopeful because I feel comfortable with those leading the opposition right now. I’m very happy with what Guaidó has done.”
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