'We needed to leave': One migrant family's harrowing journey from Venezuela to Miami

Venezuelans are now the fastest-growing Hispanic group in the country, according to the U.S. Census.

Thirteen-year-old Wistong and his parents made the treacherous journey from their home in Venezuela up through the Darién Gap and Central America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border on foot. They posed outside their Miami apartment on Sept. 14, 2023.

Thirteen-year-old Wistong and his parents made the treacherous journey from their home in Venezuela up through the Darién Gap and Central America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border on foot. They posed outside their Miami apartment on Sept. 14, 2023. Photo by Kate Payne/WLRN News

It’s been almost two years since Wistong left his home in Maracay, Venezuela, and he said he misses everything.

“I miss my friends, my house in Venezuela, my dog, my sister, my grandpa ... everything,” he said in Spanish.

Wistong is 13, his curly black hair trimmed into a smooth fade. He’s in eighth grade, and trying to play it cool in the way that teenagers do — but he's still so young. WLRN isn’t using his family's full names because of their sensitive immigration status.

Back in Venezuela, Wistong loved to spend his free time at the park by his house, playing soccer with his friends.

“What's different here is that in Venezuela, I always liked being with my friends in a park or outdoors,” he said. “Here in the U.S., I stay at home watching movies or studying.”

He likes to work out, doing pushups and jumping jacks to build up his small frame, while his mom Jholianis does manicures for clients at a small table in the hallway of the apartment the family shares with a few others.

Wistong said the crisis in Venezuela left his family no choice but to leave. “Because of the situation, things were very expensive. My dad decided to come here,” he explained.

Venezuelans are now the fastest-growing Hispanic group in the country, according to data from the U.S. Census. Wistong and his parents are among the millions of people who have fled the political, economic and humanitarian crisis under the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

'You would see dead people'

And they took the hard way. In record numbers, Venezuelans are making the dangerous and sometimes deadly trek through Central America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border on foot. Wistong and his family arrived earlier this year; last week the Biden administration announced they would resume deporting Venezuelan migrants back to their country if they are caught at the border.

In this screenshot taken from a video posted to social media, Wistong smiles for the camera during a break while hiking through the Darién Gap.

“We arrived here on March 30. We spent three months crossing from Venezuela to here,” Jholianis said in Spanish. “We were practically obligated to leave. I didn’t want to.”

They hiked through the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle stretching between Colombia and Panama. It’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous routes for migrants — it’s been called "a green hell."

Over the course of the journey, Jholianis said all her toenails fell off.

For a while, Wistong and the other kids they were traveling with handled it well, Jholianis said, treating it like a summer camp.

In a screenshot taken from a video posted to social media, Jholianis carries a backpack through the Darién Gap, on her way from her home in Venezuela to the U.S.

But she couldn't hide the stark realities of the muddy, roadless wilderness.

“I sincerely never thought I’d come here. Nor that I’d bring my child in the conditions that we did,” she said. “But we needed to leave, without question. Because either they'd kill us — or we'd face danger. And I had to leave my two girls over there because we didn't have the means to all leave together.”

Criminal gangs prey on migrants along the journey. Wistong’s dad, Wistong Sr., said they saw for themselves that some people never make it out of the jungle.

In their journey across Mexico, the family snuck onto a freight train known as The Beast. Wistong Senior and other men rode on top, with women and kids inside. In this screenshot from a video posted to social media, he prays for a miracle.

“We spent 10 days walking through the Darién jungle. It was difficult. You would see dead people — lots of them. People were raped,” he said in Spanish, “though it didn’t happen to us.”

They had no choice but to keep walking.

“Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala,” Jholianis recounted. “There were homes for immigrants to stay and we’d stay a night or two. We stayed under bridges. On the street. But there were organizations that would help us to continue the path. They’d give us food, clothes.

“I cried by the time we were in Mexico,” she added. “I thought I couldn’t go on anymore. I was already very exhausted. That’s when I lost a lot of strength.”

In Mexico, they slipped onto a freight train known as the Beast. Wistong’s dad and other men rode on top of the train car, with women and kids inside. In a video he took and posted to Facebook, trees whipped by as they rattled across the countryside — praying for a miracle.

“We are on The Beast now,” he said. “Pray to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Christ of Miracles.”

The family swam across the Rio Grande at 1:30 a.m., they said, and told border officials they had relatives in South Florida.

Once they got to Miami, Wistong’s mom said he saw a therapist for a few months. He would cry about everything he missed in Venezuela.

“Before, when I had therapy, I would start to cry when they would talk about my dog or my sisters that I missed too much,” he said.

Wistong said he doesn’t think he needs therapy anymore. His mom said he doesn’t want to remember.

A new shared home and hopes for TPS

They’re grateful for their new home — a second floor apartment above a bodega on a busy road off US-1 in Miami.

Wistong shares one bedroom with his mom, dad and an older sister, who joined them later. Other families live there, as well — 11 people in all.

“There’s one kitchen for everyone,” Jholianis explained. “Two bathrooms — one for the girls and one for the boys.”

They would like to have their own place one day, but this is the only option they have for now. The families work together to pool the rent each month and sometimes take turns cooking for each other.

Wistong’s parents said they’re just scraping by — going to a church food pantry and leaning on family members to make ends meet.

“We had to buy everything [for school]. They asked us for so many things, some of which we're still missing,” Jholianis said. “I still have things to buy!”

Jholianis said they’re working on applying for Temporary Protective Status, or TPS, which the Biden Administration recently expanded for Venezuelans. For about $500 a pop, she and her husband could apply for work permits.

It’s a welcome solution — but it won’t happen overnight. The fee is too high for the young parents who say they can’t afford the last three binders their son needs for school.

One of 20,000 new immigrant students

Seeing Wistong walk the halls of Ponce de Leon Middle School in Coral Gables, you wouldn’t necessarily know what he’s been through. The things he’s seen.

Wistong is one of some 20,000 new immigrant students that Miami-Dade County Public Schools has enrolled since the 2022-23 school year.

Maritza Victori teaches his English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class, which she said is made up entirely of “newcomers” — very recent immigrants to the U.S. It’s part of the district’s efforts to carve out a space for these students to be around other kids with shared experiences.

On the day WLRN visited Victori’s class, there were about 12 kids, with plenty of seats for the new students that are expected to keep coming.

“Right now we have this few students, but they are coming every day,” Victori said. “We are receiving a student every day, believe it or not.”

Victori says Wistong’s English has improved a lot since he went to a special language camp for newcomers over the summer.

“Yes, he's more comfortable because he feels more confident,” she said. “Now he helps the other students! I said, 'Okay, open the binders. Find the topic.' He tried to translate, ‘abra el libro,' in Spanish. I said, 'No, you already know. They need to learn, too. So you can help them by repeating what I said — but in English, not in Spanish.'"

Wistong said he’s been doing better in school after those sessions he had with a therapist.

“Last year, I wouldn’t turn in my homework,” he said. “When I had therapy, I started doing my homework and all that.”

This year, he has been able to step away from his past and think more about the future.

He really wants to work on his English this year, so he’ll be ready for high school in the fall — and everything that will bring.

WLRN’s Leslie Ovalle Atkinson and Verónica Zaragovia contributed. This story is published as part of a collaboration with WLRN NewsKate Payne is WLRN's education reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org and follow on X: @hellokatepayneJoshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach him at jceballos@wlrnnews.org and follow on X: @joshceb.

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