The small, quiet Maha Sabha Street in Felicity, Chaguanas, wakes up every Sunday morning to a chorus of children playing at Invaders Recreation Ground. The small circular field used predominantly for people playing cricket or football and has a steady flow of exercisers walking its perimeter, is hidden behind narrow roads and congested villages.
It’s a maze to get there to the outsider, but Google Maps helps. On any given Sunday, more than a hundred boys and girls attend the recreation ground to learn the sport of cricket.
The camp is organised and run by Central Sports Club, a popular cricket club from the Chaguanas borough that plays at the highest level of domestic cricket competition.
Interwoven in the crowd of children running, batting, and bowling are Deliannys Espinoza and Gael Espinoza. The siblings are from Venezuela. Their parents brought them from Tucupita to Trinidad by boat in 2018. Gael was three when he arrived, and Deliannys was 13.
The latter is still learning English, but Gael’s formative years in Trinidad see him speak the language fluently, including the everyday dialect Trinis use.
Cricket has changed their lives in this place they now call home. “Long time, I would be in my home. I wouldn’t go anywhere,” Deliannys recalled. From her window, she would watch villagers play cricket on the road, a common sight across communities in Trinidad and Tobago.
She became curious about this sport she had never seen in Venezuela and started playing it with her cousins. It didn’t take her long to fall in love with one of this country’s most popular sports. “It was hard to try a new sport which you never played before,” she said.
Her brother shares a similar passion but had a different first encounter with the gentleman’s game. When India visited the Caribbean last August for three One Day Internationals and five T20 Internationals, Gael’s step-father would watch the games on television. He would watch it, too. Like most Caribbean boys, watching the regional team play creates the urge to transfer that interest of viewing the sport on screen to playing it.
Their coach at Central Sports, Anil Lakhan, is mesmerised by the natural talent both possess. He told us, “I must admit their athletic ability is just amazing to say the least. Sport is about fitness, and everything that has been asked of them in terms of preparation has been spot on. They do their extra work at home -push-ups, sit-ups, and running – and you can see that joy and passion they want to be around when they come here.”
It’s become much more than a Sunday morning routine for the pair. With such an astronomical start to her life in cricket, Deliannys spends much of her day practicing. “Every day, I put a ball in a sock and hang it outside the house. I bat, and I bat until I get it right,” she explained.
Her hard work has paid early dividends. Recognising her progress, Central Sports Club’s management added her to their reserve team roster this past season. She was one of only two female cricketers on the team.
The club was also the only team to conduct female players in the competition. Owner Richard Ramkissoon said, “People were very surprised, and I got phone calls saying, why are you allowing girls on your reserve team? I said we cannot be biased. If we see the opportunity, we have to present it to them. They said they will get injured playing against boys. I said the skillsets of these girls have increased exponentially, which is why we are giving them the opportunity to play.”
That opportunity would lead to Deliannys helping Central Sports Club’s reserve team to cop the championship title in their division. She played almost every season game as the team went unbeaten throughout the tournament. Such success has Deliannys dreaming of bigger titles to be won. “I want to reach far like a West Indies player,” she remarked.
The management of Central Sports Club is backing her dreams. Ramkissoon said, “It’s not just cricket. If you come here on an evening, you would see hundreds of Venezuelan children playing football; if you watch these kids, their ability is second to none.”
Lakhan agrees with Ramkissoon and, through his own two young Venezuelan cricketers, has seen how sports can help refugees and migrants integrate into Trinidadian society. He added, “What has made it even more interesting is the fact that everyone whom they have interacted with shows them that love and affection, which has made the transition a seamless one from their baseball background to cricket.”
Lakhan says the rise of Deliannys as a name in local women’s cricket has created “hype” and he would like to see more refugees and migrants come forward in various sports.
A wet outfield doesn’t stop these children from playing on a rainy, muddy morning in Felicity. Some skate for the ball, while others dive as the ground is soft.
Keeping a close eye over them from under the main tent is Chaguanas West Member of Parliament Dinesh Rambally. His office has helped fund the camp, and Rambally has been somewhat taken aback by the sudden rise of the Espinozas at Central Sports Club.
He told us, “Sport is probably the largest contributing positive factor we could introduce into integrating migrants into this community. I think that if we introduce and expand the sporting programmes and we place emphasis on allowing the migrants to know that this is also accessible to them, I think you will see a lot more migrants joining in our local camps.
“Look at what is happening here. You have two migrant children participating, and the local kids are cheering them on. Imagine if you replicate this in different areas of the country; I think you are going to see a lot more of the migrant children participating because they are looking to form their own niche within our local culture.”
As the cricket camp nears its end in Felicity, Amilcar Marin is preparing for church on a Sunday. He lives in Chaguanas and leads the singing at the Spanish-speaking Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church in Carapichaima, a town also in central Trinidad.
He admits he didn’t sing much at church in Venezuela but was asked to use his talent in Trinidad. At night, Marin wows the nightclub-goers in Chaguanas with his Latin songs. Having arrived here six years ago, he’s gone on to learn T&T’s parang music and is now in high demand during Christmas.
“As a singer, you feel different. It’s not only Latin music or Spanish music,” he told us. Marin added, “Parang is a happy music. It’s a family-oriented music, in Spanish, of course, but that sort of lyrics remind you to have your family always close. My family is in Venezuela, but I feel my family and friends are close when I perform that kind of music.”
He’s become popular among party-goers who have seen him perform in the central area. Marin says people recognise him in the streets. Now, he is working to improve his English to connect the genre of soca music with his Spanish influence, though he admits that will take some time.
He hails from Tucupita, a city in Venezuela known for its country music, but Marin is determined to keep up with the Trinidadian crowd.
It’s a similar challenge for Betzabeth Laya, who sings at Andres, a Venezuelan restaurant on Endeavour Road. She often partners with a band called Las Nuevas Raices, The New Roots. It’s made up of Leonardo William, a lead singer; Javier Sanchez plays the harp, and Rodolfo Pereira plays the cuatro.
All are from Tucupita, a city that has proven to be a popular terminal for Venezuelans wanting to come to Trinidad irregularly. William, an accountant by profession, came to Trinidad in 2018 and now works at a hardware in Marabella. In the years that followed, as life got harder in Venezuela, sending the nation’s politics into global headlines, the rest followed to Trinidad. “It wasn’t a plan for us all to meet here. It was a coincidence,” Pereira told me. “When we realised we were all here, we said, let’s meet,” he added as he tuned his cuatro ahead of a performance.
Pereira, a civil engineer in Venezuela and a Physics and Math teacher, now teaches refugees and migrants at a local school. Garcia, a musician back home who taught special needs children, works in the cold storage in a grocery. Laya works at a nail salon on Busy Corner in Chaguanas. On weekends, they come together to practice and often perform at Andrés Restaurant.
The owner, Andrés Contreras Fernández, started the business two years ago to respond to a demand for Venezuelan food in Trinidad. The restaurant has proven to be a big hit among locals as well. The music takes the customer experience beyond mere cuisine.
In a small corner near the front door of the restaurant, Laya bursts into Spanish song, “Yo soy nacida en el Guarico que es una tierra bendita reciban éste saludo de ésta linda morenita.” It translates into English, “I was born in Guarico, a blessed land. Receive this greeting from this pretty brunette.” As the rhythm quickens, she continues, “I sing passage and joropo since I was little, and I also show them if a couple invites me, I dress vigorously. That’s why I advocate for folklore, the most beautiful music.” Joropo is considered Venezuela’s national song and dance and is rooted in the Spanish music of the 17th and 18th centuries. As she performs, Venezuelan refugees, migrants, and locals eating at the restaurant clap and sing.
Mata Materano, a customer of the restaurant, also Venezuelan, is moved by hearing Laya singing, “I feel transported to Venezuela. You can feel it. It is spectacular. It is representing us like Venezuelans.” Like Abreu, many migrants and refugees come to Andrés not only to enjoy the food but also to hear the music that brings back memories of life back home.
As his thumbs strum across the strings of his harp, Garcia feels the same way in playing. “It’s like having a bit of what I had over there, here,” he said. William added, “The people feel happy because they feel like they’re in Venezuela.”
And while the music makes refugees and migrants feel settled in Trinidad, it is also helping some locals get accustomed to having the Venezuelans in Chaguanas. Kevin Hardeo has been a patron of Andrés for the last six months. He’s enjoyed the place so much he brought his mother and father along with his family on a Sunday afternoon to eat and listen to The New Roots perform.
Midway through their performance, he told us, “In Trinidad, we are already accustomed to a mix of music. This is just something new but a part of our culture now. We have to get used to it. We always hear Latin and salsa music, but we haven’t really heard the country version, so we want to try to understand it. We may not understand the words, but we are going to enjoy it. It is going to be part of our culture from here on.”
Most people feel music is the link that helps Venezuelans integrate into society. Pereira added, “Trinidadians appreciate the music. They like the music, and we’re proud to play for Trinidadians so they can know our culture. Sometimes, it’s a very touching moment. Sometimes, tears can come while we’re playing. In Trinidad, there is a part of Venezuela now.”
Fernández, a lawyer in Tucupita, is confident the level of integration he is seeing in his small business will bear fruit for the country in the coming years. He said, “Maybe five years or six years from now, you will see an empanada place like a doubles place or a gyros place, so the beautiful thing about the fusion of the people will make the country different. It’s the same with the music. You have parang and we have gaita. It’s not something too different. You can make an association, and we will be country brothers.”
We visited Fernández’s restaurant a day after Trinidad and Tobago Justice Frank Seepersad ruled that refugees and asylum-seekers can be deported even if registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. , hence protected against refoulement.
He dipped his head defeatedly after being asked about it. He would go on to say, “Venezuelan people can help the country to be better and be a strong country. We are willing to pay taxes. We don’t want the education for free. We don’t want the medical service for free. We don’t want anything free. We want to work for that. Some people may think about us as illegal people who want to thief, but I can tell you we are not like that. We are educated people with good things to do in this country.”
As the interview ends and talking stops, Luis Silva’s popular song ‘Venezuela’ can be heard through the speaker above the table. “Soy desierto, selva, nieve y volcan, Y al andar dejo una estela,” Silva sang, which ironically translates to, “I am desert, jungle, snow, and volcano. And when I walk, I leave a trail.”