BOGOTA, Colombia —
Yurancy Castillo did not want to leave her family.
But as inflation in Venezuela soared, rendering her salary as a social worker nearly worthless, the young woman known for her beaming smile and wild amber-colored curls decided her future rested far away, in Peru.
One of her three brothers sold his motorcycle to help her buy the expensive bus ticket for the long journey across four vast nations.
“Don’t worry,” she told her tearful mother before leaving. “I’m going or a better future.”
Those dreams would be stifled time and again.
In Peru, she found jobs selling sewing machines and waitressing, but they paid little. Peruvians, skeptical of Venezuelan arrivals, often made her feel unwelcome. But the biggest thief of dreams proved a diminutive, silent foe.
In May, she came down with a fever and a week later went to the hospital. She was admitted and given oxygen but did not improve. After three weeks in an intensive care unit deep in southern Peru, she died at 30.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.
“Children are supposed to bury their parents,” Mery Arroyo, 54, her mother, says. “I never thought my girl would leave before me, in another country.”
Castillo grew up in the city of Barquisimeto, a sprawling metropolis located along the banks of the winding Turbio River. Her father, a transportation coordinator at a milk and yogurt factory, made a modest living but the five Castillo children lived comfortably. Those were the days when Venezuela was still one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, and there was always plenty of food at the dinner table.
Castillo, the middle child and one of two daughters, stood out at school, where she was chosen multiples times as “class queen.” At school dances, she’d energetically break into the quick footed, percussive dances popular in the region. Her jovial demeanor attracted a bevy of friends who affectionately called her “La Pelua,” a Venezuelan moniker used to refer to women with a bountiful head of curly hair.
As a young adult she took a job with the mayor’s office, surveying vulnerable, elderly residents arriving at a social assistance center in need of medical care. Just as she was embarking on life in her 20s, Venezuela’s economy began to implode. Corruption, mismanagement and political turmoil sent oil production plummeting.
At Castillo’s family home, the power was frequently out and the refrigerator increasingly sparse. Her father’s pension was barely enough to purchase a bag of flour.
So when her boyfriend took off for Peru, she decided to join him – embarking on a new life abroad just as millions of other Venezuelans fleeing their country’s crisis have chosen to do in the last several years.
“In this country, you can no longer live,” her mother says. “We just survive.”
The couple settled in Arequipa, a colonial-era city surrounded by four volcanoes. The money she made working odd jobs was meager but still enough for her parents back home to buy pasta, rice and sometimes chicken. But living in a foreign country was lonely. She asked her siblings to come be with her.
“At least here if you work you can make money,” she told them.
A year later her two older siblings boarded buses to Peru.
The three siblings, along with her 6-year-old nephew, rented a two-bedroom apartment together in the bustling, gray capital of Lima. Castillo worked six days a week selling sewing machines. Life was hard, but at least they were together, they said. Every 15 days the siblings alternated sending money back to their parents.
On Sundays, Castillo’s day off, her sister would make pabellon, a Venezuelan beef stew served with rice and beans. Then they’d explore Lima, visiting the zoo, the parks, and the beach – set alongside a sea of frigid, dark blue water, far different than the warm aqua-colored ocean they had grown up visiting in Venezuela.
Earlier this year, Castillo decided to visit her boyfriend in Arequipa. While there, President Martín Vizcarra ordered the nation on lockdown. All domestic travel ceased. In phone calls, she urged her siblings to stay inside and promised to do the same. Talking to her mother, she expressed frustration about being in Peru. She wanted to go back to Venezuela, start a business, buy her parents new furniture and take them to the beach.
“As soon as this quarantine is over, I’m leaving,” her mom recalled.
In mid-May, she called her sister, worried: She’d come down with a relentless fever and raspy cough. Maybe it was chikungunya, the mosquito-transmitted virus that has some similar symptoms, she reasoned.
Her relatives feared otherwise. They urged her to see a doctor.
The last photograph Castillo’s mother received of her daughter shows her sitting in a chair at the Honorio Delgado Hospital wearing an oxygen mask.
“She could barely speak,” Arroyo says.
Despite having no pre-existing conditions, she deteriorated steadily. Doctors called her boyfriend every day asking for pricey medicines. Friends and family around the continent mounted a campaign on social media to raise funds. Miraculously, they were always able to pull together just enough to buy what she needed.
“She was young, strong, brave,” Emilio Cañizalez, a friend, says. “I thought they could save her.”
Her death on June 17th has stirred sadness and anger. Her mother is angry with a government that she says is responsible for her daughter’s decision to migrate. Her friends are angry with opposition leaders they contacted about Castillo’s illness but did nothing to help. They’re all angry with how Castillo’s story ends.
“This has scarred me,” Cañizalez says. “Now I don’t believe in anybody.”
For now, her ashes rest in a tiny wooden box in Arequipa.
One day, when the pandemic is over, her sister will carry her back to Venezuela.