Blanca Camacho and her daughter, Martha Gonzalez, left a dangerous life behind in Venezuela to find a new beginning in the United States.
It’s a peaceful life for Baldwin Park resident Blanca Camacho. Neighbors walk their dogs past her townhome along Brink Alley. Parents catch sun rays and relax at the nearby community pool, while their children cannonball into the cool water.
It’s quaint. It’s calm. It’s freedom.
And it’s night and day from the dangerous, riot-torn state of Lara, Venezuela, where Camacho called home since birth — a home she was forced to leave out of fear for her own life.
It was her fight to free Venezuela and her city of Barquisimeto from the oppression of the government that ultimately forced her to start a new life.
Blanca’s journey toward freedom for her home began in 1998, when President Hugo Chávez was elected into power.
Chávez had proposed a new law that would change the education system of Venezuela dramatically. Camacho’s qualm with the changes were twofold. First, the new law would rewrite history — forcing history classes to begin with Chávez’s rise to power. Second, she objected to the provision that would allow every student to pass regardless of their grades.
This took away from the efforts of hardworking students in Venezuela and affected Camacho’s daughter, Martha Gonzalez, who was attending a private Catholic school at the time.
Camacho took a stand the only way she knew how: making a banner with a sheet and blue spray paint and protesting outside her daughter’s school.
“There were at least 2,000 parents; when I started campaigning, I was the only person standing in front of that school with a banner that would say, ‘Do not approve. Read the new education law. Be aware,’” Camacho says.
“People would look at me and say, ‘Oh no, I have to go to work. I don’t have time for this. You fight for my kid.’”
Camacho continued her involvement in political activism, criticizing the government openly in newspapers and on the radio. She eventually joined a political party called Un Nuevo Tiempo — “A New Time” — which campaigned against several government laws and pushed to have a new president elected.
It was a time of great unrest, with frequent protests and riots in the streets. It was a nation led by a government that sought to hide that public frustration, broadcasting a single TV channel on which Chávez addressed the public for hours to keep the riot footage off the television sets, Camacho says.
She remembers the great riots in 2002, where people were shooting at protesters from the rooftops.
“We would fight with slingshots and rocks, when they were shooting at us with real bullets,” Camacho says.
As Camacho continued to speak out and became more involved with the political party, she grew more and more in danger. She traveled with bodyguards and even planned an escape route to the roof of her home in case Chávez’s militia — Chávistas — came after her.
Keeping her daughter not only safe but also protecting her peace of mind was an ongoing struggle, Camacho says. She remembers telling her 7-year-old daughter that they were stargazing during those rushed ascents to the roof, while she was secretly keeping time, she says.
“There was a point where (the militia) used to threaten me, calling me a lot over the phone,” Camacho says.
“I never let my daughter feel like she was in danger.”
Chávez died of cancer in March 2013, leaving the position of president vacant once again.
Another election was to be held within 30 days, though Camacho knew the people never controlled the final outcome.
The democracy that Venezuela toted was simply a front, she says.
“They’ve been always trying to give the impression to the rest of the world that they’re a democratic people,” Camacho says. “They do these little things and say ‘Oh, come and look how democratic we are.’”
On Nov. 7, 2013, Camacho’s life changed forever and years of political involvement came to a dangerous head. It started with a grizzly warning: a dead dog hung by the neck outside a university where Camacho would be teaching citizens how to vote that day.
A state representative election was coming up, and fear tactics to scare young voters were in full swing.
As Camacho was teaching citizens how to use the ballot machines, she was approached by four men.
“They started to argue, saying ‘You’re telling me who to vote for,’” Camacho says. “I said ‘No sir, I’m clear that that’s illegal; I’m just teaching you the system.’”
“One of the guys in that moment said, ‘Are you Blanca Camacho?’ I said, ‘Yes, how may I help you.’ In that moment I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, I gave myself away.’”
A fight broke out, and the last thing Camacho remembers is getting bludgeoned across the head with the butt of a handgun.
She woke up three days later in a private clinic looking through gauze bandages wrapped across her face. She suffered a concussion, several broken bones on the left side of her face and lost a tooth from when she fell face-first to the ground.
Camacho realized that there was no choice — she and her daughter had to leave Venezuela.
“The members of my political party told me, ‘You have to leave the country, because if they catch you, we don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Camacho says.
On Jan. 1, 2014 Camacho left Venezuela with her daughter with four suitcases.
“When you’re there, you get so wrapped up with the daily activity that you don’t see how dangerous the situation is,” Camacho says. “My life was in danger for so many years.”
The move to Central Florida made sense for Camacho and her daughter. Camacho previously had attended school in the United States during her seventh- through ninth-grade years and stayed with a family in Leesburg.
Central Florida was the only home Camacho knew outside of Venezuela, so she and Martha moved back to Leesburg, where they lived with Bill and Margaret Mobley, the parents of a childhood friend. Camacho eventually started her own business there, Blanca’s Cleaning Service, which serves about 30 customers in the Leesburg area.
The mother and daughter came to Baldwin Park last July, where they live with Camacho’s boyfriend, Terry Crabtree.
It’s difficult to describe how amazing Camacho’s spirit is, Crabtree says.
“I would characterize it as ‘indomitable’ and ‘positive,’” says Crabtree, as his eyes well up with tears. “She’s happy to be here, she is grateful to be alive, and she’s thankful to be cleaning houses.”
Camacho looks at the current state of her home country with a broken heart. The people are still fighting for freedom and wanting to have their voices heard under the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
Camacho says she’s grateful beyond words for her new life, her job, her home and her daughter’s safety. She hopes to grow Blanca’s Cleaning Service in the Baldwin Park area, because she still currently commutes to Leesburg to take care of her customers.
It’s a dramatic change of occupation for Camacho — who had owned multiple farms, started a cheese-making business, ran a pharmacy and started an English school — but one that she’s grateful for nonetheless, Camacho says.
“Every time I kneel down to clean a toilet, I say, ‘Thank you, God, for this toilet,’” she says. “I’m providing.”
Camacho looks at her daughter — now 23 and attending Lake Sumter State College with a dream of transferring to UCF’s medical school — and thanks God.
Her daughter is now old enough to understand her mother’s political activism, and what those late night stargazing sessions really meant.
She shares her mother’s spirit of thankfulness.
“Here, you’re so free,” Gonzalez says. “Over there, you’re always in fear. I’m grateful to be here.”