She Ran a Lunchroom for Children but was Forced Into Exile

Karelia de la Vega has been in the US for four months

Karelia de la Vega left Managua and is now working as a cook in a hotel restaurant in Miami

She fled Nicaragua to Costa Rica and then embarked on the journey to the US, where she is trying to rebuild her life, help her family & continue denouncing the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship.

By La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – Karelia De la Vega is now far from her humble home in Managua, where she had improvised a small program to provide lunch for more than 150 children in need. Persecution by the Ortega regime made her close her effort.  Karelia currently works as a cook in a hotel restaurant in Miami, USA, the country where, after a long journey, she has asked for asylum.

In the four months she has been in Miami she has had two jobs. The first was as a kitchen assistant, which only lasted nine days because the restaurant was several hours away from where she lived. The second and current job, came from the recommendation of a Nicaraguan based in the United States for 20 years, who without knowing Karelia told her that she has supported her ever since she participated in the protests against the dictatorship in Nicaragua.

Karelia told La Prensa this women was a fairy godmother to her. “The lady hooked me up with an agency that helped me get the job. I remember that last December I went to the hotel where I am now working and at that time they told me ‘Right now we have nothing in the kitchen. The only thing we can offer you is work as a dishwasher. And I said: ‘Yes, okay, I’ll take it. For me it’s not a problem because all work is honest’, without imagining that weeks later I would transfer over to the kitchen.”

In the hotel kitchen she has learned to prepare Mexican dishes, Argentine dishes, and others. “Here I am trying real hard. I have been at this job for three months.” Her day begins at 5:30 AM when she gets up to go to work, and she returns home at 4:40 PM.

Adapting: a daily struggle

In Managua, Karelia painfully left her mother, her four siblings, her friends, her neighbors, and, most importantly, the children who, through much sacrifice, she received and shared food with every day in her humble home.

At 29, De la Vega works 40 hours a week, with two days off. And although she feels that the decision to migrate to the US was the best one for her and her family, she struggles daily to adapt to her new life.

Karelia de la Vega improvised a small lunchroom for children in her home in Managua. LA PRENSA

“I am very happy because I am helping my mother and my siblings, in addition to which fleeing the persecution and harassment of the regime and its supporters, was one of the plans I had when I left home. It’s been very hard to be away from my family, from my mom, who is the only person I love in my life. Sometimes I have moments of depression; I feel that I can’t do this. I feel alone, lost. It’s an ugly feeling and sometimes I just lose heart because I feel nostalgic for my family. I’ve been away from home for 10 months,” she says.

Karelia says that in the city she lives in, people speak Spanish because there are many Latino communities. But even though she has had no problems communicating, she is studying English. “Thank God I’m already learning to speak English. I’m studying to be able to have that tool because it can help me get jobs where English is required,” she says.

Her activism continues

Karelia keeps up with the news from Nicaragua. “I stay on top of what happens in my country, and of what my people are living through.” Her activism as a transgender woman and opponent of the Ortega dictatorship which has kept the nation submerged in a socio-political crisis and human rights violations since April 18, 2018, continues.

“Through my platforms, I continue to demand justice for the crimes against humanity committed by the regime and especially on this date which commemorates five years of the dictatorship’s repression committed against the people that left more than 300 murdered, those young people who lost their lives.”

She also mentions that “I continue to demand freedom for the more than 30 political prisoners who are still in jail, as well as the release of Monsignor Rolando Álvarez who was sentenced to more than 26 years in prison.”

In the same vein, she maintains that she continues to support the demands of the LGBTI community of Nicaragua so there are “no more hate crime murders of trans women. I call on the LGBTI community to stop being afraid. We must break the silence and we must continue denouncing the hate crimes stemming from machismo. And above all, demand laws in Nicaragua that respect and protect the physical and psychological integrity of our community. In the last three months we have seen cases of trans women being murdered, and nobody is being held accountable for those crimes.”

Karelia believes that we must not stop raising awareness among Nicaraguans that “we have rights.” Lady la Vulgaraza, her character online, became popular on social networks since 2017 by sharing satirical videos, but in April 2018 she decided to change the content, using her popularity to denounce the abuses committed by the dictatorship. The price for her political positions has been persecution, siege, aggression, and exile.

Her dream: to build a lunchroom for children

Karelia points out that the closure of the children’s lunchroom occurred last December as a result of harassment and the threat of police officers breaking into her home.

“Even though I wasn’t there, the Police wanted to enter my house. I decided to tell my mom that we would no longer continue with the lunchroom, even though it hurts us deeply to have abandoned the work we did with the children,” she said.

Despite the closure of the lunchroom Karelia has not altered her principles and ideals: “My dreams, my goals, and my purpose have not changed. I still have my goal of buying a plot of land in order to help children with their studies and school supplies, and providing a place full of love and affection for children who face extreme poverty. My ideals have not changed. I still follow them to the letter.”

Her dedication and love for helping the children of her community was born as a result of the difficulties she herself experienced in her childhood. “My mom sold traditional Nicaraguan sweets like cajeta de coco and coyolito. Sometimes my poor mother had no sales so there was no food for my siblings and me when we got home from school, and we went to bed hungry. So, from a very young age I have asked God to give me the strength to help those most in need,” she shares.

Her journey

Karelia undertook her journey to the United States out of the need to find work. She made the trip by land and Nicaragua was the first country she had to travel through on the route north, because forced to flee her home, she had been living in Costa Rica since June of 2022.

Getting to the United States was not easy for Karelia. She explains that because of her gender identity as a trans woman and for being an activist critical of the Ortega regime, during the journey that took more than two weeks, she suffered harassment, mockery, and insults from supporters of Ortega, who although were fleeing like her, they were unsympathetic.

On December 1, 2022, Karelia turned herself in at the US-Mexico border, where she was held for four days and then released. She arrived in Miami on December 11, where she has begun her new life.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times