In Venezuela, a glamorous career becomes a means of survival.
Before dawn, Katherine rises from the bunk bed she shares with her daughter, Hellen, and prepares two arepas for her lunch. Arepas, palm-sized white cakes made from corn flour and water, were once cheap and plentiful. These days, many Venezuelans can’t find, or afford, the flour used to make them. Katherine, who goes by Katho, counts herself among the fortunate. As a professional cheerleader, she doesn’t make much, but it’s enough.
During Hugo Chávez’s presidency, oil revenues subsidized staples like food, gasoline, and toilet paper; education and medicine were virtually free. Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, continued those policies, but in 2014, when the price of oil plummeted, affordable food, medicine, car parts, and countless other necessities disappeared from store shelves. The country’s reliance on oil money and the government’s years of mismanagement and corruption left the country in disarray. The already rising crime rate spiked, and citizens struggled to feed themselves, becoming dependent on government ration boxes. Protests erupted in waves, and the quality of life continued to worsen. Many in the working class, who once adored Chávez, turned their backs on Maduro. Three million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015. Those who have stayed are plagued by power blackouts, water shortages, and uncertainty amid renewed political unrest.
With hyperinflation and a monthly minimum wage currently at 18,000 bolívares, or about $3.50, it’s become difficult to survive even with a steady income. For some, relief comes in the form of remittances; others work the black market. For Katho, and a team of about 30 other women, stability comes from SecoCheers. The group, founded by athletic trainer and dancer Caridad Seco in 1998, a year before Chávez was sworn into office, is a freelance team of cheerleaders that performs at sports games and other events across the country. The $2 to $10 the women earn per performance buys necessities like flour, baby formula, medicine, and school uniforms that might otherwise be out of reach. Caridad earns a little more than minimum wage working a day job training special-needs athletes. Without the extra income from managing the team, she says she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.
The cheerleaders come from working-class barrios across Caracas. In better times, becoming a cheerleader offered competitive pay and more glamour than the government jobs or service positions that were available to them. Now, the cost of tights, makeup, and nails often soars above a month’s salary. Then there’s the price of plastic surgery. Caridad explains the calculus simply: The ones with more curves are selected for more shows.
After Katho prepares the arepas, she coaxes Hellen out of bed and into her uniform. She then drops her daughter off at her grandfather’s house; he will drive her to school on his motorcycle. About 20 minutes later, however, Hellen runs through the back door, beaming. The teacher didn’t show up again. Katho shrugs, grabs her by the hand, and they start down the stairs of the barrio to join the line at the bank. They wait for about an hour, amid desperate pensioners and employees late for work. When they finally make it to the front, Katho takes out the limit, about $2.50. It’ll cover a few bus trips to practice.