Welcome to "Westonzuela," where the arepas are fresh and plentiful, flags of yellow, red and blue fly high, and Spanish-language periodicals like "El Venezolano" can be found at the corner gas station.
In this western suburb on the edge of the Everglades, the terms for coffee are as plentiful as manicured landscapes and royal palm trees — it's served negrito, marroncito, cortadito and guayoyo. But perhaps what is most important for the thousands who fled the political turmoil and soaring crime rate of Venezuela is that the gated communities here are largely quiet and safe.
"Here, you feel you're in an unreal world. Is it possible to live like this? Yes, it's possible," said Maria Antonietta Diaz, who escaped to the low-crime enclave of Weston after her father was kidnapped at random from the family's Maracaibo home in 1997. "If you have a family with small kids, [Weston is] a spectacular place for them to grow up."
Weston, one of Broward's newest municipalities, has become a suburban oasis filled with opportunity for exiles whose economic dreams were crushed and lives threatened under President Hugo Chavez's leftist-populist rule during the past 14 years.
Even before Chavez was elected president in 1999, many South Florida Venezuelans, such as Diaz, moved to Weston for a key reason, she said.
"It was the crime," said Diaz, who managed a cable television company in Maracaibo before emigrating to the United States with her husband and two kids. "Even though we were well off financially and had jobs, we didn't see a future for our children."
Infused with the wealth and intellectual capital of upper-middle-class émigrés, Weston has become Venezuelans' self-fulfilled prophecy of sorts.
It is a place where their kids get a good education and play soccer, where they build businesses and socialize comfortably among their compatriots and where they easily find arepas or cheese turnovers and other comfort foods from home.
"The quality of education here goes hand in hand with the feeling of personal security," said Ramón Peraza.
He moved his family to Weston and bought the rights to Café Canela six years ago, after the Venezuelan government refused to give him any more contract work as an electrical engineer through the state-owned electricity company, where he had worked for years before starting his own firm.
After he dismantled and sold all his equipment, he brought his wife and two children to Weston, where they had previously vacationed. "Weston has one of the lowest crime indexes in the country," Peraza said. "That attracts people who are running away from instability and disorder."
Steady growth of Westonzuelans
Westonzuela has earned its playful moniker honestly. Not because it has the most Venezuelans of any Florida city — that would be the more socially diverse Doral in Miami-Dade County. Nor because Venezuelans have the highest Hispanic-group population in Weston — that would be Colombians, according to Census 2010 figures.
Rather than a nickname that relates to size, "Westonzuela" may simply speak to the steady growth in the Venezuelan population during past decades.
There were 2,020 Venezuelans who called Weston home in the Census 2000, and that number more than tripled to 6,360 in Census 2010. These numbers contributed to Weston's overall Hispanic growth, now nearly half of the city's population.
Though statistics for Venezuelans' economic impact on the city were unavailable, their financial contribution to Weston is undeniable, said Mayor Daniel J. Stermer.
"The answer is yes: Some of the commercial properties and businesses that they've purchased are of consequence in the city," Stermer said. "A Venezuelan family purchased a whole shopping center a couple of years ago.
"Venezuelans also have made an impact culturally, whether it's in schools, cultural activities, sports or religious institutions."
Maria Vegas, 35, is part of Venezuelans' growth in Weston. She left Venezuela in 1997 to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville, and said she never expected to stay in Florida after graduation.
"Chavez got the presidency a year after [I enrolled] so we just stayed," Vegas said. "I always had plans to go back but not anymore, because he destroyed the country."
She relocated to Weston, where cafés have Spanish-language weeklies geared specifically to Venezuelans and Colombians, and City Hall offers services and newsletters in both English and Spanish. Some local schools, such as Imagine Charter, also are largely bilingual.
"It's not just bilingual but biliterate," said Vegas, whose two children attend Imagine Charter. "Weston is good for kids. There are good schools, and it's family-oriented."
No longer just a summer retreat
Developed on 10,500 acres of farmland once populated by Brazilian peppers, cows and alligators, Weston was originally planned as an all-American enclave, with its tree-lined streets and gated communities.
Weston's Arvida developers soon discovered a richer marketing target: the moneyed elite in Colombia and Venezuela.
Around the 1990s and early 2000s, when more residential parts of Weston were being built, one community, Savanna, had many new homes available, said Mayor Stermer. And the builder of the Isles at Weston, a community with more than 650 homes, similarly advertised abroad, he noted. Both communities today have large Hispanic populations.
"They actually did a lot of advertising in Venezuela, which drove a lot of the numbers you're seeing today, separate and apart from Chavez," Stermer said.
At first, Westonzuelans say, the neatly manicured city was a perfect spot for a vacation home.
"Venezuelans knew this area was open for businesses and development. It was a way to live 40 minutes from Miami and 45 minutes from the airport," said Abraham Zamd, a broker raised in Venezuela who moved his family to Weston in 1998. "It was an opportunity for everyone to have a second home. Consumer goods were cheaper here, and many people came to shop."
But after Chavez came to power, Weston turned into something more than a summer retreat. It became a beacon for Venezuelans fleeing the escalating violence and economic suffocation of Chavez's regime.
By the time Chavez died March 5 this year, Westonzuelans already had experienced a transformation — much like South Florida's Cubans after fleeing Chavez's hero and ideological compadre, Fidel Castro. Many Venezuelans made Weston their permanent home, giving up plans to return to their native land.
"Their mindset when they first came was of a community who saw themselves as refugees who would one day go back," said Jerry Haar, Latin American specialist and associate dean of the College of Business at Florida International University. "That mindset is changing from refugees to exiles. They're not Venezuelans who happen to live in America anymore. They're Venezuelan-Americans."
'Beverly Hills of Miami'
With the help of wealthy immigrants who fled the economic uncertainty brought by the Chavez regime, Weston has defied stereotypes that typically define immigrant communities as working class.
The city, whose homes range in cost from about $300,000 to millions of dollars, over the years gained a reputation as the "Beverly Hills of Miami," said Igor Acosta-Rubio, a Miami-based Venezuelan real estate agent.
"Weston became Beverly Hills because rich people who knew each other from Venezuela now know each other in Weston," he said.
Weston reminds a lot of upper-middle-class Venezuelans of the spacious neighborhoods with single-family homes in Caracas, Haar said.
"It's great for young families," Haar said. "It's convenient, close to [Interstate] 595, close enough to Miami without any of the urban nonsense."
Adding to the city's panache has been a star-studded array of Venezuelan "royalty" with close personal and business ties to Weston, including a former Miss Universe, a one-time Venezuelan congressman and key opposition leader, a former Supreme Court justice and the country's ex-energy minister, as well as doctors, business leaders and professionals.
"I've had all sorts of prominent people come eat here, from the realms of politics, academia, art," said Café Canela's Peraza. "[Last month], the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, spent a Sunday afternoon here."
One of the best known-faces among Weston's Venezuelans is 49-year-old Bárbara Palacios, an entrepreneur and mother of two who was crowned Miss Universe in 1986. She now sells accessories and purses in a store that carries her name on the outskirts of the Weston Town Center, and was considered a Westonzuelan until she recently moved to Fort Lauderdale.
The fact that Palacios was born in Spain has no effect on her status as a Venezuelan national treasure.
"She moved to Venezuela when she was very little, and she considers herself Venezuelan," said Diaz, whose company helped Palacios start her career as a motivational speaker and promoted her first book. "She had a long trajectory as a businesswoman, with three or four stores and two books. Now, she feels her mission is to inspire others."
'Express kidnapping' was last straw
Diaz's wake-up call that Venezuela had worn out its appeal came at the ring of the intercom at the family's residential complex.
While her young children were upstairs with the housekeeper, her father went downstairs to answer the door and in an instant was kidnapped. He fell victim to a type of abduction known as "express" kidnapping, Diaz said.
"My dad wasn't hurt, thank God," she said. "But for me, it was too much. When we had the chance, we left."
After Diaz moved to Weston with her husband and two children, she put down roots. She eventually started the GBS Group, helping fellow émigrés open their own businesses and process their immigration papers.
She also co-founded Mujeres Latinas Impulsando Mujeres Latinas, or Latin Women Empowering Latin Women, which helps Hispanic women successfully adapt to life in America.
These days, the community Diaz and other Venezuelan expatriates helped shape has a distinct South American flavor. Latin delicacies such as arepas (cheese cornmeal sandwiches), cachitos (cheese turnovers), tequeños (cheese sticks) and negritos (black coffee) are as easy to find as hamburgers and French fries.
Still, the balancing act of assimilating to American life, even in a Hispanic-friendly enclave, has its challenges.
"About a year after we moved here, my son didn't want to speak anything but English," Diaz said.
"For me, it has always been essential that they speak Spanish because I brought them here so they can be bilingual, not to lose their language," she said. "So I told him, 'Well, if you don't want to speak Spanish, we'll go back to Maracaibo and I'll enroll you in your old school.' And from that day, the 'chamo' understood he had to also speak Spanish."
Staff database editor John Maines contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times