During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the months of September and October. For more, head here.
Yael Federbush, a special projects producer at TODAY, was born in Caracas, Venezuela. When she was 10 months old, her family moved to the United States. But Federbush still has fond memories of childhood trips spent on Venezuelan beaches drinking coconut juice, and she still feels a strong connection to the country. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, she shared her story.
I grew up in America, but a part of me really has strong ties to Latin America. A piece of my heart is in Venezuela because my beloved grandparents lived there for more than 50 years. I have such fond memories of being there as a kid. We went back often because my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were there. We went for summers, for December break and things like that. I have memories of going to the beach, having coconut cut open and drinking coconut juice. Then we would sit on the beach and eat tamarind candy, the sweet and sour candy sticking to the plastic wrapper and the sand.
The Venezuelan people are so warm. Not that people aren't friendly in the U.S., but in Venezuela, it's just a different level of warmth.
As a child, I really only saw Caracas; that's where family was. But as I got older, I was interested in exploring the beauty of the country and I got to see other areas, which I really am so glad I did.
At one point in my young adulthood I went hiking with an aunt while visiting Venezuela. I wanted to explore more of the country and we hiked to Angel Falls, which is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It was a really, really beautiful experience. I visited an unspoiled area in the Caribbean off Venezuela’s northern coast called Los Roques. This national park is a paradise comprised of approximately 350 islands with white clean sand and breathtaking turquoise waters. It's a tropical paradise.
When my son was born and I was on maternity leave, I wanted my grandmother to see my baby, so we flew to Venezuela, but the trip has become more difficult to make in recent years due to safety concerns and other reasons.
I love the culture, the fruit, the family ties, the food. There was always family around in Venezuela — cousins and aunts and uncles coming over. It was a good feeling to have, especially as a kid, and I really miss that.
Growing up in the U.S., my friends would make fun of me in a playful way, like, "You think you're Venezuelan." And I did. They would say things like, "Oh, you weren't born in America, you could never be president." Things like that stuck with me.
At home, a lot of Spanish was spoken, especially when relatives came over. There would be multiple languages being spoken at once. I was always very interested in Venezuela and I asked my mom a lot of questions about growing up there. She would tell me about her youth in Caracas. My mother was very musical. She played a lot of piano, but we had this guitar that's called a cuatro, a four-string guitar, and she would play on that. When friends came over, they'd say, "What's that?" because it doesn't look like a regular guitar.
One traditional food my mom made at home in New York was arepas. There was one small Latin bodega that sold Harina Pan (precooked cornmeal), and it was like striking gold when we found it. In Venezuela, the fruit is so exotic. Passionfruit and papaya are just like apples and oranges here. Now, you see more mangoes and papayas in the U.S., but when I was growing up, I didn't really go to people's houses and see that in the refrigerator, but you would in my house. It wasn't considered exotic at home. Here in New York, I recently spotted a fruit vendor selling a fruit known here as Spanish limes but in Caracas called mamones. My sisters and I were obsessed with them growing up. At that time we could only find them in Venezuela.
For me, Latin American heritage and culture is family, it's food, it's warm, like a big warm blanket all around you. It's just a different sensibility. The cousin of your cousin is just as much a cousin as your blood cousin; you'll be invited to that wedding. Family and food is very much a part of the culture. I try to incorporate some of the Venezuelan foods and fruits into our family. My teen kids tried the mamones and my son in particular loves them. We recently walked by a fruit vendor and he excitedly said, “Do you think he sells mamones?” Maybe that trip to Caracas as a baby rubbed off on him some way. As my cousins would say, “Que chévere”!
As told to Kerry Breen. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special, “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST at TODAY.com/allday.