Street singing Venezuelan migrant gets chance of a lifetime

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Venezuelan migrant Alexander Beja poses for a portrait in Ciudad Verde, Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, August 1, 2019. Beja was discovered singing on the streets of Bogota by members of the hit pop band Camila and invited by the group to record with them in their native Mexico. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AP) — Venezuelan migrant Alexander Beja has spent the last year singing on the streets of Bogotá to an audience of busy commuters who often walk by without paying much attention.

But on a recent afternoon, the 22-year-old caught the eye of an unexpected visitor: Mexican singer-songwriter Mario Domm.

Domm is part of pop rock group Camila and quickly found himself captivated by Beja’s powerful voice. Within an hour, Domm bought the aspiring musician a cell phone and offered him the chance to record a new song in Mexico.

“He’s got a rocket launcher in his mouth,” he said. “It has to be used.”

The whirlwind events that are the stuff of musicians’ dreams everywhere are especially astounding for a man who spent three weeks walking from Venezuela to reach Bogota, too poor to even buy a bus ticket.

Like many of the more than 1.4 million Venezuelans now living in neighboring Colombia, he entered the nation illegally without a passport. Despite his talent, he often felt rejection from passersby who ignored him. Several times, he was kicked out of restaurants in upper class neighborhoods for singing.

Now his future is in the hands of immigration authorities in Colombia and Mexico. Colombian officials have offered him permission to remain in Colombia for 30 days while he sorts out his immigration status. Meanwhile, he is awaiting a response from Mexico, which he hopes will grant him a special visa given to performers.

Beja said he wants to become a symbol of hope for Venezuelans, who continue to flee in massive numbers as their nation’s economic crisis persists. While many are quickly integrating into new countries abroad, many more are struggling to earn a decent wage and are encountering a growing tide of xenophobia.

“In my song I carry the lament of thousands of Venezuelans,” Beja said.

Beja’s lucky turn comes after a particularly trying year. He reached Bogotá after a trying journey that left his shoes worn through the soles. He now lives in a tiny, sparsely furnished apartment with two roommates.

He’s never taken a voice lesson, but long dreamed of a career in music and used to sing on the streets of Maracay in his homeland.

“From the time I was little I’ve always been a dreamer,” he said Thursday. “I have faith in everything other people say you shouldn’t.”

On a late July day, Beja was singing “Venezuela,” a song that pays tribute to the South American nation’s landscapes and people.

Radio journalist Carolay Morales had just wrapped up an assignment when she heard Beja’s voice coming from a parking lot. She took out her cellphone and began recording. That’s when Domm appeared behind her and starting watching, too.

“It’s like destiny put us there,” Morales said.

Domm congratulated the singer and asked if he had a cell phone. He didn’t. That’s when Domm offered to buy him one on the spot.

“You’re not going to lose me,” he said.

Since then the two have remained in close contact as they sort out Beja’s visa. Domm has even written to Mexico’s foreign ministry and the consulate in Colombia in hopes of ushering him through the paperwork needed to travel.

“He’s an extraordinarily talented person,” Domm wrote. “And I want to give him the opportunity that up until this moment life has not.”

Beja faces a situation not unlike that of hundreds of thousands of other Venezuelans who left their country. Passports are difficult and expensive to come by, so many cross borders illegally without one.

While Colombia has continued to offer Venezuelans an open door, many like Beja have struggled to gain legal status, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Statistics released by Colombia migration authorities Thursday show that 47 percent of all Venezuelan arrivals in the country are undocumented.

“They are marginalized here in Colombia,” Morales said. “And Alex is proof of that.”

Even as Colombian migration authorities were vowing to help Beja sort out his legal status, they were also responding to a new threat against Venezuelans in the city of Bucaramanga, where someone posted pamphlets warning of an upcoming “cleansing” that would target thieves, who the letter said “in general are Venezuelans.”

Venezuelans have faced similar intimidation in other Latin American countries where many accuse them of stealing jobs in nations with languishing economies by working for less.

But those concerns seem to disappear when Beja begins singing.

On Tuesday afternoon, he sang a cappella in a park in an elite Bogota neighborhood, tearing up when he finished his rendition of “Venezuela.”

“I want to help,” he said. “I want to heal the most important part of this wound, which is not physical. It’s in the soul.”

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Associated Press journalist Christine Armario contributed to this report.

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