Intimacy and Sacrifice in a Venezuelan Migrant’s Journey


The path to salvation is a stretch of roadside near the border of Brazil. Fat droplets of what appears to be sweat or tears fall onto the dirt, but they are neither. Rather, it’s the breast milk of a woman named Marta, a Venezuelan migrant who has been walking alone along a rural expanse with nothing but a duffelbag. She has stopped at a tree to relieve her body of the fluid that it instinctually produces; milk quietly streams out of her nipple and onto the bark, manna wasted on a life that does not need her. Marta is, alas, a Madonna without child, a fractured Biblical image. The frame then directs its gaze upward, to the heavens, where the sun smirks at Marta like a tease.

Marta is the protagonist of the fictional drama “Under the Heavens.” The film’s director, Gustavo Milan, who is Brazilian, understands the insidiousness of migrants’ aspirations to arrive at what he terms an “unreachable paradise.” The film’s name, however, also points to a more prosaic reality: “In a sense, the title refers to Marta’s situation literally, as she is without home or roof, living and sleeping directly under the heavens,” Milan told me, in an e-mail. Nearly six million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela since a series of disastrous events unfolded there. The country is dependent on the sale of oil drawn from its vast reserves, but during the reign of President Nicolás Maduro—who still leads the country, following Presidential elections widely viewed as illegitimate—the price of crude oil plummeted. Concurrent hyperinflation has made Venezuela’s currency virtually worthless, and food security is a fallacy. One recent survey found that 94.5 per cent of Venezuelans now live in poverty, and 76.6 per cent live in extreme poverty.

“Under the Heavens” addresses the larger humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, but in a subtle way. In the film, as Milan put it, “the conflict we see is between Venezuelans, between people from the same community, fleeing the same problems.” The plot, in fact, revolves around such a conflict, in which the value of Marta’s breast milk—and her generosity—knots her into an empathetic-turned-tempestuous relationship with two young immigrants, Jorge and Alicia—a couple she meets on the road, in the bed of a truck. After offering to feed the couple’s crying infant—in an unfathomably intimate exchange—Marta seems to believe she has made allies on her path to a sustainable life. In actuality, she soon finds herself part of a complicated, and sometimes threatening, connection. “Even as places of struggle create community,” Milan said, alluding to the bond between Marta and the couple, and similar bonds made between refugees, “they also serve as a venue for increased violence, where people go to extremes when they have nothing. Gender-based violence is almost always a sub-crisis in the midst of broader humanitarian crises.”

In one of these venues—a dark, barren shelter where the group rests for a night, after a long day of travel—Jorge leers at Marta as she breast-feeds his child once more. “I also have a little girl,” Marta admits, the moonlight hitting the contours of her figure. “I left her in Venezuela with my mother.”

Jorge inches closer to Marta, slowly inhales her before hovering over her shoulder. “How could you?” he asks, with judgment, and with a sudden air of unwanted sexual urgency.

A pause ensues—long enough for Marta to object or become defensive, to scream or grow numb or fall into hysterics. Long enough for her to contemplate the physical and emotional sacrifices demanded of women, and of mothers, and of migrants.

“Could you give me some privacy while I feed her?” Marta says instead.


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