Johanna Bertoni is and always has been an entrepreneur. Years ago, she developed jojotillos – traditional tequeño cheese-sticks with a twist of sweet corn cachapa dough, which she prepped and sold throughout Venezuela. As the country’s economic crisis developed, however, she soon found fewer and fewer distributors who could afford to buy her product. She shifted to selling homemade cheese and dulce de leche to friends, restaurants, and shops in Barquisimeto, but once again, found the rising inflation quickly catching up to her.
“I remember that when I was selling cheese and dulce de leche, I was happy. With what I made through sales and commissions, I supported my kids and myself month-to-month,” she tells me. “But with the crazy inflation we have here, later on, the money I was making in a month could only get me through the weekend.”
This skyrocketing inflation rate – which the International Monetary Fund predicts will reach 10 million percent in 2019 – combined with political instability, food and medicine shortages, and increased crime rates have triggered a “mass exodus” out of Venezuela in recent years. According to the United Nations, more than 2.3 million people have migrated out of the country since 2014, with almost 5,000 Venezuelans fleeing on a daily basis. Some are fortunate enough to travel by plane or bus to their destinations; others endure dangerous journeys on foot across neighboring Latin American countries.
Bertoni’s own brother left for Miami more than two years ago. But on Father’s Day of 2018, she decided to do something special so that her dad could still feel close to his son – an idea that served both to unite her family and eventually alleviate her monetary worries. With a dulce de leche and special note in tow, she knocked on her father’s door, all the while filming herself on her phone.
“If you left to live in another country and your parents stayed here in Barquisimeto, and you don’t want Father’s Day to fly under the radar, I’ve got this solution for you,” she said to the camera.
When her father answered, she explained that she was bringing a special gift on behalf of his son in Miami, and hugged him while wishing him a happy Father’s Day. From then on, Bertoni had a new side gig on Instagram, aptly named Antojitos Bertoni. She began receiving orders from other expats who missed being with their loved ones on birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions.
Where their physical presence lacks, Bertoni shows up with a cake and a hug. She memorizes a personalized message to deliver to the recipient and always films the moment the unexpecting parent, grandparent, or close friend receives their surprise. “That hug fills me with so much positive energy,” she says. “And with having a brother that lives out of the country, sometimes I feel like that hug the person is giving me is my brother, and for them, I’m their relative that’s living outside the country. It’s a very emotional hug.”
She always sends the video of that moment back to the awaiting relative. Sometimes they’re in Colombia, Argentina, or Ecuador. One was living in Italy. Most of the people who reach out to her, however, are in the United States. No matter the time or place, she says, they always respond in tears of gratitude.
When the families consent, Bertoni posts the videos on Instagram. In some instances, she’s shared IG stories of herself crying in her car after deliveries that have been especially moving. One such experience took place a few months back when she delivered a cake and candy to a young boy on his birthday.
Usually, Bertoni visits parents and grandparents whose adult children have left Venezuela in search of better opportunities. But this time, she was looking for a child who had stayed behind with relatives while his mom looked for work in Peru. The mother wanted Bertoni’s visit to be extra special because it was the first birthday she spent away from her son. When he opened the door and heard the gift was from his mom, Bertoni says, the boy began shaking and trembling so intensely that he almost dropped his cake on the ground.
Bertoni usually charges around $7 to $10 USD, which goes a long way against the devalued Venezuela bolivar. But the money’s not the most important thing, she says. In situations where someone in another Latin American country can’t pay her in American currency, she tells them they can work out the money later. The important thing is that the person they love gets to feel close to them again on their special day. And if someone has a special request they’d like to add, like flowers or a specific food, she figures out a way to get it so that the gesture can be exactly they way they envision it.
But that’s not to say the packaging is her main focus. “Sometimes my friends tell me to decorate the cake more or add balloons,” Bertoni says. “But no, I’m not selling the beauty of the cake or the container that I’m bringing it in. I’m selling the lived experience. That moment, that excitement – that’s what I’m selling.”
In July, I got to experience Bertoni’s business firsthand when my mom contacted her for my godmother’s birthday. Now that more than 14 years since have passed since I left Venezuela, I can’t remember the last time I spent her birthday with her. Sometimes, it can feel like calling her on her birthday or Christmas or my graduation reinforces the growing distance between us, the way life keeps unfolding and we keep missing each other’s big moments.
But that day, knowing Bertoni was surprising her with a cake and potted plant at her office had my tía on my mind the whole day. For the first time in a long time, I felt close to her, a twinge of excitement soaring through me every time my phone buzzed in hopes that it would be the video of her reaction. When it finally came, I felt overwhelmed, both with sadness and with joy. My godmom and I spoke on the phone for more than an hour that night. Thanks to Bertoni’s hug and handwritten note with my words, I felt a piece of myself restored in my tía’s life.
As of now, Bertoni receives five to six orders on a given week. She wants to expand to cities beyond Barquisimeto, but she knows it’s not so easy to find other representatives of Antojitos Bertoni who wouldn’t feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to share such an intimate moment with a stranger. Sometimes, she enlists her kids to help her.
“I’m teaching them that the important thing is to show love and affection with simple gestures,” she says. “It’s really so gratifying.”