‘The west of Ireland was so untouched. I crave that’

The granddaughter of a Venezuelan tribal chief was drawn to Ireland by love, and she fell for the country just as quickly

Flor Sylvester, the granddaughter of a Venezuelan tribal chief, was drawn to Ireland by love, and she fell for the country just as quickly.

 

Flor Sylvester: arrived from Spain, 2008

Flor Sylvester only met her grandfather briefly as a young girl before he was shot dead near his home in Venezuela. Claudio Paz, a human-rights lawyer and the last chief of the Venezuelan Wayuu tribe, was killed at the age of 85 in the city of Maracaibo near the Colombian border.

“I am descended from a long line of healing women and chiefs. It was a matriarch society where women ran everything. They handled the finances and any important decisions were made by the eldest matriarch of the family.”

Sylvester’s ancestral tribe, the Apushana tribe, which means vulture, lived a nomadic existence on the Guajira peninsula in northern Venezuela before her grandfather dissolved the region’s native American caste system in the 1940s.

“He studied human-rights law in Colombia and was concerned that people in the lower caste systems weren’t able to be free as people. He got together with other chiefs in the area and they dissolved the whole system.”

Sylvester was brought up on the banks of the Maracaibo basin, which holds the country’s oil reserves. The city was booming when her grandparents first arrived but now the lake is polluted and oil prices have dropped.

After school she was sent to the US to study at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League college. However, the young Venezuelan’s connection to her indigenous past soon drew her away from formal education.

“I struggled for years trying to make it through college, but despite doing well in most of my courses I never felt like it was where I was meant to be. My calling has always been towards my native American, ritualistic side.”

In 2008 she dropped out of school and set off to Andalucía in Spain, where she first encountered Irish musician Colm Quearney strumming his guitar. “I met Colm, and that night I dreamed of a four-leaf clover. Something in my intuition was, like, this guy is solid.”

She was enjoying the break from “American consumerism” and found the “European vibe” a warm reminder of her father’s French and Italian roots. On a whim she contacted her new Irish companion to let him know she was moving to Ireland.

“My family thought I was absolutely nuts. I was always the eccentric one in the family, just doing my own thing. My plan was, if it didn’t work out with him I was going to continue east and go to Tibet and China. ”

The untouched west

On arriving in Ireland Sylvester went straight to Co Clare, where she began “woofing” (working on organic farms). Spending her first few weeks in the west of Ireland, she fell in love with the country. “It was so untouched, and I crave that. I have this romantic notion of my tribe somehow being untouched, and I daydream about what my role would have been in that tribal situation and how much easier it would have been to find my place.”

Her initial stay in the west was short-lived as, within a month of her arrival, she discovered she was pregnant.

“I really freaked out at first, but I loved my partner so staying in Ireland wasn’t even a question. We both complement each other so well. We give each other freedom when we’re doing our own thing and we support each other.”

In 2009 she gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Kaifina. “I wanted to bring in my native American roots, so Kai means sun in our dialect. I just put Kaifina together, so it means sun warrior.”

Soon after Kaifina was born, Sylvester began to suffer from postnatal depression. “My husband, as a musician, had to work to make ends meet. It was so hard to get our bills paid and I remember that as a really stressful time.”

Her work as a masseuse at the Art of Wellness centre in the Lysaght Gallery in Howth, Co Dublin, helps her cope with the daily challenges of life.

As Buddhists, Sylvester and her husband, whom she married in 2009, struggled to find a school that would accept their daughter.

“My experience of trying to get my daughter into school was challenging and humiliating due to the fact that she is not baptised. I had no options. I felt completely disempowered during the whole procedure.”

Despite the difficulties she has encountered, Sylvester prefers to focus on what she loves about Ireland: “The magic I breathe in the Clare air, the mesmerising cliff walks of Howth, the sense of old-worldliness peace in Inishmore.”

“I couldn’t imagine feeling more at home anywhere else. To me, Ireland is the most magical place on Earth.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com
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