The story behind the smile

By Maryam Saleh CORRESPONDENT
On February 20, 2012

Most of Tampa has seen her smile.

It's plastered on the "USF is Tampa Bay" billboard on Fowler Avenue that approximately 18,000 people view per week. It's on many of USF's promotional materials and fact sheets.

But Andrea Carolina Gomez Rodriguez, a sophomore majoring in mass communications and a middle blocker for the USF women's volleyball team, hasn't always had a lot to smile about.

In 2002, when Rodriguez was in the fifth grade, her family fled from Venezuela amidst political strife.

Rodriguez's father, Julio, was part of a movement against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - a position that put his family in danger.

"My dad was involved with a coup to try to overthrow the government and (Chavez) tried to do bad stuff to us, so we kind of escaped," she said. "We're here in (the U.S.) under political asylum."

Her father was in the Venezuelan military, and Rodriguez said he would speak in public areas about the people's right to democracy.

"(He) would use microphones and talk about how the government needs to change and people need to vote and register to vote and take action and not let things happen that they know aren't right," she said. "They would encourage people to take action and talk to the media about anything that didn't seem right if they had the opportunity."

According to the U.S. Department of State, Chavezcame into the public eye as the leader of a failed coup in 1992. He won the presidential election in 1998 and has been in power ever since.

In April 2002, between 400,000 and 600,000 people took part in a march in downtown Caracas to ask the president to resign, according to the Department of State. Gunfire broke out, resulting in 18 deaths and more than 100 injuries on each side. Military officers then took Chavez into custody and Pedro Carmona swore himself in as president. This coup lasted for only two days, however, after which Chavez returned to power.

Rodriguez remembers living in fear.

Chavez put ads in local newspapers asking for her father's body in return for 50 million bolivares, she said. Her mom was fired from her job as a lawyer for being married to him.

Before her family left the country, members of the Venezuelan military intelligence agency, Direccion de Inteligencia Militar (DIM), were stationed outside the family's condo with guns, instructed to kidnap anyone they saw leaving.

"It was crazy because everyone had to crawl inside my own house so they couldn't see anyone through our huge window," she said. "It was a brand new condo we had moved to and we didn't have curtains yet. And we didn't do anything bad. All we did was try to have freedom of speech."

One day, while the family was hiding in a friend's condo, the DIM broke into their condo and raped the family's maid, hoping to get information on their whereabouts. The maid was kidnapped and returned to the condo a few days later.

"She was like me and my sister's best friend," Rodriguez said. "This was heartbreaking. All these memories are extremely vivid. It is impossible to not remember.

The hardest part of the family's move to northeast Virginia in 2002, she said, was learning the language. Rodriguez barely spoke any English.

"I knew how to say ‘yes' and ‘no,'" she said. "My English teacher in Venezuela taught me to say ‘How old are you?' but she taught me wrong. So I would go up to people and ask them, ‘How many years do you have?'"

Rodriguez started school a few weeks after her move to Virginia, but wasn't comfortable speaking English until three years later in the eighth grade. She only considered herself fluent by ninth.

The mass communications major now speaks near-perfect English with little trace of an accent.

Rodriguez's parents were lawyers in Venezuela, but had to change careers after moving because of a difference in legal regulations.

Her father opened a used car dealership in Virginia, but the economic recession caused him to lose his business. Her parents decided to move to Miami in 2009, where her father is now working with a group of friends to create a university called "University of Florida Tech," where students would learn to become computer game designers. Her mother, Maruja, works as a salesperson for Nikken, a company which sells health products.

They are now in the process of applying for citizenship.

"(My parents) had to think of something else, so we decided to move to Miami because they had more opportunity to work because of the language," Rodriguez said. "They didn't speak English that well."

That year, when Rodriguez was a senior at Ronald Reagan High School, she began playing volleyball.

Rodriguez said she grew up knowing that if she wanted to be an athlete, volleyball was the ideal sport to play since it is the most popular women's sport in Venezuela.

Her favorite part of the sport, she said, is the inter-team dynamic.

"What I really like about (volleyball) is communication, ironically, because that's what I struggled with in terms of language," she said. "It's all about communication and working with people, and I'm a very social person so I just love it."

During that year, her club volleyball coach, Yasmin Ortiz, recommended that USF volleyball coach Claire Lessinger come watch Gomez play.

"There were a lot of things that enticed me," Lessinger said about the first time she saw Rodriguez play. "I could tell she was skilled. She was very passionate and very emotional. She seemed like a real genuine type of person. I could tell all this just from watching her on a volleyball court."

After one encounter, Lessinger decided Rodriguez was someone she wanted to train, and she began the recruiting process. Rodriguez joined USF in fall 2010 on a full athletic scholarship and was a starting player during her first semester.

After she graduates, Rodriguez said she would like to play volleyball professionally in France, where she lived for two years as an infant. After that, she wants to help the people of Venezuela, who she said still suffer from a lack of freedom of speech.

"I don't know if people will take me seriously because I'm an athlete and because I'm a girl, but I do want to make an impact politically," she said.

Rodriguez said many journalists in Venezuela are being incarcerated for trying to report "the truth," and she would like to use her education to help their voices get heard.

According to a 2011 report by the BBC, Chavez has set up a large network of public media outlets that support his left-wing agenda, while he passed regulations that forced the closure of pro-opposition broadcast media in the country.

"I have a lot of respect for those that are over there trying to report," she said. "They have no freedom of speech, so in their honor I'd like to be the voice of the people. I think it's not fair they're being punished for trying to let the world know what's going on."

Though she said she's not quite sure how she's going to reach it, Rodriguez's ultimate goal is to ensure that Venezuelan youth don't have to suffer from the same fear she experienced as a child forced to flee her country.

For now, Rodriguez said she is waiting to see what will happen in Venezuela's presidential election this October.

"We're hoping that maybe he won't be in power anymore, but we've been hoping for the past 12 years," she said.

Despite her early memories of leaving, Rodriguez still thinks fondly of moments in Venezuela.

"I still have happy memories from Venezuela," she said. "These happy memories consist of when we would go to my grandparents' house in Maturin and our whole family would be together. I cherish family so much because now I know what it feels like to have nobody. It's a frustrating feeling that families can be broken up due to politics. I hate it."

Before she begins work in Venezuela, where she expects to return in her 50s after getting a future degree in international law, Rodriguez has already left her mark at USF.

One day during the summer of 2011, Rodriguez arrived to her Florida government and politicsclass straight after volleyball practice and a "sweaty mess," she said. A photographer walked into the class and requested permission to take photos.

"I don't know why they chose me," she said. "I'm guessing it's because I was wearing a USF volleyball shirt and (the photo shoot) had something to do with the school."

The photo taken that day has come to be synonymous with the face of USF.

"There is no better smile to associate with our team and our University," Lessinger said. "She smiles all the time. That is the smile of USF."

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