With Venezuela In Chaos, Mangoes Are Unsung Heroes

During these troubled times in Venezuela, the mango has a new identity.

"We call them 'the noise takers' because they calm down the noise that our stomachs make when we are hungry," says Danilson Hernández, who manages a modest business that upholsters vehicles in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

And there are a lot of hungry people in crisis-ridden Venezuela. Nearly 90 percent of families don't earn enough money to buy the food they need, according to the latest Life Conditions National Survey, run annually by college professors.

Hernandez, who's in his late forties, eats a couple of mangoes for breakfast almost every day. He picks from the many fruits that fall to the ground from two 82-foot-tall trees that cast shadows on his workplace. They're slightly sour and a bit bitter if they're green — and sweet if they're fully ripe.

In fact, the trees shed so many mangoes on his sandy yard, he says, that workers and housemaids from nearby stores and apartments often come by to ask him for some.

Some local wags are saying the abundant mangoes of Venezuela are "the real humanitarian aid."

"The mango has gained an extra value for Venezuelans in recent years because it alleviates hunger," says Maritza de Jiménez, head of the charity Seglar Mercedary Fraternity, which distributes free lunches to some 600 Venezuelan children and 80 elderly people on weekdays. Her charity serves mangoes with the lunches. She adds that "many of our kids eat too many mangoes during the weekends, when we don't offer free lunches for them."

The mangoes may be free as well. There are so many mango trees in public spaces and private yards in Venezuelan cities with tropical weather that people can help themselves. And there's a good supply. Mango trees bear fruit for about a month at a time three times a year in Venezuela and are in season right now.

The mango turns out to be a pretty good food to turn to in times of need. A cup of diced mango meets about half of the required daily allowance for vitamin C and a quarter of the RDA for vitamin A. And fiber content is high.

"Fiber increases when it gets in touch with the stomach fluids. That's why people feel satiated," says Ealys López de Márquez, head of the School of Nutrition and Dietetics in the University of Zulia, one of the largest in the country.

But as a main course, the mango does have shortcomings. For example, there's only 1 gram of protein in a one cup serving.

Yet for many Venezuelans, there may not be an alternative. José Áñez, a 75-year-old pensioner, savors a mango outside a Catholic charity where he waits for a free plate of soup alongside dozens of elderly.

"We're having a really bad time. This fruit is the favorite one for us. I can have it anytime of the day. It calms down the hunger a little bit," he says, smiling.

Juan Manuel Rodríguez, who's in his 50s and is a father of three, says he eats between three and eight mangoes a day. He also prepares mango dishes to sale on the sidewalks of Maracaibo.

His most popular offering is made with sliced mango, Worcestershire sauce, marinade, vinegar and salt. He's nicknamed it "Viagra" and boasts that it'll help boost a man's sexual performance. Most people don't really believe that but they do buy the dish because it's tasty and cheap — about the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents for a serving.

In fact, mangoes find themselves into a lot of Venezuelan dishes: salads, juices, marmalade and desserts. Mango milkshakes are popular as well but there's only a little milk in the mix, since 2.2 pounds of powdered milk costs around 60,000 bolivares. By comparison, the official minimum wage for a full-time month's work is 40,000 bolivares.

Ramón Arenas Morales, a 81-year-old retired journalist, is one of the folks who gives away mangoes. The branches of his neighbor's tree hang over his porch. When the tree bears fruit, he hangs a bag filled with 20 mangoes outside his main gate every morning so people who walk by on the way to work or kids going to school can grab a couple.

"There are some desperate ones who would even ask me for the 'sick' mangoes, the ones we dump," he says, pointing up a bunch of pale-looking fruits hanging from the green branches that are likely spoiled. "I've seen desperation and hunger in people's faces. This is depressing," he adds.

During mango season, the Áñez family gives away approximately 200 mangoes every day to friends and neighbors in their neighborhood on the northeastern side of Maracaibo.

Mangoes are usually just a side dish, says Jesús, the father, who's in his 50s. "But we are not choosing what we eat anymore."

His wife, Ingrid, sharing a plate of five mangoes with one of her young daughters, says she finds strangers scavenging for mangoes around her yard at dawn.

In the days before the economic crisis, she says, "we used to throw hundreds of mangoes to the garbage," she says. "Now we collect them all."

Nerio Mendoza, who's in his 30s, is a former fisherman who stopped working because he was afraid of the pirates of the Lake of Maracaibo. Currently unemployed, he's grateful that the Áñez family shares their mangoes.

Mendoza says he walks dozens of blocks every day, scavenging among the garbage for something to sell, like electric wires, so he can buy food for Bella de los Ángeles, his 4-month-old baby girl, and Nerio Josué, his 3-year-old boy.

The man, skinny and wearing worn clothes, has a final resort in case he can't come up with meals for his family. "I'm going to look for some little mangoes where I can find them. It's tough. My kids are hungry," he says in sadness.

But he's glad to find the mangoes. "They're very tasty," he says with a smile.

Gustavo Ocando Alex is a freelance writer in Venezuela who has contributed to BBC World News and the Miami Herald.

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