Fashion Blogger Forced from Home finds Asylum in U.S.

Fashion Blogger Forced from Home finds Asylum in U.S.

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Venezuelan fashion blogger Leo Rivera sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Leo Rivera, a 26-year-old fashion journalist and consultant living in New York City, is a dreamer. When he isn’t working on his blog, “Life of Leo”, or as part of the visuals team for Banana Republic, he can be found mingling with the crowds at fashion week or people-watching at his favorite place in the city, the corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue. There, beneath The Plaza Hotel and Bergdorf Goodman, he sits and gazes at the heart of his city.

When Rivera’s mother, Nellys Rivera, saw her toddler son charming tourists on the beaches of their home in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela she knew he was special. She encouraged him to become bilingual and to take advantage of opportunities she had never had. When Leo had the chance to study at an American high school, he flew to a place he had never heard of, Carroll, Iowa. He later graduated from Iowa State with a journalism degree before moving to Laguna Beach, California to work for KX935 radio. When the station could not provide the sponsorship he needed to remain in the U.S., Leo had to return to Venezuela.

Under a corrupt regime Venezuela was struggling. Tensions were so high Leo could not wear any designer labels for fear of violent repercussions. In 2013, he returned to the U.S. for a Christmas vacation in California. When protests broke out back home, Leo and friends gathered together to raise awareness. Threatening phone calls from the Venezuelan government soon caused Leo the dreamer to face harsh reality.

What is the situation with the Venezuelan government?

Halfway through my vacation there was some sort of a protest taking place in Venezuela against the government and then civilians were being murdered, killed, by the government and by the national guard for protesting against the government which is essentially a disguised dictatorship. So I got fed up with it. I got together with some friends and we started to protest. Then I did a lot of protests nationwide, we did CNN, MSNBC, Telemundo, Univision. The government got wind of that so they started to call me, they got ahold of me somehow. They threatened me with imprisonment if I ever set foot back in Venezuela.

I’m not even a criminal. I’m just a normal person just standing up for what I believe is right. I mean I don’t think you should be killed for saying what you think against the government. How many people here criticize Obama and they don’t get killed for that. That really scared me and I applied for political asylum.

So what is the application process like for political asylum?
Essentially for asylum you have to prove that you have actual fear that will affect your wellbeing and your lifestyle, your livelihood. So [my lawyer] submitted my application, three months later I had to go do an interview. They asked me what happened, why I was so scared and what sort of proof I had. They said at the end of the interview, in two weeks we will let you know our decision.

Two weeks went by and nothing happened. A year went by, nothing. I had no work permits; all my money as a tourist I had already spent, ready to go back. I couldn’t get my ticket refunded back so I was essentially broke.

[You have received asylum] That must be a huge relief?
Oh my god. You have no idea, I cried. When my lawyer called me, a day after my birthday [he said,] “Leo, happy birthday! By the way I have something for you. Let me just read it for you.” I’m like ok what is it, I thought he was going to charge me another payment. He said, “Dear Mr. Rivera, you as of August 29th, 2015 have been granted asylum in the U.S.” Oh my god, when he said that to me I had tears in my eyes. Oh my God finally. I felt I could breathe. I was free.

You seem to have stayed very positive through all of this.
That I owe to my mom. She taught me from very little to always be optimistic. At times—I don’t think I am suicidal, I am not—but at times I got so depressed because you are only human, you feel it. When I got to that point my mom’s voice in my head said, “No no, stay positive. You’re Leo Rivera you can do this.” And if that didn’t work there was always fashion. Shopping, if you look your best, you feel your best. So whatever happens, if the world ends, if you’re looking your best you can take on the world. One of the words of encouragement she’s always said to me is, “Elegante. Elegante hasta el final.” Elegant, elegant until the very end.


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