Lake Michigan brings comfort to migrant families from Venezuela

Growing up by Venezuela’s biggest lake, Juan Carlos Marin Matos begged his parents to enroll him in swimming lessons, the first step in a lifelong passion for open-water competition.

Shortly after arriving in Chicago with his family this summer — bused from Texas as part of that state’s expulsion of asylum-seekers — Marin Matos took his first swim in Lake Michigan.

“It was only a swim of a couple hundred meters but the water was clean, clear,” Marin Matos says. “I would like to see if there’s some sort of swim across it.”

The 43-year-old native of Maracaibo in Northwestern Venezuela hopes to become a swim instructor, but, for now, he is trying to earn enough money to buy a car to work as a delivery driver.

Marin Matos, like many migrants, is grateful to be in the U.S., far from the oppression he fled in his homeland. Yet every day is a struggle to secure even a near-term future as his immigration case is processed and he looks for work and housing.

He, his wife, Ariagnis Parejo, and their 2-year-old son, Ethan, are staying at a North Side migrant shelter and are among thousands of newly arrived migrants seeking a fresh start in Chicago. For the family, Lake Michigan is a reminder of long-ago idyllic times.

Ariagnis Parejo, her husband Juan Carlos Marin Matos and their son, Ethan, explore Montrose Beach. The recently arrived migrant family finds peace at Lake Michigan.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Marin Matos fondly speaks of growing up by el Lago de Maracaibo, one of the world’s oldest lakes, which connects to the Gulf of Venezuela. Part saltwater, the inlet lake attracts dolphins and is historically known for both its biodiversity and abundant oil reserves.

Like Venezuela as a whole, the lake at Maracaibo is in crisis.

Just as Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes were threatened by pollution over the past century, Maracaibo faces many problems, from frequent oil spills to toxic algae from agricultural fertilizers.

Those algae and oil slicks are abundant enough be seen from space. 

The lake sits on one of the country’s largest oil reserves — the longtime source of Venezuela’s wealth. Oil spills date back to discovery of the reserves there in the early 1900s.

In recent years, crumbling oil infrastructure made spills worse and other contaminants further degrade the water, says Frank Mueller-Karger, a researcher at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.

The harmful algae blooms can cover 90% of the lake, he adds.

“It’s tragic really,” Mueller-Karger says.


Oil covers the banks of the polluted Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. The city of Maracaibo is the historic center of the country’s oil industry.

Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to dolphins, manatees and alligator-like reptiles known as caimans, the lake is still home to more than 100 species of fish.

The pollution impact on local wildlife is something locals lament.

For Wilson Silva Morale, another Maracucho — resident of Maracaibo like Marin Matos — seeing Lake Michigan brings back memories of the abundant fish back home before the pollution worsened.

The 32-year-old left Venezuela after gangs destroyed his food stall business and the deep scars he bears from being stabbed by them remind him he cannot return. Still, the days he would spend out on the lake fishing with his uncle are what he misses most.

“It’s the nicest thing in the world,” says Silva Morale, who is also in a temporary shelter on the North Side with his family.

Silva Morale’s reverence for Maracaibo’s water is shared by many Maracuchos, he says, adding that love for the lake is “practically a religion down there.”

The water teeming with life is what Marin Matos remembers of his first open-water race in the lake in 2004, a 3-mile swim where he recalls the water was choppy and the toninas, or dolphins, were out.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” Marin Matos says. 

By the time he swam his last race there in 2011, he began to notice the pollution. He recalls having to swim around the algae blooms during the six-hour channel crossing.

Juan Carlos Marin Matos walks along the lake at Montrose Beach. Marin Matos, who swam in competitive open-water races back home, feels grateful for the chance at a fresh start on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Juan Carlos Marin Matos, a native of Venezuela, walks along the lake at Montrose Beach. He swam Lake Michigan shortly after arriving in Chicago.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Marin Matos blames the pollution on the government for allowing the oil industry and others to contaminate the lake. 

“They caused the damage to the lake, to the sea, to the fauna,” he says, noting how marine life washes ashore covered in oil. 

Their neglect for the health of the lake mirrors Venezuela’s economic collapse and political failure, he says.

He left the country with his family in 2016 and went to Chile, where he worked at a seaside swim club until anti-Venezuelan sentiment there drove him back home last year. 

Later that year, he was detained by police for attending a protest, then attacked by police at a protest in 2023 and finally, just before leaving the country in June, was detained again and warned never to return. 

The long journey here drew on the same reserves he built up swimming in the lake years ago. 

“You have to have that same mental strength,” he says, “to not get tired and quit.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

Wilson Silva Morale walks out on a break wall at Leone beach. What the Venezuelan migrant misses most about home were the days he would spend fishing out on Lake Maracaibo, and in Chicago, he hopes to have similar experiences on Lake Michigan.

Wilson Silva Morale walks out on a break wall at Leone Beach in Rogers Park. The Venezuelan loves to fish and hopes to find time some day to cast a line into Lake Michigan.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times Lake Michigan brings comfort to migrant families from Venezuela

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