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East Moline resident is Venezuelan through and through
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert
Zobeida Laufenberg, of East Moline, is a Venezuelan immigrant. The images behind her were painted by her mother and depict the Venezuelan countryside.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert
Zobeida Laufenberg, of East Moline, is a Venezuelan immigrant. The shawl she is wearing was her mother's and was hand-sewn.
EAST MOLINE — Zobeida Laufenberg may be living in East Moline with a German last name, but her heart is in Venezuela.

"I left Venezuela, but Venezuela never left me," she said. "You want to eat the food and listen to the music."

The sound of Venezuelan music plays through her home. Her walls are filled with beautiful portraits of landscapes from her childhood, all painted by her mother, an accomplished artist.

The television usually is set on one of four Spanish-speaking channels.

"When I was 5 years old, I remember wearing the traditional Indian clothes and dancing," she said.

Born Zobeida Guerra in Quito, Ecuador, she moved with her family to Caracas, Venezuela, when she was 1. Though living in Venezuela, she said her parents raised her with Ecuadorian values, emphasizing respect to elders.

Holidays were an important part of Venezuelan life. Christmas was steeped in tradition, with the Nativity set being the centerpiece of the holiday, the display often taking over the living room.

The family would gather around to enjoy special meals of hallaca (corn tamales wrapped in plantain leaves) and pavo (turkey). Christmas Eve was celebrated at church, and surrounding streets were closed so children could roller skate. The evening would end with firecrackers and lighted paper lanterns released into the sky with a wish.

Baby Jesus brought gifts Christmas morning, not Santa.

"The importance of family being together, that's what mattered," Ms. Laufenberg said.

Birthdays were celebrated with family and a colorful, candy-filled pinata.

Music played a strong role in the Guerra household. Her father was a singer and recorded several songs in Ecuador. One of her sisters became an opera singer and choir teacher in Venezuela.

For youngZobeida and two brothers, music was a prominent part of their childhood. For five years, they performed in a children's television show called "Bambilandia." Considered the Venezuelan version of "The Mickey Mouse Club," it was broadcast live across the country each Saturday.

"People called us the Guerra Von Trapp family," Ms. Laufenberg said. "It was a beautiful childhood experience."

In 1962, Zobeida's father took a chance, moving to America for a job opportunity in Chicago. When that didn't work out, he was persuaded by a friend to move to Moline, where he found work testing machinery for John Deere. He brought the rest of the family from Venezuela a year later when Zobeida was 14.

It was a difficult move for her. She left behind her two older sisters, who had married, two of her three brothers, and she had no knowledge of English. Coming from a large city like Caracas, it was culture shock moving to the Quad-Cities.

She attended school in Moline and said the total English immersion was a blessing. After a year, she and her younger brother were proficient in their new language and were singing in the high school choir. The family planned to move back to Venezuela after a few years.

After graduating from Moline High School in 1967 and Black Hawk College in 1970, Zobeida worked as a Spanish translator for John Deere, where she eventually met her husband, Mike Laufenberg.

They married in 1972 and celebrated their 40-year wedding anniversary in 2012.

Mr. Laufenberg embraced his wife's culture and learned Spanish to be able to communicate with her family.

She spent nearly 10 years working as a bilingual teacher's aid for the East Moline school district and graduated with her bachelor's degree in 1992 from Western Illinois University, where she worked for 14 years as an administrative assistant.

She became an American citizen in 1997, but it was a decision she made with hesitation and some sadness.

"I felt that, by becoming a citizen, I would be cutting my connection to Venezuela," she said.

Ms. Laufenberg's parents moved back to Venezuela after retiring. She visited twice a year but hasn't been "home" since her father died in 2007. She said her parents thought living in Moline was a blessing.

"They loved this country. They were very appreciative and thankful of their life in the Quad-Cities."

She respects her parents, who moved from Ecuador to Venezuela to the United States in order to better themselves and provide opportunities for the family.

Other family members visit from Venezuela regularly. One of her brothers lives in Moline, and she keeps in frequent contact with another brother in Venezuela and other relatives in Ecuador.

Music translates across cultural boundaries, and Ms. Laufenberg brought her strong musical background with her to the Quad-Cities. As a member of the Venezuelan choir, Voces de Venezuela, she performed with her brother and other members at area festivals from 2001 to 2006.

"We all speak Spanish, and everyone calls us Hispanic, but that is such a generalization," she said. "There are such differences among the cultures."

Ms. Laufenberg draws on the experience of her unique background and applies it to her many volunteer roles.

As president of The World Affairs Council of the Quad Cities, Ms. Laufenberg is an ambassador for her culture and promotes many others. Often hosting guest speakers at the Bettendorf Public Library, she uses her role with the council to educate people about life and experiences in other countries.

This enthusiasm expands to other activities, such as Kiwanis International Club, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Viva Quad Cities Fiesta and Christ the King Celebration Choir.

In addition to her already busy schedule, she teaches Spanish part time at Black Hawk College Outreach Center.

Though she will celebrate 50 years of living in the United States this year, she is, at heart, Venezuelan.

"It is inculcado — ingrained in my soul."


 -- Location: Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, between Colombia and Guyana.

-- Population: 28,047,938 (July 2012 estimate). No. 45 in the world.

-- Languages: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous dialects.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

Local events heading

  Today is Thursday, Oct. 2, the 275th day of 2014. There are 90 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The ladies have adopted the fashion of wearing representations of insects in the flowers on their bonnets. Some look very natural.
1889 -- 125 years ago: T.F. Cary, former Rock Island alderman, has accepted a position as salesman for a Chicago wallpaper house and plans to move to that city.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Work on the new telephone building on 18th Street between 6th and 7th avenues is progressing rapidly.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Rock Island's new theater at 3rd Avenue and 19th Street will have a name significant of its location. The "Rocket" is scheduled to open Thanksgiving Day.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Two of Rock Island's newest water towers were vandalized last night, including the one at 38th Street and 31st Avenue, where police took five Moline boys into custody about 9 p.m..
1989 -- 25 years ago: Some of us who live in the Quad-Cities take the Mississippi River for granted, or at least we used to. But the river is not taken for granted by our visitors. And most Quad-Citians are realizing the importance of the river to this area as increased emphasis is placed on tourism.

(More History)