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Meet Jose Villegas: He came to the Berkshires to heal and found a community

Accents: The voices of our immigrant neighbors in the Berkshires

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Jose Villegas came to the Berkshires to heal.

Villegas grew up among the millions of people in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. He studied in Boston and Seattle, returned to his home country to work in its oil industry and then made his career in corporate banking in the United States.

“Having come from Caracas, a bustling city, I never thought I would leave the city for anything,” he says. “I knew next to nothing about the Berkshires.”

But then, “I suffered a mental health breakdown.”

He got introduced to Gould Farm, the residential work community for people with psychiatric conditions off of Rt. 23 in Monterey. Now Villegas is their cheesemaker – “60 to 100 pounds of cheddar a week” - and a Certified Peer Specialist.

What was, “My best day in banking is my worst day in what I do now,” he says. “It’s a whole different feeling going to work making a difference in people’s life.”

Villegas remembers his family’s home on the outskirts of Caracas as “paradise”.

“We had access to horses, the weather is the most perfect in the world: always 75 to 80 degrees.”

His father Jose Rafael ran a construction business until a car accident ended that. He started a small cheese factory in Barinas, “Where the cows are”.

“I helped him from time to time in selling the cheese, but I never got involved in cheese making,” Villegas says. “I never thought that I would end up making cheese myself.”

Venezuelan cheeses are generally fresh (unaged) soft cheeses, he explains, “Queso año, queso blanco or queso de mano, which tastes somewhat like between a mozzarella and a feta and which I miss a lot…”

Most of Villegas’ uncles had left Venezuela for America when it came time for college, “So I always grew up thinking that the future was somewhat related to the States”.

In 1980 Venezuela granted him an international scholarship in exchange for a commitment to come back after graduation for at least a few years to work. He did that, then took a job with Nike in Oregon and later worked for large multinational banks on the East Coast. His daughter Diana, now 21, was born in Boston.

In 1998 he had “a psychotic break,” he says. “I had had mental health issues since I was six years old and got treatment for it since I was 15 but nothing prevented me from having a terrible break.”

His doctor at McLean psychiatric hospital in Boston referred him to Gould Farm. A first stay did not change much in his condition, Villegas says.

“I pretty much suffered for many years by myself, isolated,” he says. “In 2009 I realized my true condition and accepted that I needed help. I came back to the Farm and the Farm opened its arms to me.”

As part of his psychiatric treatment he threw himself in the menial jobs of the working farm that Gould Farm also is. He learned cheese making there from his mentor Mike “Mac” McDonald.

Gould Farm cheddar is sold in local stores such as Nejaime’s in Stockbridge and Spirited in Lenox. In his cheese making barn where wedges of white cheddar are aging, Villegas credits Matt Rubiner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers in Great Barrington with helping him learn even more about his cheddar’s flavor and texture.

Jose Villegas, now 55, became an American citizen last June 8th. To a large extent out of a sense of gratitude, he says. That’s also why he studied for and passed the certification tests for him to be able to mentor people at Gould Farm himself, and why he is so open in talking about his disorder and ongoing recovery.

“That’s why I decided to do this interview,” he says, “so that people don’t have to suffer for so long by themselves the way I did and can find the help and the community that I did.”


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