COSTA NICA: BEING A NICARAGUAN IN COSTA RICA DURING COVID-19
You’re driving through a long road surrounded by green tall grass both to your left and to your right sides. You see on the horizon a bunch of small, tin houses mounted on each other. As you get closer you feel the separation between San José and this vulnerable community known within Costa Rica as one of its major slums that’s highly populated by Nicaraguans.
You keep on driving through the outskirts of San José and get to La Carpio: a community that has long been described as a place where extreme poverty, discrimination, xenophobia, violence and drugs abound. You get to the biggest binational community in Costa Rica and the largest migrant settlement in Central America.
You get to La Carpio.
“It’s the biggest binational community in Costa Rica and it’s also a very stigmatized place in Costa Rica. La Carpio becomes a significant [place] to name what is rejected,” says Carlos Sandoval, a Costa Rican immigration researcher and current Student Affairs Vice Chancellor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
But you also get to a community where an NGO called the Integrated System of Art Education for Social Inclusion (SIFAIS) has been working for the past nine years to change these descriptions of La Carpio within the Costa Rican population.
“La Carpio is the largest migrant settlement in Central America and specially [populated] by Nicaraguans,” says Maris Stella Fernández, the Costa Rican president and co-founder of SIFAIS. “Around 50,000 people and 10,000 families live in Carpio.”
She began working in the “Cueva del Sapo” (the toad’s cave) nine years ago, which was a place feared by the residents of La Carpio and Costa Ricans in general.
Yet, along with Alicia Avilés, a Nicaraguan teacher and community leader in La Carpio, Fernández founded SIFAIS as a means to help the community through a non-traditional cultural educational model.
For Avilés, a Nicaraguan woman who migrated to Costa Rica more than 20 years ago because of political persecution and a very low wage in Nicaragua, SIFAIS is synonymous of a human development within her community.
“We began doing many things here in the community with Maris Stella and years later, after lots of work and effort from many people from outside, we’ve achieved this human development,” Avilés says.
“It’s the human development that was missing as a complement to the community to develop from this anonymity we had here,” Avilés says. “And, even as a Nicaraguan, you fight for everything.”
Yet, that anonymity and stigma that La Carpio has lived in in the past has changed due to SIFAIS’s work, according to Fernández.
“Personally, I feel that now that the aggression towards people who live in Carpio is less dramatic,” Fernández says.
But in times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the xenophobia against Nicaraguans has resurfaced. This is due to the migration of Nicaraguans in the northern border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua because of how Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s president, has handled the pandemic.
“I know that COVID-19 has accentuated a bit the xenophobia, but I must say that I haven’t seen it accentuated against the people from Carpio even though there was an important infectious focus [here],” Fernández says.
For researcher Sandoval, the pandemic has revealed both the interdependence between Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans as well as the exacerbation of the existing xenophobia towards Nicaraguans in Costa Rica.
“This pandemic forces us to distinguish public health from xenophobia and we realize, that for one part, we require the prevention of the contagion derived from the enormous irresponsibility from behalf of [Nicaraguan president] Daniel Ortega,” Sandoval says.
“But on the other hand, the daily newspaper La Nación, said that we need 74,000 Nicaraguan workers,” Sandoval says. “The greatest challenge is to recognize that as a society and an economy in Costa Rica, we need them. The greatest irony we live in is that what is rejected is at the same time indispensable.”
That interdependence between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans that Sandoval describes is evident for him in the binational families in Costa Rica.
“In economic terms there’s no doubt about the interdependence and there are thousands of binational families,” Sandoval says. “There are thousands of Costa Ricans who are sons and daughters of Nicaraguans, and, we’re also united by our geographies.”
These binational families that Sandoval talks about are very common amongst the community of La Carpio.
Such is the case for the 22 year-old Costa Rican Christopher Andrés Narváez Umaña, who is the son of two Nicaraguans living in La Carpio and a student at the SIFAIS Fab Lab, the first small scale laboratory of digital fabrication in a Latin American slum.
VIDEO: Watch the short documentary THE MAKER.
“The great irony is that we’re united in different ways and simultaneously we try to separate from each other,” says Sandoval.
This union that Sandoval mentions is something that Marisol Quezada, a Nicaraguan woman who migrated to Costa Rica 20 years ago and the founder of the SIFAIS Entre Costuras sewing business, would like to see happen in Costa Rica during the pandemic.
“Imagine if we were more united. We’d beat this,” Quezada says. “We have to be like ants. Ants work together united. So, we have to all work, both Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans. We have to work as brother nations.”
For Quezada this sense of union is a result of her becoming fond of Costa Rica after 20 years of living in the country.
“I got separated from my son’s father and stayed here with my son in Costa Rica. I have a child born here who is now 13 or 14 years old,” Quezada says.
She now feels that she has two overwhelming feelings while living through the pandemic in Costa Rica.
“How can I tell you? I have two feelings: one is that I have my relatives in Nicaragua and the other one is that I have my Costa Rican son,” Quezada says.
“Imagine if one of my relatives dies in this moment in Nicaragua. What do I do? I can’t get out [of the country] through air, land or sea,” Quezada says. “So you live with that thing in your heart; God please don’t be one of mine.”
Along with Quezada’s concern of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in her home country of Nicaragua, researcher Sandoval worries that their actions might be of interest to the International Crime Court.
“The [Nicaraguan] government is encouraging big congregations where there’s more risk of contagion,” says Sandoval. “I think it’s a crime against humanity that should be of interest for the International Crime Court.”
“I don’t know if it would be possible, but I believe that there are elements to say there’s something super serious going on,” Sandoval says. “So serious that we don’t even know how many people have died because of COVID-19 in Nicaragua.”
With that growing concern, Avilés identifies the seriousness and responsibility of taking care of herself and following the instructions given by the health authorities.
“You have to take care of yourself. If not, you’ll die,” Avilés says. “This is not a game and you listen to all of the news in all the countries. So I’m scared this can get out of control.”
And that fear that she has is something she identifies as a global concern.
“The virus is everywhere. It’s on a global level. It’s not because the Nicaraguan government had the irresponsibility, and I accept it as a Nicaraguan, of not knowing how to handle it,” says Avilés.
But that fear in Avilés turns into a desire of hope for the world.
“I hope that there’ll be a more human orientation towards health for all of us inhabitants in any part of the world so that we can live with it,” says Avilés.
As for Quezada, she believes everyone should love their neighbors.
“Whatever the religion we come from, I think we have to comply with a commandment,” says Quezada. “Whatever the religion, we should love our neighbors. Because black, white or whatever [skin] color or country, they’re our neighbors.”
With that in mind, Sandoval mentions the importance of the interdependence between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
“Something that this pandemic forces us to recognize is that we’re profoundly interdependent. That no one can move on by themselves,” Sandoval says.
And that is why this is Costa Nica.