Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 351 | Octubre 2010



When the Youngest Emigrate

Migration always has a transforming potential, which also holds true for children and adolescents who both suffer and learn from the change. Some decide for themselves and others go with their elders. We don’t yet know the contribution child and adolescent emigrants are already making by introducing remittances, ideas and new visions of the world into their communities of origin as well as the communities where they end up. The following provides certain pointers to a subject that requires greater research.

José Luis Rocha

Nicaraguan emigration also has the face of adolescents and children: 24% of our total emigrants are under 18, according to the country’s 2005 Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS). The demographic weight of that age range among emigrants is a lot higher than its weight in the national population—more than double. Nicaragua in the Diaspora has an even more adolescent face than non-migrating Nicaragua. This gives its emigrants young legs to withstand the journey’s vicissitudes and hands to work tenaciously in the countries of destination.

Let’s not view them as passive victims

Human mobility is explained by the dialectic between structural forces and individual decisions. Although emigration cannot be disassociated from the big social and economic processes, it would be a mistake to suppose that emigrants are passive in the face of irresistible macro-forces that push them to move. On the contrary, the determination to emigrate must be recognized as an expression of human development if we bear in mind that people need at least a minimum level of vital and economic resources, information, social networks, and generational and gender emancipation to be able to make such a decision. That decision to move turns them into a potential force for structural change because it can alter the social and economic conditions in the societies, countries and regions of both origin and destination. Through the mere act of emigrating, these young people change their lives: their access to social, economic and human resources.

Presenting emigration as a net effect of the violence of the system portrays emigrants as victims and conceals their determination. This false idea is based on the supposition that the original space should be the best and that displacements are only authentically free and beneficial if they lead from “good” to “better.” But the experience of emigrants is not so straightforward. Substituting “good” for “better” is a scenario that doesn’t correspond to the experiences of the emigrant Nicaraguan youth. Maybe for this reason analysts of migratory processes now tend to refer to different degrees of restrictions, with increasingly less distinction between voluntary and forced migrations.

In the stories they shared with us, the emigrant adolescents and children we interviewed referred to negative events that pushed them towards the decision to emigrate, but also to the strength of their decisions, their desire to transform their lives. Frequently these events interweave in their search to make sense of their decision. For the lack of better terms, we’ll refer to the most clearly external forces as “compulsive factors” and to the internal forces that reveal the determination of the migrant adolescents and children as “impulsive factors.” When they talk about their experiences, the compulsive factors sometimes mask the impulsive ones, which appear as a diluted, less explicit backdrop.

What makes them decide?

Economic problems and debts have an enormous weight in the decision to emigrate and were repeatedly alluded to: “In my case,” recalls 18-year-old José Lugo from Estelí, whose mother lives in Costa Rica, “my mother lost the house because of problems with the bank and had to go to Costa Rica looking for a life and a family.” Emotional experiences also trigger the decision. Sixteen-year-old Daniela Alfaro from Chinandega remembers her mother’s decision as a mixture of economic problems and marital tension: “My dad asked my mom who she was going to see. She was going to meet a money lender to make payments on a debt. They had a lot of fights. So she decided it was better to leave.”

A divorce or the start of a relationship represent crossroads where people can change the direction of their life. But the factor that detonates the change is not always a liberating mechanism. In some cases girls decide between assuming a subordinated role or emigrating to escape stereotyped gender roles, while for others emigration is just the confirmation of mother-wife captivity, a cultural mortgage, as in the case of an adolescent girl who goes to accompany her husband—the one who makes the decision. This is what happened to Marcia Madrigal when she emigrated for the first time at age 15.

Invitations from relatives, information, networks and the demonstration effect of those who migrated before play a role in the impulse. José Concepción Coronel from Las Azucenas in San Carlos has been migrating for six years. The first time, “A cousin of mine in Costa Rica said to me, ‘Let’s go there to work, things’ll go better for you over there. I took the risk and went with him. He had a little house over there and we worked. I placed my trust in my cousin’s confidence because he was doing alright and I saw that he’d changed. ‘Hey,’ I thought, ‘if things are going well for him…’” José Concepción had to overcome fears and prejudices as he made the decision: “I had doubts. I got scared when my mother told me I might get killed. You know that when you leave your country there’s a chance you might not come back. It’s a decision you make out of need, trusting that God will help your family push ahead.”

The migratory experiences of 13- to 17-year-olds—particularly girls—tend to involve their parents making the decision. The reason this is so generalized is offered by Róger Valle, an 18-year-old from the island of Ometepe: “I don’t think anyone can decide for themselves, because we’re all being supported and we don’t have a career to follow…” But the experience of Jahaciela Barrera Álvarez contradicts this theory. At age 17 she broke with the patriarchal regime through an economic emancipation that freed her from her condition of “child under parental authority”: “I didn’t want to study accounting. I always said I wanted to be a journalist, but they enrolled me for first year accounting at the university. I didn’t want that; it wasn’t my thing. We clashed, so I decided to stay in Costa Rica after a visit. My dad was annoyed with me because I was working. As I was earning my own money, he no longer had decision-making power; he didn’t have much authority over me. I’ve always liked the fact that if I want something I have to fight for it…” In this case, migration was an emancipating act.

Moved by external forces
and internal impulses

The objective of these emigrants, who are so young, and the way they made the decision may vary relative to the level of restriction and their position in the vital cycle. The migration of 13- to 17-year-old girls is often explained by the fact that they are accompanying emigrating parents or, when they have achieved independence, by early maternity. In 2005, 20% of the 15- to 19-year-old women had already had children, as did around 30% and 40%, respectively, of 18- and 19-year-olds. Although several years later the general birth rates have been successfully reduced, it hasn’t been possible to control early pregnancy. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (2008), most women between the ages of 15 and 19 have never used a contraceptive method (26.2%) or have used it only after having their first child (32.9%).

Compulsive factors include the economic crisis; debts; low salaries; unemployment; family pressure; lack of land, due to minifundization and insecurity regarding land tenure, which leads to it being sold; the desire to educate their children; and the demonstration effect of friends or relatives who have already gone.

The determination to emigrate is demonstrated in impulsive factors, in the reactions of young or older migrants who display ingenuity in the face of pressures from their surroundings: the desire to confront the crisis, a solution-seeking spirit, an attempt to escape some form of imposition, a desire to experience another life, the dissipation of prejudices about the countries of destination, facing up to fears, the desire to build a house, the determination to honor obligations by paying off a debt…

Taking the reins of their destiny

All of these elements break with their many forms of captivity and represent the overcoming of providentialism, identified as a characteristic absorbed by Nicaraguans’ idiosyncrasy since colonial times that persists to the present day, conditioning politics and personal life to an omnipotent deity that controls the threads of our destiny. It is notable that the interviewees made very few references to God as the shaper of destiny. The decision to migrate could also be interpreted as a rupture with the fatalism that considers the status quo a situation not subject to transformation.

Migrants take the reins of their own destiny, making use of the freedom not only to decide how to employ their capacities, but also to choose where they want to and can use them. A person’s capacities depend on social arrangements, which are crucial for individual liberties, so migrants move and settle in a new setting where such social arrangements are more favorable to the efficient deployment of their capacities.

The national labor market has become a form of captivity for them because “they’re not doing anything” there, as the young people tend to repeat. Perhaps it’s only those most sensitive to their oppressively narrow horizons, the restriction of liberties, the short-circuit between schooling and the labor market who emigrate. They abandon their studies and leave when it is evident that studies don’t amount to a way to trigger the chain of liberties. In short, emigrating allows them to flee privation and approach the kind of individual opportunities that increase freedom and eliminate privation.

The “Nicaraguanizing” of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the country of destination for 53% of Nicaraguan migrants and is one of the Latin American countries with the highest percentage of immigrants: 7.8% of the total population according to the country’s 2000 census. Nicaraguans represent 76.4% of that group and totaled 226,374 in 2008. Costa Rica is being “Nicaraguanized” not only due to the effect of the new waves of Nicaraguan migrants, but also to the fertility of those already living there: 3.1% of the total births in Costa Rica in 1986 were to Nicaraguan mothers, a figure that had risen to 13.9% by 2001. This is due in part to the composition of the female population pyramid in that country, where Nicaraguan women of a fertile age have a greater weight than Costa Rican ones.

According to the 2000 Census, 45.4% of Nicaraguan immigrants were in the 12-29 age group in Costa Rica, with 16.1% between 12 and 19 and 29.3% between 20 and 29. This last age range reflects a marked contrast with the 15.9% recorded for Costa Rican natives. Nicaraguan migration was rejuvenated between 1997 and 1999 when Nicaraguans under the age of 12 increased from 11.4% to 16.1% of the total Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, while the 12-19 group increased from 13.5% to 19%.

The adolescent and child immigrant population tends to be concentrated in urban communities (58%), despite the fact that the greatest percentage of immigrants in Costa Rica with recent residency lives in rural areas (65%). The opportunities for domestic work and construction work are magnets for immigrants, but so is the desire to combine work and study, which is easier to achieve in the cities.

Where and how do Nicaraguans live?

The characteristics of Nicaraguan houses in urban areas of Costa Rica reveal them to be inferior to Costa Rican houses. According to estimates from the housing census of 2000, overcrowding, lack of connection to the sewerage system, the absence of indoor plumbing, and the bad state and style of the house-hovel are characteristics more present in houses with a Nicaraguan head of household than a Costa Rican one.

The official analysis insists that although there is spatial segregation—understood as barrios where natives don’t want to live—this is moderate to low in dimension and therefore very similar to what Latin Americans suffer in the United States. “White flight”—which alludes to the progressive abandonment by white families of neighborhoods or populations with a growing presence of other ethnic groups—implied the flight of almost a million whites from southern California in the mid-nineties. There is currently a tropicalized version in the “Nicaraguanization” of Costa Rican zones and barrios such as La Carpio, Rincón Grande, Garabito de León XIII and Tirrases.

But important differences can be detected in housing conditions even in Costa Rica’s most “Nicaraguanized” barrios. FLACSO-Costa Rica found that even in six informal settlements of the capital city of San José the immigrant condition embosses a bias of socio-spatial segregation that is prejudicial to the Nicaraguan population.

Only 9% of the households headed by a Nicaraguan have homeowner deeds, a form of security enjoyed by 13.5% of those headed by a Costa Rican. Meanwhile, 20.5% of households headed by a Nicaraguan are considered squatter households, as opposed to 13.7% of those headed by a Costa Rican. Housing quality is good for 31% of households headed by a Costa Rican, compared to 20% of those headed by a Nicaraguan, while the percentages with “terrible” housing conditions are inverted at 28.5% for Costa Rican heads of household and 37.2% for Nicaraguans, with 17.4% of houses headed by Nicaraguans requiring replacement or demolition, an extreme condition that affects only 10% of houses headed by Costa Ricans. Severe overcrowding affects 18.6% of Nicaraguan households and only 12% of Costa Rican ones, with similar percentages (20.6% and 12.7%, respectively) holding for lack of housing.

Other indicators, however, such as employment, insurance coverage and extreme poverty, show Nicaraguans at the same level as or even better off than their Costa Rican neighbors. This could be due to two factors: the greater weight of social segregation over segregation due to national origin and a presumed tendency of Nicaraguan immigrants to invest less in houses that might be temporary or not definitive. In fact, a great proportion of Nicaraguans—particularly young people who migrate alone—lodge in cheap boarding houses or precarious constructions classified as hovels.

Do they have other opportunities?

The location and state of the housing implies costs that dangerously affect children and adolescents, with mothers from barrios where Nicaraguans live concerned about La Carpio’s proximity to a garbage dump site; the existence in Barrio Nuevo of a steep slope next to a river that schoolchildren have to cross to attend classes; the prolifera¬tion of underground bars; and the use and sale of drugs.

Other social opportunities are conditions that individuals can use to mold their destiny. Like any other society, Costa Rica offers opportunities that are socially stratified and generationally skewed, with a gender imbalance and nationalist segregation. For immigrants, the nationalist segregation is the most novel form of discrimination and the basis of many concerns. It is expressed in the lack of documentation and the reactions of society. In short, it is expressed in the relationship with the State and society. In both relationships, “segregation is the ‘necessary’ opposite of integration,” because, as Carlos Sandoval has analyzed, Costa Rican society has a long history of building its national identity in counterposition to stereotypes of Nicaraguans.

The burdensome label of “illegal”

It is estimated that at least 27.6% of the adolescent Nicaraguan population living in Costa Rica is undocumented. The problems with documentation start in Nicaragua, where many adolescents and children do not have their births registered or possess an identity card.

Alma Iris Mendoza, the sister of two migrants and wife of a migrant who shuttles back and forth to Costa Rica, commented that “we don’t have a birth certificate. We haven’t applied for one because if I do I have to spend money. I have two more siblings who don’t have an identity card: my sister who’s in El Salvador and my 17-year-old brother. They aren’t registered and don’t have ID cards. My mother never went to register us, but I don’t blame her because she was father and mother to us—I don’t reproach her at all.”

Documentation is legal insertion. Paniagua rightly states that in the symbolic construction of “illegality,” this tends to be linked to ideas of immorality and amorality, criminality (outside the law), danger, contamination, dirtiness. He explains that an idea of suspicion and distrust is built up around these people that is present in their everyday treatment.

Non-documentation, the label of “illegal” and a series of discriminations go hand in hand. Nicaraguan Marta Rapacciolli experienced it in the following way: “You’re not worth anything if you don’t have an identity card. They say, ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t do anything,’ as if you were a dog. We’re not worth anything here without documents.” There is an overwhelming feeling of being disempowered.

One extreme situation is that of minors not registered in any country, which is a violation of their right to identity. They are stateless. A recent research study in communities on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border revealed that 38.5% of children and adolescents aren’t registered in either country. For those born in Nicaragua, difficulties with registering are associated with our country’s complex registry procedure, the geographical distances involved and home births.

Non-inscription in the Costa Rican Civil Registry is associated with the non-documentation of the mothers, who fear being deported or being charged for the medical services related to childbirth. According to Masís and Paniagua “the deficiencies in the health institutions are also a reason for people not registering. The personnel responsible for this task are not continuously present and people have to return days after leaving hospital to go through the registry process, but the staff refuse to register Nicaraguans.”

Being stateless frequently deprives people of access to services and a declaration sworn before a notary public must be presented for unregistered children transferring from one school to another, which represents a considerable investment of money. The costs truncate many ideas about obtaining documentation, as does the lack of information on documentation processes, which provides fertile ground for swindlers. Stateless people are at the top of the pile of those disempowered and deprived of liberties.

The bondage of non-documentation is passed from one generation to another, depriving children of the right to identity and all the other rights to which they would be entitled as Costa Rican citizens. That is why some mothers urgently try to document their children before they turn 18, which is the legal limit for this process, in order to bequeath something that allows them to enjoy rights that open the door to better living conditions.

Non-documentation affects different age groups in different ways. Young people between the ages of 15 and 17 mentioned obtaining their identity card as the only problem in this respect, while 18- to 24-year-olds are mainly interested in labor-related matters and pay less attention to documents and 25- to 29-year-olds are concerned about difficulties related to the use of and access to social security.

The weight of xenophobia

Discrimination is one of the variants in the settlement processes for Nicaraguan youth in Costa Rica. Learning about new expressions, accents, words, places and people is not always a personally, socially and culturally enriching experience. As an identity-providing mechanism, language generates nationalist self-affirmation and xenophobic segregation. Marta Rapacciolli from San José’s Barrio Nuevo commented on her children’s experiences in the country in ruefully: “They were upset because basically they didn’t know about things here. They felt embarrassed. They couldn’t go shopping. In Nicaragua you ask for things in a different way, even if they’re the same things. They couldn’t do it. Some people in the corner store laughed at them, mocked them… Over there you ask for a kilo, not a pound… they’re things you don’t know how to say.”

The mocking and discrimination forced Katia Carrión to give up friendships and the limited arenas for interaction in the community where she lives. She has painful memories of the words “stinking Nicas” that she often heard. Clara Pellas of San Julián also has unpleasant memories: “One lady here even wanted to kill me. She didn’t like me. She was filled with rage and I was just a kid. She made my life impossible because I was a Nica and she was a Tica (Costa Rican). She didn’t like Nicas and said that Nica women were just big sluts.”

See you in the park!

Migrants have chosen a double-edged strategy to mitigate and evade the kind of confrontations that demolish self-esteem: they set up links between their country of origin and the country of destination, polish up information channels, cultivate fluid communications, establish a vigorous exchange of services and settle where there are more Nicaraguans and possibilities to organize a neighborly coexistence with greater freedom and less day-to-day friction.

The positive side of this phenomenon has been studied as the building of networks, those structures for interaction and survival that facilitate socio-cultural integration among Nicaraguans in the new country and between it and Nicaragua. They facilitate labor incorporation, the transfer of packages, and lodging. And they fill social and institutional vacuums, provide social action and mediation functions, and play an important service provision and risk mitigation role.

Recognizing themselves collectively as a group apart from “the others,” their desire to survive in an alien world and the positive valuation of solidarity have crystallized in La Merced Park in San José, which has become a hub of symbolic, economic and social constructions where Nicaraguan-ness converges in favorite foods, labor contacts and conversations full of remembrances.

The other edge to this strategy—which stresses both integration among Nicaraguans and overlooking interaction with Costa Ricans—is the creation of an exophobic ghetto. A research study of Nicaraguan and Costa Rican schoolchildren revealed that 42% of those interviewed—both Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans—related exclusively with people of their own nationality. This alarming figure suggests that in all probability an important proportion of Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans are dominated by the most primitive form of chauvinism, which tends to lead to both residential segregation and self-segregation.

However, this situation is quite variable. In the first place, migrants who arrived very young and soon assimilated the Costa Rican vocabulary or don’t even remember the transition period tend to have fewer integration problems. This differentiation points to a very marked contrast between establishing oneself in Costa Rica or in other more recent migratory destinations, where settlement is predominantly temporary. The experiences of Nicaraguan migrants who have returned from Costa Rica are noticeably more positive than those of people in Guatemala or El Salvador.

Do Nicaraguan children
study in Costa Rica?

The projects of emigrant youth can vary as they approach adulthood or acquire commitments related to fatherhood, motherhood or partners. According to Yader Cardenal, a 16-year-old Nicaraguan, adult migration is different from youth migration because, among other things, “adults have the single objective of working, while young people include studying as part of their project when they migrate.”

According to the 2001 LSMS, 100% of Nicaraguans between the ages of 13 and 17 who were in Costa Rica at the time the survey was applied were studying. That proportion drops to 54.2% and 6.4% in the 18-24 and 25-29 age ranges. Young people originally from Managua in those same age ranges produced the highest levels in this respect (69.2% and 9.5%, respectively), while the lowest levels corresponded to young people originally from Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast (25.4% and 0%). Those who emigrate from Chinandega and León, probably from rural areas, travel with the urgent need to earn a living and support family members. For them, the doors have closed on education and the better opportunities it would provide.

The statistics on schooling in Costa Rica do not show a clear bias excluding migrants in that country’s education system... at least not at the basic levels. The proportion of the population over age 15 that knows how to read and write is 88% among people born in Nicaragua and 95% among those born in Costa Rica. The average schooling is 5.6 years for Nicaraguans and 7.5 for Costa Ricans. These differences—which in any case are not excessive—can be attributed to access to education before migration.

However, there are problematic aspects related to the school insertion of Nicaraguans that could have a medium-term impact and are symptomatic of disempowerment. Non-attendance and a schooling lag among 7- to 17-year-olds affect 25.3% of households headed by a Nicaraguan and only 14.6% of those headed by a Costa Rican. In households headed by a female Nicaraguan that figure reaches 28.1%, possibly because certain girls and adolescents have to take on domestic chores while their mothers are out working.

What happens to
Nicaraguans at school?

Internet use is another sphere in which inequalities are accentuated, with 88% of young Nicaraguans saying that they never use it as a means of communication, compared to 64% of young Costa Ricans. The Nicaraguan oral culture doesn’t encourage the use of other communication media, while limited access to information technology resources and an educational history less familiarized with new technologies also have an influence here.

Some analysts have denounced problems in the schools attended by Nicaraguan students, including overcrowding; insufficient infrastructure, equipment and didactic materials; over-age students and a lower level of knowledge; technical difficulties in attending to a group of students with different pedagogical needs; and attitudes of intolerance and use of nationality stereotypes. Also, the insertion of Nicaraguan migrant students is affected by a gap between the quality of education in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which is negatively evaluated to the point that many children and young people are forced to repeat grades, which demotivates them and encourages them to drop out.

Other analysts stress the symbolic borders placed in front of Nicaraguan immigrants in the Costa Rican educational sphere that make it hard for them to exercise their rights, incorporate into society and develop their potential. Such borders include exclusion due to the lack of documents, the xenophobia of classmates and teachers, and educational contents limited to a history, vision and culture considered “Costa Rican.”

The Costa Rican education system has taken important steps towards equity. A decade ago, it refused to give scholarships to Nicaraguans on the grounds that they shouldn’t be given to foreigners. In 1999, one school director took a case to the Constitutional Court, which established that nationality is an illegitimate condition for exclusion when granting scholarships.

What do they feel
when they emigrate?

The socio-emotional development of Nicaraguan children, adolescents and youth in Costa Rica has not received the attention it deserves. It has only been studied in academic monographs that do not reach public opinion. However, we can explore certain issues here.

The first is the constellation of alternatives related to the milestone decision to emigrate: self-determination versus imposition, maturing of options versus sudden journey, emancipating opportunity versus continual subordination to patriarchal control, desired family reunification versus forced reunification of a disintegrated family.

A 2002 International Labour Organization study found that 77% of minors up to the age of 18 emigrate to reunite with their mother. Six years later, 65.7% of young Nicaraguans interviewed in the Costa Rican National Youth Survey said that the decision to emigrate to Costa Rica was a family decision and 33.4% that it was an individual decision.

“A family decision” included different levels of active participation and passive subordination, in which adolescents tend to have less decision-making participation. In many cases, the parents migrate first and the migration of adolescents is frequently part of a family reunification project. This tendency has increased over time, according to the Costa Rican National Census: the head of household’s children/stepchildren and grandchildren who entered the country in 1995-2000 represented 48.3% and 58.4%, respectively, of the total number of immigrants with those family relationships, which is much higher than the 39.5% average for the total immigration in that period relative to the total number of Nicaraguan immigrants.

Certain family reunification experiences are comforting: seeing one’s father, mother or siblings again gives a sense of meaning to the change of country and is empowering when it forms part of deeper desires. Other reunions are traumatic and make those suffering them feel impotent. Carmen Sacasa, who is now 14 years old, lived with her grandmother and was sleeping when her mother came to find her to take her to Costa Rica: “My grandma came to wake me up and I asked her, ‘Who’s that lady who’s come here?’ And she said, ‘It’s your mother.’ And I told her, ‘I don’t know her; I don’t know who she is.’ The following day my mom said, ‘Get your things ready, we’re going. ‘What? What? I’m not leaving here. You won’t get me down from here,’ I said from up in a tamarind tree. ‘Nobody’s getting me down from here! Not even St. Theresa!’ Then my grandma said, ‘She’s your mother; she’s going to take you to Costa Rica.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to go to Costa Rica. I live here and I’m not leaving here.’ ‘Get down from there, you’re going to fall,’ they told me. And I replied, ‘Even better! If I fall and die, better, still. Then I don’t have to go with either of you!”

What’s it like living
somewhere you weren’t born?

The information provided to minors about the change and transit they must face is a key element. Generally, the adults aren’t capable of providing an explanation that makes sense of and mitigates the anxiety generated by the change. This incapacity, negligence or insensitivity does not help the minors understand, digest and emotionally prepare themselves to face up to the new situation.

Many adolescent migrants experience from an early age what Néstor García Canclini calls the dramatic scissions of people who live somewhere that they weren’t born; in other words, the abrupt rupture with an environment, style of life, friends and family links that provide security and a not always digestible encounter with other ways, words and people.

Certainly, migration and the adaptation period are very different following a process in which the decision is the fruit of maturing and the exercise of liberty. The involuntariness of the migratory process stands out among children under parental authority, who are allowed very limited autonomy, and among girls whose parents and partners sent for them.

Involuntariness does not always carry a negative charge. For children displaced at an early age whose memories of Nicaragua are blurred or nonexistent, the references to “their country of origin” have a lot less weight and are clearly mediated by family references. They do not perceive themselves as migrants: “When we came to Costa Rica I hadn’t opened my eyes yet,” says Mario Chamorro, a boy who lives in Río Torres. So whether the insertion is more or less positive is a variable that depends on the age of arrival.

According to detailed studies by Lobo and Rodríguez, migrants who arrived when they were very small or even babies, “have a more favorable opinion of most aspects experienced by migrants in the country; they feel closer to Costa Rican culture and feel themselves to be Costa Rican citizens; the only thing that makes them stay in contact with Nicaragua is their parents and other relatives, although many don’t even have memories of the country, let alone the customs over there. This group states that it doesn’t see major differences between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans. They say that they don’t like Nicaragua, or at least it doesn’t interest them. They state that all of their friends are in Costa Rica and that their links to this country are much stronger.”

These children find a much smoother path to their assimilation. Their adolescence and youth are less cut up by the dichotomies of being from here or there, although in no few cases the people surrounding them make them feel as though they are not fully Nicaraguan or totally Costa Rican. The State and its official recognition play an important role for this generation, which is halfway between migrants and the children of migrants. The State can accelerate recognition of their citizenship, encourage their educational insertion and prioritize their labor insertion.

In contrast, those who migrate as adolescents or young adults have more relations with Nicaragua and often bitterly criticize the burning pain caused by their obstacle-strewn insertion. They demonstrate a very marked pride in being Nicaraguan and a desire to return. Lobo and Rodríguez observed that “they try to express their identity without fear and without caring about the mockery.” The early-age migration group and the group that migrates in adolescence present two extreme reactions: total assimilation vs. exophobia.

Fragments of Nicaragua
that provide security

Another issue is the trauma of the journey as an introduction to a new national community. Sixteen-year-old Kristina Argüello commented on her experience of coming across some police when going with her father and sisters to Costa Rica: “We were coming through the bush, the mountain, crossing rivers, as illegals. We came across some fruit trees and climbed up. It was pretty. But when some trucks passed, we hid. And the police got hold of us. There were more with my dad and us, and they sent them back. There were three of us and we cried and told them my mom was waiting for us there.”

Once they have crossed the border and established themselves in Costa Rican communities, adolescents and children experience discrimination that creates a contradiction in the construction of their identity. They have to adopt other ways of expressing themselves to be accepted, but long for everything left on the other side of the border: friends, family members, teachers, habits, pets, words, tastes, places… Many young people in Costa Rica try to reproduce scenarios, foods and festivities to activate a process of empowering their national identity. The celebration of La Purísima (The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) on December 7, the deliberate public use of characteristically Nicaraguan vocabulary, and the sale of typical foods such as vigorón and nacatamales in La Merced Park are all ways to insert their Nica identity.

These are fragments of Nicaragua imbedded in the Costa Rican mosaic, acts that mitigate anxiety and provide security and rootedness. They are an empowerment of the national identity on foreign soil. And they are also an appropriation of the public space.

Like therapy

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was a beach head for the Irish arriving in the United States, taken by an outsider community subordinated to the natives. That cathedral is currently updating the same role to benefit another migratory wave, an image of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe being placed next to the main altar. New migrants introduce their symbols, which the ecclesiastic hierarchy admits in order to continue being a living church, full of the faithful. In Costa Rica the celebration of La Purísima and La Merced Park play a similar role as the sources—which have a double religious-commercial, sacred-secular nature—of the rehabilitation of an identity with many prohibited aspects.

The socio-emotional conflicts thus achieve a collective therapeutic treatment in the public arena. The prohibited is redeemed and empowered when a subordinated minority becomes an agent through the construction of solidarity networks. And these networks and identity insertions are, at the same time, both the shaper and the raw material in the “processes through which we imaginatively represent and establish the social side of things.”

The rights to represent social aspects and insert identities are harder to take away. Minority groups can resort to them to underpin their version of things, introduce themselves and, based on that, orient their dialogue with others. The right to decide what to represent as the “imagined community” and how to represent it forms the foundation for the establishment of other rights.

Deportation: When there are no rights

Deportation is the event in which the migrant’s decision-making and self-determination are completely absent. During the deportation processes, the migrants’ human rights suffer the hardest blows dealt by the State. Generally speaking, there’s no personalized attention, those without any documents aren’t provided a provisional one for the deportation process, and there’s no efficient human rights monitoring during their capture and retention.

A considerable flow of repatriates arrive in Nicaragua from Costa Rica. In 2008, a total of 12,737 (69% male and 31% female) entered through the San Carlos migration delegation in the department of Río San Juan. Most were registered with the status of “rejected,” which has less severe implications than “deported.” These statistics allow us to know the approximate weight of minors and young people. According to figures from the San Carlos Migration and Aliens Delegation, 22% of those rejected were 18 or under and 47% were between 19 and 30 years old. Most rejections took place between December and March.

From September 2008 to the first half of July 2009, the Human Mobility Pastoral’s shelter in San Carlos registered the transit of 436 deportees: 100 females and 336 males. Of this total, 58% were adolescents and young people, with 9% of them 13- to 17-year-olds, 31% of them 18- to 24-year-olds and 18% of them 25- to 29-year-olds. The human rights abuses most mentioned were the separation of minors from their parents, the deportation of residents who weren’t carrying their identity document when detained, police maltreatment such as insults and blows, extortion by the authorities, and not being allowed to recover possessions or wages before having to leave the country.

A total of 9.6% of those who passed through the shelter were detained in the same cell as other family members. There were many uncles who travelled with their nephews, grandparents who went with their grandchildren, and adolescents with their parents, three times more with mothers than with fathers. Fifteen percent of those who passed through the shelter in the last year were legally underage, but these children and adolescents were detained in Costa Rica without receiving any assistance from the officials responsible for protecting minors and then confined to the same cells as the adults. There were no special cells for them, as established in article 17 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families.

No borders in the drawings

How do the adolescents and children experience the rejection implied by deportation? In a series of workshops, we asked them to express their feelings graphically. They drew paths joining two houses located at two extremes: one gray and the other multi-colored. Sometimes there were flowers along the paths. Sometimes the houses had signs, one called Costa Rica and the other Nicaragua. The latter is bigger, on a higher level and is inhabited. The former is empty, an abandoned house. The Costa Rican environments are more urban, with bakers, buses and churches, while the Nicaraguan ones are rural, with trees, wells and wild animals. Those who can write imprint their memories: “When I was in Costa Rica it was very happy. The water came out cold.” None of the drawings showed a border.

We asked them to narrate their experiences, to write letters to the Presidents or parliamentary representatives telling them how they felt. Sending a letter to Costa Rican President Óscar Arias was the favorite option. One 16-year-old, Yahaira Kelly Ortega from Bluefields, explained her experiences on the day she was repatriated: “February 7, 2009. The reason I went to Costa Rica was to work, because the situation in Nicaragua is very bad. Please, President Óscar Arias, I also wanted to have the opportunity to study and I’m going to work to help my mom, because she’s a single mother. She has three very small children, is very sick, and I’m going to help her as she saved up for me.”

“I like Costa Rica”

Yahaira’s cousin also left her message, thinking about returning: “February 7, 2009. Hello Óscar Arias. My name is Sandra Marina Kelly González. I’m 13 years old. I’m writing to tell you the following: I want you to help me get to Costa Rica because that city is very pretty. I’d like to go, but I can’t because of some problems. I like Costa Rica because it’s beautiful, the people are friendly and help other people. I’m writing to you from San Carlos in Nicaragua. Help me, please. Not long ago we traveled to Costa Rica, but were swindled by the people who took us. Costa Rica has very good jobs. Pardon my bad handwriting. Last year I was in second grade. This year I couldn’t study due to the journey. These are my words. Thank you. Sincerely, Sandra Marina Kelly.”

Another 14-year-old girl wrote: “February 7, 2009. My name is Yartiza Yamalin Ortega. I wish Óscar Arias the best. I’d like all immigrants to have the right to know other countries. As I’m one of them, I’d like to live in your nation. When we were on the way I prayed to God for all boys and girls to have human rights. And also the right to study and live. It hurt me having to leave my mom and my brothers and sisters. I wish immigrants all the best.”

With a slightly confident tone, these children addressed the most sensitive issues for migrants in transit and repatriates: exclusion, the economic motivations behind migration, the pain of separation from the family, the opportunities in Costa Rica verging on idealization, the right to migrate and the importance of documents, thus synthesizing the contents of the 1990 Convention.

So many obstacles
to “seeking a life”

The captivities that operate as expelling factors continue working to frustrate the reinsertion of returnees and the relations between migrants and family members. But the people who undertake this complex move of changing country—and sometimes language—also face specific captivities particular to their condition as migrants: lack of documentation, xenophobia and adaptation problems, criminal networks that kidnap and extort, discriminatory policies in the countries of destination, dealers in and offers of prostitution, employers who evade their obligations as bosses, and State entities with their negligence and bothersome processes…

Social networks; their own initiatives; the absorption of liberating elements from other cultures; and the desire to better themselves and “seek a life,” as those who emigrate frequently put it, all push them to break out of their many captivities. They “seek life” beyond the borders and transgress the limits imposed by nationalist logic. They escape nationalist captivity, but remain captive to other ogres or else fall into new bondages.

Although asking “Were you able to choose whether or not to migrate?” misses the point, one mustn’t lose sight of the different degrees of restriction and compulsion, the mixture of external compulsions and internal impulses, the rites of passage and the epidemic nature that are the driving forces behind migration.

The sorrows and contributions

Migration has a transforming potential. Through the mere act of emigrating, adolescents and children change their access to economic, social and human resources. They also face structural restrictions that limit their freedom and their possibilities of generating a structural change. The most recalcitrant nationalism is at the root of the problems of adaptation to the societies of destination. Xenophobia and racism block healthy socio-emotional development, community coexistence, and in short a form of social insertion that reaches beyond the conveniences of the economic model of the nation States that receive them.

Social cohesion can no longer be thought of in exclusively national terms. Regional and global agreements are essential for introducing elements of governance and humanity to the migratory flows.

The sorrows of being a migrant—discrimination, national inferiority complexes—and the sorrows of being related to a migrant—feelings of abandonment, family disintegration, ruptures and uprooting—add to the list in this multi-sorrow country of Nicaragua. However, the contribution made by adolescents and children in terms of remittances, ideas and visions is not recognized—mainly because it isn’t known. The cosmopolitanism of many of today’s young people as the result of being or having been emigrants may be having a positive impact on their communities of origin, which is an element that requires greater research.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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