San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Volunteers Build ‘Tico-Nica’ Cooperation

ON the morning of July 10th, sixteen Costa Rican university students – the “Tico-Nica Brigade” – headed toward the city of León, Nicaragua, to start work on five Habitat for Humanity construction sites that would one day house several destitute Nicaraguan families. As a member of the group, I had a deep desire to erase stereotypes and rivalries between our neighboring countries and felt moved to catch a first-hand glimpse of the reality experienced by the people who, in Costa Rica, are perceived as simply a huge flock of immigrants without faces, names or known backgrounds.The brigade was composed of students ages 18-23 from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), as well as Costa Ricans studying abroad in the United States. We came from a variety of majors, including engineering, journalism, psychology and international relations. For most of us, it was our first time in Nicaragua. Although most of us did not know each other, we were united by our desire to spend time during our vacations helping others, and we quickly became good friends during a week of hard work alongside local volunteers in León. We paid for all of our travel expense out of our own pockets, but also managed to raise more than $1,500 for the construction of more houses in León.“LAST year I had the opportunity to travel throughout Central America working on a micro-credit analysis for the Latin American-Caribbean regional office of Habitat for Humanity,” said Mauricio Artiñano, our group leader, regarding his personal motivation for organizing the project. “That trip gave me a lot to think about in terms of the lack of solidarity, communication and understanding that exists among Central Americans, particularly between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I therefore decided to organize a group of (fellow) Costa Ricans to travel to Nicaragua and do volunteer work, in order to expose them to the reality of our northern neighbor and to do my part to foster better relations between Ticos and Nicas.”Artiñano, a student at Tufts University in Boston, was part of the group of students that founded Costa Rica’s first student chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate inadequate housing and homelessness. He has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity’s regional office for the last two summers, and participated in building projects in El Salvador and Honduras, as well as in the Jimmy Carter Work Project in Mexico last year.THE “Tico-Nica” project was part of Habitat for Humanity’s international volunteer program, Global Village, which allows people to join volunteer brigades traveling to places all over the world. While many North Americans and Europeans routinely join Global Village brigades coming to Central America, there are very few volunteer exchanges between Central American nations. This gave Artiñano another reason to work with Habitat to organize a Costa Rican volunteer brigade to Nicaragua – the first Global Village brigade to travel from one country in Central America to another.“Although it’s great that so many people from abroad are willing to volunteer in our countries, I think we Central Americans also need to learn to help ourselves and each other, and it is my wish that projects like these will help build a closer, more united Central America,” Artinaño said.DURING the project, we all learned that a big step in erasing the existing mental boundaries between Central Americans is getting to know our neighbors and exploring their background to get a grasp on where they are coming from. By doing this, we can prevent the current xenophobic attitudes towards Nicaraguans and transform them into empathetic perspectives. I know that I am not the only one who felt closely bonded to the beneficiary families after we concluded our work.I hope that the Tica-Nica Brigade can send out this contagious message, confident that Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans are like brothers and sisters, and we Central Americans are the same people. The prejudices and fictional barriers that separate us can be overcome with brotherhood, solidarity, and humility – especially for Costa Ricans, who often consider themselves superior to other Central Americans.During our visit, we encountered a variety of poignant memories from the Sandinista revolution and the years of dictator Anastasio Somoza’s reign, evident in the desolate ruins of “El Fortín,” an old war jail we visited in León. We also found mixed feelings and opinions among Nicaraguans regarding previous governments’ legacies of corruption and social injustice, and testimonies about a menacing political future.But we always found hope, and we always found people who were brave enough to stand up and confront adversity. One of the young men who helped us during construction told us, “We cannot let politics stop us from being happy.” That phrase sums up the positive attitude with which many of the people we met deal with their day-to-day lives of precarious living conditions and dreams unfulfilled by the not so-glorious Sandinista illusions of social rewards.IN the midst of tears, thankful words and gestures during our last day on the construction sites with the beneficiary families, I was very glad I’d been able to go to León to learn about the history of my neighbors, take a look at their lives, have fun and at the same time be able to do something useful and helpful for others during my midyear vacations. It’s a wonderful experience that all the volunteers promised to repeat next year, hopefully joined by new recruits. We’ve acquired a solid social commitment with the Nicaraguan people; I’m sure that we all have a piece of Nicaragua in our hearts, and a special yearning for Central American unity that will help our people in the fight against poverty and injustice.(Adrián Aguilar, 19, of San José, is a first year journalism student at the University of Costa Rica.)

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