San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Multimedia Exhibit Examines Migration

10,270 (Panamanians in Costa Rica)! 14,515 (Salvadorans in Guatemala)! 226,374 (Nicaraguans in Costa Rica)! With numbers glaring from billboards, bus stops and the walls of the National Museum, a Dutch anthropologist and a German architect hope to provoke a Costa Rican discussion about three percent of the world’s population: migrants.

“We try to show the migrant’s view,” said anthropologist Marije van Lidth de Jeude of the A-Foundation, which has a multimedia exhibit entitled “Migración y Desarrollo Urbano” (“Migration and Urban Development”) on display at the National Museum in San José through Oct. 29. Most of the art is tied to statistics; all of it touches the broad theme of migration and urban development.

“People coming, people moving – that’s world history,” said architect Oliver Schütte.

He and van Lidth, founders of the AFoundation, show a Central American slice of this history through photographs, films, audio clips, written documents, maps and moving LED lights.

Besides the museum exhibit, which opened on Latin America’s Day of the Migrant, Sept. 3, the foundation is launching a “street museum” – billboards, posters on moving vehicles and 66 glassed-in posters in public spots around the city.

On Avenida 2, above a spray-painted Martin Luther King quotation followed by “No TLC!”, workers on a ladder against the former fortress, now museum, hung a 20-foot photo of a woman from the Kuna Yala islands in Panama. Inside, a handful of people wandered quietly about the two rooms, looking at “headlines” on the walls, at short documentary videos, at slide shows of maps and photos. A pair of headphones hung on a peg; listeners could partake from a loop of 27 Spanish-language monologues and interviews between two and 25 minutes long.

Divided between “Migration” and “Urban Development,” the slides included some great photographs from the A-Foundation and by Piet den Blanken, Edgar Cleijne and Tico Times photographer Mónica Quesada.

The contexts and attributions, however, were hard to place. The maps and photos quickly treated the economics and life of migrants and refugees on a world scale, which sometimes went unfocused beyond its background-setting role and confused the exhibit’s sharpest feature: the differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and what it’s like to migrate in the region.

With an arsenal of statistics and a load of personal interviews, photos and videos, van Lidth and Schütte tried to combine objective data with oral history.

“We sometimes have the two standing opposite and sometimes next to each other,” van Lidth said.

They wanted to raise eyebrows, put some numbers and stories in the public’s face and let observers decide what’s going on. However, “everyone has a right to education and health care,” she said, something her exhibit put in sharp contrast with reality.

Van Lidth, 33, who has been in Costa Rica four years, has studied migrant populations for the United Nations in Europe and Central America. Along with Schütte, 35, she helped relocate the Nicaraguan village of Sintiope on OmetepeIsland in 2002, which was in danger of mudslides from Concepción Volcano.

Schütte is an architect on commercial projects and teaches architecture in Texas, France and here in Costa Rica.He’s been here about a year and a half, working on projects from sustainable seaside communities to a Ferrari store outside of San José.

Costa Rica, with the lowest emigration rate on the isthmus, has a “selective attitude” toward immigration, Schütte said. It’s a miniature version of Europe, or a miniature United States, he said, where the prevailing attitude toward foreigners, especially illegal ones, fluctuates between “they take what’s ours” and “we need them to work.” As with Latinos in the United States, Nicaraguans in Costa Rica often work as construction workers, maids and farmhands.

The housing development where van Lidth and Schütte live together in Curridabat, east of San José, shows a social phenomenon Schütte said is typical of Costa Rica in regard to some wealthy people’s fear of Nicaraguans.

“They move out, fence themselves in, then have themselves covered by what they moved away from,” he said, explaining that many of the development’s guards are from Nicaragua. This high-fence pattern holds in some Pacific-coast resort communities that are owned mostly by North Americans.

Schütte said communities of Nicaraguan workers live outside the fence of places such as LosSueñosMarriottOcean and Golf Resort in Playa Herradura, on the central Pacific coast.

Each month Nicaraguans in Costa Rica send $68 per household back to Nicaragua, which is 27% of their income here, according to the A-Foundation’s museum exhibit.

The number of Nicas here has stabilized since 2000 at about 300,000, contrary to popular estimates of 1 million, van Lidth said. In Costa Rica, 17% of the country doesn’t have health insurance, while in Nicaragua, 92% goes without. Five percent of Costa Ricans are malnourished, compared to 29% in Nicaragua. Infant mortality rates are nine per 1,000 compared to 36 per 1,000, respectively.

The exhibit includes plenty of relevant photos, and an appropriate quotation from an anonymous favela resident of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: “One has to be an artist to live as poor person: you have to imagine space where there is none.”

The museum, open every day except Monday, is on Calle 17 between Avenidas Central and 2. Entrance fees are ¢500 (about $1) for Costa Ricans and $4 for foreigners. For information, call 257-1433.

For more info about the A-Foundation, visit or e-mail


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