San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Mural Brings Home the Refugee Experience

Natalia Morales maneuvered her small body down from the scaffold, careful not to knock any of her numerous paint supplies from their perches, and took a few slow steps back to the edge of the curb.

There, she put her hands on her hips, narrowed her eyes and looked over the section of wall she had just painted outside the Legislative Assembly.

“Still a lot to do,” she mused. It was June 19, and the nearly 40-meter mural the 24-year-old art student had been commissioned to paint to commemorate refugees in Costa Rica was to be inaugurated the following morning. Red plastic bottles of PowerAde and Chips Ahoy! cookies sat at the base of the scaffold, looking likely to be the only nourishment she would take in before the project was completed.

But for a young artist with a monumental deadline fast approaching, Morales seemed oddly calm.

“This project works, for me, like a professional internship to finish up with the (NationalUniversity),” she said.

The mural makes for an impressive internship, spanning nearly a half block along the outer wall that surrounds the Legislative Assembly, facing the National Park. Hundreds of pedestrians pass by every day. Many stroll around the park, while others sit on the benches to eat their lunches or read the newspapers before the afternoon rains chase them all away.

Morales had three months to create the design, clean the wall and paint the mural, which focuses on three themes that succinctly define the refugee experience:

“Displacement, Encounter, Coexistence.” On the west side of a gate that splits the wall, a quotation reads: “Refugees are like you or like me, with only one difference: they have been obligated to flee their country to save their lives.”

Luckily for the nearly 12,000 refugees who are currently in Costa Rica, many have encountered a somewhat warmer welcome than those in some other areas of the world, said Andrea Vásquez, a Costa Rican spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (ACNUR) – which, along with the city of San José, is one of the mural’s sponsors.

“In reality, the government gives them protection,” Vásquez said. There are microcredit and job-placement programs, as well as an “incorporation program” that helps refugees transfer their credentials as doctors, lawyers or any other licensed profession into the Costa Rican system.

Before being commissioned to do the mural, Morales was as unaware of the plight of refugees as many people – given that the term is usually thought about in the context of brutal civil wars or massive natural disasters.

“I didn’t know anything (about refugees),” she said. “But (ACNUR) gave me a lot of information and I spoke with a number of refugees here in Costa Rica, and their stories helped me form the design.”

Some of the refugees she spoke with came out to assist her with the massive undertaking, helping clean the wall and daub on the first layers of color.

According to ACNUR, close to 80 percent of the refugees in Costa Rica are Columbian, the majority of whom fled their native land because of their political leanings.

So, more than just beautifying the block by removing the spray-painted graffiti and replacing it with the fluid movement of images and emotion that the mural projects, the mural draws awareness to an issue that often can be overlooked, Morales said.

“For me, it’s super important to deal with really social themes,” said the artist, who’s been painting murals since 2003. “It’s not to give a full solution, but it’s to show that it’s not normal for these things to happen… It’s to create awareness.”

The mural starts in a frightful and vague manner, as violence forces families to leave for unknown countries, where they are unknown. The faces have no distinct features. But slowly the mural morphs from cold greens and blues into warm yellows and reds; the faces gain definition. The people begin to feel stability, and the feeling of movement passes.

And ever since paint started to be spread across the surface three weeks prior, Morales said, there seems to be more foot traffic.

“In the little time that I’ve been working here, more people pass by,” she said. “People like to pass by here, now.”

As she climbed back onto the scaffold and touched up a streak of red paint, an older man stopped and leaned against a tree, watching the movements of the brush.

From across the street, a couple walked along the edge of the park where the view is more complete, one shouting, “It looks beautiful!”

Morales glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the shout and simply smiled. She continued westward toward the end of the wall, eventually finishing before the inauguration ceremony the next day.


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