SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – For thousands of Nicaraguan youths living in Costa Rica, “the land of lakes and volcanoes” is but a faint picture from the fuzzy recesses of their childhood memories.
Many Nicaraguan teens living in Costa Rica left their native country as young children, with a single mother or family members in search of better economic opportunities. Today, many of these emigrant youth have assimilated into Costa Rica culture, following the soccer exploits of teams Saprissa or La Liga, and putting Salsa Lizano on their breakfast gallo pinto.
But many Nicaraguan teens still identify strongly as Nicaraguans, and if they ever forget where they come from, the Costa Ricans are sure to remind them.
Facing discrimination and limited access to health and education services in Costa Rica, a group of some 70 Nicaraguan youth from eight different communities came together last week in San José for the first-ever Encounter of Young Nicaraguan Emigrants.
“Every day, young emigrants face discrimination, which continues to dominate many of our public institutions and social spaces,” according to the Costa Rican event organizer Paulina Torres, of the Migrant Alliance. “Even today, schools, health services and workplaces continue reproducing violence against this sector of the population.”
The alliance noted that the 2008 State of the Region Report found that “The protection of migrants’ rights is weak,” and that “The most vulnerable groups are women and young people.”
Participants in last week’s encounter in San José echoed some of those concerns during various group activities aimed at identifying problems in their communities.
“When we go to the hospital, the doctors ask us if we have our identification papers, and if we don’t, they tell us to wait in the back of the room and they will attend to us if they have time,” noted one young Nicaraguan woman.
But the meeting wasn’t only about discussing problems. The youth also focused on aspects of cultural affirmation and identifying shared interests, characteristics and values as a young expat community.
In addition to a cultural act where the youth got to see a performance of Nicaraguan folkloric dance, the teens also painted a mural as a celebration of their identities.
“Most of the youth who are here in this meeting have been living in Costa Rica for at least 10 years. They have grown up with the culture of Costa Rica and don’t know anything about Nicaragua, so we are trying to learn more about our culture,” said Mercedes Vargas, a thoughtful and articulate 17-year-old Nicaraguan emigrant from Carazo who lives in the Costa Rican barrio of La Carpio.
Vargas said, “We all say we are Nicaraguans, and we are proud of being Nicaraguans. But sometimes it’s hard because people will tell you, ‘Nicaragua is very poor.’ We say, ‘Yes, but it’s my country. I was born there. I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up there, but that’s where I am from’.”
Vargas acknowledged that Nicaraguan youths face “a lot of discrimination” in Costa Rica, but she blames that more on societal prejudices than on her Tico peers, with whom she says she has many friendships.
“As a youth, I have the same problems as the Costa Rican girls do, so we try to look at the problems we have in common – drugs and gangs – and we try to support one another,” she said. “We are united by our problems as youth more than we are divided by the cultural differences we have as Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans.”
As for the first Nicaraguan youth encounter, Vargas felt all good vibes.
“None of us knew each other when this started this morning, but now everyone is talking and making jokes – now we all get along well,” she said.
She adds optimistically, “I hope we can make this a permanent thing. And not only in San José, but in other parts of the country as well.”
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