A Close Look at Broad Trends: Migration in the Americas through the Lens of One Nicaraguan Migrant

By Gloriana Sojo

Migration in the Americas has long been dichotomized as a “South” to “North” movement. That is, people moving from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) to the United States and Canada. However, a closer look at the region – and the available data – reveal much less unidirectional, and more dynamic and complex migratory phenomena.

Understanding migrations in the Americas in their complexity and dynamism is important because intraregional trends call for different policy approaches and offer different opportunities than the more commonly known flows to the United States.

The 2015 SICREMI (Continuous Reporting System on International Migration in the Americas) report, based on country-level data of 20 countries in the region, highlighted numerous migratory trends in the Americas. Through the lens of one Nicaraguan female migrant in Costa Rica, this article will explore two of these trends: increase in intraregional flows and the feminization of migration.

According to the report, while migration in the Americas (including the United States and Canada) increased by 5 percent per year from 2011 to 2013, migration only within Latin America and the Caribbean increased by 17 percent per year in the same time period.

Moreover, although the feminization of migration has been observed globally as a result of increases in female participation in the workforce, this report highlights the fact that migration in the Americas is still a highly gendered phenomenon. For instance, on average, migrants who originate in countries of the Americas and migrate within the region, continue to be overwhelmingly (68 percent) male.

The Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica represents both a significant intraregional flow (the largest in Central America), and a highly feminized one as well – with females constituting 77 percent of labor migrants from the Americas in Costa Rica (the highest share compared to all other countries with available data). Xiomara Reyes, a Nicaraguan labor migrant in Costa Rica who has lived and worked with my family for more than 10 years, allowed me to accompany her and document her journey back to Nicaragua. Her journey provides an opportunity to take a closer look at these broader trends, and identify challenges and opportunities that might exist.

Xiomara Reyes, a Nicaraguan domestic worker in San José, Costa Rica, carries her 30-kilogram bag to load in the bus that will take her 300 kilometers and 12 hours away to León, Nicaragua where her family awaits her on 26 Nov. 2013. Reyes is one of thousands of Nicaraguan labor migrants in Costa Rica who temporarily head North to their hometowns during the end of the year.

Xiomara carries her 30-kilogram bag to load in the bus that will take her 500 kilometers and 12 hours away to León, Nicaragua where her family awaits her. She is one of thousands of Nicaraguan labor migrants in Costa Rica who temporarily head to Nicaragua to see their children and families at the end of the year.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_03Men and women wait to enter a Nica Expreso bus at the Peñas Blancas border checkpoint between Nicaragua and Costa Rica where movement heats up at the end of the year. The checkpoint is the only pit stop in the 500-kilometer journey between San José, Costa Rica and León, Nicaragua. During the bus ride, which is more like a flight, an attendant (left) helps people fill in forms, provides pizza for lunch, and gives tips about how to avoid being robbed.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_04As Nicaraguan migrants enter their country, views of the Momotombo Volcano, agricultural fields, and lakes dominate the landscape. . Decades of political unrest and an economy that was slow to develop its natural and human resources pushed many people out, making the Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica the largest one within Central America.

The proximity and relative ease of travel between the two countries means that Nicaraguans (unlike immigrant parents and children in the United States who might spend years without going back to their home countries) can travel between the two countries relatively often. Xiomara visits her family once or twice a year.

For her, this means that she gets to see her young son and now teenage daughter as they grow up. And that she gets to see her mother and father before they grow too old.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_01Once we arrived, Xiomara’s 12 year-old daughter Ariana, picked her up at the bus stop in downtown León along with her 6-year old brother Albín, and Xiomara’s father, who drove the truck. To get to their house in rural “Lechecuagos” remained a 30-minute bumpy ride on a dark, dusty trail.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_05Xiomara and her children, Ariana (left) and Albín (right), have rarely lived in the same house – let alone the same country. So on the ride home, there was some catching up, but more than anything the usual parenting. “Albín, stop screaming, you’re going to eat a bug if you keep talking that much.” She was right. There were bugs everywhere.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_06During her 15 years as a domestic worker in Costa Rica, Xiomara saved to build this house in her hometown of León. The porch, its most recent addition, consumed all her savings this year so she had to go 11 months without travelling to see her 6-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. But that night they were together, lumped in the same bed.

As hundreds of Nicaraguans go back to their homes for the end-of-the-year holidays, their family members are not the only ones to celebrate. Local businesses have a lot to celebrate as Nicaraguans come back craving ‘nostalgic goods’. And the number one nostalgic good for Xiomara, was ‘queso seco’ a lightly smoker and very salty Nicaraguan cheese, which she claims is better than any cheese she’s ever had in Costa Rica.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_07Albin gazes at his single mother the night she arrived at their house. Xiomara unpacks her bag with everything from grapes to clothes to Victoria’s Secret perfumes. The grapes are particularly important as part of a New Year’s Eve ritual where each person eats 12 grapes for a prosperous new year. Although she cannot always afford to get 12 grapes for each family member, a few grapes are good enough, Xiomara told me.

As she unpacked, Xiomara took out three pairs of pink boxers for Albín who eyed them suspiciously. And then, not too happy, he said, “But these are for girls.”

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_08A day after Xiomara arrived at her home in León she prepares a fruit juice in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Xiomara, her parents and her brother share the same lot in rural “Lechecuagos” on the outskirts of León. They grow avocados, mangos and limes in their garden, where they also raise chickens for eggs. Still, Xiomara supports them financially each month. “Some people here say that nobody goes hungry,” she said. “But I don’t want just that.”

The problem is that, although the journey between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is relatively safe, in that migrants do not have to worry about Narcos, or Border Patrol, or deserts, they do have to worry about thieves. These thieves are known to steal migrants’ remittances at bus stops and border checkpoints. So Xiomara now has a bank account to avoid carrying cash with her, and to ensure that her children are not just “not going hungry” but also going to school, and that her parents are not just “not going hungry” but also going to the doctor.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_09Esperanza Hernandez, Xiomara’s mother, who also cares for her grandchildren in Xiomara’s absence, washes clothes ‘a mano’ (by hand). Every other day, when they get water, she must also be sure to save some for the next day. Xiomara insists on buying her mother a laundry machine to which Esperanza says no. It wastes too much water and electricity and it can’t clean dirty farm clothes like she can, she says.

Sojo Lara_Gloriana_10_10The night before Xiomara Reyes returns to Costa Rica, her daughter Ariana, contemplates a new shoe her mother brought. While Ariana wanders quietly around their living room and bedroom areas, her mother warns her to take good care of the house. She doesn’t want to find dust on the couches like she did this time.

Woken up by the family’s rooster at 4 a.m., we were ready to return to Costa Rica. Xiomara’s children were awake, as they usually were at that time, but they didn’t get on the truck with us. Instead, they sat on a crooked, wooden bench next to their grandmother, who they call mom.

They were still and silent, their legs hanging. Albin, the youngest son, did not look up, Ariana waved as the engine started.

On our way to the bus stop, Xiomara was mostly silent. “It didn’t use to be like this,” she eventually said. “They used to cry.”

The migratory experience is at its core a deeply personal one, and the situation Nicaraguans face in Costa Rica is by no means perfect. However, certain characteristics of this flow do have the potential to benefit migrants and countries of origin and destination. Particularly intraregional flows like the flow between Costa Rica and Nicaragua can be shorter, cheaper and safer for migrants. This can enhance positive circularity where migrants, like Xiomara, move between two countries more often, spending money in both, and most importantly spending time with their families in their countries of origin. Since most countries in LAC are Spanish speaking, migrants have fewer linguistic barriers accessing services and integrating into destination countries, although this only does not guarantee their full integration into receiving societies. Xiomara’s legal residency in Costa Rica allows her to access numerous health and social services and to migrate and live without fear.

Understanding the circumstances and opportunities that Nicaraguan women face migrating to Costa Rica can provide lessons and insights for other Latin American countries where intraregional flows are beginning to increase, and where women will make up a greater share of labor migrants.

Gloriana Sojo-Lara is pursuing a M.A. in Geography with a focus on migration at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC and she is simultaneously enrolled in a Geographic Information Systems certificate program. She has a BA in International Affairs and a minor in Journalism from GWU. Gloriana’s interest in migration goes back to high school when she first began researching the Nicaragua migration to Costa Rica, her home country. In the last five years she has conducted independent research on migration in five countries, from South and North America to refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Gloriana is currently working at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC and creates infographics for the Dream Project-Va, a non-profit that supports low-income immigrant students. 

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