Teresa’s phone rang on Monday, March 15, 2015, just at nap time. It was from the Ministry of Public Education to offer him “a field” as an intern in a Nicoyan school. Teresa had waited years for that call, and now she had five seconds to accept or reject the proposal.
“I saw all my children sleeping at that time, 25 that I had, and I cried and couldn’t find what to do,” she recalls. That same day she left her job as an assistant in a kindergarten in San José and, two days later, at seven in the morning, she was already at her new workplace.
She was only a girl when she began to dream of being a preschool teacher, and also when she had to flee Nicaragua due to the armed conflict of the 1980s. Like her, almost one in ten inhabitants of Costa Rica came from abroad in 2015, when she received the call.
Teresa Gutiérrez is 44 years old today, and is one of many Nicaraguans who work in Costa Rica to face the world crisis due to the new coronavirus. They work in different areas, either planting a rice field, caring for the entrance of an Ebais, or as Teresa, teaching.
And although their contribution to the economy and the country has been demonstrated in many ways, today more than ever they are the target of attacks as a result of the large number of coronavirus infections in the country. There is a kind of “social permission” to express those prejudices that have already existed for a long time, explained behavioral psychologist Cynthia Castro. They blame them for “sucking” resources from the state, for stealing jobs or saturating hospitals.
That is why we decided to talk with Nicaraguan people who work in Costa Rica and who are rarely portrayed on television or the news, but who are also pushing the way out of the crisis with their work, healing our patients and educating our children.
A class of empathy
In an almost deserted cafeteria in Nicoya, Teresa remembers that time full of changes and new challenges, five years ago.
At the San Martín School, where she was hired, there were no children enrolled to start the school year. So she had to go looking for them door by door, even on weekends: she would wear tennis and sports clothes to go to the “lower” neighborhoods in search of children.
Many of them were children of irregular migrants, who did not send their children to school because of the fear of deportation.
“… And I explained them that children have the right [to education] and then I convinced them with a document in hand and they gave them to me. I got six children like this, and I was doing my little group, I already had one more year left,” says Teresa.
Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate that the enrollment rate in compulsory primary education is almost 100% in Costa Rican children, but in the case of Nicaraguan migrants, the figure is even lower, one 87%.
Along the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, communities used to interact effortlessly. What’s it like to live along the border now?
Teresa tells her life calmly. With each stage that she tells, it seems as if she gets rid of a lot of weight.
She finished school almost at age 16, and high school until she was 25. She blames the lag to everything that implied having left her native Nicaragua at such a young age.
She was never given a preschool there, and she is convinced that this is how her vocation was born. “What I did not receive, I will give with excellence,” she says. She knows that there are few Nicaraguans in the union (barely 0.8% according to the National Household Survey), and perhaps that is why she takes every opportunity to address any attempt at discrimination she sees in her classrooms.
She remembers an occasion when she took the opportunity to speak to her students about her Nicaraguan origin. She knew that within the group there was a girl who hid her Nicaraguan nationality, and she was seen as “withered”, “consumed”, “as sad”, says Teresa.
So she started talking to the group about her country of origin, about the equality that should prevail regardless of skin color or nationality. “That girl began to settle differently and says: ‘Teacher, I am also Nicaraguan.’ She was already proud when I began to speak beautifully and set myself as an example,” recalls Teresa.
“Costa Rican society and Nicaraguan society are deeply interdependent. For geography, for history, for families. Today, for example, 11% of GDP is produced by Nicaraguans,” explained researcher Carlos Sandoval in a virtual forum broadcast by La Voz de Guanacaste.
This interdependence is reflected in each of the examples that Teresa lists. With the arrival of the pandemic and the closing of schools, she has taken advantage of this bridge that she has built with the community to continue working outside the classroom: explaining the subject to the mother of a student who attends night school, or going with her own computer to the home of some neighbors who don’t have internet access to help them fill out the Protect voucher forms, for example.
The strength and determination of her life begin to falter when she remembers how she got to Costa Rica. The words get stuck in her throat and her eyelashes are soaked. I pour her a glass of water but she doesn’t taste it, instead she swallows thickly and continues.
“I came with some men and with my sister. We were lost for about 15 days,” recalls Teresa. “In the end we reached La Cruz. I didn’t come across the border with a passport. I came as many people are arriving today: through the mountains ”.
For the mountains that have been silent witnesses to the passage of migrants. From wars to natural disasters, the list of reasons forcing Nicaraguan people like her to migrate is long. And now another one is added: the pandemic by COVID-19 … or rather, the negligent response by the Nicaraguan authorities to this emergency.
I rush the last drink of my second coffee and I suggest that we go to her classroom at the San Martín school. Access with pleasure. The image of 2015 is still very fresh when they gave her the same route on her first day of work. Remember how she walked behind the director so she wouldn’t see her cry. It was just as she had imagined. She left her daughter in the classroom, and walked down a hallway until she ran into the door that would lead her to her kindergarten.
“I said: my dream was to go to Guanacaste someday to work, and that my daughter be in the same school, that I be in the little garden … and I imagined the garden as it came to be.”
That same 2015 a door was opened for another Nicaraguan in Costa Rica. Almost 300 kilometers to the north, in Managua, Silvio was proposed to apply for a postgraduate degree in medical physics from the University of Costa Rica.
A few days after talking to Teresa, Silvio shared his own story with me in one of the few cafeterias open during a pandemic Sunday in San José.
Silvio Rizo is 27 years old. For a couple of years he started working at Hospital México, and is dedicated to treating people with cancer.
His job is to make treatment plans for cancer patients based on a medical diagnosis, and then define radiation doses and the number of days to distribute them throughout the tumor. He tells me about his craft as if he was taking the subject for an exam.
“In the end, what we all want is to treat [the patient], to heal him, to continue with his life,” he says, trying to leave the technicalities behind.
Silvio covers with his right hand the small lapel microphone that clings to his shirt. He does that every time he jokes in the middle of a serious answer. It is Sunday, outside there is a pandemic and a half-empty city. After each joke, Silvio takes up the idea. He says, for example, that he himself has grown fond of that profession that he chose without knowing very well.
Someday, he would like to take all that knowledge that the Hospital México has left him, back to his country, but for now he cannot. Silvio knows that the technological lag in Nicaragua limits him from applying everything he has learned in these years.
“How nice it would be to also be able to transmit this that I know to my colleagues who are there and who perhaps have not been able to go out to study and who are still without work or working on things they did not plan to do,” he adds.
Rizo represents 6% of Nicaraguans who live in Costa Rica and have higher education, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). However, this number has increased in the last couple of years due to the 2018 protests against the Ortega government.
In that year, data from the General Directorate of Migration and Aliens (DGME) indicate that 23,138 applications for refuge were processed, almost 350 times more than during the previous year.
With that increase in migration in the past two years, many hate speeches have also emerged, further fueled during the pandemic. So Silvio tries not to see much of the news or social media.
“I cannot judge the whole country because a person has hurt me. I think it is an exchange: I help with my knowledge [and] the country pays me for that,” he adds.
Neighboring communities take photos of social media, share them on Facebook groups and pages, write them or call them to make discriminatory comments. This is how COVID-19 patients face discrimination and bullying.
Silvio’s avoidance of social media and news has not exempted him from encountering the new reality when he goes out on the street and sees the capital half-way. Nor does it make him forget his relatives in Nicaragua: two of them have already been infected with the new coronavirus in recent months.
“There, people have realized through social media or international news how to treat the virus and that is what people have done, follow the protocols of other countries,” he says. His mother and brother were cured with home remedies because the already collapsed hospitals were unable to attend to them.
“In a situation where you feel that you are dying, that you are very ill and you cannot breathe, you cannot get up from a bed and you are not being cared for, what option do you have?” Asks Silvio, trying to understand the ones who resort to these remedies as a last option.
On the days of greatest restriction, it is more difficult for him to get up to go to work, since he feels that “it is the most apocalyptic that you can live”. But he knows that he cannot afford to miss. “I can’t stay locked up because I have to come to work and cancer patients can’t be suspended.”
Silvio clarifies that he does not come from a wealthy family, that what he has achieved is thanks to his studies. He also recognizes that the conditions of his migration are very different from those of many other Nicaraguans: “I chose to come, but there are many people who come because they want to save themselves,” he adds.
To these stigmas for being a migrant or for having got the coronavirus, Silvio adds one more.
“Right now we are in the eye of the hurricane, being marked by the virus, for being Nicaraguan, perhaps for being poor,” says Silvio.
That face of poverty that Silvio mentions is one of the factors that the social researcher Carlos Sandoval highlighted in his talk. “The notion of migrant is very selective and without a doubt has to do with social class, with skin color.” Although there are a lot of US citizens in Costa Rica, we call those differently: expats, investors. But never migrants.
In the end Silvio proposes an inverse scenario, what would happen if we are the ones who have to cross the bush from one country to another?
“If you had a government that hadn’t alerted you and there were a lot of infections, I think the story would be different too.”