November 2002 - Immersing
Lately, as my ability to communicate in Spanish increases, I have discovered that I am no longer gaining nearly as much vocabulary, but I am learning more about how to express myself more precisely. I feel more or less comfortable talking in one-on-one situations with just about anyone (except for drunk taxi-drivers), but I’m still easily confused in groups of more than three. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to attend many meetings and talks here in San José. The kind of Spanish spoken at such events is easy to understand because it is basically the kind of Spanish that is taught formally.
I saw a monologue play, El Nica, about the immigration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica. There are a lot of myths around this immigration, which has increased a great deal since the late 90´s, in part because of Hurricane Mitch. Currently, the northern part of Nicaragua suffers from an ongoing famine. Popularly, Costa Ricans believe that more than 1 million Nicaraguans reside in Costa Rica, nearly 75% of them undocumented. That would make them nearly one-third of the entire population of Costa Rica. The most recent census suggests that this number is closer to 300,000. I have no doubt that the number is an underestimate, but it is impossible to
judge how much of an underestimate it is. There is, as in the U.S. with Mexican immigrants, a great deal of misinformation and xenophobia. As in the U.S., Costa Ricans worry that Nicaraguans are taking their jobs, abusing their social systems without realizing that this kind of undocumented work has become an integrated part of the economy of Costa Rica, as the immigrants usually perform jobs undesired by the state’s citizens. In the banana sector (Costa Rica’s third largest producer of internal revenue), estimates range between 40% and 70% of undocumented workers, whereas many farms will admit to at least 20%. The newspapers of Costa Rica do not help. I have read many news articles about violent crimes in which “two identified Nicaraguans” were seen fleeing the scene of the crime. That is, the media here tends to blame immigrants on the increase in crime rate in San José. As in the U.S., I feel such prejudice helps to maintain the marginal status of the undocumented and documented immigrant workers. Frankly, this maintains the pool of exploitable workers.
I have also been traveling a lot in Costa Rica as part of internship. The peoples and cultures of Costa Rica reflect its natural resources, a great deal of diversity in a space about the size of West Virginia. Supposedly, Costa Rica contains about 5% of the world’s terrestrial life. In all of the U.S. (including West Virginia), there are a little over 200 mammals. In el humilde país de Costa Rica, there are at least 150. I have been amazed by the variety of microclimates here. The temperature, vegetation, and wildlife around the volcano Poas, for example, made me nostalgic for my home in Maine, whereas the beaches of Puerto Viejo were nothing less than something from a Caribbean travel brochure.