photo essay

Between elephants & parasites

by Koen Voorend, Leo Jiménez & Pablo Franceschi

In this retrospective of a trip to Nicaragua made in 2009, Pablo and Leo show us the other side of Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica: those who stay; while Koen demystifies deep-seated prejudices about migrants

“We are like elephants”, Rafaela said. Woman, mother, domestic worker. And Nicaraguan. In Costa Rica. She has already been in the country for a while, a couple of years now. Both her sons go to a public school, but when asked if she receives any medical attention from the countries social security system, colloquially known as La Caja [Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social / Costa Rica’s social security fund ], she told us that it has been difficult. That she has been denied medical attention. Other migrants told us the same thing. They told us stories of discrimination, of being treated with contempt. Sarah, a Nicaraguan woman who lives in Alajuelita told us, when asked if she had experienced any situation in which she felt discriminated:


"Yes, in everything: show the nicaraguan ID and they start mistreating you. Wherever you go where you need to show your ID… you run into persons that already start to make faces" 

(Sarah, Focus group, Alajuelita, January 26th, 2014).

What stands out from the stories of all the persons we spoke to, and there weren’t few of them*, is that access to public health (and services in general) for Nicaraguans is anything but straightforward: between 3 and 4 out of every 10 Nicaraguan immigrants are left without coverage from La Caja. There are multiple reasons that explain this: the greater informality of the sectors in which they tend to find work (agriculture, construction, petty commerce, domestic work), the high costs related to the regularization process, differences in the eligibility criteria for obtaining insurance for nationals and migrants, the state bureaucracy, discrimination, and more.  


Whatever the reasons, the contrast with the public opinion in Costa Rica is huge. The cries of “Get out Nicas” that filled the streets recently, and have come to shake the “pacific” and “green” country in this pretty, yet conflictive Central American isthmus, voice a general discontent. Three out of four Costa Ricans believe that “nicas” are a problem for the national public health system. That they come here to take advantage of the country’s “exceptional” social services. That they come to have kids by the thousands. That they loot the public schools. That they drain La Caja’s medicine supply and clandestinely ship them off to Nicaragua. That they come here, to our beloved little great Costa Rica, for all of that.


The voices of welfare chauvinism that have reached the highest spheres of national politics, call for the creation of frontiers around welfare resources that the Costa Rican state offers through the provision of social services. In simple words: La Caja is only for “us” ticos, education must be “ours” and no benefit should go to the “other”, the migrant. The reigning perception is that, as one of the employees at the General Migration Office said, “receiving a great amount of immigrants is bad for the country”.




But actually, there are few women who cross the border because they are pregnant, and only very few migrants take into account that Costa Rica has a strong social protection system when deciding to migrate (in general, they seem to feel they do not have a legitimate claim to attention from the Costa Rican state). We have known for a good while, that the incidence that migrants have on social services is proportional to (or less than) their weight in the population. That they come here to work, and that, in relative terms, they contribute more to La Caja than Costa Ricans. We know that migrants’ labor has been estimated to represent almost 12% of the GDP. Let’s repeat: twelve percent of the Gross Domestic Product! We know that not only God should be given thanks for the delicious Costa Rican breakfast. A migrant deserves similar gratitude!


Ignacio was right to get mad when we asked him if he had taken the existence of La Caja into consideration when making the decision to migrate with his family:

"Look, muchachos, when you are in Nicaragua, you don’t think about that. How am I… going to     analyze where I will go if I don’t even have money for bus tickets? First, I’ll think if security in Costa Rica is better or if social security in Costa is better than in Nicaragua? You don’t think about that… You think like this: no work, no food"

(Ignacio, focal group, San Sebastián, August 7th, 2014).

And ironically, given the difficulty of getting state protection in Nicaragua (because there is little of it!), and in Costa Rica (because it is not easy!): it is the market that resolves. Not much. But it resolves some. A lot of the money that migrant persons send back to their families in Nicaragua through Western Union is used for house expenses, for buying rice, for buying medicines. Sometimes, families even send, from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, the medicines that their migrant relatives can’t access. That is how protection and care is transnationalized. Solidarity. On both sides of the border.
Corina embodies this. She, a 70 years plus old woman, takes care of her grandchildren, while their mothers, four of her five daughters, have been living and working in Costa Rica for a long time. She raised them, while their mothers sent money back for support. While the migrant mothers in Costa Rica prepare breakfast for the families for which they work as housemaids – a breakfast that was possible thanks to the migrant fathers and mothers who pick the coffee and the eggs, harvest banana, rice, beans, yuca, sugar… – Corina makes sure that the children of the newest generation have their portion during the humble meals. She makes sure that those who go to highschool or school are ready on time. And that is “just” logistics. So incredibly important, but the logistics would in itself be impossible without the love that sustains it. What is the value of the emotional role she plays as a mother figure for a generation of youngsters that grow up without their own fathers and mothers? Is there any way to calculate that? There are ways of, at the very least, not ignoring it!
Movements don’t occur in vacuums. They are like snails that leave a trail of slime, as evidence of their point of departure, which forms the memory of the dark past  and the hope of a less dark future that made them start moving. The great majority comes here to roll up their sleeves, to work, for a better future for their children. As we would all do.
“We are like elephants”, said Rafaela. Her voice is the saddest and rawest of all. She told us that when Nicaraguan women get sick, “and we feel that it is, well, terminal, and when we go to the clinic and they don’t take care of us… we decide to go back to our country”.

"Yes, an elephant may travel and travel and travel, right? But when it feels that it is going to die, it goes back to the place where it was born. And there, it dies"

(Rafaela, personal communication. Sabanilla, November 14th, 2011).

*Koen Voorend conducted eight focus groups, consisting of four, five or six people, which accounted for a total of 41 Nicaraguan migrants from different parts of the country; and parts of the text are based on information from the doctoral thesis of Caitlin Fouratt, who made more than 100 semi-structured interviews, conducted between 2009 and 2012, both in Costa Rica and in Nicaragua. 



Leo Jiménez & Pablo Franceschi



Koen Voorend


2009. Managua, Nicaragua


Published in October, 2018

Volume 2, Issue 1


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