|Nicas waiting in line to return to Costa Rica for work after spending December back home|
"Have you tried this sweet bread?"
"It's not very good. [pause] It's from Nicaragua."
About ten minutes after overhearing this conversation come from my host kitchen I was having an in depth discussion about the role of immigrants and other cultures in Costa Rica. The boyfriend of one of my host sisters and I covered many topics ranging from international economics and politics to the subtle shifts in ownership of San Ramón's corner stores over the last decade (they have largely been bought by Chinese immigrants as an outcome of the lengthening diplomatic relationship between China and Costa Rica and the resulting immigration policy that has been established).
Last year I met a woman at tourist mecca Manuel Antonio National Park who carried trinkets and earthen vases with painted toucans and monkeys to sell to white folk. We spoke for a while as she discussed with our group the various items that she had for sale. In between showings and price negotiations I came to find that she is a Nica--or Nicaraguan--and comes to Manuel Antonio for several months out of the year to sell these items in order to send money back to Nicaragua where her children live with her parents (her husband also works in Costa Rica). She is given a provisional work visa to be in the country but then must return home for several days for it to be renewed before she is allowed to enter and work again. In general, Nicas are poorer, darker skinned, and make up a large part of Costa Rican's migrant worker class. This particular woman lived in a small dorm with many other Nicas who worked around the park.
As you might imagine, Costa Ricans have a tendency to look down on Nicaraguans. I remember two years ago how the boys on the street would rile up one of the Nica boys by calling him and his little brother homeless and saying, "Your country didn't want you and neither do we!" The only thing I could think to do was to cross the circle of boys in order to very clearly and intentionally stand by them and talk with them in front of the group as a show of solidarity.
It seems like a lot of the people that discuss immigration issues will only talk about the United States's immigration realities. It makes sense because I live in the US and interact mostly there, but the story above of a migrant worker class of the dark skinned could switch out "Nica" for "Mexican" and "Manuel Antonio National Park" for "Tyson Foods, Lexington, NE" without missing a beat. In Europe, thousands of Africans attempt to sail across to Spain's mainland or to the Canary Islands in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Mexico is a corridor for many Central Americans trying to reach the United States, and when they inevitably fail as many of them will they remain in Mexico. Brazil is looking into building a 10,000 mile fence to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs from Bolivia and Paraguay.
Immigration is not a USA-centric phenomenon. It is a world phenomenon wherever the haves and the have-nots sit abreast. As I was listening to the conversation happen in the kitchen outside of my room, it made me think of Imagined Communities, a book I read on this trip last year about the ways we conceive of our nation, the ways be construct our identity around land and culture, and the ways that we remind ourselves of our nation's innateness. Wasn't the implication in the conversation that the sweet bread wasn't good--not due to a less skilled baker or an inferior recipe--simply because it wasn't Costa Rican?
I think the temptation when discussing immigration is to [not so] discretely boast about our nation's attractiveness or superiority in the mirror of the other's need for us. "Wow, look at all these immigrants! We are so attractive! Our country is so great!" We say this in more indirect ways, of course, like when we bring up the American Dream as if it were a concept that is ours to control and assign to others. It's vanity, and it ignores the real reason anyone would travel hundreds, thousands miles from home, family, and community: poverty. The dream of wealth and comfort may drive some to venture to the United States, but more often than not it is poverty that moves immigration--especially for the low-wage migrant worker. Otherwise, the Africans would be crossing the Atlantic and the Paraguayans a dozen countries.
I believe that today's immigrants (the tired, the poor, the huddled masses) are looking for food and not ideology. At one time there were many yearning to breathe free, and indeed still today refugees and asylum seekers need that woman and that beacon in NY harbor, but what about the impoverished? Do they need freedom or just an odd job doing construction so that they can send money back to the Mrs and kids? The point is that immigrants trying to escape poverty will go wherever the closest place is that may relieve that poverty. The Costa Ricas, Spains and United States' of the world will continue to be attractive not on the basis of ideology or inherent goodness but on the basis of the potential for the basic needs of life to be satisfied.
If we make it out to be more than that, we're just not going to enjoy the sweet bread for what it is.