|Featured Columnist – Political Correspondent – Latin American Relations|
The Costa Rica News.com
“Don’t be such a Nica”. It may shock many that this insult is commonly heard around Costa Rica. It could come from the mouth of a teenager, chiding his friend for wearing a shirt he deems uncool, or a store employee calling his co-worker lazy. But why is this racist dig, comparing someone to a Nicaraguan, so commonplace in a country that prides itself on being so peaceful and accepting?
Problems between Costa Ricans and their neighbor to the north are as old as the countries themselves. The two have long squabbled over territory, seen as recently as July 2009, when the International Court of Justice upheld Costa Rica’s right to navigate the San Juan River, of which Nicaragua is sovereign. But the main border problem is how easy it is to cross, and how may Nicaraguans have done so since the country’s Revolution, which began in 1979, and especially during the 1990’s. While it’s difficult to know exactly how many Nicaraguans are currently living in Costa Rica, the estimate in 1999 was around 360,000, and many speculate that it could now be close to 1 million. This may seem like an insignificant number, however the current estimated population of Costa Rica is not much over 4 million.
Many US natives have observed that the relationship between these two countries is similar in many ways to that of the relationship between the US and Mexico. Indeed, the US receives innumerable immigrants from Mexico each year, as the countries share a large and insecure border. The large number of immigrants troubles both countries. Additionally, many Nicaraguans and Mexicans find similar employment after immigration.
Migrant field workers, housekeepers, security guards, and construction workers are all common jobs. To many Costa Ricans, these are jobs that Costa Ricans aren’t willing to take. And of course, it is no secret that many Americans harbor racist feelings towards their neighbors to the south.
Like most Americans, I had no idea about this situation prior to my arrival in Costa Rica. However, since then, I have not only heard jokes and insults, but also stories from both sides. One Nicaraguan who works at a real estate agency told me that one of the cleaning ladies at his office had befriended a co-worker, but became afraid to reveal to her that she was from Nicaragua after hearing the co-worker express her dislike of people from Nicaragua.
In fact, during a recent trip to Nicaragua, I found that nearly everyone who found out that I live in Costa Rica remarked that they also had family living there, or had lived there themselves for some period of time. They seemed aware of the icy relationship between the countries, but many did not venture to share their negative opinions, if they had them. However, the stereotypes do not only exist for Nicaraguans. Just as Ticos may regard Nicas as lazy or prone to crime, Ticos are also stereotyped as lazy, and also snooty.
Of course, it should be noted that many Costa Ricans do not harbor poor opinions of their neighbors, just as large quantities of Americans have no ill will towards Mexicans. However, racism is a serious issue, no matter how few and far between the occurrences. I have seen evidence of attempts to remedy the situation, such as t-shirts that read “Soy Nica y qué?” (I’m Nica, so what?) and bracelets that declare Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans to be brothers. However, more efforts should be made to foster a dialogue and acceptance. If this happens, people from both countries might see that they aren’t so different from one another.
www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/docs/Clark_Paper.pdf – number of Nicas in CR
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cs.html#top = CR population
http://names.mongabay.com/ancestry/Mexican.html – Mexicans in the US