“Some Ticos [Costa Ricans] feel that Nicaraguans steal their jobs and benefit from a healthcare system that they have not contributed to.” The woman continued to inform me, “Many Nicas (a neutral term used by Nicaraguans and others to refer to Nicaraguans) come to Costa Rica because the economic conditions in their country are…not good. Nicaragua is very dangerous.” The week before I sat quietly listening to the telenoticias with my host family, as pictures of an escaped murderer who was finally caught by the police blazed across the screen. As news of his arrest flashed across the screen, one of the family members asked passively, “Was he a Nico [Nicaraguan]?” Apart from feeling the suggestive undertones of the question, I felt a slight twinge. Both incidents filled my head with a vague notion of déjà vu.

Where had I heard this same logic, this recurring theme of a foreign population being dangerous, lazy and opportunistic? Then I realized, this type of rhetoric surrounding borders and immigration was similar, if not stronger in America. Many Americans share these same apprehensions about Latinos who cross “illegally” and as our president so eloquently put, “rape our women and kill our citizens” – a statement clearly rooted in fear mongering and xenophobic stereotypes about our neighbors to the south. However, the Costa Rican narrative surrounding Nicaraguan immigration made it clear that border politics and immigration was more than a U.S. problem.

We seem to exist in a world where borders separate us. Political lines developed through conquests, genocides and war create walls – metaphorical and literal – that often separate the haves and the have nots, the light and the dark skinned, and the “ good” and the “bad”. Within these borders we construct “imagined communities” (a term coined by Benedict Anderson*), or as we call them, nations. Once we construct these communities, we become capable of two very powerful things. 

The first thing we develop is love – a strong sense of nationalism and patriotic togetherness that binds all of us, making us feel as though we belong to something bigger than ourselves. We develop bonds that go deeper than we know; we develop a common love for our country. However, it is that same nationalistic romance that makes us capable of something far more sinister – hate. While at the same time we grasp desperately to notions of unity, we isolate those around us and create a sense of otherness. Just as nothing creates a stronger friendship than a common disdain for someone or something, nothing creates a stronger, more united nation than a common hate. The unity does not exist in absolutism, but rather grows stronger as we give political and social labels to those who are not “us” – because as much as we would rather not acknowledge it, every “us” needs a “them”. And thus, we live in fear – building walls, laws and regulations to keep the “them” out and make sure that they do not cross the line into the imaginary communities we have created.

So the question remains, what truly makes us, us? Is it the fact that we have created these imaginary communities? Is it that we share nationalistic ties and a common sense of patriotism? Or, is it the fact that we share a common hatred and/or fear of them? Is it the fact that we all remain on the same side of the borders we built? Is it the fact that we harbor inner hesitations and apprehensions rooted in fear and perpetuated through our own ironic sense of unity? Or, I suppose, the question is, if we let “them” in, will we still be “us”? As the telenoticias wrapped up, another family member finally answered the question asked earlier, “Was he a Nico?”

“No,” she responded, “He was a Costa Rican.”

Author’s Note:

* Imagined Communities is a term coined by Benedict Anderson in his work titled Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

Despite their attitudes toward Nicaraguans, it is worth noting that Costa Rica provides immigrants with housing, healthcare, access to education, and even jobs. 

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