For Many Nicaraguans, Emigration is an Escape Valve

By Serena Cosgrove, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of International Studies, Seattle University

Seattle University (SU) professor Serena Cosgrove, Ph.D. and students from SU and the University of Central America interview Doña Argentina in Chinandega, Nicaragua about family members' emigration (photo by Claire Garoutte)

I never set out to be an expert on immigration, nor do I have a track record of scholarship on the topic. But when Seattle University’s (SU) sister Jesuit university in Managua, Nicaragua—the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA)—invited us to dedicate our collaborative efforts to research and advocacy on the topic of immigration in 2015, we began to organize and carry out projects for UCA and SU professors and students to work on together. In just a few years, these collaborations have evolved, and we’ve learned how migration, including the current crisis in Nicaragua, is affecting both the UCA and our ongoing twinning relationship.

But first a little bit of background about the relationship that connects our two universities.

The Central America Initiative—the partnership between the UCA and SU—brings together UCA and SU students, professors and administrators in 20-30 shared activities every year. Both institutions learn from each other through exchanging best practices and participating in joint research projects, social outreach programming and academic courses. The Central America Initiative is the flagship program of SU’s global engagement efforts, and an important component of the UCA’s commitment to internationalization. Thanks to generous donations, the Central America Initiative is endowed and recently expanded to include shared projects with sister Jesuit universities in El Salvador (Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador) and Guatemala (Universidad Rafael Landívar).  

 SU students Emily, Laura and Andy work with Daniel, an indigenous leader, on developing an action plan for youth empowerment at an Intercultural Youth Camp in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua (photo by Julia Bragado)

SU students Emily, Laura and Andy work with Daniel, an indigenous leader, on developing an action plan for youth empowerment at an Intercultural Youth Camp in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua (photo by Julia Bragado)

In 2015 and 2016, SU and UCA participated in two shared research projects to study the effects of outbound emigration from Nicaragua to other countries. In 2015, two UCA faculty members and student researchers were joined by three SU faculty members and students to conduct on-site interviews in Chinandega, Nicaragua with families who had relatives living outside of the country. In 2016, UCA and SU professors and their students worked directly with the Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes (Jesuit Migrant Services) in Nicaragua to give cameras to youth whose parents had emigrated so that they could document for themselves the impacts of migration.

In both of these research trips (including the first one, where I served as a participant), it became increasingly apparent that more attention was needed to understand who stays behind, rather than solely focusing on who has emigrated. Nicaraguan emigration is different from its three neighbors in the north—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—where most emigration heads toward Mexico and the United States. Nicaraguans tend to emigrate regionally, most to Costa Rica (where roughly 500,000 Nicaraguans work in the service and construction sectors) and some to Panama. In most cases, they emigrate for economic reasons: seeking job opportunities that they couldn’t find at home given high poverty and unemployment in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the region, second only to Haiti in the Americas. The ease of getting visas from Nicaragua to Costa Rica enables Nicaraguans to go there legally, avoiding the dangers and a lack of rights typically associated with traveling without papers.

In Nicaragua, we observed that when parents emigrate to find work abroad, it is the grandmothers or great-grandmothers who take over family caretaking responsibilities. Such work often puts stress on them, exacerbating mental and physical health problems. Ironically, it also generates financial stress: marginal jobs in destination countries come and go, and if there are health problems—including illness or injury—migrants seldom have access to sick leave. Our findings from this research led to photo exhibits and presentations about the ‘abuelización’ or ‘grandmothering’ of Nicaraguan society.

While this research was taking place, Rev. José Alberto Idiáquez S.J., president of the UCA, asked SU to join him in research about the Indigenous, Afro-indigenous, and Afro-descendent communities on the Caribbean coast. Fr. Idiáquez was interested in increasing the recruitment and retention of UCA students from the Caribbean coast given their underrepresentation at the University. This has led to multiple projects, from supporting indigenous youth leadership in the northeastern part of Nicaragua to a long-term research project about the persistence of the Afro-indigenous group, the Garifuna: a Central American people with roots in western Africa and the Caribbean. Today, about 300,000 Garifuna are concentrated on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize; about 50,000 Garifuna live in the United States.

SU-UCA research team with research participants and family members in Chinandega, Nicaragua (photo by Claire Garoutte)

In our ethnographic research, the topic of immigration keeps coming up. In order to obtain an education, Garifuna youth must leave for large Nicaraguan cities like Bluefields or Managua. But after earning their degrees, many must leave their communities of origin to earn a living elsewhere and support their elders back home. “Should I stay or should I go?” is a constant refrain for Garifuna youth as they are forced to ship out on cruise ships, or seek employment in Central American cities, or emigrate to earn a living and support their parents and other relatives.

Very few of us at SU anticipated how the current crisis in Nicaragua—student protests and widespread government repression since April 2018—would aggravate Nicaraguan emigration. Migration has become a literal escape valve to guarantee the physical safety of Nicaraguans. Roughly 200 Nicaraguans are requesting asylum every day in Costa Rica. Thousands of Nicaraguans—including many of the country’s best and brightest college students—are fleeing because they’ve received threats themselves or because the UCA and all public universities remain closed due to the unrest.

This politically motivated emigration—versus the economic migration we’ve been researching these past few years—has transformed the SU-UCA partnership into one of solidarity and advocacy. SU is raising awareness about the situation in Nicaragua by recommending actions of solidarity; raising scholarship funds for UCA students; and helping place students who have had to leave the country.

The UCA leadership assures us that solidarity from Jesuit universities throughout the Americas has been key to safeguarding the UCA campus and keeping their leaders safe for the time being. Here at Seattle University, we’ve been learning a lot about migration through our longstanding partnership with the UCA in Managua, Nicaragua. Not only are we more sensitive to the impact of economically motivated migration, we’ve become committed to increased solidarity with our brothers and sisters abroad.

For more information, please click on the following links:

Please keep your eye out for the forthcoming book, Surviving the Americas: Garifuna Persistence from Nicaragua to New York City (University of Cincinnati Press), by Serena Cosgrove, Ph.D. (SU) and Rev. José Alberto Idiáquez, S.J. (UCA).