What is a border? Currently in the United States there is a lot of political focus on the border with Mexico and “securing” it. While in Costa Rica, I had some time to focus on a different border, the border dividing Costa Rica from Nicaragua. After our program ended, I had the opportunity to cross that same border.
La frontera. The border: one small building, a few buses full of travelers, and a number of people crowding around trying to sell things or exchange Costa Rican colones to Nicaraguan cordobas. When we finally re-boarded the bus after going through customs and continued on our way I looked out the window, the landscape was the same: green, hills, mountains, rivers, even the fence made of wooden posts connected with barbed wire looked the same, but we were in a different country.
Los Nicos y los Ticos comparten mucho. Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans share many things. They share the breakfast dish of gallo pinto (rice and beans), many phrases such as “tuani” and “tranquillo.” Culturally and in their attitudes, they are very similar. There are also many differences between the two countries. The economic need is much greater in Nicaragua and is impossible not to notice, many people beg for money or sell things on the street to survive. Costa Rica has no military whereas Nicaragua has heavily invested in their military, even buying an absurd amount of Russian tanks earlier this year. Costa Rica has had great relations with the United States and Nicaragua has not. It is incredible how two countries with such contrasting political differences can have such strong cultural similarities.
This is what a border does. It creates differences, defines us vs. them. It turns the neighbor on the other side of the border into “other” and sometimes even “criminal” or “enemy.” Borders are imaginary lines often corresponding to some sort of natural boundary such as a river which we use to divide and some borders are more divisive than others. A common mentality which was presented in Costa Rica was that Nicaraguans are more “dangerous” or “violent.” Yet, one topic which never arose until I was in Nicaragua was that Nicaragua has somehow managed to avoid the incredible violence and gang problem which the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) is experiencing. Whatever fears, perceptions, or feelings that Costa Rica may have about Nicaragua and its military power, Nicaragua acts as a barrier between the violent countries to its north and the relatively prosperous countries to its south in Central America.
Although I observed many discriminatory attitudes and remarks towards Nicaraguans by Costa Rica, I also noticed something else. The Costa Ricans who actually interacted with Nicaraguans, such as teachers and staff at a school with primarily Nicaraguan students, tended to overcome those misperceptions. Through a personal encounter, face to face, they were able to focus less on their differences and more on their similarities, less on the negative and more on the positive. It is through personal encounter, through dialogue, that we are able to overcome barriers and I believe that human relationships are stronger than any border, no matter how big a wall is built we must not lose hope that it can be overcome.