November 18, 2023
The reality of Central American migrations is broad, diverse, multidirectional, and uncertain. It also offers hope, resistance, affection, solidarity, and a sense of community for a region that has one of the highest rates of human displacement in the world.
Central American Migrations in the Twenty-First Century edited by Mauricio Espinoza, Miroslava Arely Rosales Vásquez, and Ignacio Sarmiento tackles head-on the way Central America has been portrayed as a region profoundly marked by the migration of its people. Through an intersectional approach, this volume demonstrates how the migration experience is complex and affected by gender, age, language, ethnicity, social class, migratory status, and other variables. Contributors carefully examine a broad range of topics, including forced migration, deportation and outsourcing, intraregional displacements, the role of social media, and the representations of human mobility in performance, film, and literature. The volume establishes a productive dialogue between humanities and social sciences scholars, and it paves the way for fruitful future discussions on the region’s complex migratory processes. Read an excerpt from the book’s Introduction below.
In July 2021, the name of a young athlete was heard by every living Guatemalan with WIFI access or a TV: Luis Grijalva. A 22-year-old undocumented Guatemalan immigrant in the United States, Grijalva participated in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. On August 6, he became the first Guatemalan to run in the track and field 5K final, where he ultimately finished in 12th place and established a new Guatemalan record. Grijalva came to the United States at the age of one, when his parents decided to leave Guatemala City and––irregularly––migrate to New York. After a couple of years, the family relocated to Fairfield, California, where the father worked at a carwash and at a furniture company. In 2012, Grijalva became a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented young immigrants to legally study and work in the United States. Thanks to this program and his talent, Grijalva was admitted with a full scholarship in Northern Arizona University in 2018. In June 2021, at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championship held in Eugene, Oregon, Grijalva secured a spot in the Olympic Games, becoming the last athlete to join Team Guatemala. Nevertheless, qualifying for the Olympic Games was not the hardest challenge––his participation was in jeopardy due to his undocumented status. Like any other undocumented immigrant, Grijalva would be able to leave the country at the cost of having his entrance to the United States prohibited for ten years. Grijalva paid more than $1,000 to file a special petition to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and obtain a permit that would allow him to re-enter the country after participating in the Olympics Games. After several anxious weeks of waiting, on July 27, his petition was ultimately accepted and Grijalva made history in Japan.
Grijalva’s story brings together some of the numerous difficulties faced by the 3.8 million Central Americans living in the United States—1.9 million of whom are believed to be in this country without papers (Babich and Batalova). For example, his legal permanence in the country where he has lived his entire life exclusively depends on the existence of the DACA program, which was in jeopardy when former president Donald Trump tried to cancel it during his first year in office. Fortunately for Grijalva and the other hundreds of thousands of DACA beneficiaries, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the president did not have legal authority to rescind the program (Totemberg 2020). However, while Grijalva is able to work and study in the United States as long as DACA— which does not offer any path to residency or citizenship—is in effect, his parents are at constant risk of deportation.
Not all stories are the same for the more than 5 million migrants from the isthmus living (with or without documents) around the world. Privileged Central Americans also face forced displacement from their home countries—and not all end up in the United States. Two well-known recent cases are Nicaraguan authors Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli. In September 2021, Ramírez (the 2017 Cervantes Prize winner and Nicaraguan vice president during the Sandinista government between 1985 and 1990) announced on social media that he had been forced into a second exile as a result of his open opposition to the oppressive Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo regime in his home country. At the time of this writing (2023), the eighty-year-old man was living in Spain, dealing with the hardships of his new reality (DW 2021). In one interview (given in Costa Rica, where he first fled), the writer addressed the heartbreak that this situation has caused him and which has affected thousands of his compatriots since the violently repressed protests against the current Nicaraguan government took place starting April 2018: “I am one of the 40,000 Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica, and I represent them because I have a voice that is heard, but exile is very hard. My house, my books collected during my entire life are there, and the idea that I may never find myself in that place of refuge that I have had for my writing is also very hard” (Santacecilia 2021; our translation). A similar situation has been faced by poet and novelist Gioconda Belli, also a former Sandinista militant, who in October 2021, at the age of seventy-two, was forced to abandon her home country (Barranco 2021). Her poem “No tengo dónde vivir” (I don’t have a place to live) reflects the anguish of having left everything behind (Belli 2021). In February 2023, Belli, Ramírez, and ninety-two other people were stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality by Ortega’s regime.
Belli’s and Ramírez’s experiences are far from being the only ones among Central American authors and creators. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, many people in the world of arts and letters have suffered exile from taking part in political struggles to confront authoritarian governments, or they have left because of a lack of scholarships and financial support to survive and devote themselves completely to their artistic endeavors or as a result of a precarious cultural infrastructure in their home countries.
Leda Carolina Lozier
Alicia V. Nuñez
Miroslava Arely Rosales Vásquez
Manuel Sánchez Cabrera
Carolina Simbaña González
María Victoria Véliz
Mauricio Espinoza is a poet, translator, and researcher from Costa Rica. He is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American cultural studies at the University of Cincinnati. Miroslava Arely Rosales Vásquez is a PhD student in literature at Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Germany. Ignacio Sarmiento is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American history at the State University of New York–Fredonia whose research focuses on postwar Central America and the Central American diaspora.