The painful burden of families separated by migration
Four Nicaraguans share how they cope with separation from their families, as well as some of the challenges they face in their daily life.
By Katherine Estrada Tellez (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Emptiness, sadness, sacrifice, and pain are some of the words used by those who leave and those who stay in Nicaragua to describe migration. It is a jumble of feelings and yet it is rarely expressed.
“It was a great sacrifice, alone and starting from nothing,” shares Juan Aburto, in Georgia, United States.
“I went on a journey with my heart literally broken, with a hole that didn’t let me breathe, I almost couldn’t cry from the pain,” describes Elika Salinas, from Bilbao, Spain.
In San Jose, Costa Rica, Karina Mercado sighs loudly as she recalls her departure. “I left everything, my daughter… It is the hardest part for everyone who leaves the country,” she says.
Nancy Juarez, a Nicaraguan migrant in San Miguelito, Panama, agrees that “it is difficult to make the decision to leave your family and make a new life”.
The reasons for which they migrated are diverse: some for economic reasons, others to protect their safety in the face of political persecution in Nicaragua. Their relatives in Nicaragua also carry the pain of family separation.
“Hugging them tightly”: The pain of not seeing her children grow up
Elika Salinas and Marcelo Castillo are originally from the northern part of Nicaragua. They met in the municipality of El Cuá, Jinotega, and married in 2013. They now have two children, a seven-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy.
At the beginning of 2016, Elika had to leave for Spain to improve her family’s economic situation. “It has been a sacrifice, not seeing them grow up to be able to help them move forward,” she shares.
Her children were left in the care of her husband in Matagalpa. For Marcelo, this process has been challenging, but he is grateful that his father-in-law and sister-in-law support him in caring for the children.
In Bilbao, Spain, Elika now has an office job, previously she worked as a domestic worker. Once, after a tiring day, she had the idea of writing a letter so that as they grew up, her children would remember the years they were apart.
Elika and Marcelo then had the idea to set the letter to music and made a song and, with their own means, created a music video they titled “Los sueños de mi corazón” (The dreams of my heart). The chorus says: Time passes slowly, but I wait for the moment when we meet again. It’s my greatest longing, to return to that place I dream of so much. And when I return home, to hug you tightly.
These words resonate with Elika every time she talks about her children and it pains her not to be able to hug them. “How much can a hug heal? My children haven’t had that from me,” she says with tears in her eyes.
To counteract the physical distance, Marcel and Elika created the habit of communicating by video call daily, at least five minutes, which has allowed the children to keep their mom in mind.
“Work, work, work” and the need for an “I love you”
Starting from scratch and living alone has been the hardest part of Juan Aburto’s experience as a migrant, who went into exile in the United States two years ago because of the socio-political crisis that began in 2018 and the economic recession it brought with it.
“Life is not the same, the lifestyle in this country is quite fast-paced, it’s work, work, and work,” he relates. Juan has had jobs that demand more than 14 hours of work, a common situation among migrants seeking to meet their expenses and send money home to their families.
Living in the United States has allowed Juan to have more economic stability, meet personal goals and, especially, support his family in Nicaragua, which, to a great extent, gives him the satisfaction and strength to continue.
“Sometimes you feel the need to say ‘I love you’, tears come to my eyes, but it’s not the right thing to do. You have to be strong here,” he says, referring to difficult situations that his family has gone through and during which he has been unable to be there for them physically, such as when his father got sick.
Juan also left his girlfriend and his pack of puppies, who are like his children, in Nicaragua. “From here, I have not only given them a better quality of life, but also, we were able to rescue and adopt our latest member, Lulu”.
He always carries a Divine Mercy medal with him, that his dad gave him days before he set out on his journey. “I haven’t taken it off since I arrived, it makes me feel safe and as though they take care of me through it”.
“I’m constantly busy, but at times I am overcome by melancholy”
Karina Mercado migrated to Costa Rica in 2019, after being unemployed for five years. She has been separated from her fourteen-year-old daughter for two years and assures that it was one of the hardest decisions she has made in her life.
Although her economic situation is now stable and she can give her family in Nicaragua a better life from the neighboring country, the feeling of not being with her daughter affects her a lot. “I am calm during the day and when I’m busy working, but there comes a time when I am totally overcome by melancholy,” she emphasizes. “Sometimes I’m eating, and I start thinking: Has my daughter already eaten by now, what did she eat?’ Especially when I eat the ripe plantain empanadas that she likes so much”, she says.
Whenever Karina’s spirits are low, she communicates with her daughter. “Whenever I feel that way, I need motivation. I have always said that my engine, what drives me to keep going, is to work to bring my daughter here with me”.
She keeps a hand mirror with a soft pink frame that has worn out with the passage of time. “This is our magic mirror, I always have it and it reminds me of my daughter, because we used to play with it,” Karina narrates as she holds it and her eyes fill with tears. “I will have her with me soon”, she wishes.
“It hurts like a child who has died, because of the distance”
Vidaldina Salinas, 74 years old, lives in El Viejo, Chinandega. Migration has been constant in her family, and she has had to live through the pain of seeing her loved ones leave on several occasions. “It hurts like a child who has died, because of the distance,” she describes.
“Mama Vida”, as she is affectionately called, has taken charge of raising the grandchildren and great-grandchildren left behind when their parents have had to migrate. Currently, she has an eleven-year-old great-granddaughter under her care, the youngest daughter of one of her granddaughters who migrated to Panama in 2015, Nancy Juarez.
Nancy migrated to Panama in the hope of a better future, leaving her two children in Nicaragua. “One feels that they will lose their love for us…”, expresses the 31-year-old.
For “Mama Vida”, Nancy’s departure was not easy either, as she also took care of her when her mother, Ileana, emigrated to Costa Rica. “I miss the girl because I raised her”, she confesses.
Nancy’s greatest longing is to hug her children again. In the meantime, she feels at ease because her 15-year-old son lives in Managua with her sister, and her little girl, Modesta, with her grandmother Vida. “I feel good because I know that just as she took care of me, she takes care of my daughter,” she says.
Nancy says that in 2020 she sent her daughter a pink unicorn stuffed animal, which is now her daughter’s favorite. For both of them, the stuffed animal is a way of always being together, despite the distance.
11% of the Nicaraguan population has had to migrate
In Nicaragua, almost 11% of the population has had to migrate, equivalent to a little more than 718,000 Nicaraguans according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). However, this number may exceed 800,000, taking into account the data generated by the main receiving countries. Since the outbreak of the socio-political and economic crisis in 2018, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have also been displaced and have sought refuge mainly in Costa Rica, the United States and Spain. They are joined by an undetermined number of those who migrate irregularly. Those are the people who have left.
On the other hand, there are those who stay. Children who are born without knowing their parents, who are left in the care of grandmothers, aunts or sisters, parents who see their children leave in the hope that they will return soon, couples who are left alone relying on migration as the only way out of their difficult economic situation.
The economic contribution that Nicaraguans from abroad inject into the economy of their families and the country, through remittances, is known periodically. According to the 2020 annual report released by the Central Bank of Nicaragua, remittances represented almost 15% of the gross domestic product (GDP).
This is a considerable contribution for an economy in crisis, but what is the real price of this contribution? The increase in remittances is evidence that every year more and more Nicaraguans are forced to migrate and become separated from their families.
How to deal with family separation?
Personal objects that symbolize the love and union, despite the distance, between migrants and their families. Illustration: Confidential
Migration generates mixed feelings in those who must leave and those who say goodbye to their loved ones. To understand how to cope with them, Ruth Quiros, a psychologist specializing in trauma and member of the Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca +, shares the following recommendations:
Letting go of pain and guilt
The specialist indicates that migrants should try to free themselves from guilt. The person who is abroad goes through “anguish, anxiety, desperation, because in reality it is not what they want to do, it is a condition that they have to live, it is something that is out of their control,” she says.
She recommends trying to give yourself permission to identify your emotions. Often people, in order not to hurt, try to hide information and end up overloading themselves, she explains, and adds that it is essential to have a support network where they can feel safe and drain these feelings.
“I always have a notebook and pencil in my purse. Whenever we are playing, they always ask me to draw them a picture,” says Elika about the dynamics of communication with her children via phone call or video call.
The psychologist advises taking advantage of technology so they can listen to each other, see each other and not forget each other’s faces. “If you don’t have this tool, write a letter, to get the message across of what you need to say,” she recommends.
The importance of making your presence felt
It goes beyond constant communication, says the specialist. It refers to being present, listening and giving words of encouragement, advice for those who leave and those who stay.
For Juan, giving quality time has been a way of showing love. “The fact that I listen to my mom the times she calls me, reaches out and tells me extra things…I stay attentive,” he explains.
Those on the outside also need to feel the love and warmth of the family. “It is very important that your family sends you a message, that they ask you ‘how are you’… it is not going to change your situation here, but it is about knowing that you have people who love you, that even though you are far away they have a place for you,” Elika describes.
To be filled with “confidence”
Some hope to return to their country, others have plans to take their relatives to the destinations where they emigrated. In the meantime, they strive together to someday reunite again.
“I can bring my mom when she wants to go on a trip, I can bring my grandmother. And I do need my daughter to be by my side, that will help me emotionally and I know that she also needs it. Going back to Nicaragua would not be an option, but I hope to have her here soon” Karina says, filled with emotion.
Marcelo and Elika have projects together for the future. “All these efforts are for us to be reunited soon… That is the biggest dream,” assures Elika. “If you ask my children what they want as a gift, they always say ‘we want mommy’, and that would be the most awaited gift for me too”.