The Heavy “Backpack” of Nicaraguan Migrants

Migrants walk along a Mexican highway toward the U.S. border. Photo: EFE / Jesús Méndez

A total of 604,485 Nicaraguans left Nicaragua between 2018 and 2022. I never expected to witness this mass exodus of compatriots.

By Victoria Obando (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – It’s not something I wanted to do; it’s something I was forced to do to preserve my freedom.

Wanting or choosing to do something is not the same as being forced to do it. In the course of my activism and participation in different programs and organizations, I have visited several countries, but the only one I have wanted to live in is my own beautiful Nicaragua. Many people have asked me “why didn’t you stay in the United States when you had the chance?” And I tell them: “I have a personal, social and political commitment to Nicaragua.”

That was before I had to go into exile.

Forced migration is a phenomenon I have witnessed in Nicaragua ever since the social outbreak in April 2018; hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans fleeing the terror of a brutal, bloodthirsty, repressive, murderous, ruthless dictatorship. Thousands of Nicaraguan citizens have been forced to abandon their families, carrying with them a “backpack” of feelings, memories, and dreams that weigh them down, especially when feeling overwhelmed by loneliness, or when they think about the word “migrant.” And it’s even worse when they face the xenophobia of those who see them as stealing jobs and opportunities from their host country’s citizens.

A total of 604,485 Nicaraguans have left Nicaragua between 2018 and 2022. I never expected to witness this mass exodus of compatriots. I can only imagine the anguish of their relatives, left at home grieving with nothing but faith that their loved ones will arrive safely at their destination; faith that they won’t be extorted or kidnapped by cartels that take advantage of migrants by demanding large sums of money for allowing them to travel through what they claim is “their territory”; faith that God will help them to find employment once they reach their destination so that they can pay back the money they borrowed to cover the costs of the journey they just made.

I remember when on March 5, 2020, just a few weeks before the global tragedy of covid-19 hit, I sent an email to my dad, telling him that I was going into exile to seek a better future and to try to heal the wounds –wounds that are still opened to this day- from the horrific experience of being apprehended, imprisoned, and accused of a series of crimes that I never committed. He responded:

My dearest daughter,

One of the elements that defines my identity is our family’s recognition and acceptance. Your mother’s love, and your sisters and brothers. Our roots in the piece of land where our ancestors are buried. The preservation and continuity of a mother’s struggle and the transmission of her legacy to a new generation.

If your intention is to leave, and seriously assess your return, you will uproot yourself and lose an important part of the elements that make you who you are, or part of the construction of your private self. No matter how many comforts my brother Ernesto has in England, they mean nothing to me. Here I have gained in stature, in roots; I have strengthened over time and now in my old age. To some extent I am a reference for myself and for some others.  I am deeply proud of all of my children.

So I want to congratulate you for what you have achieved, and for your struggle…  but if you are asking me about your trip, I have to say that I am not in agreement.  In any case, today is your birthday.  You have grown, and you radiate light and enthusiasm to continue onward. I accompany you with these small reflections.Victor Obando Sancho

Now, from exile, I think about his words, and I realize that they were so accurate. I feel like my heart and soul have been torn apart, that they have taken away a fundamental and central part of my life, and that they are trying to cut me up into little pieces in order to obliterate the entirety of who I am, the sum total of me that is “pura pinolera”.

They have accused me of no longer being Nicaraguan, saying that I do not deserve it. And these days I sometimes feel that my backpack weighs more than ever. I feel it when I see images of those who are still imprisoned, like my friend Edder Muñoz who was released and then recaptured. I feel it when I think of other prisoners incarcerated for political reasons, like those from the 2014 massacre of Las Calabazas who have already been without freedom for nine years. Those massacred faces, between joy and sadness, reminding me of when I too was a political prisoner.

The 222 political prisoners who were released and banished last week are experiencing the anguish of what will be their new lives in exile, anguish that many, like me, have already experienced and continually work to overcome because, one way or another, we must survive. We must adapt to new systems, new rules, and customs that, for many, are really hard to adjust to. Some way, somehow we have to continue with our lives, while at the same time carry on the struggle against the Ortega dictatorship.

From exile in Guatemala City, where I am in the process of applying for asylum, I cross paths with many Nicaraguans who pass through this city on their journey to their final destination: the United States of America. They are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. I feel the weight of each of their backpacks when I hug them, and I suffer the nostalgia that’s engendered when I look into their watery eyes, full of strength and the hope of wanting to move forward and heal. This fortifies my resilience. I have shared my home with some, and we have talked and vented about the awful conditions and horrific developments happening in Nicaragua. Others I simply run into by chance in the bus station on the route leading north to the border between Guatemala and Mexico.

Nicaraguan exile Victoria Obando with a group of Nicaraguans at a bus station in Guatemala’s capital. Photo: Courtesy

I share this beautiful photograph as a memory of an unexpected encounter with young Nicaraguans who were at the bus station at the end of November 2022. They dream of working and living a healthy, peaceful life, which they cannot do in Nicaragua for lack of conditions and opportunities. Many young people, like them, travel by the grace of God, because they don’t have the money to pay a coyote. Neither do they have a sponsor to support an application for “humanitarian parole” implemented by the United States Government since January 2023.

Forced migration is something that marks us for life. People like me long to one day resume our lives with our families in the country that we love, Nicaragua. In the meantime, we must put in practice resilience and discipline as we contribute to the end of the dictatorship in its entirety, and prioritize the issue of justice for its murdered victims and their families. At the same time, putting forth proposals for a new social fabric that will cultivate democracy in all corners of our Nicaraguan soil, and not fall into resentment  so that this tragedy that has been like a terrifying, recurring nightmare, is never again repeated.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times