by Cesar Garcia
Context for Nicaraguan Immigration
History and Government
Spanish settlers occupied Nicaragua from the conquest in 1552 until 1821. Nicaragua was part of Mexico and then part of the United Provinces of Central America, but it became an independent republic in 1838. The politics of the new republic were characterized by the struggle for power between the Liberals and the Conservatives. The U.S. supported the Conservatives, and twice during the early 1900s, U.S. marines were stationed in Nicaragua.
Guerrilla leader Cesar Augusto Sandino fought these forces from 1927 until 1933 when they were withdrawn. With the assassination of Sandino in 1934, General Anastasio Somoza Garcia rose to power and established a dictatorship that lasted until 1956 when he was killed. The Somoza family controlled the Nicaraguan government directly or with the assistance of close family friends until 1979.
On July 17, 1979, the Sandinista Popular Liberation Front (FSLN) assumed power, initiating a literacy campaign, a mixed economy, and political pluralism. The new Sandinista government was accused by the U.S. government of supplying arms to rebels in El Salvador. From 1981 to 1987, contra guerrillas financed by the U.S. fought to overthrow the Sandinistas. Sandinista President Daniel Ortega signed a treaty with the contras in August of 1987, ending the war. In 1990 Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president, and the conservative Arnoldo Aleman was elected president in 1996. Nicaragua is a republic with a unicameral assembly and 5-year presidential terms.
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America. Production in Nicaragua is low and external debt is extremely high. Fluctuations in prices of exports such as coffee, bananas, cotton, sugar cane and rum strongly impact the economy. Nicaragua’s GDP was $11.6 billion in 1998 and its per capita income was $2,500. Inflation was about 16% and unemployment was 14%. Hurricane Mitch caused $10 billion in damages in 1998.
The main reasons for Nicaraguan immigration were to escape the armed conflict and to escape poverty. Nicaraguan immigration to the U.S. occurred in waves. During the 1979 uprising, many wealthy families left the country, and in the 1980s Sandinista restructuring caused many property and industry owners to leave. The last wave included young men avoiding the military draft and poorer families escaping the deplorable economic conditions and violence.
In 1998 more than two million Nicaraguans were left homeless due to hurricane Mitch. Many Nicaraguans received permanent residence or temporary protected status (TPS) in the late 1990s.
Social Characteristics of the Nicaraguan People
Ethnic and Religious Diversity
Ethnic groups in Nicaragua include 69% mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white), 17% white, 9% black, and 5% Amerindian. The predominant religions are Roman Catholicism (85%) and Protestant religions.
The family is the most important institution in Nicaragua. It encompasses close ties with extended family and also godparents, and has a strong influence on the social, economic, and political relations of Nicaraguans. Households are large as a result of high fertility and the presence of extended family. Relatively few families in the lower classes formalize their marriages through church or state. In the 1980s, women headed an estimated one third of the families, primarily due to war and the search for employment. These rates were higher in urban areas. Traditionally women have been dependent and devoted mothers, whereas men are expected to be independent, protective and assertive. The prevalence of female-headed households and increased participation in the labor force have transformed the lives of many Nicaraguan women.
Health Care Practices
The Nicaraguan health care system underwent major improvements under the Sandinista government in the early 1980s. Efforts of different entities and volunteers (brigadistas) were unified, and special emphasis was placed on primary and preventive medicine. At present the upper class uses private health care, about 8% of the population use the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, and the remaining 90% are poorly served in public facilities. Mental health issues in the Nicaraguan population include Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) disorder, an aftermath of the atrocities of war. Symptoms include nightmares, nervousness, insomnia, loss of appetite, and tearfulness. Mental disorders are believed to be caused by significant life events (e.g. death of husband), experiencing strong emotions (e.g. anger, grief, surprise leading to sadness, anxiety or nervousness), and supernatural causes.
Education is free and obligatory (ages 7-13). In 1999, 80% of females and 76% of males were enrolled in primary and secondary education. The literacy rate was 63% in 1995, and education spending (primary and secondary) was 2.6% of the GDP.
Nicaraguans in Santa Clara County
Public benefits recipients from Nicaragua reported coming to the United States primarily to escape the war and political problems in Nicaragua. Most have lived in the U.S. an average of 13 years, the majority speak Spanish most of the time, the average age for the group is 34 years, and 80% of them live in San Jose. Twenty-two percent have completed 7-9 years of schooling, 45% have completed 10-12 years, 22% have completed 13-16 years, and 11% have completed more than 18 years. The average household has five people. Family income is distributed as follows: 29% earn less than $10,000 per year; 57% earn $10,001-$30,000; and 14% earn $50,001-$70,000.
Nicaraguans and most Central Americans show respect for elders. Touching between people of the same sex is ordinary. Nonverbal gestures are also common, and the need for personal space is not essential in their culture. Kissing is a popular form of greeting for women. When speaking, the use of “vos,” an antiquated form of “you,” is common.
Those who provide emotional support for the Nicaraguans surveyed include (in order of importance) friends, relatives, spouses, religious advisors, community leaders, mental health specialists and doctors. Mothers, fathers, and grandparents were the main providers of child care. For Nicaraguans in this group, the most accepted way of caring for seniors and disabled persons was at home by family members, followed by choices involving trained caregivers. No one selected institutional care.
The everyday clothes of Nicaraguans are those of countries in the western hemisphere, with the necessary adaptations for the hot and humid weather of the region. Typical folkloric outfits include El Gueguense, El Viejo y La Vieja and La Gigantona.
Corn and beans are essential ingredients for Nicaraguans. Other foods include eggs, poultry, lamb, pork, fish, rice, alubias, tortillas, fruits, and salads. El gallo pinto, nacatamal, tajaditas, arroz a la valenciana, and vigoron are popular Nicaraguan dishes. Vigoron is one of the main tourist attractions in Central Park in the city of Granada. Pinolillo, tiste, and cacao are typical Nicaraguan drinks.
Religious Traditions and Holidays
As in most of Latin America, Catholic Nicaraguans traditionally celebrate the patron saints of most towns and cities. These annual festivities include religious processions, special ceremonies, fireworks, and food. Pictures of saints are very common in Nicaraguan homes, for they are considered intermediaries between people and God. During Holy Week, many Nicaraguans spend the day at the beach and attend religious processions at night. The official holidays in Nicaragua are New Year (January 1), Holy Week (March-April), Labor Day (May 1), Liberation Day (July 19, not official), Saint Dominic festivities (August 1-10), Battle of San Jacinto (Sept. 14), Independence Day (September 15), Day of the Dead (November 2), Immaculate Conception La Purisima (December 8, one of the biggest religious holidays in Nicaragua), and Christmas (December 25).
The largest celebration of La Purisima takes place in the city of Granada. In cities such as Managua and Leon, people traditionally give fruits and other foods to people in their neighborhoods. Nine days prior to Christmas, an image of newborn Jesus is passed from house to house and the Pastoras return the image to the church in the middle of a loud and happy celebration. The traditional Misa de Gallo is a mass celebrated December 24 at midnight and fireworks also mark the celebration of Christmas. Other traditions include La Primera y la Octava in the city of Masaya, and a celebration in Santo Domingo with the typical dress called El Gueguense.
Challenges in Santa Clara County
The top five needs identified by survey respondents were dental, medical and eye care; housing; and help finding a job. The top five problems identified in a focus group conducted with Nicaraguans were: 1) discrimination and abuses in every area of life due to undocumented status, 2) employment and wage discrimination, 3) lack of ESL classes and bilingual teachers, 4) housing being too scarce, too expensive, and not accessible (due to discrimination), and 5) lack of access to health care and lack of interpreters in the health care system.
Solutions offered from focus group included: 1) immigration law reform; 2) more respect and concern by employers for employees despite of immigrant status; 3) bilingual teachers and better ESL class schedules, and at least partial credit for degrees obtained in Nicaragua; 4) rent control and more accessible housing, and 5) more flexibility, respect, and attention to limited English speakers in hospitals.
Sources of discrimination reported by this group of Nicaraguans included co-workers, landlords, restaurant workers, teachers, and bosses. These were the top five choices.
Barriers to Education, Services and Benefits
The top five obstacles cited by public benefits recipients were not enough English, lack of time, scheduling problems, lack of information and immigration status.
Employment and Working Conditions
Occupational Data and Barriers
Some of the occupations reported by participants were homemaker, custodian, administrative assistant, office worker, self-employed, and manager, but these last two comprised only 1% of the responses. Concerning occupations in Nicaragua, responses included administrative assistant, office worker, and student. Half of the respondents reported that limited English skills were the main reason for the difference between their previous and current occupations. Other reasons reported were their lack of a license or credentials in the U.S. and different requirements for occupations.
Sixty-three percent of the respondents had three people working in their families, and only 13% had no persons working in the family. Half of the participants had one employer and the rest reported two or more employers. The most prevalent complaints about working conditions were lack of medical benefits, sick leave, and no paid vacation; working swing, graveyard or weekend shifts; no overtime; and being paid in cash.
Nicaraguan public benefits recipients reported that in their families, 43% have one self-employed person or business owner, and 14% of the families have two such persons. The top five obstacles to starting a business were not knowing legal or permit requirements, not knowing enough English, not having business information translated, not knowing who can help, and not knowing how to get customers.
Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits
Two-thirds of the participants knew the requirements for MediCal benefits, and one-third of them had someone in the family receiving it. Of those receiving MediCal, half said the benefit level was adequate.
Cultural Competency of Services
Sixty percent of respondents reported receiving information in a language they understand in orientations, 67% during phone calls, and 80% in written materials.
Educational Access in Santa Clara County
Thirty-eight percent of the participants had children under age 18 in school. Some education-related services received by Nicaraguans on public benefits were bilingual education, parent meetings, information in a language they understood, school lunch and breakfast programs, after school activities, transportation, and homework centers.
Nicaraguans who have received employment training indicated that they work as industrial assemblers, office workers, and administrative assistants.
Survey respondents indicated that having ESL classes available closer to home would assist them in learning English, as would better class schedules, weekend classes, and TV classes. They also mentioned having English-speaking friends as helpful in learning English. Many had difficulties finding entry-level ESL classes. Less literate Nicaraguans expressed the need for bilingual ESL teachers.
Fifty percent of the Nicaraguans surveyed were naturalized citizens. Those who were not expressed a need for help filling out the application, disability waiver information, English literacy classes in Spanish, assistance with an INS inquiry about their case, and help paying or waiving INS fees.
Communication and Outreach in the Nicaraguan Community
In order of importance, this group reported receiving important information from Spanish TV, Spanish radio, church, friends, and Spanish newspapers. The top five information-related devices respondents had at home were radios, TVs, VCRs, telephones, and computers.
Nicaraguans in Action: Carolina Vega
The largest Nicaraguan community in the Bay Area is located in San Francisco. Formal Nicaraguan organizations in Santa Clara County are almost nonexistent. However, Nicaraguan families get together for religious and family purposes. For instance, El Torneo de Amistad, a Nicaraguan group, organizes the festivities of La Purisima at Sacred Heart Church in San Jose.
The involvement of Nicaraguan participants in the community includes involvement in religious and parent organizations. In addition, 44% of public benefits recipients reported being registered to vote.
Nicaraguans have tripled their voter participation in Santa Clara County in the last 10 years. Nicaraguan voters increased from 135 in the 1990 November election to 459 in the 2000 March election. The number of registered voters as of December 2000 was 1,054, living mostly in San Jose, Santa Clara, and Milpitas.
One Nicaraguan success story is Carolina Vega. Carolina is a 17-year old Nicaraguan woman, currently a junior in high school. She lives with her two younger sisters and her parents. In school, she is the only Latina participating in the Pre-Engineering Magnet Program that prepares high school students to succeed in college. She is also being considered for an engineering scholarship.
Carolina and her family have faced numerous adversities since their arrival in San Jose, including the lack of any relatives or friends in the area. Not having a personal computer to complete her engineering assignments, she completes them in public libraries.
Despite all the hardships, Carolina has always been involved in the community. She was an altar girl at her church when she was 5 years old. She is currently a eucharistic minister, a catechist, and a participant in the yearly reenactments of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Jesus’ crucifixion during Holy Week. Her role as Our Lady of Guadalupe made the front page in the San Jose Mercury News in 1998. Carolina’s participation in the Teatro del Pueblo when she was eight years old and her participation in a play in school have sparked her interest in theater. She also works selling products in her spare time.
Carolina Vega is an exemplary Nicaraguan immigrant, open to the cultural diversity of this valley and proud of her Nicaraguan roots. Her aspirations will undoubtedly be the source of numerous achievements in her future.
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