Paso Canoas (Panama/Costa Rica Border)
May 11, 2016
Out of Sight, Out of Mind:
Two shirtless men hammer the sticks that they have pulled out of the nearby tree line into the hardened mud that bakes under the early afternoon heat of Paso Canoas. They walk out a predetermined distance that they both seem to know by heart and jam two more sticks into the ground at the other end of the field. The sweat streams from their faces, but, as the men finish their task, they raise their hands in the air in jubilation and are immediately rewarded with a small cheer from the two Cruz Rojas de Costa Rica (Red Cross of Costa Rica) volunteers that are waiting patiently against the green, chain link fence. “Ball! Throw me a ball!” A weathered, deflated futbol lands at the man’s feet and he quickly kicks it to his partner. He flicks the ball into the air with the tip of his toe and juggles it briefly on his knees. Tap, tap, tap. He gives the ball one last knee and drills it across the pitch to the Cruz Roja workers. The easternmost part of the Campo de Exposiciones Juan Arias Chaves (The Juan Arias Chaves Fairgrounds) has been recently transformed into new campgrounds for the group of African migrants who—after over a month of being stranded on the border—still wait for the Panamanian and Costa Rican governments to remove the bureaucratic roadblock that restricts them from realizing their dream of making it to the United States.
The Campo de Exposiciones is located in the southern corner of Paso Canoas. Measuring 600 meters long by about 15 meters wide, it was once the airstrip for all local air traffic moving throughout the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica. But, now the gravel runway hosts a different kind of flight…a fleeing of countries and the desperate pursuit of a better standard of living…especially for the children. In early March, the group of about 500 migrants reluctantly agreed to government demands to move from the center of the community—in between the two customs offices that refuse to let them pass—and into the Campo de Exposiciones; where they could have more living space, direct access to round-the-clock volunteer healthcare, and better tents that have been delivered by the Cruz Roja. While the relocation of about 200 meters seems insignificant, it is hard to ignore the implications of the procedure.
During the negotiations for the planned relocation, Wilson Cámara—the groups unofficial spokesperson—voiced concern about the possibility of moving camps. He was skeptical that the plan was a sly move towards the eventual deportation of the group. An attempt to consolidate and isolate them for an easier, forced removal. Cámara’s concerns reflect the rumors that were circulating through the diverse group as they camped in the central intersection of Paso Canoas. They doubted the trustworthiness of the Costa Rican representatives to follow through with their promises…and understandably so. They have encountered a rash of violent experiences during their trek from Ecuador to the Panama/Costa Rica border. Families have been robbed at gunpoint. Women raped. Of course they should be worried about the underlying motives of the government representatives.
However, it has been almost three weeks since they have agreed to move to the Campo de Exposiciones and the talks of deportation seem to have subsided. Although it appears that the group is safe in Paso Canoas, something equally as violent has happened…their struggle is now hidden. The relocation has shoved the group to a sleepy corner of the community…tucked away from the heavy flows of daily international traffic. Turn onto the side street on the Costa Rica side of the border and walk through the Chinámos, Panaderías (bakeries), Supers (Super Markets), and Carnecerías (butcher shops) that line the street. Continue beyond Chicken Bros. Stay straight past the grand Hotel Real Victoria, the restaurant Rustico and all the sodas (small cafeteria-style grills). It’s about here that a new community emerges almost out of nowhere; noticeably different, noticeably “more black”. Community members have dubbed this section of town “Africa Pequeña (Little Africa)” and it has quickly become just another part of town that most people choose to avoid because it is “different” and therefore “dangerous”. This is part of the tragedy. Prior to the relocation, the community was forced to see the painful effects of their government’s global politics…literally rubbing shoulders with the stranded migrants as community residents and travelers from non-African countries passed freely between the two national territories. Local papers posted daily updates about the Paso Canoas’ “humanitarian crisis”. The stories of the group were on lips of the vendors and taxistas (taxi drivers) that were sharing their work space with them. A passing conversation about the status of “los Africanos (the Africans)” was common chatter—as if we were talking about the weather. Now, their stories fall flat at the gates of the Campo Ferial like the deflated futbol that they kick around the makeshift pitch. Their struggle is hidden so that we no longer have to think about how sad it must be to have to flee your country in order to secure the lives of you and your family.
The group of stranded migrants may not have been physically deported, but their voices have certainly been reduced to a mumble that is easily drowned out by the traffic of the Pan-American Highway. While speaking with a young man from Senegal, he expressed to me his concern that summarizes the looming problem here. He explained with a quiet calmness while he leaned against a concrete post with his arms folded casually: “I don’t know how long we are going to be on the border.” We have been moving from camp to camp and my friend and I have been in this spot for over two weeks now, but we have not heard anything from the government yet.” He spoke carefully as he translated his thoughts from French to Spanish, a language that he has been learning while stranded in Central America. I’m just waiting for the papers to arrive so I can continue…I want to get to California.” He let loose a large grin as he nodded his head in excitement. “I want my papers to arrive because there is nothing that we can do here. I am so bored…” He motioned towards his friend that was standing beside him. “…we are all bored. But, all we can do is rest and wait.” So it is with this that we are left to contemplate the powerful implications of the passive aggressive violence of silence, physical isolation, and immobility.