Susie, who lives in Alajuela, brings a black and white copy of the photo page of her passport everywhere she goes. This way, cops won’t be able to see the stamp on the inside: the stamp that shows she has stayed in Costa Rica for too long. Her tourist visa expired and she’s now an illegal resident.
In Jaco beach, my surfing instructor tells me some sad news: A mutual friend who started her own tour guide business is being fined and potentially permanently kicked out of the country. In addition to other charges, she has been caught working illegally several times. She will lose her truck, her business, and won’t get to say goodbye.
A bar in Granada, Nicaragua, hires illegal immigrants for about a $1/hour. Their employees also work in hostels or give language lessons online to make ends meet. They are saddled with impossible debt and make border runs to Costa Rica to renew their 90-day tourist visas.
These illegal immigrants are not Mexican or from some war-torn, Middle Eastern country.
It’s true that there are groups of illegals who do not pay taxes and take jobs away from locals. But they are not the ones Trump is talking about when he screams about his wall. They are young, unattached, well-educated, of many backgrounds (even, *gasp* white), and have impressive Instagram photos. They don’t like the term “illegals.” They are vagabonds, perpetual tourists, or expats. And you can find them in many beach and tourist towns in Latin America.
When I graduated in 2010, I decided to give teaching in Costa Rica a try.
It was easy enough to find a job. I spoke both English and Spanish, and the listings commonly advertised that no Spanish skills were necessary. I figured I would have a leg up.
And so I graduated from NYU with over $100,000 in student debt and a job that paid about $8/hour. I was guaranteed six classes a week, so $48/week. I was told I could take on classes at other institutions and teach privately to make extra cash.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua both allow tourists to enter the country for 90 days. Both require proof of exit — As in, you cannot enter the country without showing that you have a ticket out, whether it be by plane, sea, or bus. But it’s cheap enough to buy a bus ticket online, and it’s also possible to rent an airplane ticket for under $10 using sites like bestonwardticket.
For recent graduates saddled with student debt, the beaches of Latin America and promises of amazing Instagram posts are tempting. (You may even dream of starting your own travel blog.) Hostels allow for work-exchanges, thus eliminating the cost of rent. Working off the books also lets graduates forebear loans on the basis of hardship and unemployment — It’s not like the neighborhood bar will direct deposit into your American bank account.
And that was my mindset when I came. But I was soon met with some harsh realities: Teaching jobs in Costa Rica were primarily in the San Jose area, not by the beach or volcanos. I spent about four hours on the bus every day getting from one class in Pavas to another in Santa Ana and back again. Most of my money was spent on the bus and food. I had one class at seven in the morning, and another at two. Between my morning and afternoon class, I tutored and edited papers online.
And it still wasn’t enough money. I checked out call centers, where you had to speak perfect English to get a job. That was pretty much the only asset I had. No one cared about my degree in *gulp* philosophy.
To my surprise, the call centers in Costa Rica had a fair number of Americans working in there: College-educated Americans who left America to work in Costa Rican call centers where they would ask fellow Americans, “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?”
I hadn’t come to Costa Rica to live in a city, spend all my time on a bus, and then make minimum wage (or less, since I couldn’t work legally) in a call center. But that was the reality.
Latin America has beautiful places, yes, but just like New Yorkers don’t necessarily visit the Statue of Liberty, Costa Ricans don’t necessarily visit their own pristine beaches. They work. They take the bus. They carpool because the cost of gasoline is double what it is in the United States. They go home and lock their gates and close their barred up windows, eat some rice and beans with a bit of meat and Turrialba cheese, and go to bed. Even though the cost of living in Costa Rica is about 24% less than the United States, a full time secretary in Costa Rica can expect to make less than $600/month. Illegal workers, like Americans teaching English or working in bars, are not protected by minimum wage laws at all.
Locals hustle in their own concrete jungle, not necessarily surrounded by exotic fruit and washboard abs. Those who do work in tourism are slaves to the ebb and flow of high and low season. Businesses close under the strain, and some projects fall through before they begin. Visit the unfinished, abandoned hotels and condos along the beaches for proof.
Once my loans came due, I returned to the United States to find a full time job. Far from saving, I had been living hand to mouth just as I had in New York City. I had only been to the beach once in six months of working. I felt a bit ridiculous: What had I expected, coming to a foreign country when I had no useful or marketable skills? Back home, I may not use my *gulp* philosophy degree, but even a minimum wage job in the United States would have paid me more than I was making to bus from student to student.
(While we are laughing at my liberal arts degree, I would like to pose the following question to those who think we deserve the debt and joblessness we face: What should liberal arts students do if they are gifted enough to get into a top tier school? Should they simply not go if they cannot pay $40,000 out of pocket? It might be easy to say yes, but the fact of the matter is, NYU provided and continues to provide me with connections and opportunities that I otherwise would not have had, and I do not regret attending. So what are the talented yet poor liberal arts majors to do, if not take out loans to try to achieve their dreams? Force themselves into fields where they have no natural aptitude, or decline an enlightening, life-changing education? But I digress.)
Most young expats I know who come to Latin America out of college have a shelf life of two years or less. The loans come due, the savings run out, the extra jobs become too overwhelming, the lack of protection under the law becomes dangerous, or, in the case of the more fortunate ones, their parents stop sending money. Maybe they have a bad experience with a lover and come to the conclusion that “all” Latin American men or women just want a green card.
Some expats who stay for too long or chose to retire in Costa Rica become bitter and vitriolic, complaining about both American and Latin American politics in Facebook groups and attacking optimistic newcomers. They post articles about American expats getting murdered or swindled by prostitutes, and complain about how much better Costa Rica used to be. Some of them try desperate schemes to hatch up money, even going so far as to dig for gold.
While a few think the grass is greener in Panama or Nicaragua, working for $1/hour in a bar is bound to stress out a young American who has thousands of dollars of debt waiting for her back home.
What causes these young Americans, who hold passports from the so-called land of opportunity, to trade their post-grad job hunts in for low-paying service work, shared rooms, and poorly conceived tattoos? Like most immigrants, young Americans are brought to Latin America because of a perceived lack of opportunity. Americans owe $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, and the class average for 2016 is over $37,000 per graduate. The average education major will have a starting salary of less than that. So if you are an education major who owes more in loans than he or she can conceivably make in a year, the idea of heading to Latin America to teach English and live on the cheap becomes a lot more appealing.
Students like me, who are a perfect storm of expensive college + liberal arts degree, are prime candidates for this lifestyle. However, the shine wears off when you realize that you’d make more at a Starbucks in the United States, and that you’re likely taking a job away from a local who has fewer opportunities than you do.
You can complain all you want about the low wages you’re receiving, but who are you going to complain to? To the local, who has no choice but to accept a low paying job, as he looks at you incredulously and wonders, “Why don’t you just go home?” To your boss, who can easily replace you with another perpetual tourist? To the police, who will wonder why you’re working on a tourist visa to begin with? Or to your fellow Americans, who are also ducking calls from their student loan providers and co-signers?
“I had thought Costa Rican expats would be chill,” a friend of mine laments after posting her class in an expat group only to be ridiculed and driven out. In another group, a man is attacked for posting an expensive coffee table. His fellow expats note that they could hire a local to build the same table for far less.
Unfortunately, it’s not so “chill.”
I now have my MFA in *gulp* creative writing, and a full time job. My loans are under control, which gives me a lot more freedom to see all the pristine beaches, the volcanos, and the colonial architecture. Best of all, I don’t carry the guilt of the illegal worker when I visit Latin America, the constant twinge of “Am I actually hurting these people? The people I’m dancing with, taking pictures with, falling in love with? Am I actually stealing opportunities from them?”
This afternoon, I visit the dog sanctuary in Grecia, Alajuela, where I meet two twenty-something Americans also on the tour. One, a tall, lithe blonde with a denim jacket and yoga pants, speaks no Spanish at all. I ask where she lives.
“San Jose,” she says. “I teach.” She explains that she has a six-month contract teaching English, and she hardly ever leaves San Jose. She took two buses and walked for a half an hour just to get to the dog sanctuary. “It’s just not what I came to Costa Rica to do, you know?”