El Cocal: A hidden community
“Education is for improving the lives of others and leaving the community and world better than you found it.” – Martan Wright Edelman
The community that I am supporting and educating through GVI is called El Cocal. Cocal is an illegal community predominately occupied by refugees from Nicaragua and poor Costa Ricans, and there is a lot of racial tension between the two groups. The community has about 2000 people, and the original inhabitants have been there for over 25 years. It is located right next to Quepos in southwestern Costa Rica, but it is separated by 50 meters of ocean, which makes it appear as though it’s an island. The waterway between Quepos and Cocal causes additional separation from the mainland, and in my opinion, makes it harder to make changes in the community. In order to get there, you have to pay to get on a boat and cross the ocean. For those who have limited funds, coming and going from the area for school or work is expensive and for some, is not feasible.
Some of the problems that Cocal faces are largely due to the fact that the government does not recognize it. The inhabitants simply found the land and built their homes on it. If it was a government recognized community and they paid taxes, there would be a bridge built to connect it to the mainland, and there would be a police force regulating the area. Most children run free while parents are working two or three jobs to make ends meet, and for those that are not in school, they are on the streets. Cocal is a dangerous area at night. There are a lot of drugs and drug dealers in the area, and substance abuse is prevalent. In addition to the dangers at night, I have also heard from other Quepos residents that Cocal is not the best place to wander alone during the day. However, we always travel in groups, and I’ve never felt insecure there. If anything, the locals recognize our blue volunteer t-shirts and wave to us.
The inhabitants have figured out how to live on this land with minimal support. Their resourcefulness is rather impressive, and they are able to utilize natural items such as wood and metal recycling to build their houses. However, in most of these homes, there is no electricity, running water, cable, internet, but some do have it, which is interesting since the power is supplied by the government institutions, such as ICE, the state electricity company. For those that don’t have electricity and water, they steal it from the people who have it which can sometimes lead to additional tensions.
We eat lunch every day in Cocal at a woman named Eneida’s house. She cooks on a wood fire, but she does have running water and electricity. In total, her house is about 20 feet by 20 feet, and there are about ten people happily living there. It’s also interesting to see what people prioritize when forced to make choices on limited income, as the walls in her house are falling apart, the mattresses are on the floor and unclean, there’s minimal furniture, yet there is a TV and a stereo. This seems to be common amongst many of the residents. What’s positive about living in a small home is that you are extremely close with family. From having lunch at Eneida’s house, you can tell that family is a priority. Children are constantly coming in and out of the house, and they are always caring for one another. Many families in Cocal are closer with their cousins than most Americans, which is admirable to see at school when the children defend their brothers, sisters, and cousins.
What worries many of the volunteers is that Cocal residents have no rights to the land that they live on every day. From our understanding, there is a law that protects them since they have lived on the land for so many years, but that “law” seems very ambiguous. If the government did want to relocate them, some think the government would have to get them new houses. However, in theory, someone could buy the land or the government could remove them to make room for tourism opportunities since they are sitting on prime beach real estate. It seems that the only thing preventing the government from dismantling the community is that they are not bothering the surrounding communities. If disbanded, the drug business, addicts and homeless people would move into the thriving tourism city of Quepos or into another part of Costa Rica.
One of the many signs of a developing community is that there are no paved roads. The roads in Cocal are simply sand, which makes it hard for the people to walk, drive, or ride bikes. In addition, since it’s not a government recognized community, there is no trash pickup on a daily basis like there is in Quepos. At our volunteer house, we put the trash on the curb every morning by 8 am, and the trash collectors come and pick it up, similar to how it is in the United States. In Cocal, the locals bury the trash in the sand or burn it. In order to throw the trash away properly, they would have to bring it over on a boat. Eventually, the trash falls into the sea and leads to contamination. In the past ten years, the contamination has gotten significantly worse, so swimming in Quepos is not recommended.
Part of the reason the contamination is in the sea is because the Cocal homes are extremely close to the shoreline. Federal regulations state that homes must be a certain distance from the shoreline and the mangroves. Beaches are all public in Costa Rica, and building houses right up on the beach is not allowed. All of Cocal is right on the shoreline, including the school. The school is the only officially recognized building in Cocal, which is a true testament to the values that Costa Ricans and the government embody. Education is one of the country’s priorities, which is apparent by the cleanliness of the school and the pristinely clean uniforms the children wear each day. I continue to be impressed with how perfect the children look walking into class – hair done, clothes clean and ironed, water bottles and snacks in hand. They look better than some of us do most days! For a community that does not have much, they continue to prioritize education which is truly a blessing for these children.
The school in Cocal is small and welcoming, despite the gates that surround the perimeter for safety and to ensure the children stay in the area during the school day. In Costa Rica, there are only three types of schools. The first is “escuela” (literally translates to “school” in Spanish), which is preschool to sixth grade. The students must take a test to pass the sixth grade and enter “colegio” (literal translation is “college”), which is seventh through twelfth grade. To graduate colegio, the students have to take another exam. Then, if the students graduate, they can take exams to enter “universidad” (university) and get their college level education. We work at an escuela, which is the only type of school in Cocal.
Escuela is only four hours each day due to the need for all students to attend, and the school not being large enough for everyone to go at the same time. With a reduced schedule, the students only learn key curriculum such as math, science, history and language. They don’t have art, music or sports unless it’s a special occasion, and that’s where GVI comes in!
In our classroom at the school, we offer an optional before/afterschool program for the children. For example, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the younger kids (preschool – third grade) go to class in the afternoon, so our group teaches them for a few hours in the morning. On Wednesdays and Fridays, they go to school in the morning, so we teach them for a few hours in the afternoon. The older kids (fourth through sixth grade) are on the opposite schedule, so GVI teaches them when they are not in school. Our classroom is always full of volunteers from 8am- 4pm, and GVI has developed a curriculum to ensure the students who come are learning the most they can through art, music and social emotional learning.
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