UPALA, Costa Rica (AP) — In northern Costa Rica, a Nicaraguan refugee forced by circumstances to give up his life as a student and graphic designer now spends his days caressing and talking to pigs to keep them calm.
Most of the 300-some Nicaraguan refugees striving for self-sufficiency on rented Costa Rican farmland were farmers in their native country too. They wax poetic about the joy they feel watching livestock graze or green shoots spring from seed they sowed.
Not so for Erling Mora López, the 30-year-old graphic designer-turned-refugee pig farmer from Managua.
Mora was a student at Nicaragua Polytechnic University and working part-time at a local publishing house when he and his classmates took to the streets to defend senior citizens protesting changes to the country’s social security benefits in April 2018. Mora and others took control of their university campuses and held them for months. He also moved on to occupy the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and was there when government allies violently cleared it in July 2018, killing two students.
For months he laid low, but lived in fear of arrest as government allies in his neighborhood monitored his movements. In 2019, he was arrested, tortured for eight days in Managua’s infamous El Chipote prison and then released. Within five hours he was hitchhiking to Costa Rica.
For two months he kicked around the capital, San Jose, sometimes sleeping in the street. He got mugged and people who initially said they wanted to help took advantage of him.
Then he heard about Francisca Ramírez’s rural encampment up north in Upala. Her network vetted him and assigned him to the pigpen, which he saw as the ultimate filter.
“It’s a very, very, very big change,” Mora said, taking a break from his duties on a recent morning. “I miss my job, I miss my studies, but this is what I have to do.”
The learning curve has been steep. When other refugees — experienced farmers — help him clean out the pigpen, they somehow walk out clean. “Not me. I come out a disaster,” he said.
One night he found one of the sows in labor. She had already delivered three piglets on her own, but a fourth was still inside and her breathing was labored. He called the Costa Rican who had given them the pigpen. The man told him he would have to reach inside and pull out the piglet.
Mora’s eyes grow big at this point as he mimes slathering his arm in cooking oil and fishing out the last piglet. He said before “I grabbed the keyboard, the mouse and now a pig.”
Mora even had his own “Charlotte’s Web” moment when a runt piglet took a liking to him. It was too small to hold its own with the others in the pigpen so he let it run free. It would follow him around like a dog and come to where he slept to let him know something was going on in the pigpen or to beg for food.
Over time it grew big enough that someone wanted to buy it, but they requested it delivered dead. There wasn’t the same happy ending as the children’s classic about an undersized pig facing slaughter. Mora didn’t have to kill the pig, but “I really cried.”
Mora said he doesn’t let himself get so attached anymore.