La Nigüenta: The gift of luck

June 29, 2012

By Jack Donnelly | Special to The Tico Times

Are you searching for a special gift? Do you want something personal and imaginative that will stand the test of time? Have you given any thought to a plaster cast of a naked girl fighting a parasitic infestation? If not, you are missing out on an intriguing bit of Costa Rican folklore, not to mention some minor witchcraft.

La Nigüenta is an unusual ceramic or plaster figurine and folk icon that is unknown outside of Costa Rica. It may have originated with a French curio, but that remains uncertain. It portrays a young naked girl sitting with one leg on her knee, picking parasites out of her feet. The bothersome critter in question is a nigua, hence the name la Nigüenta.

Niguas are parasitic arthropods called chigoe fleas or jiggers in English. They are the smallest of the fleas and should not be confused with chiggers, found in more temperate climates. Niguas were a very common pest in Costa Rica when many rural people walked around barefoot. They dig into the skin on or between the toes, and the skin reaction can range from mild irritation to serious swelling. The advent of near-universal footwear eliminated niguas as a common human affliction.

La Nigüenta was traditionally used as an all-purpose household agüizote, or good luck charm. Offerings were left for her to ask for good fortune or a particular favor. Today, she is seen as primarily an enchantment to bring economic prosperity. It helps to tuck a few bills under her base, or to prime the pump, if you will. A Nigüenta received as a gift is a far more potent charm than one purchased. 

According to one Costa Rican saying, “There is no escaping luck or death.” Escape may be impossible, but it is altogether human to try to bend luck in our favor.

Although the practice of owning and displaying la Nigüenta is dying folkway, many years ago, many Tico households had a reverent space for her. A friend of mine in her early 60s told me that no house was without one when she was growing up in Puriscal. 

How this figure came to represent good luck is anybody’s guess. I can’t see how the child with the parasites is all that fortunate. And the fleas she is digging out with her nails are not likely counting their blessings, either. One of the joys of folklore is that you simply have to take it as it is, and run with it.

These make fantastic gifts for any Costa Rican with a connection to cultural heritage or older relatives. I have given them to a number of Tico friends, and they have all rushed to display them prominently in their homes or businesses. 

They are also perfect for Gringos maxed out on beer T-shirts, iguana hats and toy oxcarts. These folks may need to have the story laid out for them, but what’s not to love about blood-sucking vermin and serious juju? 

Finding an attractive Niqüenta is hard today. You can sometimes find unappealing models in tourist souvenir shops, usually in two sizes. Asking for one in a store selling religious icons will get you a look that says, “We’re Catholics, not pagans!” The best place to find a good selection of sizes, shades and styles is in the San José Central Market.

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