San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Please Send Coffee!

Ojalá: A Costa Rican sense of luck

As the clock strikes midnight and the fireworks light up the night sky, thousands of Costa Rican families prepare for the rituals that, for generations, have marked the birth of a New Year. Some defy the choking hazard of eating 12 grapes in 12 seconds in order to secure prosperity and even find out what number to play in the lottery (corresponding to the number of seeds they find in the grapes). I’ve heard of friends who wear their underwear inside out and then put it back on the right way after twelve o’clock, families that fill up their fridges to ensure a yearlong supply of food, and mothers who hand out uncooked chickpeas or lentils to carry around as a charm (no explanation as to the choice of legume).

Despite a healthy propensity for skepticism and a strong belief in the importance of scientific method, my family and I observe several New Year traditions. We run around the block with a suitcase, hoping we’ll get to travel in the upcoming year; we wear yellow clothes on January 1 for good luck and happiness; and we pick Santa Lucía flowers to store in our wallets to provide us with love, health and money.

It is true that the line dividing tradition and superstition can sometimes be blurry, in Costa Rica and everywhere else. But few people actually believe that failure to carry around a purple flower will lead them to bankruptcy, or that running half a mile with 30 pounds of luggage will grant them platinum flyer status. Like many of the things we do, New Year rites serve as signposts to guide us through the tides of change. They provide some sense of permanence amidst the mutability of life and the inexorable passage of time. We preserve these customs because – for the most part – they are harmless and fun. I suspect that we also maintain them as a salutation to luck, as an acknowledgment that, in the year ahead, we will need a lot of help from God, fate and/or lottery tickets.

There are subtle differences across cultures in the way people understand the role that luck plays in their lives. Latin American culture in general, and Costa Rican culture in particular, are filled with references to fortune and providence. Every day, Ticos use expressions such as “por dicha” (roughly translated as “luckily”), “si Dios quiere” and “Dios mediante” (“God willing”), and my personal favorite “ojalá” (derived from the Arab “Insha’Allah” but used mostly as a way of saying “Let’s hope”). I have a sense that these are more than idioms or simple phrases. They communicate a certain worldview, the notion that we are subject to forces we cannot fully control, the idea that the future will be shaped not just by our actions but also by indomitable chance.

Recommended: Ticos in a winter wonderland

Other cultures put a stronger emphasis on individual initiative as a factor of success. A whole industry of self-help books and seminars rests on the assumption that outcomes depend on personal will and enterprise, implying that people are conversely responsible for their inability to attain their goals and objectives. It is easy to see how this would prove useful for a society: it generates an incentive for people to work hard. It allows for a sense of accountability that is essential to any collective endeavor. It opens the door to necessary criticism. It brings attention to the specific, personal challenges and not just the structural, shared problems. Yet I feel that, taken to the extreme, the self-help philosophy can also be a heavy burden. In a world where everyone is trying to succeed and not everyone is succeeding, it is not always fair to blame people for their failures. Sometimes, we are dealt an unlucky hand.

Sure, Costa Ricans could use a stricter sense of responsibility in some areas. As a people, we could be more organized in programming actions and managing risks. We could improve the mechanisms by which we promote and reward individual initiative and ingenuity. We could be better at giving and receiving criticism, allowing people to think strategically about their impact on the success or failure of a particular project. On the whole, Ticos could benefit from attributing less to chance and more to human behavior. But I hope we never lose awareness of the myriad things outside our power. I hope we are able to develop greater ownership without forgetting that we will never fully control our destiny.

There is something profoundly moving in seeing a hard-working janitor carry in his pocket an estampita (a small picture of a deity or saint), hoping it will drive away potential thieves; something precious in seeing grownups throw a bucket of water outside their window to get rid of bad luck. Whether it stems from religious fervor or simple optimism, it reveals a humility that might contribute to our overall wellbeing.

Beyond the specific rituals of each person or household, it is nice to know we continue to have faith in what life has in store. We continue to trust the unknown. From shantytowns to mansions, from the most educated to the barely literate, we are somehow united by that feeling of the New Year, by our commitment to enter the future with the will to work hard and the hope that luck will be on our side.

So, here’s to 2015, a year we will not be able to control but we just might be able to conquer. Ojalá.

*I want to thank all the people who contributed to this column by telling me hilarious accounts of New Year traditions in their families. I cherished your stories and the feelings they conveyed.

Read previous Please Send Coffee! columns here.

Raquel Chanto is a lawyer and policy wonk trying to survive international bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. In her monthly column “Please Send Coffee!” she explores aspects of Costa Rican culture and how they contrast with life abroad.

Log in to comment

Ken Morris

Another label to put on the attitude described is fatalism, and I fear that this is an all too common attitude in Costa Rica that does breed both irresponsibility and the tolerance for that in others.

Beneath fatalism is the feeling of not having control over one’s own life, or what psychologists call having an external rather than an internal locus of control.

The question is therefore the source of this feeling. I think it is partly the legacy of remote Spanish rule, which reallty did prevent Ticos from having much formal control of their own lives, and partly how this legacy has been and still is reinforced by both domestic political and economic elites and foreign investors. In reality, and compared say to North Americans, Ticos actually don’t have a lot of control over their lives. If FDI leaves and a plant closes, the government messes up the budget, or the IMF issues dictates, there’s not much the average Tico can do.

Worse, the experience of powerlessness is pretty common in everyday life. You experience it upon entering a bank, where you are first frisked by an armed guard and then forced to take a number to wait your turn. You can have a 20-number wait and see that only one or two teller windows is actually staffed. You experience it in retail stores, where if you buy something that doesn’t work, instead of exchanging it for a product that does work or refund your money, the clerk will write up a repair ticket and tell you to return in 15 days, when the product may or may not be repaired. Then you experience it in spades in government offices, like the Caja, where clerks will force you to return multiple times simply to make an appointment, only to eventually tell you that your file is lost and you need to start again. Government clerks will also frequently just give you incorrect information. Lots of employees experience it at work, where the boss ignores one or another labor law and tells the employee to “take it or leave it.” Indeed, even returning bottles to the grocery store for their deposit is an exercise in subtle subordination. First you have to wait for the clerk, who may not actually be working the counter at the moment, then you have to wait behind the other customers who are waiting, and then wait for a form to be filled out and stamped twice. Meanwhile, don’t even think of trying to start your own business, unless it’s a little something in the informal economy like selling empanandas on the street. You won’t get a bank loan with anything but outrageous credit terms, and most of your start-up money will be gone by the time you finish with all the government officials you have to deal with to allow you to start your business.

Most of these things aren’t terrible in themselves. Hey, pura vida, you can live with them. But the pattern of subordination builds up such that the average person rationally concludes that they don’t really have much control over their lives.

The outcome is fatalism and irresponsibility. A commitment modified by “si Dios quiere” usually means that it won’t be honored, and why should it be? Commitments others make aren’t honored either.

Yes, it’s nice to retain a healthy respect for luck. In my opinion, my countrymen in the US don’t have enough of this respect. They take credit for accomplishments when they don’t deserve credit, and are quick to blame others for failing when the failure is more accurately attributable to plain bad luck. So I don’t really disagree with the balance you’re trying to strike in this article. However, I do think its a mistake to find too much cuteness in Tico fatalism, since past a point it is only a symptom of powerlessness.

0 0
David Viquez

Ha ha…

0 0
Robert Reifert

Too funny

0 0
Bettie Vargas

Very interesting!

0 0