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Ojalá: A Costa Rican sense of luck

Alberto Font/The Tico Times

As the clock strikes midnight and the fireworks light up the night sky on Sunday, thousands of Costa Rican families will have prepared 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.

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.

Originally published on Jan. 17, 2015.

Read previous Please Send Coffee! columns here.

We recently relaunched “Please Send Coffee!” and invite submissions from Costa Ricans living abroad who would like to share their experiences. Are you a Tico abroad, interested in writing about your first days abroad, challenges you’ve faced, what you’ve learned and enjoyed, or what you miss from home? Contact us at kstanley@ticotimes.net.