A room of our own: Costa Rican choteo and Virginia Woolf

Originally published by The Tico Times, http://www.ticotimes.net.

When I worked in English-language education and visited an advanced young-adult class in San José, I asked them what their biggest challenge to language learning was. Lack of time? Mastering irregular verbs? The delightful traps with which the English language is laced, such as the multiple pronunciations of -ough, with no rules to follow whatsoever (think tough, bough, through, dough, cough)?

Nope. Their answer was none of these, and they all had the same one. El choteo, they answered in unison, a few sheepish glances flying across the room. When they opened their mouths to speak English, they told me, they knew that if they made a mistake, they’d be ridiculed by their peers. On the other hand, if they spoke perfectly, the mockery might be even worse – who do you think you are to speak so well? So they kept quiet, which is of course disastrous for a language learner. Their oral proficiency suffered because they were afraid to speak up.

To chotear is to take someone down a peg, to mock, particularly when people show aptitude for something or getting too big for their britches. “Uuuuuuuuuy,” you might hear if you’ve done something right, with the intonation that goes with a strut and a la-di-da hand gesture. It goes hand-in-hand with Costa Ricans’ love of fun and wordplay, but many Costa Ricans have told me it is also rooted in a cultural aversion to standing out, to individual achievement, to ego. On several occasions I’ve heard Costa Ricans compare this aspect of their culture to the famous analogy of the crabs in a bucket that pull down any fellow crab that starts to haul itself out.

Constantino Láscaris, in his excellent book El Costarricense, outlines this view of choteo as well, but ultimately dismisses it in favor of a lighter, more positive view. “El choteo is funny,” he writes. “The jokes might be good or bad, accurate, dirty or less dirty. But it represents an extraordinary popular wisdom. A people that tells jokes gives an outlet for passions… The President of the Republic is the delicious object of choteo, as well as all legislators, no matter who they are.”

See also: Costa Rica is for lovers – the affectionate language of daily life

I think both interpretations are probably correct. I have often been grateful for the fact that in Costa Rica, it’s tough for someone to get high and mighty, or to go to extremes, because someone will also be there to make fun. At the same time, I think it is also true that this might inhibit some people, and maybe even keep them from following certain passions.

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San Gerardo de Dota: plenty of room for thought.

I found myself reflecting on el choteo in an unexpected context recently, and in a beautiful place: San Gerardo de Dota, where, on a cabin dangling off the edge of a mountain, I read A Room of One’s Own for the first time. In air just about as cold and crisp as you can find in Costa Rica – which is to say, utterly delectable, demanding warm socks and wood fires at night – and in a silence that, aside for birdsong, is just about absolute, I read Virginia Woolf’s brilliant analysis of what happens to women who try to climb out of the crab bucket, artistically speaking.

I read Virginia Woolf’s imaginings of what would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister, if he had had a sister whose brilliance was equal to his own. In that patient, detailed way of hers, she paces through the possible actions Shakespeare’s sister might have taken in order to pursue her passion and live as a writer. No matter what thread Virginia pulls on, it does not end well.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Months ago, when my obsession with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was at its peak, I read that his family works to give him and his wife a support system, especially in terms of childcare. The article said something like, “Their priority is to make sure he has the space he needs to create.”

It sounded so delightful – and necessary, for all those of us who think that Miranda (speaking of Shakespeare’s relatives) is the Bard’s Nuyorican spiritual twin. I want his family to give him space to create. Please, provide him with whatever he needs to make the Next Great Thing.

I also want that space for myself. When I think about claiming it, though, I feel presumptuous. A voice says, “¡Ni que fueras Shakespeare! ¡Ni que fueras Lin-Manuel Miranda, mae! ¡Ni que fueras Virginia Woolf!” Ni que fueras: a classic choteo opening. “As if you were.” Think again. Come back down to earth. Ubíquese.

I am choteándome a mi misma, pulling myself back down into the crab bucket, which many people – particularly women, I’d argue – are all too good at.

But here, right here, as if she could hear my inner choteo, is what’s so brilliant about Woolf’s famous essay. She has doesn’t argue with these voices; she sidesteps them. She makes no pretense that everyone in her audience have works of genius stored within, waiting to pour out. Rather, she argues that no matter how talented we may or may not be, we all have a role to play. All books are the continuation of the books that came before, and all original thought, even if imperfectly expressed, moves the ball forward for the team she imagines of women writers throughout history.

She says that Shakespeare’s sister “would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.” We must recognize “the common life which is the real life and not… the little separate lives which we live as individuals.”

The common life, which is the real life.

That’s why I think el choteo has an upside and a downside. It has an upside because the common life is the real life. No one of us is such a big deal, all on our lonesome. When we start to think that we are, it’s good for our friends and family to shake us out of it with a little humor. I can think of some people in my home country, the United States, who would be much better people – and leaders – if they were doused on the daily with some healthy choteo.

At the same time, each of us has a chance to contribute something to that common life. We do have a worthwhile reason to carve out what we need for that purpose: a room of our own, whether literal or figurative. We do have a mission to fulfill, because whether we produce masterpieces or only mediocrity, we have a shot at providing the next genius, Shakespeare’s sister, with a boost. A leg up. A starting point a little further down the road.

So to every tentative English student, every aspiring writer, every one of us feeling a little pretentious as we claim our space as artists or thinkers or learners, I think Virginia would say, if she were here in Costa Rica: accept your fair share of choteo with a nod, and let it keep your feet on the ground, rooted in our common life. But after that, simply carry on. Don’t stop. Create something. No matter what they might say.

Read previous Maeology columns here.

Katherine Stanley Obando is the editor of The Tico Times and the author of “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter,” a book of essays about motherhood, Costa Rica’s unique street slang, bicultural parenting, and the ups and downs of living abroad. She lives in San José. For more from Katherine about Costa Rican life and culture, follow her on Facebook or Twitter, or subscribe to the Love in Translation blog.

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Why a Costa Rican Holy Week is a treasure to be savored

Nature Landings Cover Screenshot 2017-03I’m pleased to be writing a new column for Nature Air’s magazine, Nature Landings: “Word on the Street.” The magazine is full of fascinating travel stories, cultural information and more, and I’m proud to be a contributor. With permission from Nature Landings, here is a look at this month’s musings as published in the April-May edition. Look for the column the next time you’re in the skies enjoying what truly is the most spectacular way to see Costa Rica.

Oftentimes in Costa Rica – a country that lacks the spectacular Holy Week celebrations of, say, Antigua, Guatemala – Holy Week seems best characterized by a long list of things you can’t do. Drinking is one of them, since dry laws prohibit the sale of alcohol on key religious dates (ineffectively, as demonstrated by a popular nickname for Semana Santa: Semana Tanda, or Drunken Week).

Shopping is another, although much has changed since the days when you could barely find a place to buy bread on high holy days. Each year, more and more shops keep their doors open, increasing convenience but eroding tradition – all the more reason to embrace Holy Week while we can.

There is a whole host of activities that are forbidden on Good Friday, for religious reasons or by long-standing superstitions. Don’t eat meat. Don’t go swimming in a river or ocean, or you will turn into a fish. Don’t hit your children, or your hand will fall off; there’s one superstition we can all wish were fact. Don’t wear red, since it implies support for the devil. And since it’s a day of mourning, don’t run, play or work.

But alongside all the can’ts, what you can do during Holy Week in Costa Rica, especially in its town and city centers, is slow down, reflect and relax as at no other time of year.

Nature Landings Photo 2017-03 MQC

Courtesy of Nature Landings. Photo by Mónica Quesada.

 

It is a hot season, and very still. Streets empty; miel de chiverre, or squash jam, is lovingly prepared over stovetops nationwide; painstaking preparations are made for local processions. Regardless of your religious affiliation, something about Semana Santa invites reflection – or, at the very least, peace and quiet.

It’s worth seeking out this national pause. It’s worth leaving behind the rush of everyday life, or even, for the tourist, taking a detour from the beach to experience Costa Rican town life at its finest: with stores shuttered and schools locked, people of all ages can come together in the street behind the solemn beat of the Romans’ drums.

Walk with them, and you’ll be reminded why we want traditions to survive in the first place: because they connect us to history, even when that history isn’t ours.

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Waiting for gray (bochorno)

IMG_7086.JPGDear E.,

The longer I live in places where you can wear flip-flops 12 months a year, the more obsessed I become with seasons.

It’s not as simple as missing them. If I could choose right now, I’m not sure I’d wish the seasons of my childhood back into my current life. But I’m fascinated by the way those memories find us at odd moments, and how we reconfigure them among the smells, sounds and sensations of entirely different climes.

Last week I was telling you your favorite bedtime story, the same one you ask for every night. In it, you discover a set of keys that unlocks little doors hidden in the nooks and crannies of our house, doors that go unnoticed until you discover them one rainy day. There is one key and one door for every color of the rainbow, and each door reveals a different landscape: an orange grove, a blue Maine lake, green hills that we run across and roll down.

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Apapáchame – a little universe

02-16aI woke up early this morning on your birthday. I’m not sure why, but it was a gift: your birthdays make me wistful, and it was nice to start it face-to-face with you as you snoozed, looking just the way you did at one month old, or even in that ultrasound photo.

Sometime last year you started slipping into our bed in the wee hours of the morning so that we awake to find you nestled between us. Occasionally one of us gets a foot in the face, since you have always been such a contortive sleeper – your dad in particular seems to be a magnet for your toes – but we wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even bruiselessness.

In just a couple of hours you would start your new preschool, a big girl in a brand-new uniform of foolhardy crispness, not yet indelibly stained by finger paints or pudding. A big girl in brand-new shoes, not yet scuffed and intentionally dipped into as much mud as possible. I couldn’t believe the size of them when the saleswoman brought them out after measuring your feet: they looked massive, as do you sometimes when I come home from work, or whenever you wear jeans.

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‘Love in Translation’ joins Facebook – come meet me there!

Dear Readers,

Now that my second child, the book that finally emerged in December, is out in the world, I’m gearing up for more musings on life abroad, motherhood and of course, my ongoing obsession with Costa Rican language and culture. All of these look a little different now than they did when I started the project with a newborn baby, so there’s a lot to explore.

Stay tuned here for new essays, but also please check out the new Love in Translation Facebook page, where I’ll be sharing all posts from the blog (with a new name to match the book), plus other cool stuff including a #DailyDicho for those seeking an everyday dose of costarriqueñismos. I’d love to connect with you there.

And a quick, unrelated update: Shadow Cabinet, a new and separate project I mentioned in my last post, has been filling me with energy and excitement over the past several weeks, and I’d love to share that with you, too. There, you’ll find weekly interviews with women on the front lines of the work to protect human rights in today’s United States.

Wishing you a great week and a Happy Valentine’s Day,

Katherine

 

Sapo verde, part II (You at 3)

Sapo verde part IIDear E.:

One of my favorite quotations comes from an uninspiring-sounding source: Horace Walpole, the fourth Earl of Oxford. He wrote, “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.”

When I first read those words, I was a teenager – so all tragedy, all feeling. Today, I know that few of us are all one or the other. Life’s a comedy when we think, a tragedy when we feel, and this is absolutely true of parenthood, every single day.

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Sapo verde, part I (Me at 37)

Dear E.,

Sorry I have been AWOL – not that you even know, of course, but I feel such a loyalty to your future self, such a lifeline in these late-night letters. Life and work have taken over these past few months, and so have you. Gone are the quiet and slowness of your infancy, although I didn’t see it as quiet and slow at the time. Gone are those precious, lonely days that filled me up with words I had to pour out into the dark. Today, life with almost-3-year-old-you is a sentence that never ends. Just this afternoon, you lectured me on how to be a dog, on how a shiny computer made out of Legos can be programmed to fix a fallen tower of dominos, on why it is that Triceratops love to shake their butts. These days, when you drop off to sleep, I crash instead of writing.  But as we celebrate our birthdays, three weeks apart, I wanted to dust things off and reappear.

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Independencia

IndependenciaSeptember 14th, 2015

Three years ago tonight, I felt you kick for the very first time. I was standing on the corner of our street, watching the kids walk by with their faroles, tiny dots of light in the darkness. As if you were stirred by all the kids milling around you, I felt the smallest of bubbles somewhere within: pop pop pop. I’m here. It wasn’t until hours later that I was sure what I was feeling, but I felt them on that corner on the eve of Independence Day.

The faroles are a Costa Rican homage to the lanterns women carried in Antigua, Guatemala, this night in 1821, as they waited outside the Palacio del Gobierno to find out whether the men huddled within would put an end to 300 years of Spanish rule. Independence took nearly a month to reach Costa Rica – the vote here was held on Oct. 11 of that year – but September 14th is the night that Costa Rican kids take paper lanterns and march through the streets. It’s always been one of my favorite Costa Rican traditions, although now, thanks to you, I have a real ticket to the show. Continue reading

Home Sweet Home (mi choza)

I slip out of the house into the cool evening. It’s late-summer twilight in New England, God’s attempt at justice for those who live in cold climates. These endless sunsets that stretch long past dinner make it possible to end the day with a run – a luxury impossible in Costa Rica, where the sun drops like a dead weight at six-ish, year-round. (I know, I know. I can feel the wrathful eyes of Mainers upon me. I’m not complaining, and yes, I know I haven’t scraped the ice off a car in 15 years. But you know it as well as I do – a Maine summer, for all its brevity, is perfection.)

Mi choza

I’ve got a good hour of light left, but it’s dim enough that the living-room window looks cozy as I pass it, and I pause, torn, reluctant to turn away. Inside, two heads lean together, conferring in front of the record player, your grandmother’s grey, yours brown, both equally tousled. A Sesame Street record starts to play. I make myself keep going, past the For Sale sign and into the street. Goodbye for now, mi choza, I think. Choza, one of the first words your father taught me. Literally a hut made of palms, but also a comfortable slang word for home. This home, for a few nights more at least, is mi choza gringa, my stateside place to hang my hat during the pat thirteen years. Continue reading

The Real Secret of the World’s Happiest Country: MacGyver

MacGyverPerhaps I should explain myself.

Years ago, I was sitting at the rough cement table in our little garden with some friends. One was my former roommate here in this house, who had since headed back to the States and was now visiting Costa Rica once more. She posed an interesting question over our beers: what is it, exactly, that makes life in Costa Rica so much more relaxed than life back home? “When I lived here, I wasn’t lying on the beach all day,” she pointed out. “I had a demanding job and worked long hours, just as I do in the States. My relative income was fairly similar, as were my social and family obligations. This city is noisier and more crowded that my city back home. What is it, then? What is it about Costa Rica that makes life calmer?” Continue reading

(And now for a political interlude)

Dear Dictionary of You Readers,

I’ve been AWOL from this site, which means so much to me, for two reasons: first, I was putting out “Love in Translation,” a book of essays compiled from this blog. Second, in 2016 and certainly now in 2017, pretty much all I can think, read or write about is U.S. politics.

If you’re in a similar bind – and especially if you, like me, are craving real conversation about the problems we’re facing – I hope you’ll follow me over to Shadow Cabinet, my new series of interviews with women leading the struggle for human rights in the United States.

I’ll be publishing weekly interviews (weekly-ish – some weeks my daughter may have other ideas for me), short and sweet, on Tuesdays. They’ll be focused on what each woman is doing to make a difference in our country, how we can support her directly, and what lessons we can take from her experiences to emulate in our own communities. The first interview, coming this Tuesday, will feature Allegra Love, founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. This immigration lawyer is inspiring and tough, but also offers supremely useful tips for helping our local nonprofits without overwhelming them.

Read more about the effort here. I hope some of you will follow Shadow Cabinet (you can sign up via email on that site, right-hand column, or follow along on Twitter @shadowcabinet45) and contact me if you have any suggestions.

I hope to get back to blogging about Costa Rican language and culture soon, but in the meantime, you might enjoy a new series I began over at The Tico Times entitled “The World in Costa Rica” – stories of immigration to Costa Rica in all its rich and diverse forms.

Thanks again for all your support!

An interview about ‘Love’

kso-pic-smallThis was an amazing week and I’m so grateful to you for your comments and shares! Earlier this year, Tico Times Managing Editor (and fellow writer-mom) Jill Replogle asked me some great questions about Costa Rica, writing, juggling family and the immigrant vs. expat debate. The TT published the interview on Monday and I’m proud to share it here as well. 

…Stanley, 37, arrived in Costa Rica in 2004 and has worked as a reporter, editor, speechwriter and freelance writer, as well as in a variety of roles in the nonprofit sector. After the birth of her daughter in San José in 2013, she began writing about Costa Rican language and culture, both on her personal blog, The Dictionary of You, and in a popular Tico Times column called Maeology. Many of these writings are included in the new book, which follows our Publications Group’s first title, “The Green Season,” by Robert Isenberg (2015).

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