Are you a Gringo?

July 10, 2014

Gringo. Some bristle at the word while others embrace it.

Is it a stand-in for ugly American? A warmhearted nickname? A slanderous sobriquet? There are few things expats come across here that can set off such impassioned debates as a discussion over the word’s weight.

During the American Colony’s July 4 picnic The Tico Times spoke with several U.S. expats, tourists and Costa Ricans about their opinions on the controversial label. Most respondents said the moniker carried a neutral connotation for them, comparing it to Costa Ricans’ diminutive, Tico.

“To me it just means an American traveler who’s in a Latin American country. A white person who speaks in Spanglish, which is probably me!” said a medical spanish student visiting Costa Rica for a month who said her name is Sarah.

Justine Ahle, another student, jumped in, “It’s not offensive to me. It’s like poking fun in a harmless way, like, ‘You don’t get it because you’re a Gringa.’”

“I don’t see it as an offense or anything like that. It’s like saying ‘American,’” said Austin Blanco, a U.S. citizen born and raised in Costa Rica.

The word’s perceived history seemed darker than its current use to many.

“It’s like a slang word. It’s a mean word, in some ways, because it was created after a war, I think,” said Alonso Murillo, a Costa Rican.

Many with whom The Tico Times spoke referenced the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) as the origin of the word. One of the tales refers to the green color of U.S. Army uniforms. Supposedly, Mexicans along the front would call out to the soldiers, “Green go,” demanding the Army leave. Another alludes to a then-popular Irish folk song, “Green grow the lilacs,” which U.S. soldiers were fond of singing. “Green grow,” became “Gringo.”

Mexican sentiment against the United States was understandable. The Treaty of Guadalupe that ended the war ceded huge amounts of Mexican territory to the U.S., including modern-day Arizona, California and New Mexico, and established the Río Grande as the border between Texas and Mexico.

But Gringo might have its roots in Spain nearly 100 years before the Mexican-American War. According to Beatríz Varela, writing in “Spanish Loanwords in the English Language,” “gringo” first appeared in a Spanish dictionary in 1786.

“In Málaga, gringo is what they call foreigners who have a certain kind of accent which prevents their speaking Spanish with ease and spontaneity,” reads the definition, adding that the term especially applies to the Irish.

Varela and several other authors in the book broke with those interviewed by The Tico Times, suggesting that the word is often used as a derogative term for U.S. citizens in Mexico and Central America.

Regardless of the word’s etymology, most respondents agreed that the word’s context was more important than the word itself.

“It depends on what context you’re using, depending on who you’re speaking with and if they’re angry or not,” said Adam Paer, a dual U.S.-Costa Rican citizen who has lived in Costa Rica for 40 years.

Self-described “Gringa” Glynda Perry, who has lived here for eight years as a retiree, said that the word could be used as a pejorative. But Perry added that since moving to Costa Rica her views on the word have changed: “I’ve become immersed in the Tico culture. I feel like I’m very accepted.”

“I think every country has a word for another nationality but I think it’s not to be taken seriously,” opined one Costa Rican woman who gave her name as Ofelia.

Tirza Geibe, who’s lived here for over a year, laughed off the controversy, saying that she’s been confused for both a Yanqui and a Costa Rican.

“I’ve gone from Gringa to Tica, but it doesn’t matter because I’m here and I’m happy,” she said. “I try to speak Spanish and [Costa Ricans] love me, I love them, it’s mutual.”

Marilyn Garcia, a U.S. citizen who’s been in Costa Rica for 13 months on a self-described “long vacation,” said the word didn’t bother her.

“It doesn’t matter as long as you know who you are and where you come from,” she said.

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14 Responses

  1. Now please give us the etymology of “macho,” other than the noun for a male.

  2. My family and I lived in Costa Rica, in the small town of Paso Ancho de Oreamuno from June 2013 to June 2014. The town is near Cot and Cartago.
    We never found the term “Gringo” derogatory at all. It was how the people described the new, and only US People they had ever had in the area. We found that Ticos don’t have the hang ups that people in the US do about gender and ethnic rolls. It was quite refreshing, and one of the many things we learned about living Pura Vida for a year!
    Our daughter even didn’t mind being called Gringa or Macha as a nickname in the public school.
    We would also like to thank all the Ticos we met, especially the wonderful ones in Paso Ancho for making our year adventure a great one!
    Pura Vida!

  3. I think it takes more than a year for the romance period to wear off. I certainly do think many Ticos have gender and ethnic “hang ups.” In fact, I think they have many more and stronger hang ups than most Americans do.

    Even though you lived in CR for only a year, I’m surprised that you’d didn’t witness instances of Ticos bashing “Nicas” or overt acts of sexism and machismo. It’s not at all rare to experience those kinds of things in Costa Rica.

    Nor is it rare to hear broad, negative generalizations about Americans and/or the United States. I have not experienced that so much in other countries–including Mexico and Nicaragua, where the people have more justification for being leery of Americans.

  4. Good grief….not yet another ‘Gringo’ debate….how many more of these are Tico times going to publish….who gives a damn! Everyone comes from the same planet….earth! This constant labelling of people is so backward, it’s just boring! I don’t know if anyone here has heard the term ‘globalisation’…..the world is getting smaller, in terms of being able to communicate with each other, barriers are being broken down every day…except in the Tico times it would appear!….heres a ground breaking idea for you….why not just call people……people…..Wow there’s an idea…..I wonder if it will catch on!

  5. As a Naturalized Tico that was originally German I find being called “Gringo” an insult. That Ticos do not understand that is very telling. It is like me calling them Nicas.

  6. 1928 (n.) “tough guy,” from Spanish macho “male animal,” noun use of adjective meaning “masculine, virile,” from Latin masculus (see masculine). As an adjective, first attested in English 1959.

  7. Wow Enoch – “If we really wanted to insult you, we’d call you Canadian??” Not sure what our country has done to make you such an angry little dude. It’s touching that you lump us all into one horrible pile.

  8. The fact that an actual Costa Rican says it’s used primarily in a derogatory way should tell the ex-pats living there something. Especially the one that says she “tries” to speak Spanish.

    How do you know if it’s used in a negative way when you can’t even speak the language of the country you are living in?

    I don’t have a major problem with it when I visit Costa Rica when it’s used in conversation. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for a publisher like the Tico Times to use it as a standard editorial word to refer to ex-pats or tourists.

    The gringo debate comes up so frequently here because of the fact the Tico Times uses the word as it’s standard go to when referring to an ex-pat or tourist.

    It doesn’t necessarily have as negative connotation as it may have in other countries such as Mexico, but it should tell you something when the actual Tico thinks it does.

  9. After many years in Costa Rica, I embrace my gringo-ness. To do otherwise would be silly. I am gringo gringo gringo. The other day though when a Tico introduced me as a Tico-gringo, I appreciated it. That’s all the more inclusion that is possible or that I want. I am who I am, but I also live here more or less as a Tico. The hyphen works for me.

    As for “macho,” which I’m also often called by strangers, I don’t mind it. However, I can’t shake the Nazi connotations, although here they may be yanqui connotations too. Historically we’re the invading horde, those with the power. I doubt that anyone who uses the term “macho” means this by it (and it is used for blond Latinos too) but I suspect this is the etymology.

  10. The word “macho” or “macha” is Costa Rican slang for the word “rubio” or “rubia” and it means a person with fair hair and skin and usually light eyes. (blond/blonde)

    For us ticos, the word gringo means someone from the U.S. or Canada. It is never offensive. It’s like when people call us “ticos” instead of “costarricenses.”

  11. The word “macho” or “macha” is Costa Rican slang for the word “rubio” or “rubia” and it means a person with fair hair and skin and usually light eyes. (blond/blonde).
    We call “macho” or “macha” to any person, Costa Rican or not, who has light hair. It has nothing to do with one’s nationality.
    Any Costa Rican with light fair hair is a macho or macha.

  12. I lived in Costa Rica from 2002 until 2014 coming from my hometown of San Francisco, CA and I have been visiting the so called nation of Pura Vida since 1983. I have heard the word Gringo used in three separate contexts, as follows:

    1. If an American arrives to live in Costa Rica with a positive Christian attitude accepting Costa Rica as they find it, warts and all, always behaves respectfully toward the Costa Ricans, regardless of their social status, and accepts without too much complaint certain realities that he or she may find morally offensive, e.g., legalized prostitution, clandestine Abortion clinics, rampant alcohol and drug use, an out of control crime rate, especially homicides, corrupt courts, corrupt politicians, homosexual bathhouses, etc., and let us not forget serious and permanent environmental destruction, etc., then the word Gringo will be used in an endearing way.

    2. If an American lives in Costa Rica and imposes the American lifestyle, e.g., the annual Fourth of July celebration, a plethora of fast food restaurants, high rise condominiums on the beachfronts, luxury marinas with megayatchs and mansions, e.g., Los Suenos, murderous hospitals totally unaffordable to the Ticos located in formerly attractive Tico towns, e.g. Ezcazu, then the word Gringo will be used in a less endearing way.

    3. If an American should venture to go live in Costa Rica to escape his tax obligations, perpetrate some type of investment fraud, murder or rape a nice Tico or Tica, etc. then the word Gringo may be used in a very angry way and said Gringo may never be able to return to the United States, if you understand what I mean.

    I really haven’t decided yet if I will be returning to Costa Rica for my upcoming retirement, in about 5 to 6 years, because, after all why leave the good old but GODLESS USA to go to live in Costa Rica when we already have the Pura Vida lifesyle here at home. Amen.

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