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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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