I’m a gringo. I don’t take any offense at wearing this descriptor but there are a lot of complicated, cultural issues surrounding the declaration of your nationality here in Costa Rica. Let me explain…
Theories abound regarding the original source of the term gringo. Because I’m lazy I’ll skip the research and summarize the two most popular versions I’ve heard: 1) it came from Spain from a twist of the Greek word “griego” (meaning speech) and was a derogatory way to describe those who couldn’t adequately speak Castilian Spanish, or 2) it derives from the fact that the United States army, who purportedly wore green uniforms, was often spotted from afar advancing on the Mexican Army and “gringo” somehow became an abbreviated way of saying, “If you see green run the other direction.” Green-go = gringo. Note: why Spanish speaking Mexicans would use “green” instead of “verde” and “go” versus “va” is a mystery I’m not going to be able to solve.
I think the first explanation is applicable to my situation, but the second seems like a stretch. We’re a fair distance from Mexico, and the most famous incursion by the United States in this area (a distant second being US activities around the infamous Iran-Contra scandal) dates back to the US citizen/mercenary — William Walker. Mr. Walker’s business card would have been an interesting: doctor, lawyer, mercenary and would-be king.
In 1856 Mr. Walker tried to establish a kingdom for himself in Central America. This kingdom was to be supported by the slave trading business he intended to run. The international airport in San Jose is actually named after the Tico, Juan Santamaría, attributed with defeating Mr. Walker’s mercenary army in an 1857 battle, thus ending the Costa Rican portion of the conflict. Señor Santamaría’s contribution is the stuff of legend, which is another way of saying that some have questioned the details. Stories involving national heroes here or anywhere are best taken as they are, but in any event you probably don’t want to walk around Costa Rica boldly proclaiming yourself to be an “American” on the April 11th national holiday honoring Señor Santamaría.
Another problem with identifying yourself as an “American” is that that many local Ticos, as well a healthy portion of the citizenship of the rest of Central and South America find it derogatory. They too are “Americans.” And, if you find yourself falling into a lengthy debate on this topic — don’t — you’ll likely also be reminded that Columbus never made it to that land that is now called the United States, but did have a brutal reign over territories he “discovered” in Central and South America.
So… the correct way to identify yourself as a citizen of the United States here in Costa Rica is, “Soy estadounidense.” Yeah, that just rolls off the tongue. You’ll also then have to hope that the subsequent conversation doesn’t involve fútbol as the US national team recently beat the tar out of the Costa Rican national team. A large percentage of the US may not care, but the Ticos certainly do.
You may be asking yourself, “If it’s so problematic to say American and your tongue doesn’t allow correct pronunciation of estadounidense just move along and have all of the people not from here (particularly the white ones) call themselves gringos?” I’m all for it as I believe the term invokes the image of a chubby, middle aged white guy and, well… However, my Tico friends who host international students in their homes have stated that many of their visitors, particularly the female students, find it offensive.
I’m also aware that local custom dictates that just about everyone is ascribed a nickname directly connected to either their appearance or their personality. Ticos, gringos (still using it, relax gringas), etc. You can be sure if you’re short that’s going to be the central theme of your nickname. I once met a Latino whose nickname was “Sparky” due to an unfortunate incident involving a TV antennae and a power line. Political correctness doesn’t exist on the nickname front here.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, Ticos don’t share the nickname they’ve assigned to gringos with the gringos. Particularly in this small town where the gringo population is fairly transient, it’s easier for the Tico population to come up with a quick and easy way to reference you in conversations with other Ticos. I have a strong suspicion that I’m better off not knowing my nombre secreto.