Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going to Costa Rica and learning I was a Gringo

What is a Gringo and why do I use the term in my blog The Gringo Guy? Any term commonly used to describe the people of the United States is inherently problematic. The most common name used to describe English speakers from the U.S. is American. However, every person from the Alaskan Straights to Tierra del Fuego is geographically American. I do use the term American to refer to refer to myself and other people of U.S. origin because this is how they refer to themselves, especially in groups outside of their own country. I first learned the nuances of identity when I went to live in Costa Rica. You can see me below as a much younger Anthony (Tony) Spencer in the cloud forest of Monteverde in Costa Rica.

I lived off and on in Costa Rica for many years. That is when I first confronted my identity as an “American.” I arrived in Costa Rica in 1993 as a 20-year old student ready to fully integrate into Costa Rican life. I spoke passable Spanish and fully invested myself in university and community life. I never fully adapted. But, I did make some incredible efforts. Costa Rica is a relatively small country and a the time there was a large U.S. influence, though not at all what it is today.

                                Map Courtesy University of Texas Libraries
I spent a year in the country’s capital San José studying at the Universidad de Costa Rica (University of Costa Rica) While I did not fully integreate I believe I did cross linguistic and cultural barriers better than many others.  Not only did I make extreme efforts to improve my Spanish, I attempted to speak as much like a genuine Costa Rican. Many Costa Rican friends would mercilessly make me practice Spanish to obtain just the right Costa Rican accent or insist I learn local vocabulary, essentially helping me to speak Tico as much as I possibly could. Through countless visits to their homes in the Central Valley and other parts of the country I was instructed on how “to be” a Costa Rican. My Spanish improved immensely but I never got rid of my accent completely. But, that is ok with me.
I learned that I was a Gringo in Costa Rica. When speaking Spanish, Costa Ricans primarily refer to an American by using the word Gringo for a man and Gringa for a woman. In many Latin American nations, such as Mexico, Gringo conveys an inherently negative connotation. In Costa Rica this is not usually the case.  I have personally witnessed Americans who are familiar with Costa Rican culture refer to themselves as Gringos when speaking in both English and Spanish. So, I started to do the same.
I have been thinking a lot about Costa Rica and the time I spent there as I am preparing to go to a conference at the Universidad de Costa Rica in December. This time I go back as a conference presenter analyzing what that 20 year old kid experienced so long ago. I would like to continue my discussion on Costa Rica and travel to that country in future posts. I have seen the popularity of the country skyrocket to both its benefit and detriment.


  1. Such a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Your passion makes me want to travel there.

    GREAT post

  3. Hey Anthony,
    I posted before but I did it wrong! My reaction to your blog was about the word Gringo in Bolivia. In Bolivia, just about anyone who has white skin is a gringo. So it was fun to hear Bolivians talk about the gringo from Greece or Germany or England or what-have-you. Even some black U.S. Americans were not gringos. That always made me laugh. Makes me want to go back to Bolivia just to explore the word "gringo" some more!

  4. What an interesting comment about the word Gringo. It tells us a lot about the ways we construct race and identity. I have never been to Bolivia. Would love to go. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Kristi & Paula thank you for your kind comments. I hope to inspire people to travel. I have so much to learn about blogging. I am such a newbie!