Thursday, November 14, 2013

Being Gringa

In Michigan, there’s a light-hearted debate over whether we should be called “Michiganders” or the clumsier “Michiganians.” (The governor agrees with the former, as does my computer’s spell-check.) People from Ohio are Ohioans and Hoosiers come from Indiana, for some reason. There are as many names for residents as there are states, which is why I was so flabbergasted when I sat down to write something about my home country and realized there doesn’t seem to be a word for someone from there.

“I’m proud to be an American,” but so are Guatemalans and Peruvians – technically, the term refers to everyone from Canada to Chile. Yes, the United States of America is the only country with “America” in its name, but the blind coopting of the term “American” can still be offensive to the rest of the countries that make up the "Americas". This is even worse because of the already-stark power imbalance between the rich USA and countries just an inch south on the globe who struggle with widespread poverty.

It's interesting coming from the majority culture in one of the most powerful countries in the world: before I came to Honduras I'd never experienced being the only one of my race on a bus or in a downtown market. I'd never realized how subtly minorities were marginalized. Did you know clothing stores still light-pink items in the color "nude"? Being in the majority, whether that's race or nationality, brings with it the privilege of being the "default." Culturally, you're "normal," everyone else needs to define themselves by their distinction from you.

Here, I look like less than 8% of the population. But even that doesn't completely change the power dynamic. Imported U.S. media, music, and films perpetuate ideals of a certain body type or hue of skin. Even Hispanic telenovelas feature actresses who don’t look very much like the typical Hispanic woman. But I’m still a small minority here, and I have my own name:

“Gringa!” a little boy shouts, giggling as he tucks his head back into the window to hide. Most adults are too polite to use that to my face, but the children will point and shout if their parents aren’t watching. Some North Americans don’t like it -- part of the objection over labels may come from never having been labeled by someone else before -- but as long as it’s in love, I don’t mind “Gringo” or “Gringa.”

There is a word in Spanish for someone from the United States – “Estadounidense” – but it’s a mouthful and I’ve never heard it used. More often I’ll hear “Norteamericano,” but technically that lumps Canada and sort of Mexico in with us. And when we ask Hondurans to tell us their thoughts about the USA, the use of the word “American” is often one of the first things they mention. “We’re Americans too,” they tell us.

“Gringo” really isn’t a slur. Usually it just means “someone who’s not from around here.” I’ve heard conflicting stories about its origins. One version says it stems from American troops who marched and sang either “Green Grow the Lilacs” or “Green Grow the Rushes.” “Green Grow” became “Gringo” to those who didn’t speak English. Another version says it stems from a protest cry; that Mexicans or Central Americans would shout “Green, go home!” at the U.S. soldiers who were either dressed in green or wore green stripes on their uniforms.

Academically, linguists thinks “gringo” may be a version of the word “griega,” which means “Greek.” Spanish, too, has an expression that translates into “it’s all Greek to me,” and foreigners who are unintelligible are said to be “speaking in Greek.” Regardless of its origins, over the 150+ years the word has been in use, the word has become pretty neutral. If it’s yelled at me in the street, it’s not my favorite thing; but between friends, I’ll own the term with a grin.

Words are never unimportant. Labels affect the way we see things, both consciously and unconsciously. Even if Panamanians and Uruguayans didn’t mind that we use the word “American,” how does that affect the way we think about ourselves and our place in this hemisphere?

Whether the terms I hear are ideal or not, I am a foreigner here.  If labels bothers us, why not think about the terms we use with "others" when we're back in the majority? I know I'm not exempt from this system. While I’m waiting for a shorter, more neutral, or catchier word to describe where I’m from, I’m okay with being “Gringa.”

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