When you study Spanish in Antigua Guatemala and set out to practice with the locals you meet around town, one of the first questions you will hear is, “Where are you from?”
For travelers from most countries, this is a harmless question and they can answer it easily: Inglaterra, Canadá, Alemania, Australia, or whatever country they call home. Americans, however, are at a distinct disadvantage, since the United States’ founders saw fit to name the country after the continent instead of choosing a unique name.
In English you can safely say “I’m American,” but the attempt to translate this harmless-looking sentence to Spanish will lead you straight into a minefield. While “America” is essentially synonymous with “United States of America” in English and many other languages, Spanish speakers see things differently.
In Spanish, America is the entire continent, from Greenland to Patagonia and the islands of the South Atlantic. All inhabitants of this great continent are Americanos, not just those who live in the United States. Thus saying that you are Americano is about as useful as saying “I’m European” or “I’m Asian” and displays a lack of cultural sensitivity that does not sit well with many Latin Americans, even if they let you get away with it without a pointed “Me too!”
But if Americano is out, what do you call yourself?
Good question! Unfortunately it’s also one that doesn’t have a simple answer; not even one that everyone can agree on.
You have several options, but all of them have their pros and cons:
Close enough to the English word “American” to be easily remembered, norteamericano appears to be the preferred term and is also given by many dictionaries as the translation of choice. Technically, however, North America is more than just the United States; it includes Canada and Mexico as well.
While most Mexicans don’t seem to care, Canadians sometimes object to the term being usurped by the US. They appear to be fighting a losing battle, though. Outside of a geographical context, norteamericano is generally understood to refer to the US, not to the entire North American continent.
Many find this artificial construction — a contraction of estados unidos with an adjective word ending tacked on — awkward and hard to pronounce. While the word is an improvement over norteamericano in that its scope does not include Canada, inhabitants of the United Mexican States could claim the term with equal right.
In reality, however, estadounidense is understood to refer to the United States of America, not the Mexican ones. Mexicans don’t call themselves estadounidenses, even if it would be correct. They simply call themselves Mexicanos.
Many Americans will be reluctant to call themselves gringos since the word is often perceived to have negative connotations. That’s not necessarily the case, however. A lot depends on the speaker’s tone of voice here. In expressions like productos gringos — products made in the US — gringo describes not only the origin of the product, but also implies good quality.
The scope of gringo is widening, however, and many Latin Americans have come to apply the word to any light-skinned foreigner. On the other hand, foreigners who call themselves gringos are still understood to be US Americans.
Given the drawbacks of each of the adjectives above, you will eventually meet someone who objects to your choice, no matter which word you use. Don’t worry too much about that. You can’t please everyone.
There is a solution for purists and perfectionists, though: Do away with the adjectives altogether and say de los estados unidos de America instead. This way you avoid the shortcomings of norteamericano, estadounidense and gringo, while still being perfectly clear about where you live. It is quite a mouthful, though, and if you take this approach more than once or twice during the same conversation, you will sound stilted and pedantic.
You see, there are several ways around the “American” minefield, even though none of them is perfect. Choose the one that makes the most sense to you — or the one you find easiest to pronounce — and use it whenever you need a safe way to say “American” in Spanish.
Just remember: Never call yourself Americano!