Alabama Honduras Medical Educational Network
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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Will the REAL American Please Stand Up?

Almost a year ago several AHMEN members got together to talk about increasing our organization's web presence.  Since then, some of us have started a blogging campaign.  Others have joined ongoing email conversations.  The AHMEN web page is evolving into something more functional, and Facebook has helped centralize AHMEN's mission statement as a part of our daily consciousness.  With the Internet we are all starting to realize that working with AHMEN is not confined to a single yearly visit to Honduras.  With the communication tools available to us we can mobilize a perpetual conversation between everyone involved in building Honduras' stable bridge to the future.  As we begin talking, though, what we say counts.  As we spread the good news, we must consider our word choices.  Using some words can impede the development of the type of constructive relationships AHMEN seeks to build.  As missionaries we may need to be more careful using some of the following words and phrases:


On our final evening in Copan for the 2011 Project Honduras Conference, the AHMEN contingency and our new friend, Raquel, sat down to a delicious meal and a lively conversation.  In the midst of a monsoon of epic proportions, we visited one of the locally-run restaurants and ordered a "meat party" for the table.  This particular meat party came with grilled steak, pork, chicken, and sausage, but one would have thought it was full of lengua the way everyone began discussing their perception of the term “American.” With such an assorted group at the table (1 ex-military from the US, 1 ex-military who grew up in Honduras as a US citizen, 1 Honduran-born US citizen who worked for the World Bank, 1 doctor from US, 1 teacher from US, and 1 Brazillian volunteering in Honduras), we heard an array of opinions...and not a few strong feelings.

Will the REAL American Please Stand Up?

So what does it mean to be an "American?"  Well, the two most obvious ways to define the term are geographically and nationally.  First, any second grader can tell you that anyone living in the Western Hemisphere lives on one of the two American continents.  People living in North and South America are "Americans."  People from these two continents living elsewhere in the world are also still Americans.  On the other hand, people from the United States of America describe their nationality as American.  Many people throughout the Americas find this behavior offensive.  To many, claiming the title "American," to only signify a person from the United States revives a colonialist/imperialist mentality the 3/4 world would prefer relegated to the past.  For others, the term "American" symbolizes the freedom and opportunity for success specifically foundational to the United States.  It can be misleading for a person from the United States to speak in such a way as to suggest "Americans" are only from the United States; however, there is no other word in the English language to define a person from the United States.  People from Canada are called Canadians.  People from Mexico are called Mexicans (Mexicanos).  People from Honduras are Hondurans (Hondureños). Nonetheless, Canadians, Mexicans, and Hondurans are all "Americans."  Perhaps it is time to coin a new term to refer to people from the United States.  Some vacationers we met in Copan suggested the term "United Statians."  I have started beta testing the term with mixed results...


During our missions experience this past summer in La Esperanza and Utila, our team took part in a discussion of cultural sensitivity.  One word that kept coming up during these conversations was the word "gringo."  After asking several Hondurans about the term, our team learned that the term refers to non-Spanish Speakers, people from the United States and Canada, and Europeans.  To make the subject a little more confusing, I have also been  told by several Mexican-Americans that the term "gringo" only refers to white people.  I don't know whether this is the case in Honduras, but I feel like the term is across the board more descriptive than derogatory.  Being called a "gringo," however, can be an entirely different situation altogether. In 1788 there was a difference between being labeled an “Anti-Federalist” and one using the term to describe one's own political leanings. In missiology there is a HUGE difference between viewing one's self a “heathen” and being called such by a missionary.  Our legendary friend and taxi driver in Copan, Daniel Quintanilla, says he does not use the term "gringo" because it's bad for business.  He says "United Statians" don't like being called gringos because it singles them out in a land where they are already obviously different. Whether using the term is also bad for mission work is up for debate.  In mission work, as in life, I guess we have to be aware of our audience.

....but it might help further our shared goals in Honduras


Two summers ago I traveled to Limon with Dr. Fran Kunda's team from CarolinaHonduras Health Foundation.  This particular visit changed the way I think about what is possible in Honduras.  Dr. Fran's team has built a special relationship with Sister Leonarda's Home of Hope, a home for children who have lost their parents and caretakers due to the tough living conditions in Honduras.  Some of the 50 or so kids living there lost their parents to violence, the economic necessity of a remittance lifestyle, and health problems such as HIV-AIDS.  I was aware of the situation before ever setting foot into Sister Leonarda's home, and to be honest, I did not expect a very positive experience.  As usual, however, I was waaaay off! As I walked across the sandy, beachfront patio through the dark, sea-bitten door into Sister Leonarda's, an immense positive energy hit me like a ton of bricks, and I immediately began to weep through an emotional overload.  In the middle of nowhere, in the midst of uncertain living conditions and dire odds, these children flourish in a home where their basic human needs for worldly and spiritual bread was/is being met. Taken aback does not explain the way I felt...

No Words Necessary

Toward the end of the week I met with Sister Leonarda to talk with her about the future AHMEN-SIFAT workshops coming to the area.  In my comically-beleaguered Spanish I opened with the phrase "Estoy impresionado con su orphanato."  As if I kicked her in the stomach, Sister Leonarda quickly corrected me by saying "Este no es un orfanato...Este es nuestro hogar!" (This is not an orphanage...This is our home!).  She went on to say that an orphanage is for people without a home, who do not have a family.  Sister Leonarda told me that none of the children living with her could be considered orphans because they have both a home and a family.  What she was telling me was that "orphan" and "orphanage" are terms used by onlookers and not by the people being judged.  In other words, "orphan" and "orphanage" are pessimistic terms; notwithstanding, the positive energy of the children, teenagers, and young adults living at Sister Leonarda's Home of Hope is anything but negative.  Their energy is an example of what a strong, caring leader and community can achieve.

Sister Leonarda and her family

The fact that these terms came to light at this year's Project Honduras Conference lets me know we need to pay attention.  On more than one occasion a speaker at the conference would use the words "orphan" or "orphanage" to describe a child or group of children living apart from one or more biological parents.  And as if in some "call and response" do-se-do, during the question and answer period an individual would stand up to say how the terms "orphan" and "orphanage" were misleading and offensive.  One of the most endearing responses came from Director of Legal Affairs with Amigos de Jesus, Suyapa Sabillon who said calling a child an orphan tears at his self-worth like the bacteria in Honduran drinking water devastates foreigners' GI tracts....WOW!  Hearing that taking offense to the terminology was not isolated to one children's home in Limon let me know that we should be very careful when using the terms "orphan" and "orphanage." AHMEN can't risk muffling a growing child's sense of self worth...

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The three preceding terms are ones which have been brought to my attention.  What terms have you come across which we might need use with more discretion?  What terms should we use more freely?  AHMEN has built a special relationship with local communities across Honduras for over thirteen years now.  When we leave the United States and cross the border into Honduras we have to remember that people do pay attention to us....and it's not just the chartreuse green t-shirts!  Knowing this, we have to represent what is best about our country.  When we travel to Honduras with AHMEN we do so as ambassadors of the United States and AHMEN.  This is an issue less about political correctness than it is character. One word can make a difference when building relationships based on love, trust, and mutual respect....Let's make sure we use the most appropriate ones! 



  1. Interesting article... have you tried using north americans instead of gringos or united statians???
    God bless you as you continue helping our country
    take care. thanks

  2. Well it is funny that you mention the "Gringo" thing. I work with many different people from South America, Central America and several of the different Islands in the Caribbean and even though they all speak Spanish; they tend to speak Spanish different forms of Spanish. Many words may be the same, but plenty of them have different meaning or different ways the word is to be used.

    The word "Gringo" I would definitely have to say (in my opinion only)would be mainly used to describe the "White Man." Me personally, I have never heard the word used in a way to describe a black or Asian man. I would also say by the way that it is mainly used here in the United States that it is a derogatory term, but I am sure the farther away you get from the U.S. that the nicer the word is. What I am trying to say that term in Mexico is used in a derogatory fashion while in a place like Honduras it is just used to describe the people that are kind enough to come to there aid.

    I am proud of my brother as I am with all of my family and I believe that the people they go to help are very appreciative for there help.

  3. Hi Otoniel, thanks for the response. Many folks use the the term "North American" to describe people from the US Canada, but folks from the US and Canada don't use term to describe themselves. Honduras is geographically part of N. America....so it could be confusing. However, I hardly could see the term "North America" as offensive. Good ideas!

    Danny, thanks for your thoughts on varying perceptions of the term "gringo." Does anyone else have any thoughts on using the "gringo" in the mission field?