Costa Ricans are recognized as Ticos, and they proudly call themselves. Where does this word come from? If you become friends with a Tico, it is likely that sooner or later you will hear one of his most characteristic phrases: “Pura vida, mae!”.
It is easy to find out that we are talking about someone from Costa Rica, right? Although you probably didn’t need the clue, since “tico” is one of the most popular colloquial names to refer to the population of this Central American country.
And it’s not the only one. In this region, there are many other ways (in addition to the official name) to refer to Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Hondurans… We speak of hypocoristic, a generally affectionate designation to refer to those born in a place.
Some of these names are liked by the inhabitants of these Central American countries, others not so much. Of some its origin is known with exactitude and of others there are a multitude of theories.
What is the origin of the name of each country in Latin America?
Costa Rica: Ticos
The popular Tico comes from the widespread custom among Costa Ricans to use the suffix “-ico” or “-ica” as a diminutive when speaking. For this reason, it is common in the country to hear words like “momentico”, “fotico” or “patico” as more colloquial and generally affectionate forms. The suffix “-ico” is also used in areas of other Central American and Caribbean countries and even in Spanish communities such as Navarra and Aragon, but in Costa Rica it is undoubtedly a hallmark of its own.
And although it is not clear when the name “ticos” began to become popular, one of the most widespread theories states that it was in the Central American Homeland War (1856-1857) against the filibusters of William Walker. During this conflict, the armies of other countries became aware of the frequency with which Costa Rican soldiers used the formula “-ico” when speaking (as when they said “hermaniticos” to refer to their compatriots) and ended up calling them “ticos”. From this same name comes Tiquicia (typical of / related to the Ticos), the colloquial way in which its inhabitants refer to Costa Rica.
Curiously, it is in the same conflict, the Central American Homeland War, in which the origin of the most popular colloquial name for Hondurans is framed. General Florencio Xatruch was the one who led the hundreds of Honduran soldiers who participated in this war against the filibusters who wanted to reestablish slavery in Nicaragua, with the intention of later extending it to all of Central America.
His troops were popularly known as “xatruches” or “xatruchos”. But that word was difficult to pronounce for many and the term was modified in speech until it reached the current “catrachos”.
The trajectory of Xatruch, considered by many as a hero for contributing to the Central American victory and reaching the presidency of Honduras in a fleeting way in 1871, makes Hondurans proudly use this word to refer to themselves. “There is no other people more ‘macho’ than the Catracho people,” says a popular motto used in the country taken from the lyrics of a traditional song called “Corrido a Honduras”. The creator of it, the artist Tino López, however, was not Catracho but Nicaraguan.
El Salvador: Guanacos
The colloquial way of referring to its inhabitants does not enjoy the same unanimous acceptance in El Salvador, probably due to the very different versions that exist about their origin. One of them has to do with the mammal of this name, a member of the camelid family (like alpacas and llamas) native to the Andes. But its remoteness from El Salvador would make it difficult for the animal to be known in Central America for centuries, which means that several experts do not support this theory. The truth is that this animal is slow and not very agile, and this bothers some Salvadorans because of the comparison. Others, on the other hand, emphasize the ability of the guanaco to withstand large loads over long distances, thus highlighting its reputation as hard-working people.
Another theory more supported by historians points to the time before the arrival of the Spanish, when indigenous groups held fraternity meetings called huanacax in the current territory of El Salvador. The meetings were made under large trees that today we know as guanacastes (from the Nahuatl huanacaxtle), also called Conocastes, among many other names). And, for this reason, the inhabitants of those lands would have ended up calling them guanacos.
Another theory points to Guanahaní, the first island in the Antilles where Columbus landed when he arrived in America and which he renamed San Salvador. When the conqueror Pedro de Alvarado also renamed Cuscatlán as San Salvador, the inhabitants of this new city would have been called with the same name of guanahicos, which would later evolve into guanacos.
Other theories point to the use that in the 19th century was made in Guatemala of the term guanaco to refer with a certain derogatory tone to those who did not live in the city, or even to those from other Central American countries.
Another colloquial gentilicio although less known to Salvadorans is Cuzcatlecos, as the inhabitants of the old manor of Cuscatlán were called, whose territory covered central and western El Salvador until it was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.
And why are Guatemalans popularly known as chapines? This was the name of shoes with large platforms or heels that became popular among upper-class women in 16th-century Spain. Their name comes from the noise they made when using them on cobbled streets (chap, chap, chap …). With the colony, this footwear also arrived in Guatemala from the hand of the Spaniards, who began to be identified with some sarcasm as chapines.
The Captaincy General of Guatemala was for centuries the one that controlled the commerce and other economic activities of the Central American territories, which aroused suspicions in the region before the power and centralism imposed by the chapines.
After independence, however, those born in Guatemala to Spanish parents proudly adopted and preserved the gentilicio, as in a way it reflected the status and social category that they had maintained for so many years. Over time, the word chapín stopped referring to the privilege of the more affluent classes to become the pride of any Guatemalan.
Nicaragua: Nicas, nicoyas, pinoleros, mucos, and chochos
Nicaragua is undoubtedly the Central American country with the greatest colloquial nicknames for its inhabitants. Nica, short for Nicaraguan, is the most used form both inside and outside the country.
The nicas also call themselves pinoleros (which comes from pinol, a popular drink made from corn) or nicoyas (derived from the term nicas and with possible reference to the peninsula of the same name, today part of Costa Rica but which belonged to Nicaragua until the 19th century).
But there are other names that, although not popular within Nicaragua, are used by neighboring countries to refer to Nicaraguans. This is the case of mucos (the animal that is missing a horn or part of the horns and that is applied to the Nicaraguan because of their habit of not pronouncing the final “s” of the words) or chochos, a word widely used in Nicaragua to express surprise or amazement.
Panama also shows in this aspect its differences with respect to the rest of Central America since, without a doubt, it is the country in the region where the most popular name is the official one: simply, Panamanians.
If we had to highlight another way of calling its population, it would probably be istmeños, referring to the narrow “land bridge” that forms its territory and that connects South America with the rest of the continent.
Why does it matter to know when the Isthmus of Panama was formed? Why do not many Central Americans think of Panama when they talk about Central America (and vice versa)? Without going any further, the national anthem of Panama, one of its greatest national symbols, is called “Himno Istmeño”.
Another somewhat popular way of referring to Panamanians is through the term panas, although this form is usually used by some foreigners who live in the country and never by the local population.