Editor’s Note: This is the second story by our newest contributor, Ximena Restrepo.
Recently, I’ve been confronted with an intrigue about the many interpretations of the term “gringo.”
Growing up in the middle of the United States with my Hispanic appearance it wasn’t uncommon for my friends to refer to me as “Latina” and for my acquaintances to assume I was Mexican.
Being called Latina simply referred to my roots so I took no offense, but though I deeply admire Mexican culture and beauty, I understood my context enough to know that, apart from it being an incorrect inference of my origin, being called “Mexican” wasn’t a compliment.
Trust me, I’m no stranger to racial slurs; but — cue flashback of Dorothy — I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Until a few months ago, I was completely unaware that there were so many people who took offense to being associated with the term “gringo.”
To me, as a Colombian, it made no sense: “gringos” are people that we (Colombians) notice as foreign, different in the way they dress, speak, and behave, aren’t they?
The word isn’t derogatory or xenophobic; on the contrary, it has a sort of awe behind it. That is to say, in context, Colombians (specifically those who haven’t deeply interacted with many foreigners before) tend to call them “gringos” in a completely innocent, curious way.
What foreigners sometimes don’t understand is that tourism has grown so quickly in the last decade. When I was a child, I can’t remember ever seeing a foreigner until I traveled to the United States when I was 5, and even then, I was the foreigner, not them.
The go-to reference that foreign = American always is only expressed by a handful of Colombians and isn’t due to a rejection of other foreign cultures. It’s a side effect of the huge influence (commercial, economic, and in media) the United States has had on Latin America.
According to SITUR (Sistema de Indicadores Turísticos), in 2004 a total of 5,531 tourists visited Antioquia, which more than tripled by July of 2013 when 18,836 tourists visited. The amount of foreigners visiting our country is overwhelming and difficult to process.
It’s natural that Colombians have resorted to innocently placing them all in one category: “gringos.” The same way that foreigners speak of us saying “Colombians are so…” or “Paisas always…” Colombians see them as well. It is a simple question of mutual culture shock: Us and Them.
More importantly, as many tourists notice, race isn’t a matter of critical importance here. A foreigner is identified by Colombians because of behavior, dressing preference, brands on their belongings, among (possibly) race related factors, not solely on skin color, so I don’t consider the term at hand a racial slur at all.
Who is a “Gringo?”
NPR blog author Aida Ramírez in her article “Who, exactly, is a Gringo?” states that:
“Gringo can be used to broadly and inoffensively refer to a group of U.S. citizens. I’ve also heard it used as a term for Europeans. I’ve heard the term used as a name for people who don’t speak Spanish. It can also be used to refer to Hispanics who speak very little or no Spanish at all. Gringo is also sometimes used as a name for Hispanics who are not in touch with their Latino roots, or for any person who is ignorant of Latin American culture or history.”
The online Urban Dictionary says “gringo” is the Mexican’s way of referring to U.S. residents and that: “With time it lost all derogatory status and was turned into the most common word to refer to any U.S. citizen.”
The first definition is more consistent with the way I have used and heard the term my entire life, but it is important to emphasize how it has lost derogatory status.
I was surprised to see that some people I knew would stand up and walk away during conversations that included the term at all.
I found that slightly drastic, but the reaction intrigued me. What is it about the word “gringo” that brings discomfort to some? Do people in Medellín use the term in a derogatory way?
The Origin of “Gringo”
The origin of Gringo, admittedly, is blurry. There have been a series of studies that come to conclusions from the Mexican-American War in 1846, in which American troops were dressed in green uniforms and often heard “green go home,” while other theories refer to the green American dollar, still others about marching chants, etc.
Now, before you roll your eyes and say this is old news, consider this: a number of theories point further back to the 17th and 18th centuries about the word being a Spanish (as in from Spain) derivative of “peregrino” or pilgrim, and of “griego,” from an expression of “it’s like you’re speaking Greek” or being misunderstood, meaning the term wouldn’t originally have referred to people from the United States.
In Vocabulario de Mexicanismos, Joaquín García Icazbalceta affirms that:
“The dictionary says only that GRINGO is equal to greek in the way that speaking in GRINGO means doing so in an unintelligible language. It doesn’t apply to people. However, it was already used in Spain more than a century ago.”
He goes on to explain how certain communities have called foreigners from specific places “gringo,” according to how they speak or what language they use. (In Madrid it’s used particularly on Irish and on Italians, the same way in Mexico [and Colombia] it is used on Americans and Europeans.)
All of these explanations derive from linguistic progression. Unfortunately, they didn’t completely answer my question:
Do people in Medellín use the term offensively? I decided, then, to ask people directly.
Straight to the Source
When asked about the origin of the word, all the interviewees said they hadn’t heard of any theory. This could be coincidental, a large amount of people assume that it comes from the Mexican-American war and that this gives it the hue of rejection.
It’s not a means of erasing individuality as a person. On the contrary, calling foreigners “gringos” embraces and welcomes the fact that they’re different.
Even without knowledge of its innocent beginnings, most felt that the term on its own is harmless but could be made offensive in a certain tone or with an added adjective: the same way “Paisa” could, the same way “Colombian” could, the same way “Latino” or “Hispanic” could be made derogatory — with added intention.
Both Us and Them are vulnerable to sensitivities, but the context seems to lead to the idea that Colombians aren’t looking to put foreigners down with a simple, “Oye, Gringo!”