What Lies Behind the Use of the Word “Gringo”


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!”

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  1. Gringo carries the feelings that the person using the term has for foreigners. If someone who dislikes foreigners uses the word it is perjorative, if they like foreigners it is not. As a foreigner I use it regularly since it is a handy and succinct way of referring to a foreigner in Colombia. I think most Colombians use it because it’s shorter than extranjero. I’ve only seen Colombians who have an axe to grind against foreigners or the USA use it as a perjorative.

  2. Can’t say that I like being called a gringo, it just sort of singles me out as a foreigner and different. I don’t think it’s used in an offensive way by Colombians. The tourist industry and expat community in Colombia are still in infancy and Colombians are still learning to deal with us. If Canadians or possibly Americans had a term to describe all latinos similar to gringo I think it would be condemned as racist pretty well unanimously. Honestly the term ‘mono’ always pissed me off a lot more. Monkey? Yep… Never been happy about that one.

    • Yea, I’ve been referred to as gringo and to a lesser degree, mono. Gringo no longer bothers me as I have a better understanding of why it’s used.

      The first time I heard mono, I felt offended. Then I learned it’s used to refer to people with fair skin. Seeing Colombians use it with each other took any sting out of it, but I still don’t like it.

      The best recourse is to tell the person your name so you give him/her another option. Colombians are generally polite, he/she should take the cue.

      • Yeah, there’s no malice behind it. Just one of those things you have to get use to moving to a new country. It’s a hell of a lot better than some other places…

        In Guyana people just yelled “whitey” or “white boy” at me every time I left my house in the capital. Again no mal-intent just curiosity and lack of experience with foreigners. (At least from the few I actually stopped and talked to).

    • I understand your concern, Stu, but I wouldn’t let “mono” bother you. All my Colombian friends with light features have the nickname mono. That one is universal…

    • I’m Colombian (from Medellín) and I just wanted to let you know that mono doesn’t monkey! It means blond! I would say probably 90% of the population is naturally brunette so we call people with blond hair “Mono”, even if they are more paisa than arepas.

      BTW, in Medellín, and most of Colombia we call monkeys “micos”

  3. @Stu: Although you’re right that ‘mono’ can mean monkey, in Colombia ‘mono’ does also generally refer to someone with a white skin. See http://www.jergasdehablahispana.org/index.php?pais=Colombia&palabra=mono “mono (Colombia) 1) (sust./adj.) rubio, de piel blanca.”

    About the word ‘Gringo’: language is fluid. A word has meaning for the speaker, another person might have another definition. For some it might mean ‘foreigner’ (I’m Dutch and called ‘gringo’), for other ‘[North] American’; for some it might have a negative connotation, for others not. In Colombia it generally is not negative, so don’t presume it is.

    Another example: black people are called ‘negros’ here. Even the not-black Colombians with a slightly darker skin (especially those who have to work a lot in the sun) are called ‘negro’. I think you shouldn’t try that in the USA, but again: here it generally is just a neutral term referring to the color of someones skin.

  4. >>>If Canadians or possibly Americans had a term to describe all latinos similar to gringo

    Don’t we have two: “Latino”. and “Hispanic”?

    • Well Jose, I think you will find that “latino” and “hispanic” refer to the language spoken. There are several variations on the original language of Spain throughout the different countries in South (or Latin) America, Central America and the Caribbean, and Spanish is based on Latin as are many languages in Southern Europe. Since language tends to engender culture it is quite acceptable to refer to Hispanic or Latin culture. Similarly English speaking cultures or people have the prefix “anglo”. The word “gringo” however does not refer to language or culture, and a similar word, i.e. not referring to language and culture, to describe Latin Americans would probably be considered offensive; indeed, some already exist and tend not to be used by civilised people.

  5. Great article and well done interview. I’ve been called a falangi in the South Pacific, mazunga in Africa, and gringo in Mexico and Colombia. I have never felt it was an insult unless the tone and context was meant to offend. Still, it’s reassuring to me that the majority agree with my take on it. I’ll add that I’ve heard the word gringo used more by ‘gringos’ than by the locals in all cases.

  6. Some things get crazy, ie, in the US we called people Negroes (gosh a Spanish word for black) that became offensive, then we just called them Black, and that became offensive. I don’t believe Afro-American will become offensive but since they are American (as US citizens we do call ourselves that) that one day, they too, will just wish to call themselves Americans. The Afro-Americans have tried several derogatory terms for white people one of them being what crackers but I don’t believe that the majority group really cares what they are called and see taking offense as being silly. The indigenous (or the Spanish word indígena which was corrupted as India was much of a slight but then that became a slight and now they wish to be called native Americans. I have to believe that there are a lot of people out there who just have a need to perpetuate dissension. We have a few that are professionals at this in the USA and it makes them wealthy and powerful for no real reason.

    • What seems silly us when people refer to a dark-skinned European, for example, as being ” Afro-American”..USA doesn’t quite control the WHOLE world, yet.

  7. For me this was an interesting article. I am Mexican-American and grew up most of my life in USA. We have kid of used the term in a joking way to those who were really white skinned. We used it a lot as a joking term with my father, who is although Mexican decent, was very light skinned and spoke little spanish.

    I had never been called gringo my whole life, but that changed when I moved to Bogota. Most people had assumed I was Colombian due to my skin color and my ability to speak spanish, but when my friends learned I was from USA they referred to me as Gringo. I was offended. I had never been called that ever in my life. It was odd because we used it in the USA as a joking and derogatory term. And now for me as a Hispanic man being called a gringo, it started to make me angry because I was not white skinned and I did speak Spanish.

    After time I did start to get used to it. I guess it all comes down to perspective.

    • You bring up an interesting point, Erick.
      I know a Colombian that grew up in the US and his Colombian friends call him “el gringo”-as a nickname-lovingly. He accepted it quickly and answers to it without hesitation. I agree that it’s about perspective and, like I said in the story, about intention but overall It’s a good way to see how words like this one are so dynamic.

  8. “race isn’t a matter of critical importance here” . . . . . .Really? Seriously? You might want to ask Afro-Colombians if they are treated fairly in Colombian society.

    • Mark,
      I think to say that Afro-Colombians, or “Negros” as they are called here openly by others and themselves, are mistreated is a bit of an overstatement. As is “Negros are treated equally”. There are Afro-Colombians in every social class and circumstance and they are treated in different ways. I do not mean to say that Colombians are blind to color: all of us notice color, no matter our nationality. However, It is not common for a colombian, at least the ones I’ve had experience with, to reject another person because he or she is black, white, asian or otherwise.

      Racial discrimination isn’t unheard of in Colombia, with that I agree. What I am saying is that you don’t find it on every street corner.

      • How many black Colombians are in the federal government, Congress? Pretty small number. ? In the federal police?

      • No, it’s likely moreicommon to be rejected based on your earnings, job, social class, whether your mommy and daddy come from a suitably rich, connected family, or not..but the vast majority if those are white families, just a coincidence, no doubt.

  9. @Mark Anyone who says that “negro” has in and of itself negative connotations (or implies racism) should hear “Embrujo” or “Piel Canela”. In Colombia, negro(a), mono(a), or even gringo(a) could be used as slurs (in some cases), but are mostly used as cute nicknames. It’s very common to hear couples referring to each other as “negrito” or “monita”.

  10. I have lived in Medellin for over eleven years. A Minnesotan of Polish ancestry I have experienced numerous derogatory comments in my direction, to be mean, or a humor in my lifetime. None here however. When I first arrived ‘gringo’ when said was never said as a put down. There is a difference in tone and intention when it is. I have met some North Americans who seem to find offense moment to moment no matter what anyone does or says. I imagine there are some native Colombians who react / act that way as well. I have no experience of that however. I like this article a lot because it covers the entire category completely. Some people just seem to live with their undies in a bunch.

    • If you go looking for a reason to be unhappy you can always find it. Mom was a banker. She always said if someone really angers you then buy the place they live and evict them.

  11. Excuses, excuses,excuses! So these innocent little people are only using the word affectionately to refer to foreigners, because the word “extranjero” or “turista” is way too difficult for them to say. The problem is that when Latin Americans come to settle in Europe, where they are the foreigners, many continue to refer to their hosts as “gringos”, and you can rest assured that it is not said affectionately! How much longer do you propose to explain away a word which does not even have a definition that the majority can agree upon? I have a name, a nationality, a language and a culture, all of which I am proud of, and none of which is represented by this stupid word.

  12. Anytime you make up a unique word or phrase for people of another race or nationality or ancestry, etc… it’s going to eventually be used negatively by a lot of racists. The fact is it does set one people apart from another. The word is divisive, it creates a “us and them” based on differences and hence sets the stage to create intolerance.

  13. Possibly the reason all the foreigners say they hear other foreigners use the word “gringo” more than they hear locals do, is because people tend to use it to refer to others behind their backs, rather than to their face, or mention it when a “gringo” can hear them..nkt unlike the N word, or the F wird, used to refer to gay men.
    At least that’s what Latino friends have told me..that Latinos will tend to say that ABOUT you, not directly TO you..unless they are drunk, high and/or want to fight. What’s the point if a word grouping people by National origin, stereotyping. ? Ohh, it’s SO hard to say turista or extranjero? Lol..
    Probably some people could convince you thatvthey mean no harm when they refer to Mexicans as “beaners”..well maybe some do, some don’t.
    In Spain they have the word “guiri” , meaning foreigner, mistly from northern Europe or UK, possibly from North America.
    But they usually use it again, to refer to people behind their backs, nit to their face..it carries connotations of being fat, loud, rude, sunburned, wearing a loud shirt and shirts, sandals with white socks, being uncool..” no guay”, not speaking Spanish, but probably English ir German, maybe Russian. Or other.

    Personally I prefer to be called ” un vaso de leche”, or just leche, or chele in Latin America. 🙂 seems cute.

  14. I am not USA but my skin is white (Hungarian)
    For me I resident now of South America
    Was annoyed as I had idea to believe Gringa meant USA person not European (we are Definetñy not the same)
    How can you know when is means USA citizen and when it means White skin/foreign

  15. It depends who says it…it is derogatory in most cases…I notice not many of you look at it from the view of those being slurred..when mexicans say it towards whites..it is hostile…I would just assume they call me a white “n*****.”…oh but if I were to call a colombian a narcotrafficante..it would be offensive and not well received..

    I am white and american…the way I see it when I am called gringo..its a slur..kind of like saying F*** you white man…