Years ago back when I was living in Cochabamba, Bolivia…
I met this young American guy who had just graduated college.
His name was John and he was an engineer student.
And basically he was spending the summer away in Cochabamba, Bolivia working for this NGO that we were both working for..
Mostly because he wanted to experience traveling a little bit abroad before going into the working world.
Anyway, he was a nice guy overall but inexperienced in Latin America as this was his first trip down here if I remember right.
Granted, I was pretty inexperienced also in that time with only a few months behind me.
Either way, we both go to this Mexican bar type place with some other Americans…
There was a guy named Jack who worked on the same thing I was doing…
And this skinny American guy – nerdy look – but very nice guy overall who was sitting down with us also.
A young American-Colombian woman too at the table…
And some Bolivians of course.
Anyway, the time at this bar was going well.
Drinks and nice food and all.
And this Bolivian chick asks some of us where some of us are from.
American-Colombian chick is from Chicago if I remember right but her family was from Barranquilla.
I said I am from Iowa obviouisly…
And so on and so on…
Then John said “I’m from Wisconsin.”
The Bolivian chick responded “Bien. Eres un gringo tambien.”
Or something along those lines but she used the word “gringo” to describe him.
Now John was pretty chill beforehand up to this point…
But then he threw back a “huh? Again?”
And he looked offended a bit actually.
The Bolivian chick could see it easily but she looked confused by her facial expression.
Like “what the hell did I say?” sort of look.
And maybe she thought that John didn’t understand a word or something and switched to English to say “From America”
John nodded along with it and that ended there.
The night went on later and all was good…
Until John said something to me in private “did you hear what the hell she said.”
I was confused myself.
I honestly didn’t know what the issue was.
Because I didn’t know at the time that the term “gringo” can be offensive to some folks as I was still pretty new to Latin America.
John then explained it to me that he was offended that she called him a gringo.
“That’s racist!” he said.
At this point, I was very confused but I’m always willing to entertain new ideas.
Not even arguing with this guy because maybe he knows something I don’t here.
“How so?” I replied.
“Gringo is just a nasty term that Latinos use about white people.”
So I guess he was looking at the term “gringo” as a racist word for white people like there are racist terms to describe Mexicans, black people, etc….
But is he right?
Years later, I was talking with a friend who is from Colorado who found it strange when I used the term “gringo” in a conversation about whatever we were talking about then.
And he wasn’t offended but was confused as he thought the term “gringo” is offensive.
Is he right also?
Let’s look into this…
Origins of the Term Gringo
Before we get into the modern context of how the word gringo is used…
Let’s look into the history of it.
I have heard different stories for how this word came into existence and I honestly don’t know which story is accurate.
But let’s just briefly look into the origin stories for the word and leave it at that.
You can decide which history sounds more accurate to you.
First, there are the Greek origins of the word.
As you can read more about in this article here about its origins…
According to that article, “gringo is a deformation of the word Greek” in Spanish.
And centuries ago, people would say “this is in Greek” to mean something is not understandable but used the word “gringo” instead of “griego.”
And ended up being “applied to those who spoke an incomprehensible language, such as English.”
Again, you can look into a better explanation of where I got that information in this article here.
Then there are some folks who believe that the term came from the history of American soldiers invading Mexico in 1846 and Mexicans would yell at them “green go home!”
However, I’m not really sure this explanation makes any sense because how many Mexicans would have learned those English words to chant at the American soldiers.
In a way, I suspect it is likely a myth invented by folks who want to create a cool-sounding story of Mexicans protesting those “evil yanquis.”
It could be true but the evidence I am seeing online seems to suggest that the term originated in Spain a long time ago.
Though you are free to believe what you want.
But at least in this case, it seems at least the roots of the word are non-derogatory if it simply is in reference to something not understandable.
Like a different language such as English.
But it’s not just the historic context that matters but also the present day use of the word.
So let’s get into that based on my experience hearing how the word is used in context.
What Does Gringo Mean in Practice Today?
Technically speaking, gringo only refers to people who are from the US.
However, that’s not necessarily always the case.
Imagine if you see an Asian dude – let’s be honest…
If someone was going to stereotype him and assume he is from a particular country, which one would it be?
Probably not North Korea.
You know how it is – lots of people would assume he is from China.
In the same way that in the Spanish language, people use the term “chino” at times for those who are Asian.
Which technically means Chinese.
In the US, if someone sees someone who is brown, they might stereotype that person into being Mexican!
Or Latino in general.
I had a roommate in college years ago who was from India and he told me that upon arrival to America, he had several people for whatever reason assume he was Colombian.
But give that brown dude a big ass beard?
And some folks are going to assume he is from the Middle East.
Same thing happens in Latin America.
Asians are often called “chinos.”
White people are often called “gringos.”
Even if that white person is not from the US.
And in my experience, some white folks get really pissed off when they are called gringo.
Not just because some assume the term is bad or racist…
But because you have some folks who really don’t like being called American.
Like in this story here when I met a German dude in Bolivia who really didn’t like it when people called him gringo.
I’ve heard Canadians get upset about it also but I’ve yet to see a Latino call a Canadian a “gringo.”
Still waiting for the anger to erupt from that scenario.
Though I’m sure it happens.
Of course, the term isn’t just for white people in general.
You have black folks from the US who get called gringo as well.
I remember one black chick from Pennsylvania that I met in Argentina who was called gringo from what I remember.
So, the use of the term is really for anyone who is white or anyone who is from the US basically.
At least from what I have seen.
Is Gringo a Derogatory Word?
Finally, let’s address the concerns that John had!
He’s probably still pissed about that one Bolivian chick calling him a gringo.
Probably writing to her on Facebook right now “oye pinche vieja, no me llames gringo. Voy a poner mi verga en tu boca pinche puta.”
Ok, ok, hopefully John isn’t that upset still…
Now is gringo an offensive term?
Depends on the context in how it is used.
Just yesterday, I overheard a neighbor of mine who works in customer relations for some company like AT&T if I remember right.
And he was explaining the job requirements to a friend who wants to work there looking for a job.
And he was explaining how he has to work in customer relations with “gringos.”
Nothing about his use of the term was offensive.
He was just using a word that is shorter and easier to say than “estadounidense”
Which is another term for Americans.
The girl who called John a gringo?
She wasn’t trying to be offensive either.
However, if someone comes up to you and says “oye pinche gringo, hijo de puta.” Or whatever…
You know, based on the tone of the person’s voice…
And the sentence all together where maybe he is throwing in some offensive words along with the term “gringo.”
Yes, it can be offensive then.
It’s like the term Mexican.
Is Mexican offensive?
If I introduce my neighbor to someone and say that “es un mexicano.”
But if I walk up to him and go “hey you fucking stupid ass Mexican”
Yeah, ok, that sounds offensive and some would call racist.
So obviously context, tone of voice and the words used with the term are important here.
And that basically sums up my thoughts on the matter.
Any opinions of yourself on this topic?
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