“Gringo.” I can’t stand that damn word. And it’s all over Latin America, from restaurants with names like Gringo’s Pizza to movies with titles like “Gringo Wedding.” The meaning of the word varies from country to country, but I’ve not found one place yet where it’s actually a positive moniker, despite many travelers who seem to relish the term.
In Brazil, I’ve come to learn that the word refers almost always to foreign visitors from Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia, attaching itself to other Latin Americans in the rarest of cases, and almost never used for visitors from Asia or Africa (save white South Africans). The word isn’t applied exclusively to whites, as black Americans or Caribbean people or even US citizens of Brazilian descent get dinged with the word. Still, in my experiences here, I’ve never really heard it spoken other than in a neutral, informative fashion (“Is your friend Brazilian?” “No, he’s ‘gringo;’ he’s American.”).
Brazil’s usage also fits better with the academically-accepted etymology of the word, a corruption of grego/griego (literally “Greek,” used in the same way to denote something foreign as the English phrase, “It’s Greek to me”). Other places subscribe to the myth that the word was introduced during the Mexican-American War, with Mexican patriots shouting “green, go!” Um, that’d be all well and good if the uniforms hadn’t been blue and white. In fact, it was the Mexicans who wore green!
In Colombia, the g-word is loaded with unattractive meanings that true “gringos” often fail to perceive: supposedly the word is limited to US citizens, but until one is identified as a Canadian or Belgian or New Zealander, the label sticks to almost any white foreign visitor (and only to non-whites when they’re identified as US citizens). It’s also a code word for someone easily tricked, who speaks Spanish horribly, who has an unlimited bank account, and who can’t dance. I’ve had to deal with more than enough dropped jaws after proving my salsa skills on the dance floor (I’m decent) or trilling my r’s in words like ferrocarril. Still, the leading newspaper of the country often refers to the US Embassy as la embajada gringa, and for most of my four years in Colombia, I cringed whenever I heard the word.
In fact, I had to coach several friends of mine to not use “gringo” around me, especially since there are three other words in Spanish for US citizen: estadounidense, norte-americano (itself a misnomer), and the controversial americano. I called one of my workout partners simio (ape) until he realized that the speaker doesn’t get to say whether or not something should be offensive. Of course, I couldn’t police everyone who used the term, but at least I got it out of the mouths of my closest friends. Once, a fellow professor from Ohio asked me if I thought she was gringa. I told her no, because I felt like she made a concerted effort to learn about the history and culture of the country, engage with people in Spanish with properly-conjugated verbs, and refused to get swindled by taxi drivers. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she couldn’t dance, though.
“Gringo” did, however, end up seeping into my own lexicon. I now use it whenever I or someone else behaves in a particularly anal way about something (e.g. speaking to someone’s manager about crappy service; demanding posted office hours be heeded; demanding anything), or when I need to play dumb (like at airport customs). Sometimes, you gotta go “gringo” on their asses.