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Is "Gringo" Offensive? Meanings, 4 Origins, (Travelers Guide)

We knew before we moved to Ecuador that we were gringos. And we have been called gringos frequently – by store clerks, friends and even strangers on the street. I’ve gotten so used to it, I describe myself to Ecuadorians as “el Gringo” because its the easiest way to describe who I am. In a community of Ecuadorians, the term gringo identifies me as the 6ft-tall pale-faced guy.

Let me preface this post: While I don’t pretend to understand the implications or etymologies of racial/cultural slang, I am familiar with this one from my perspective, from the six years we lived in Ecuador. When we first arrived in Ecuador, we were referred to as Gringos and subsequently began referring to ourselves as such. 

Just What is a Gringo? 4 Possible Origins

what is a gringo
There are many different ideas. It seems the most popular idea online is that it originated during the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848).

Here are the three most commonly stated origins:

  1. Green-Grow: This story states that the Mexicans misheard U.S. troops singing “Green Grow the Lilacs” an Irish folk song during the Mexican – American War.
  2. Green Go Home: Also during the Mexican-American War, this angle states that Americans wearing green uniforms were shouted at with the chant: “Green Go Home”.
  3. Green Go: From Brazil comes the following etymology: the English words “green” and “go”, reportedly linked to foreigners exploiting the Amazon rain-forest. Locals watched foreigners take the green (nature) away for profit.

Actual Gringo Meaning

As with many other popular beliefs these are also all incorrect. These all date from the 19th century. Below is a citation from the late 18th century.

Citation from Wikipedia’s Gringo entry:

The word gringo was first recorded in the Castilian Dictionary (1786) by Terreros y Pando, and was defined as:

  • Gringos llaman en Málaga a los extranjeros que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural Castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo nombre con particularidad a los irlandeses.
  • Gringos is what, in Malaga, they call foreigners who have a certain type of accent that prevents them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally; and in Madrid they give the same name, in particular, to the Irish.

Also, a Spanish-French Dictionary (1817) by Antonio de Capmany states:

  • . . . hablar en griego, en guirigay, en gringo.
  • . . . to speak in Greek, in gibberish, in gringo.

Isn’t this a great entry? “To speak gringo” – means to be almost indecipherable in your Spanish because of your English accent.

5 Gringo Variations

gringo-man-insulted

  • Gringo – for the man
  • Gringa – for the woman
  • Gringita / Gringito – for the child or the “dear little gringo”. This is a term of endearment. Also spelled: gringuita and gringuito.
  • los Gringos – the group of gringos

Online forums, Facebook, and blog comments are full of Americans and Canadians who are insulted at the thought of being marginalized, by being reduced to a single word.

In Ecuador, a Gringo is anyone foreign – from any country. However, the taller and blonder you are increases the odds of being called a gringo. But the telltale giveaway is when you open your mouth. Once you speak, either exclusively in English or with a distinctive English accent, you become a “Gringo”.

Something to remember: in Latin American culture, it is common, accepted, and even a kindness to give people nicknames based on their physical appearance.

For example:

  • Flaco (thin or skinny)
  • Gordo (fatty)
  • Gordito (little fatty)
  • Suco (fair skinned)
  • Negrita (little black)

A few years ago, while visiting Margarita Island, I was driving with a Venezuelan friend. He referred to a friend of his as “negrita” – I was surprised. I thought that it was out of bounds – that it was an international insult.

But no . . . in Spanish its common term of endearment. A professional friend, a Cuencano, calls his wife “flaca”.

When translated literally means “skinny woman”. In English, it doesn’t sound so nice, but in Spanish it is a sweet expression from a husband.

In Ecuador, people are often identified by where there are from:

  • Cuencano (a person from Cuenca)
  • Guayaquileño (a person from Guayaquil)
  • Quiteño (a person from Quito)

Is Gringo Offensive?

No, the term gringos isn’t offensive to us. 

It wasn’t uncommon to be walking downtown and hear two older Cuencanas say: “Mira – la gringita”, referring to our daughter. They say it with all the love and interest that her own grandmother would. To us, it is very kind.

For us, being called Gringos is equivalent to being called Canadian. It simply identifies our origins.

More than a few expats in Latin America are offended by this expression. I hope to shed some light on the origins of the word and what it really means. (And I hope not to offend my fellow Gringos.) 🙂

What Does “Gringo” Mean in Ecuador?

From our experience, a person is a gringo if they are a light skinned foreigner. Not just people from the United States, but all foreigners.

It seems that in some Latin American countries gringo applies primarily to inhabitants of the United States. But it has a wider meaning here in Ecuador.

Being a Gringo seems to also be related to the ability to speak Spanish properly. There are a number of Ecuadorians that are tall and light skinned.

They look at first glance like someone I would describe as a gringo. But when I speak with them, they clearly aren’t.

So it seems that both your appearance and what comes out of your mouth identify you as a foreigner, er… gringo.

A number of our Ecuadorian friends are light skinned (with either brown or dark blond hair) and are known among their family as suco or suca (meaning blond or fair skinned). Parents will sometimes call their fair skinned child suco (or suca for a girl).

From our experience, the term “Gringo” is not derogatory in Ecuador. But it is a common and descriptive term.

Am I a Gringo? 

Of course. We call ourselves gringos – because that’s what we are. We are funny-speaking light-skinned foreigners. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in a derogatory way towards us or other expats.

We refer to all foreigners as gringos. Especially those that stand out as stereotypical tourists. You know, a guidebook in one hand and souvenirs in the other and a cheap panama hat on their head. Nothing wrong with that.

You Might Be a Gringo If…

  • you are from an English speaking country
  • you are light skinned
  • you don’t speak Spanish (or speak with an English accent)

Post References: Wikipedia: Gringo, Spanish on About.com: Gringo, Latinaish: Is Gringo Offensive?, Spanishdict: What is a Gringo?

What Are the Alternatives to “Gringo”?

While most people from the United States consider themselves “Americans”, this doesn’t have the same meaning here.

America isn’t a country: it includes everything from Alaska to Argentina.

After all, Ecuador is part of Latin America, located in South America. Technically speaking, everyone from Canada south to Patagonia is an “American”.

If you are from Canada or the United States, you may be called norteamericano (North American).

At a glance, it is impossible to tell Canadians, British, Australians and New Zealanders apart. So just as the diverse nationalities of Latin America have been grouped (right or wrong) under the term “Latino”, it seems that “Gringo” have come to define foreigners as a group in Latin America.

Have you noticed a Gringo superiority complex?

Gringo Superiority Complex: Are You Guilty?

gringo-superiority
We’ve realized that as foreigners we need to be careful not to come across as having an attitude of superiority.

The idea seems to exist amongst some that North Americans feel that they are better, and their ways and customs are better than the ways and customs of others.

Granted, there are a few from North America that probably do feel that way, but our family and the majority of other gringo families and friends that we know here do not share this attitude.

What is Gringo Superiority Complex?

That being said, there is still the need to be careful of how we act and what we say/write. Schooling is mandatory here, and English is part of the curriculum, so we can be certain that when we are overheard, some or most of what we are saying is understood.

Because of this, an innocent conversation comparing differences in habits or culture could be easily misunderstood.

For example, there is a custom here of taking time in the middle of the day to eat and spend time with family, during this time businesses close.

This is very different than what we are used to in North America so we may be surprised when we arrive at a place of business expecting to be able to what we intended, but we are unable.  This may lead to a conversation something like this:

Wow, they are closed, what are we going to do now?  We can’t come back later today, we don’t have time!  This never would have happened back home! This is going to take some getting used to!

To someone overhearing that conversation, especially if they are already inclined to think North Americans feel superior because of past experience, they may think that we don’t like this custom.

But the reality is that we do like it, and we actually think North Americans could learn a thing or two from the importance placed on family.  The overheard conversation was merely stating the difference, but again, may be misunderstood.

I recently wrote an article listing some of the differences we notice here as compared to back in Canada.  I received a negative comment to the information telling me to go back to my perfect world because I was not needed here.  It was not my intention to come across as feeling that the ways back in Canada are better, and we didn’t move here because I felt people here would be better off because of my presence.

We moved here because we thought it would be better for our family, we are staying because it is.  And although I understand that I can’t please everyone all the time, this comment made me realize the need to be extra careful about the things I say.  I reviewed the article and removed the aspects that I felt could have been misunderstood.

We love it here in Ecuador, that’s the reason this website exists.  As foreigners we are thankful that the majority of Ecuadorians welcome us with open arms, the people here are very warm and friendly.  I’m sure that other foreigners feel the same way, that’s why they choose to live here.

We don’t want to go home – we realize North America is far from perfect.  I too have overheard foreigners talking and thought they sounded like they had a superiority complex.  This was embarrassing and slightly upsetting of, but it made me realize the need to keep our sense of humor tuned up.

It’s funny when you really think about it. . .

We are all humans; none of us are better, just different.

The idea that a person could think that they are fundamentally better because of a difference in the number of hours business are open in the country they were born in, or because of the difference in the way fruit and vegetables are displayed in the country they were born in, is a faulty way of thinking, and kind of comical.

It’s my hope that foreigners will be very careful about what they say, so as not to give the impression of superiority.  And it’s also my hope that if local people overhear foreigners sounding superior that they will tap into their sense of humor and just laugh it off.  It’s much better to realize that small-minded thinking is something to be pitied, rather than to take offense at a faulty thought process.

It’s also good to realize that living in a foreign country takes some getting used to, so what’s being heard is probably just part of the adjustment period.  So please have patience with us gringos and don’t take us too seriously.  We, as foreigners choose to live here because we like Ecuador and Ecuadorians.

What do you say? Are you offended by the term? If you are from Latin America, what do you say about it?

So, what about you: Are you a gringo? What is a Gringo to you?


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William

Monday 28th of January 2019

This is incorrect, no one refers to us in North America as norteamericanos. They call us estadosunidencens... and also, if they did call us norteamericanos, it is Americano Del Norte....

Bryan Haines

Monday 28th of January 2019

Hey William, I'm not going to debate with you what we heard. And here's what would be grammatically correct, from a Spanish perspective: norteamericano. I always like to do my homework before correcting someone else. :)

Avery Busskohl

Saturday 2nd of June 2018

I dont suppose Ive learn something like this before.

Jose Allevato

Saturday 17th of February 2018

If it could be termed offensive than it shouldn't be used. Gringo is one of those words. I also get into arguments with my Latino friends about people from the United States calling themselves American. Their argument is we are all from America so people from the U.S.A. shouldn't refer to themselves in this way but I disagree. I've never in my 40+ years traveling to South America or when speaking to my Latin friends heard them refer to themselves as American. The only time it happens is during our argument. I explain that it is in the name of our country, hence being easier to describe where we come from. Mexico also uses United States of Mexico thus eliminating using United States. In my honest opinion this goes deeper than Latinos claiming they are American and not just people from the U.S.A.. Possibly it comes from the United States rocky foreign relations with Latin America and our somewhat smug attitude, thinking the world revolves around us. In the hyper-sensitive world we currently live in we should take everyone's sensibilities into account not just the downtrodden or minority. The problem we have currently in this world is we are so concerned about our issues and what we care about and don't take the time to fight for others when it doesnt benefits us.

Abraham

Thursday 18th of July 2019

Calling AMERICANO to a estadounidense is like calling a french EUROPEAN, of course he is European, but first of all he is french. I think than we Latin American (or Canadian) get mad at the term AMERICAN because you are using the name of the whole continent as your home land, which of course has many political implications . On the other hand, accepting that you are "American", but I am an Argenino, Colombiano, Ecuatoriano, Peruano....etc. Is accepting that we are in an inferior position than you in geopolitical terms. We all (guess/know) that this is kind of the point behind that....

Al Mac

Tuesday 20th of November 2018

Jose Allevato, I totally agree with your comment regarding the world we live in, where we are mostly concerned with our own issues ONLY, and generally don't pay much attention to the sensibilities of others. Also, I would like to provide a bit of clarification where you disagree with the author's comment. You are right when you say that normally Latin Americans don't refer to themselves as Americans. The issue here is not if people from Latin America want to call themselves American or not. The issue that makes Latin American people uncomfortable is when people from the U.S. "take" the term American to refer to themselves. When they do that, to many Latin Americans they are sort of claiming that the U.S. "owns" the entire American continent and therefore they have the "right" to take the term American for themselves. It is like asking a German "where are you from?" and him responding "I'm European". Would he be wrong? no.... he is European, but how would that be seen by other Europeans if all the Germans (and ONLY the Germans) would always respond that way to that question? To me personally that would be like trying to hide your true origin, and try to hide your actual nationality behind the entire continent (but that's just me :=)

Sara

Tuesday 9th of May 2017

Scenario: Team of Guatemalan guys working in US, you are the only non-Guatemalan working with them. You were introduced by your boss, and took the time to individually identify with each co-worker and learn their names, a bit of their 'story', establish good work conditions....yet for TWO LONG MONTHS you have been called Gringo by all seven, never your given name (which is quite basic like Joe, John, Dave, Stephen). You have even addressed them as a group telling them you will no longer respond unless your given name is used. And they call other American co-workers by the proper name. At what point is it disrespectful? In my opinion Gringo can definitely be used in a derogatory/disrespectful meaning.

Bryan Haines

Tuesday 9th of May 2017

Absolutely agree. Just like any nickname, the term gringo can also be used disrespectfully. In Ecuador, the Spanish word "jefe" (boss or leader) is commonly used when dealing with someone who knows more than you do about a certain topic. Like a mechanic or carpenter. It is also used as an informal show of respect. But it can also be used sarcastically with disrespect. The word isn't as much the problem as how it's used.

David Garriga

Wednesday 4th of May 2016

I am a soon-to-be legal adult, and think I have a word on the topic. First off, for me, it's no question that one can accept dual nationality should one have the desire, merely on the assumption of the virtue in that. Such is my case: I say I'm Puerto-Rican American--and it's no book or vague definition that tells me, because I've proved it for myself. I remember an adult family friend asked me casually at around the age of 8, if I was Latino, and confusion ensued within me. How could I be both Puerto Rican and American? What I didn't know, and what the social environment didn't want me to know, was this: American is first born as a nomenclature to describe nationality (it's anyone "from" the United States, whether originally (by birth) or, as it's used informally, culturally). Where was I from? And what made me who I was? Well, to answer the question, the aforementioned. But then another question is the one I had to learn to deal with, the ethnicity the way it is defined for you is clear, and so is the race. But then, why am I still being called "gringo" as a supposed term of endearment when it is exclusive of one thing and inclusive of the other; when it is based on how good some slight years of a difference have on my ability to pronounciate a set of compounded, abstract signs that is language, which is peculiar in speech to every individual as well as to every nation; when being Spanish can mean being English too and so much more? That is the question people define for themselves, and as long as there are differences in our opinion, our ability to not be in favor of one or the other is hampered, our language is hampered, our communication...the rest is history. That is the naked truth.

Jakob

Thursday 5th of May 2016

Ah, another fellow human with split personality. My daughter has 4 (four) different nationalities by birth (Ecuadorian being one of them), so I understand where you are coming from. I have worked with a lot of people in the United States and I have met children of Ecuadorian immigrants on the east coast and the west coast. My first thought often was that if I they were Latino I should be Super Cholo, because they acted very, very American and knew less about their parents' cultural roots than I did. However, they looked the part while I look like Ragnar the Viking. When those people who were born and raised in the USA come to Ecuador people will call them gringo because of how they behave, or you might hear something like "Se cree gringo". In my case, it's the other way around. People call me gringo based on my looks and later I might hear something like "Este no parece gringo". It's always looks and behaviour.