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
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:
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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 – 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.
- 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)
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?
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?
Hi, I’m Bryan Haines. And I’m a co-founder of this site. I’m a traveler and photographer. I also blog about photography with a focus on GoPro and action cameras.