The Legend of the Gringo

Any pale-skinned foreigner, especially American or Canadian, travelling in Latin America, will hear the word “gringo” directed at them.  Connotation and intent may vary.  Curious as to how to feel about this, I decided to look into the origin of the word.  Whether true or not, this is the generally accepted explanation (if someone has a different, more accurate version, let me know).

During the US’ war with Mexico, US soldiers on the front wore green.  Mexican soldiers, bunkered down, heard the enemy commanders yell “Green, go!” right before they would suffer a charge from the better equipped and armed troops.  They heard the command as “greengo” and it became a warning among each other: “Gringo.  The Yankees are coming.”  Gringo eventually came to apply to the Yankees themselves and the word became something fearful; a foreign bully and aggressive invader.

Then came Pancho Villa.  He led his soldiers in guerilla-style warfare, which proved effective against the US forces on foreign terrain.  According to legend, he once stood with his company one night on a mountain where they could hear the enemy scrambling and lost in the canyons and arroyos below.  He is to have said something along the lines of, “Look.  There are your Gringos down there stumbling around in the dark.”

So now the name came to mean something else.  Villa turned it from a frightening foe into an arrogant fool, lost and ignorant, stumbling around where it doesn’t belong.

As it applies today.  Granted, you usually won’t find this depth of history or negative implication behind the word, but “gringo” can be anything from a slur to a term of endearment.  Even a properly accepted label.  Nowadays, it usually refers to someone who speaks stuttering, formal, or broken Spanish at too loud a volume, wears too many heavy, sweaty, unwashed clothes, reeks of sunscreen and bugspray, and will most likely spend a lot of time on the toilet after eating the local food.  Also, has money.

So there you have it, gringos: third- or fourth-hand from the biggest gringo of them all.  As for me, I try to use the term accurately.  When I am clearly acting like a white foreigner, I am being a gringo.  If someone casually calls me that, I usually shrug and agree.  He may not know me, but chances are he is right.  Some caveats: I don’t use the term around children.  Some parents teach their kids that it’s a bad word, and I don’t want to confuse them.  I also don’t use it with pride.  Being a gringo doesn’t make you “legit”, and it’s not an excuse for privileged white people to adopt their own slur.  Gringo is gringo; use it with humility.

But try to break stereotypes.  So gringos don’t speak Spanish?  Learn Spanish.  The label might change.  They have money to burn?  Don’t try to pay your way out of everything.  But do be careful with the food and water.  Remember, whatever you may act like, your intestines are still stumbling around in the dark where they don’t belong.

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