What does Gringo mean? Our overseas experts living in Latin American countries such Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and more give their definition of gringo and what it means to them.
Jason Holland – Roving Latin America Correspondent
In most of the places I’ve lived and traveled, including Costa Rica, Roatan, Dominican Republic, Mexico, etc. gringo is a term for any expat, North American and often Europeans as well. It’s not an insult, which is the connotation in the U.S.
Gringos use the term among themselves very often refer to themselves and others. When you’re hanging out with local folks, you’ll use the term to refer to yourself, other gringos… and they might use it too.
A very useful word.
Jim Santos – Ecuador Correspondent
I think you’ll probably hear about the same thing from everyone. Here in Ecuador, gringo (or gringa for the ladies) just means someone who is not Hispanic. Usually it refers to North Americans, but Europeans are also technically gringos. Like any other word or label, it can mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean. I’ve seen it used in a derogatory way, and also in just a non-judgmental context.
Interestingly enough, I tend to hear the word most often from other gringos, not from Ecuadorians. Usually in the form a verb, when an expat feels like they have been cheated or treated unfairly, i.e. “I just got gringoed by that guy!”
Donna Stiteler – IL Cuenca Correspondent
Depending on what country you live in, Gringo can mean lots of different things. In Cuenca, Ecuador, Gringo is totally acceptable and a fun way we refer to each other – both for expats and Ecuadorians. We have a Gringopost.com website, Gringo expat events, Gringo hangouts, and now, we even have a Cuenca Old Gringo Marching Kazoo Band. It’s more lighthearted here – and Gringo is similar to the North American slang – “Hey Dude”.
We know we don’t blend, and don’t mind our amusing “title” and poke fun at ourselves. Like, “You’re going Gringo today” which means we are wearing a backpack, baseball cap, bright rain jacket and sketcher walking shoes.
Sure it can have some negative impacts as well. We still carry our customs from our countries, and Ecuadorians (and expats as well), will mutter “Stupid (Tonto) Gringo” when we do things like shout our lunch orders in English as if that will make it more understandable, jaywalk in a country that doesn’t give pedestrians right of way, or create Spanish words by adding an “o” to verbs.
There’s a distinction between 1) expats who leave their home countries to pursue living abroad, 2) economic refugees who come here to escape the rising costs of the US, and immigrants like those fleeing Venezuela who come here for survival. In Cuenca, we are a mix of people who seek solace, safety and adventure. But the Gringo term here mostly refers to those who dress like Florida tourists and make social blunders. Most of us who live here like to be referred as Expats but aren’t offended by the more informal Gringo.
In Cuenca, gringo is another term for expat and one we use to laugh about the realities of who and what we are as new voyagers in a foreign land.
Kathleen Evans – IL Coastal Costa Rica Correspondent
Although there are several different theories regarding the origins of the term “gringo” (for example, originating in Spain as a name for foreigners who could not speak Castilian properly or used in Mexico to tell the “green” uniformed USA soldiers to “go”). Regardless of origins, it is a widely used word in Spain and throughout Latin America to describe white foreigners who do not speak Spanish/Portuguese as their native tongue – primarily those from the USA. In many places, it is used disparagingly.
Here in Costa Rica it is also widely used for typically any white foreigner – North American, European, Austrailian, etc. But not used for people of color. It is used as a description, not in a negative (or positive) connotation.
Laura Diffendal – IL Belize Correspondent
In Belize the term Gringo can be used affectionately or offensively. The expats use it to poke fun at themselves, we say we got gringoed if we pay higher prices, there is a popular mocking song here written by a pseudo famous expat singer in the country, called Gringo in Belize, about a pie in the sky gringo who comes here and does everything wrong, and fails. If you are close to actual locals, and they are your friends they will use gringo in a funny way, but overall locals will use the term to put down expats they don’t like or trust. We had a loyal worker at our hotel who told us he didn’t like when we referred to ourselves that way because he liked us and thought it was as bad a name as you could call someone. So it varies from local to local….but I’d say overall it is used to mock expats who come here and behave ignorantly. And expats will use it interchangeably with calling themselves a dummy. Hope that helps!
Steve LePoidevin – Peru Correspondent
In Peru, the term gringo is used to refer to any fair-skinned people. It is used for foreigners in general but is more likely to be used for a fair-skinned foreigner. It is also used by Peruvians themselves to describe other light-skinned Peruvians in a friendly manner. It is not considered a disparaging term.
Jessica Ramesch – Panama Correspondent
I think that sometimes first-time visitors to Panama wonder whether the word gringo is used in a derogatory sense. I’m a fluent Spanish speaker and so I hear the word bandied about all the time and am able to understand what’s being said as well as the context. In my experience it’s often used matter-of-factly…just another descriptor, along with tall or short…rich or poor…and so on. So: El es gringo can simply mean “He’s from the States.” I have a friend who describes herself as “media gringa”—half a gringa, as her mother is from Panama while her father is from the U.S.
Often Panamanians will lump North Americans, Europeans, Australians and others together, referring to them all as gringos…I have a European friend who very patiently explains that she’s not a gringa, even though she may look like a Panamanian’s idea of an Americano (someone from the U.S. or Canada). As far as my friend is concerned, the term should apply only to people from the U.S. As far as I know, the term has been used in Europe, too. For example, I’ve heard that people in Spain have referred to Greeks as gringos.
As for where the term comes from…there are many different stories, and we’ll never know for sure which one is true. It seems not all etymologists agree. One unlikely story is that the term references the green color of U.S. bills, which were viewed as very powerful when you wanted to make things happen. “Green goes,” people said (allegedly).
Bottom line, I would advise anyone visiting Panama not to bristle at the term. The proper Spanish term for someone from the U.S. is estadounidense…quite a mouthful. Is it any wonder so many prefer the quick and easy gringo?
(A Canadian, by the way, is a canadiense…note that these words are not capitalized in Spanish, as they are in English.)
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