Let me preface this post: I am a Canadian in Ecuador. 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 three years we’ve been in Ecuador. When we first arrived in Ecuador, we were referred to as Gringos and subsequently began referring to ourselves as such.
More than a few expats in Ecuador are offended by this expression. I hope to shed some light on the origins of the word and what it really means here in Ecuador. (And I hope not to offend my fellow Gringos.)
So, Just What (or Who) 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:
- 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.
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, in an 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.
Read about: Gringos Superiority Complex
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.
So, 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)
So, what about you: Are you a gringo? What is a Gringo to you?