How to dress if you want to be called gringo in Latin America

If you are reading this article you may have been called “gringo” before. Even people who are born in Mexico are called “gringo” at times. Have you ever wondered what it means and where it comes from? In this article I’m going to tackle what gringo means, its story, and how to prevent getting this contagious disease.

Where does it come from?

There are a lot of myths regarding this topic. For example, I was taught that this infamous term came about in the Mexican-American War. When the United States Army entered Mexican territory wearing a green uniform, Mexicans only knew English words such as “green” and “go”, and turned these words into “gringo”. Makes sense, right? The only problem with this story is that “gringo” did not originate in Mexico, or even anywhere in Latin America!

The term “gringo” is found in a 1786 dictionary by Esteban Terreros y Pando. This dictionary traces the use of the word back to 18th century Spain. Spaniards used it as a term for foreign people who couldn’t speak Spanish, or who spoke Spanish with a heavy accent. This term became more common in the 20th century, when Latin American countries were victims of American interventionism. This term was used to describe these foreigners and remains one of the most common words to refer to Americans.

What does “gringo” mean?

Being called a “gringo” is not always bad!

After investigating and judging based on personal experience, I have concluded that “gringo” has 2 possible meanings:

  1. First, an innocuous meaning: “Gringo” is a person born and raised in the U.S. who speaks English as his first language. This term doesn’t have a negative connotation to it. Most Mexicans have forgotten, or just are too lazy, to say “estadounidenses,” which actually means “person from the United States.”  This term is much longer and using it instead of “gringo” is, for a Mexican, like saying “personal computer” instead of PC; they both mean the same thing but one is longer, and no one uses it.
  2. Second, a more disparaging meaning: many Latin Americans harbor huge resentment against American culture. According to many Latin Americans, America became one of the most powerful and prosperous countries at the expense of Latin American well being. The 1960s interventions all throughout the region left such a cultural scar that it is still talked about in pop culture, especially in countries like Argentina, Panama, Venezuela and the territory of Puerto Rico. The term “gringo” is used to denote Americans who are born with privilege and disrespect different cultures. 

How to avoid being called “Gringo” in a derogatory way?

When I imagine a “gringo” pejoratively, I think of an American who goes to Mexico only to get drunk, and disrespect the culture, seeking to get attention or have something to laugh about in social media; a young woman who complains about the typical food and insults the looks of native people; a tourist who flies all the way across the continent to eat at a McDonald’s. Being this type of “gringo” means ignorance and the arrogance that sometimes comes with it.

To avoid being called a “gringo” (the bad way) is quite easy. You should try to experience the culture you are visiting to its fullest. The best way to understand a people is to experience their lifestyle. In Mexico, people are fairly open to foreigners trying to understand the culture and traditions. And more importantly, you need to be open minded. Just listen to what people have to say, and try to understand their story before judging. It is hard not to sometimes but we can’t expect that all cultures have the same core values and practices as ours. In fact, that is the core ingredient of diversity.

Being called a gringo is sometimes inevitable. But the way people treat you and the way they see you can vary. The respect you give is reciprocal, not only in Spanish-speaking countries but in the whole world. In order to change the way people see you, you just have to treat them with the respect they deserve, nothing less.