In Mexico, when one wants to refer to someone from the neighboring country up north, we just use the word “gringo” without giving it a second thought. But when living here in the US, and with all the talk about racism and political correctness (and also the fact that one is a minority over here), one might start to question: “will someone get offended if I say gringo?”, “is it even an offensive term?”.
I think I must start by describing how the term is used. The word “gringo” is very common and useful in Spanish, especially Mexican Spanish. Why? Since USA is the largest neighbor of Mexico, as well as a country with a high power and influence in the world, it occupies an important part of our lives. Some wise man once said “if the US sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia”. For this reason, the country and its inhabitants are often in our conversations. The issue comes when noticing that the Spanish name for the US is “Estados Unidos de América”. América in Spanish means all the continent (from Canada to Argentina, they are not two different continents in Spanish). Thus, the official term for the people from the USA is “estadounidenses”. This term is however quite long and awkward to use in a casual conversation. We all have probably noticed that common long word tend to be substituted by shorter words. Then, it is natural that a much shorter word, such as “gringo”, ends up being way more used in day to day conversations.
Where does the word come from? The popular etymology says that it originated in the Mexican-American war, when Mexicans would shout to the green uniformed American soldiers “green go” so they would go back to their country. This story, while memorable, has several issues. First, why would Mexicans shout in English? Second and even more important, in this war, the green were the Mexicans! Gringos, I mean, Americans were dressed in blue (which coincides with the countries’ flags). The final nail in the coffin is that the word gringo appears in a Spanish dictionary that was published some 60 years before this particular war.
The true origin of the word gringo is unknown. But the most accepted version (though a boring one), is that it originated from the word “griego” (“Greek”), specifically from a formerly common phrase similar to “me estás hablando en griego” (“you are speaking Greek to me”), to refer to something that is either hard to understand or in a different language.
Now, is it a racist term? I can’t say I know, but it definitively has a negative connotation, and interestingly enough, is most commonly used to refer to white people and sometimes to blacks, but rarely to Asian-Americans. I think in most cases it is used accompanied by an eye roll or a tone of exasperation about American foreign policies, cultural differences that could sound ridiculous to Mexicans or simply about the average American tourist’s arrogance. Examples: “what country are those gringos bombing now?” or “gringos come to this country on vacation and expect US to speak THEIR language”.
This is justifiable, considering there is resentment about the treatment the USA has historically given to Mexico. We perceive, reasonably, that in the best case, the USA is a bully that forces us to implement all kind of one sided treaties and capitalist policies that benefit their country much more than ours (if they benefit us at all). In the worst case, we remember it as the one who took half of our territory.
De donde viene la palabra? La etimología popular dice que se origino en la guerra México americana, cuando los mexicanos les gritaban a los estadounidenses, uniformados de verde, “green go” para que se regresaran a su país. Esta historia es memorable pero tiene muchos problemas. Primero, porque los mexicanos gritarían en inglés? Segundo y más importante, en esa guerra los verdes eran los mexicanos! Los gringos, perdón, estadounidenses iban de azul (va con las banderas de ambos países). Para rematar, la palabra gringo está registrada en un diccionario español de 60 años antes de esta guerra.
Esto es en realidad natural, considerando que hay muchos resentimientos hacia el tratamiento que USA le ha dado a nuestro país históricamente. Percibimos, razonablemente, que en el mejor caso, USA es un bully que nos fuerza a implementar todo tipo de políticas que terminan conviniendo más a su país y su capitalismo (y en el peor caso, es quien nos invadió y nos quitó la mitad de nuestro territorio).