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Is “gringo” an insult?

February 9, 2011 28 Comments

society  Is “gringo” an insult?

Mural in NYC by rollingrck/ Flickr

One thing you should know before answering this question: Brazilians tend to call any foreigner gringo, not only Americans, especially if they have fair skin. Sometimes, even Indonesians or Thais are called that way, but generally gringoness is a package that includes blue eyes and blond hair.
Personally, I have always used the word freely without perceiving there any political incorrectness. I don’t think many Brazilians think of the word gringo as an insult – unless you are in some very specific niche that might use “Gringoes, go home!” as a call to arms.
Nevertheless, a couple of times, while abroad, I employed the word and the recipient end of the nickname seemed unconfortable. In one specific case, I called my then boyfriend, a blond Mexican born in Argentina, “mi gringuito”. He denied me his love for a few hours.

More recently, discussing Bebel Gilberto’s music with an American friend, I said that, despite its qualities, this is Brazilian music for export, produced for gringos and it didn’t work that well for me. She didn’t seem particularly pleased either.

Did I commit a faux-pas? What is your opinion? This question is particularly directed to those among you that are foreign expatriates in Brazil. Can I call you gringos?

My own conclusion – from now on, I will use it only while I am in Brazil. Just in case.

If you liked this post, you might also like 20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil and 5 faux-pas in the land of laissez-faire.

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28 Comments »

  • danielle says:

    I think the confusion here is the use of “gringo” in Portuguese vs. the use of “gringo” in Spanish. I grew up on the border with Mexico, and I was well aware that, in Mexican Spanish, “gringo” is definitely an insult. So, because most Americans have much more interaction with Mexican Spanish than they do with Portuguese, I think most Americans also understand “gringo” as an insult. (That would also explain your Mexican boyfriend’s reaction.)

    So now, living in Brazil, my husband reminds me that “gringo” is not the same in Portuguese as it is in Mexican Spanish, but it’s still hard for me to lose the association after growing up with an offensive meaning of the word. But I think that Americans that have had more exposure to Spanish from South America or to Portuguese don’t think that “gringo” is an insult.

  • Keith says:

    I’m a white Canadian man with blue eyes and my wife is from Brazil. We throw that word around all the time, particularly when we joke about how much I stand out as an obvious “gringo” when we’re in Brazil. It’s never been an issue for me, although I do have to agree that growing up, “gringo” to me was a angry term used by Mexicans to describe their northern neighbours. Totally different from Brazil.

    Let me throw this in, because I think it is indeed relevant: Quentin Tarantino, film director, is well-known for the use of the N-word in his movies, even by black actors such as Samuel L. Jackson. Tarantino defended the use of the word, saying that this was how people talked in his social circles in Los Angeles, be they black, white, Latino or whatnot. It was just part of everyday conversation and there was never any offence intended.

    Who was offended, though? Spike Lee, another film director. He was furious with Tarantino, because for him it was a straight-up racist term and nothing more than that. And guess who came to Tarantino’s defence? Samuel L. Jackson. Said that Lee needed to wake up and come to terms with the fact that the N-word is indeed used widely and not necessarily as a racial epithet but rather as part of everyday conversation. Pretty fascinating development of a word that still isn’t permitted on TV. Here’s a more in-depth look at the use of the word: http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/04.09.98/cover/nigger-9814.html And it doesn’t escape me that I’m saying “N-word” rather than spelling it outright. Why is that? Maybe I don’t feel comfortable using that word myself for some reason.

    I’m sure the same applies to “gringo” for a lot of people. Depends on who uses it, how they use it, who they are addressing, in what context, in what time, etc. Could make for a fascinating study.

    • Regina says:

      Keith, I am deeply passionate by language and, being a foreigner in a strange land, in a context where I don’t fully understand the deep meaning of many words, I think all this is both fascinating and stressing. When I lived in France, for instance, my Brazilian nature would force me to call people “tu”, even if my Mom taught me that, in France, you only do that after you sleep with that person (well, that rule is a little relaxed these days, but there is still a lot of truth there).
      Anyway, even if I wouldn’t use or write the n-word, I have problems with the Afro-American thing. First, it is a long word. Second, because I believe the more you spend energy developing a label, the more artificial it will be. I am white (like it or not) and not European-Brazilian.

      calling things by its name is redeeming.

    • Anthony says:

      As a black American man I would be very offended if a white American(or Canadian) were to call me “N” given America’s rather recent oppressive racial history. Just because some people–including other blacks think it’s OK to use certain epithets amongst friends does not justify their use in polite company. Could I refer to your wife or mother as “B-tch? Some rappers do. It’s still offensive.

      When I was last in Brazil, some Argentinians were talking about me and used the term “gringo” since I was an “estrangeiro” from Estados Unidos. I was not offended.

      • Regina says:

        Well, Anthony, I suppose gringo is definitely more nuanced than the N-word. The latter, indeed, shouldn’t be accepted in an English spoken conversation, while acceptable if you are speaking Portuguese (I am not sure what could be its Portuguese equivalent).

  • Sharshura says:

    I would have to agree with danielle. However, I would broaden it to at least Mexico and Central America. In Costa Rica, my host family liked me because I wasn’t a “gringa.” If they ever used the word around me, I would often hear the hushing sound.

  • Michael says:

    In the US I make it a point when speaking to a Mexican,usually not a US citizen, to point out that I don’t think of myself as a “typical gringo.”

    The Mexicans may use the term “gringo” because they may resent the fact they are thought of as America’s “hired-hands.”

    Likewise, the Mexicans would take offense if we called them “wet-backs.”

  • Steve says:

    I write an occasional blog in Portuguese and English where I muse on whatever but usually Brazil related. The blog title “Gringo Nao Sabe Nada”. It is meant to be a bit ironic.

    I live on the border and have worked a lot in Mexico and agree that the connotation is a bit different in Mexico, but then the Mexicans have the problem of being more formal and so or maybe too close to the USA.

  • marc gay says:

    I allways thought of myself as a gringo. However, traveling in Mexico, years ago, I was told I wasn’t since I am from France. Therefore, I see it as a privilege to North Americans from the U.S to be called a “GRINGO”. Andale Gringos !!!!

  • jaka says:

    it is totally ok to use it with someone who spent some time in brasil. i guess it is not good to use with americans and other north americans. most of europeans doesnt have a clue what gringo means.

  • Markuza says:

    Personally I’ve come to dislike being called Gringo more and more the longer I’ve lived in Brazil. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that most of the people who call me gringo follow it up with a request for something, usually money. However, I have been known to use the word to refer to myself, often with other… ‘estrangeiros.’

  • I did my masters thesis on this. Entitled “Gringos”, it’s free to anyone who shoots me a line at macunaima30@yahoo.com.br.

    Here’s an on-line article that’s an extract of it – in English: http://bad.eserver.org/issues/2002/60/blanchette.html

    “Gringo” is not an insult, unless accompanied with a pejorative modifier (like “de merda”). The root of the term is the same for both Brazilians and Mexicans but, ironically, the Mexicans seem to have lost the history of the word. It was originally applied in the Iberian Penninusla to gypsies and later moved over to describe any foreigner who speaks funny (it’s root also apparently gives us “gíria” and possibly “geringonça” in Portuguese). In the Americas, “gringo” was first applied to gypsies, then to other itinerant foreigners. Brazilians still use it in that way. Mexicans are apparently so impressed by their northern neighbors (“so far from God, so close to the U.S.”) that they now exclusively apply “gringo” to them and rather arrogantly think that the rest of Latin America should give up its Iberian cultural heritgae as well and also use the term in this sense.

    The closest cousin to “gringo” in my opinion is the German “fremde”, which indicates an outsider who is nevertheless involved in a persistent relation with us: someone simultaneously foreign and familiar.

    I have no qualms about being called a “gringo” or calling people “gringos” – at least in Brazil. I wouldn’t do it in Mexico. If folks find it offensive in the Brazilian context, it seems to me that the only possible reason for that would be their ignorance and I don’t feel obliged to change the way I speak because of other peoples’ cultural prejudices, at least when I’m in my own linguistic environment.

    It’s rather like “babaca”, a term Brazilians use all the time with not qualms whatsoever but which literally means “cunt” (in the English-of-England) sense in Portugal. I should stop using “bababaca” in Rio because it offends some guy fresh off the boat from Lisboa?

  • Marina says:

    Hi! Love your site and the “gringo” theme.
    My opinion is – gringo in Brazil is not an insult at all, in principle! Like many adjectives, it depends on the way it is used.
    I disagree that it is basically for people with pale complexions – my dad (who moved to Brazil at the age of 33) was from Serbia and had dark hair, and I saw him being called gringo (in a bad way) many times because of his accent. So I would add the accent factor to the gringo issue.
    I was born and raised in Brazil, and now live in the US. I call myself a “gringa” here, but maybe my Spanish-speaking friends would not call me this way, according to Danielle’s input!

  • sco says:

    brazilians are called “gringo” in bolivia.

    gringo in brazil has the same meaning as if someone called you a foreigner. in the context of the sentance you can determine if it is a put down or done harmlessly. the same when you hear someone using foreigner. if it is a negative context, foreigner can be a bad connotation, if it is in a neutral or positive light , foreigner can be harmless.

  • Quasileiro says:

    Prezada Dona Regina,

    I absolutely adore your site and solemnly admire the effort and the love put into it.

    I thought you might like:
    http://theurbanearth.wordpress.com/tag/sao-paulo/
    and
    http://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.24/flavio-de-carvalho-from-an-anthropophagic-master-plan-to-a-tropical-modern-design
    If you’re interested in other tidbits let me know thru mail.

    On the issue of gringo, I am most certainly one such. Even my firstborn Thomas Gregorio (father danish, mother maranhense) is nicked Thomas “Gringorio” by brazilian family – in a loving way needless to say.

    I would argue that vernacular use of “Gringo” in contemporary brasilian portuguese is rather indicative of someone being “unacostumed” with things than with it is pejorative or even racially motivated. Travelling Brazil since 1992 I’ve come to find that Brasilians generally speaking are inherently and sincerely polite, considerate and courteous in interpersonal relations and much more so than any European anyway. A pejorative usage simply doesn’t make any sense. Without getting deeper into the Feinschmeckerei of the aesthetics of reception (Umberto Eco, Wolfgang Iser for ex.) – the pejorative issue thus, is much more something in the ear of the beholder in the sense that one doesn’t necessarily “like being reminded of being unacostumed or strange”, than it is in mouth of the speaker. After all, who doesn’t want to be brasilian ;-)

    And an anecdote:
    After years of succesful and productive marriage brothers and cousins in law finally dubbed me “quasileiro” which to to me was almost equivalent to being admitted to paradise ;-)
    Says my cousine in law when visiting an elder familymember in the interior of Maranhao: “Nao Tio Zezinho, Nicolao nao e mas gringo ele virou quasileiro”. Replies the uncle: “Virou quase o que? Quasileiro? Deus me livre, nao tem nemhum na familia! Ave Maria!

    *
    Other than that: your compilation of pixels is very inspiring and eyeopening. Neet with the feminist and gender issues for example.
    This is not a critique but more for you to consider:
    Dom Elder Camara (archebispo of Recife)?
    Paolo Freire and Augusto Boal?
    Bacalhao do batata?
    Tropicalia in London?
    Photos from first towns electrified in Brasil?

    Also I am very interested in historic photos illustrating the modernization (deconstruction->transformation) of Sao Paolo.

    Sinon
    mes compliments et mes respects différés.
    Quasileiro
    aka Nicolao Bacalhao

    • Regina says:

      Dear dr. Bacalhao, you are making me blush – right now my skin is matching my red hair. Let me tell you, though, that, as we say in our beautiful country, I am not “dona” (owner or mrs. – for those among you who don’t speak Portuguese), because I don’t own anything. Not even my computer, that definitely owns me.
      I arrived from Mexico City just one hour ago, so I need some rest, but will explore your many comments later.
      Thanks!

    • Regina says:

      So, Quasileiro, vamos por partes, como diria Jack o Estripador (Let’s devide it in quarters, to quote Jack the Ripper):
      Thanks for the great tips of pictures – I particularly love Flávio de Carvalho wearing skirts in the fifties. He impressed me a lot when I was a kid, specially his series of sketches of his mom dying. And, yeah, Dom Elder, Boal, Paulo Freire, all of them were in my radar, but there is so much you can squeeze into 100 pictures.
      Friday is a day I reserved for picture posts. I hope to publish many more historic selections and these images will be perfect. They might be tematic (music, politics) or maybe regional. Wait and see!
      And I will contact you in the next few days to exchange some ideas. What do you think about writing about Maranhão?
      Kiss
      R.

  • Thaddeus Blanchette says:

    I always translate “vamos por partes” as “let’s take it a bit at a time”, as Jack the Ripper said.

  • Luci says:

    Well, I am brazilian, I lived in few latin american countries studying local culture and language and I was thinking about it. I hope no one fell offended, but have a historic context that many people from out of Latin America don´t know. My idea is just explain why it happens, but many people don´t admit(the latin american,”gringos” and no gringos”).
    The word “gringo”, both in spanish and portuguese means literally “foreigner” and depends of the context, can be interpreted like pejorative or just refers about some foreigner, in general that don´t speak the local language. Like people said before, in Mexico is common refer to USA citizens like “gringos” in a bad way, like “the explorers of our race”. Since all Latin America had and still having a colonial context in few places, the word “gringo” is normally related with “people from out”, not necessarily blonde/blue eyes or tan/black eyes. The first thing that come in the mind is USA citizens (that in most of Latin America is “not exactly welcome” because the historic context related with the Second War and how the finance the military dictatorship in these countries) and european. But a brazilian like me can be called “gringa” in Guatemala, like an example. Again, depends of the context. Most of the time when is pejorative when the local people fell offended,invaded for “new colonization that came to assault our resources”(consciousnesses or subconsciousness they see the things in this way) or that “they are being subjugated”.

  • GingerV says:

    I’ve lived in Brasil for nearly 9 years. I’ve never thought of gringa as an insult – it is used daily as someone not Brazilian. I would love to have a plate on my car, “Gringa60″ just to warn them Not to PASS ME IN A NO PASS ZONE! I have taken exception though of being call ‘estrangeira’ a stranger… or strange. But their use it means foreigner. Words and their power, and usage is a fascinating subject.

  • jaruj kazok says:

    It is hard to say, in Australia used to call Italians and Greeks, and Lebanese,especially those with olive skin dark hair and eyese Wogs. It become an insultive word. Even though sometimes it didn’t mean to be. Some young Autralians of Greek and Italian descent turn that word around and make it success i a very popular film Wogboy. Is anyone to try make successful movie in Brazil with the totle Gringoboy?

  • Jeanne says:

    Quasileiro, can you explain what you mean by the term “quasileiro”? Is it roughly equivalent to “global nomad,” which is also related but not the same as the term “Third Culture Kid,” which is what I call myself, although at fifty-something maybe “kid” doesn’t cut anymore. Are you the same Quasileiro who has play lists on YouTube?

    In response to the posting, “Is gringo an insult?” I lived in Brasil from the ages of nine to eighteen & only felt insulted when that term was used towards me in an insulting context, just like a lot of words. Ex: dog; cat; young; old; blonde; man; color(ed). At the international or “American” school I attended for 2 yrs & from which I graduated high school, the yearbook was “O Gringo,” & none of the brasileiros who taught there or attended there ever suggested we should opt for a more politically correct term. One of my (American) friends from that school & I reconnected 20 yrs later. I then had 2 local friends both with the first name as my high school, & I’ll call all of them “Sue.” My then-and-late husband & I referred to the 2 local friends as “Sane Sue,” & “Crazy Sue” (but not to Crazy Sue’s face). I asked high school friend “Sue” if I could call her “Gringa Sue.” She said that worked for her. “I’m gringa, I’m Sue, sure, I’ll be Gringa Sue.”

    When I introduce myself to Brazilians in Massachusetts (USA), I try hard to expunge as much of an American accent from my portugues & to use very correct grammar. (I was influenced early on in Brasil by a friend of my mother’s, a paulistana who sharply corrected my sister & me when our grammar was less than perfect.) Sometimes someone assumes I’m brasileira, & I quickly tell them I’m gringa, my parents are gringos, but that I was “criada no Brasil.” Note: I don’t tell them that I’m americana, & I don’t tell them I’m from “America.” When speaking to folks from OTHER continents I may say that I’m American or I tell them from the US or “the States.”
    Etymologically, at least from the postings in comment to “Is gringo an insult?’ & within the context of cultura brasileira I don’t see a reason to ditch the term gringo. Given that, I doubt that my alma mater still calls its yearbook “O Gringo,” but then most of the students today are brasileiros.

    Jeanne, aka Parana Pine

  • Micah says:

    Call me a gringo or a honkey or whatever. I won’t mind.

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