Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hey, Gringo!

I recently wrote this to be featured in a local publication assembled by Peace Corps volunteers here in Guatemala. I don't know if they will publish it but it sure makes for a good blog entry. One thing you should know to understand this in its entirety. "Chapin or Chapina" is the local word for Guatemalan. Oh, and "miercoles" is Wednesday but it's a nice way of saying shit. Enjoy!

Hey, Gringo!

Ah the infamous, gringo. Maybe it’s whispered from the lips of an indigenous woman and followed by a few giggles from her and her friends, or you’re greeted in the office with a hand shake and an exuberant “¿Qué dice, pinche gringo?” How do you normally react? Many times I’ve heard friends respond with a “hola, chapin(a),” as if this were the equivalent. Well, today it is but the word has evolved from an entirely different meaning.

We feel and respond to things based on previous experiences. If the majority of your experiences with gringo have been instances in which it was being used as a pejorative directed to U.S. Americans, mainly Anglos, then you’ll probably really get tired of this word by month six. Even though I believe the vast majority of times its use is innocuous and simply acts as a colloquial demonym, it can effectively separates us from the rest of the group and causes an invisible divide that leaves us feeling alienated from our new peers. And when inclusiveness and integration is our goal, these adverse effects can certainly cause frustration. For these and many other reasons, I decided to research the etymology of gringo.

I think we’ve all heard the tired answer (the importance of research having been disregarded by whoever mentions it and then foolishly passed off as truth) that the Mexicans would yell to the soldiers fighting in the Texas frontier “Green, go!” meaning “Hey you in the green uniform, leave our country.” Although that would have been no defense against manifest destiny, I’m sure that’s exactly how the Mexicans felt. And eventually "Green, go!" evolved into the word in question. Simply not true.

Something a little more intriguing dates back to a similar period during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Hundreds of Irish-Americans were sent by the U.S. government to fight against Mexico. Tired of maltreatment from their Anglo-Protestant officers and doubting why they were fighting against a Catholic country in the first place, many of the Irish and others dissented and joined ranks with the Mexican forces. They called themselves San Patricios (San Patrick’s Battalion). Green being the color of the Irish, they sang “Green Grow the Rushes O!” (based on a Robert Burns poem) or a version of a Scottish song “Green Grows the Laurel” which the Irish called “Green Grow the Lilacs.” The songs eventually became popular with American cowboys and those listening from the other side of the border couldn’t hear the words clearly and “Green grow…” became gringo and later evolved to mean people from the United States. (Wikipedia) I rather wish this story were true but, alas, it’s a crock of miercoles and not supported by any real evidence. And these explanations have chronology working against them.

In his diccionario, compiled prior to 1750, Terreros y Pando, a Spanish historian notes that gringo was a nickname given to foreigners in Malaga and Madrid who spoke Spanish with an unintelligible accent. In this same region of Spain it was a word applied to the Irish. Maybe it sounded like they were speaking gibberish. Have you met any Irish? Moving right along…

Jumping into the 1830’s the German Johan Jakob von Tschudi and the Frenchman Arseve Isabelle, both mention the use of the word. In his travels in Peru during the years 1838-1842, Tschudi recounts how Peruvian women "prefer marrying a gringo to a paisanito." (Van Ostrand, Maggie: Where Did the Word Gringo Come From Anyway? 2003)

¿Qué es eso? ¿Contais en gringo? (What is this? / Are you using gringo language?) These lines from the play “Elena” by Manuel Breton de los Herreros in 1834 is yet further evidence of its Spanish roots. It eventually became incorporated into the Diccionario de la Real Academia in 1869.

Clearly the word was in use long before any conflict along the Mexican-American border and does not have its roots in this region of the world. According to many opinions, gringo is a corrected form of griego as used in the old Spanish expression – hablar en griego. We have the same expression in English – It’s all Greek to me. In Shakespear’s Julius Caesar (1599), Casca, a conspirator against Caesar proclaims:

Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again; but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

Nowadays gringo certainly refers to a U.S. citizen because being called an “Americano” doesn’t make sense since it refers to anyone from Canada all the way down to Argentina. And “estadounidense” is quite a mouthful.

So, all my friends from Gingolandia, when you hear gringo thoughtlessly escape the mouth of a friend or stranger, I hope you find it an opportunity to discuss the origins of this etymological legend.



  1. ah-ha! Stepped out of mainland...can finally see blogs.
    Great article - hope it gets published.

    - C$

  2. Hi Aron! My name is Stacey and I'm a good friend of Courtney Hibbard. I just sent her an email about how I've been invited to serve in Guatemala for my Peace Corps adventure and she replies that her only friend in Peace Corps is in Guatemala! Crazy coincidence. Nonetheless, I'm excited to get to know you and perhaps meet you after I find myself in country :) I look foward to reading more of your blog.