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Is “Gringo” Offensive?

Posted in: Ecuador Travel, Living in Ecuador, My Life in Ecuador, Our Perspective

We knew before we moved to Ecuador that we were Gringos. And we have been called Gringos frequently – by store clerks, friends and even strangers on the street. I’ve gotten so used to it, I describe myself to Ecuadorians as “el Gringo” because its the easiest way to describe who I am. In a community of Ecuadorians, the term Gringo identifies me as the 6ft-tall pale-faced guy.

What is a Gringo?

The term Gringo comes in a few variations:

gringo-man-insulted

  • Gringo – for the man
  • Gringa – for the woman
  • Gringita / Gringito – for the child or the “dear little gringo”. This is a term of endearment.
  • los Gringos – the group of gringos

Online forums and blog comments are full of Americans and Canadians who are insulted at the thought of being marginalized, by being reduced to a word.

Here in Ecuador, a Gringo is anyone foreign – from any country. However, the taller and blonder you are increases the odds of being called a gringo. But the telltale give-away is when you open your mouth. Once you speak, either exclusively in English or with the distinctive English accent, you become a “Gringo”.

Something to remember: in Latin American culture, it is common, accepted and even a kindness to give people nicknames based on their physical appearance. For example:

  • Flaco (thin or skinny)
  • Gordo (fatty)
  • Gordito (little fatty)
  • Suco (fair skinned)
  • Negrita (little black)

Two years ago, while visiting Margarita Island, I was driving with a Venezuelan friend. He referred to a friend of his as “negrita” – I was shocked. I thought that it was out of bounds – that it was an international insult. But no . . . in Spanish its common term of endearment. A professional friend, a Cuencano, calls his wife “flaca”. When translated literally means “skinny woman”. In English, it doesn’t sound so nice, but in Spanish it is a sweet expression from a husband.

In Ecuador, people are often identified by where there are from:

  • Cuencano (a person from Cuenca)
  • Guayaquileño (a person from Guayaquil)
  • Quiteño (a person from Quito)

For us, being called Gringos is equivalent to being called Canadian. It simply identifies our origins. It isn’t uncommon to be walking downtown and hear two older Cuencanas say: “Mira – la gringita”, referring to our daughter. They say it with all the love and interest that her own grandmother would. To us, it is a very kind.

How Should a Gringo Handle Taxi Rates?

What Are the Alternatives to “Gringo”?

While most people from the United States consider themselves “Americans”, this doesn’t have the same meaning here. America isn’t a country: it includes everything from Alaska to Argentina. After all, Ecuador is part of Latin America, located in South America. Technically speaking, everyone from Canada south to Patagonia is an “American”.

If you are from Canada or the United States, you may be called norteamericano (North American). At a glance, it is impossible to tell Canadians, Britians, Australians and New Zealanders apart. So just as the the diverse nationalities of Latin America have been grouped (right or wrong) under the term “Latino”, it seems that “Gringo” have come to define foreigners as a group in Latin America. Have you noticed a Gringo Superiority Complex?

What do you say? Are you offended by the term? If you are Ecuadorian, what do you say about it?

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is editor of GringosAbroad - one of the largest English language sites about Ecuador. Work with GringosAbroad. He is a travel blogger, photographer and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands).

44 comments… add one
  • Sara May 9, 2017, 3:10 pm

    Scenario: Team of Guatemalan guys working in US, you are the only non-Guatemalan working with them. You were introduced by your boss, and took the time to individually identify with each co-worker and learn their names, a bit of their ‘story’, establish good work conditions….yet for TWO LONG MONTHS you have been called Gringo by all seven, never your given name (which is quite basic like Joe, John, Dave, Stephen). You have even addressed them as a group telling them you will no longer respond unless your given name is used. And they call other American co-workers by the proper name. At what point is it disrespectful? In my opinion Gringo can definitely be used in a derogatory/disrespectful meaning.

    • Bryan Haines May 9, 2017, 4:05 pm

      Absolutely agree. Just like any nickname, the term gringo can also be used disrespectfully.

      In Ecuador, the Spanish word “jefe” (boss or leader) is commonly used when dealing with someone who knows more than you do about a certain topic. Like a mechanic or carpenter. It is also used as an informal show of respect. But it can also be used sarcastically with disrespect. The word isn’t as much the problem as how it’s used.

  • David Garriga May 4, 2016, 11:58 pm

    I am a soon-to-be legal adult, and think I have a word on the topic.

    First off, for me, it’s no question that one can accept dual nationality should one have the desire, merely on the assumption of the virtue in that. Such is my case: I say I’m Puerto-Rican American–and it’s no book or vague definition that tells me, because I’ve proved it for myself.

    I remember an adult family friend asked me casually at around the age of 8, if I was Latino, and confusion ensued within me. How could I be both Puerto Rican and American?
    What I didn’t know, and what the social environment didn’t want me to know, was this: American is first born as a nomenclature to describe nationality (it’s anyone “from” the United States, whether originally (by birth) or, as it’s used informally, culturally). Where was I from? And what made me who I was?

    Well, to answer the question, the aforementioned. But then another question is the one I had to learn to deal with, the ethnicity the way it is defined for you is clear, and so is the race. But then, why am I still being called “gringo” as a supposed term of endearment when it is exclusive of one thing and inclusive of the other; when it is based on how good some slight years of a difference have on my ability to pronounciate a set of compounded, abstract signs that is language, which is peculiar in speech to every individual as well as to every nation; when being Spanish can mean being English too and so much more?
    That is the question people define for themselves, and as long as there are differences in our opinion, our ability to not be in favor of one or the other is hampered, our language is hampered, our communication…the rest is history. That is the naked truth.

    • Jakob May 5, 2016, 10:36 pm

      Ah, another fellow human with split personality. My daughter has 4 (four) different nationalities by birth (Ecuadorian being one of them), so I understand where you are coming from. I have worked with a lot of people in the United States and I have met children of Ecuadorian immigrants on the east coast and the west coast. My first thought often was that if I they were Latino I should be Super Cholo, because they acted very, very American and knew less about their parents’ cultural roots than I did. However, they looked the part while I look like Ragnar the Viking. When those people who were born and raised in the USA come to Ecuador people will call them gringo because of how they behave, or you might hear something like “Se cree gringo”. In my case, it’s the other way around. People call me gringo based on my looks and later I might hear something like “Este no parece gringo”. It’s always looks and behaviour.

  • pedro Dec 4, 2015, 1:37 pm

    Gringo, origin: GREEN GO

  • Greg Oct 29, 2014, 3:25 pm

    I think we Norte Americanos can be a bit too sensitive. I have been in Costa Rica for a year and a half and have never taken offense at the term… anymore than the Costa Rican takes offense at the term Tico.

    Standing at 6’3 and being very much caucasian means I don’t blend in too well.

    Great, still relevant, post.

    • Bryan Haines Nov 3, 2014, 9:18 am

      Agreed!

      Many North Americans recoil at the though of being pigeon-holed – but don’t have any qualms about doing the same to many other groups.

    • Jakob Nov 4, 2014, 7:39 pm

      I found, however, that in Central America the word was used exclusively to describe Americans from the US. The term was not applied to Europeans. That was my experience in Mexico and Panama. In Mexico it definitely wasn’t a friendly term. This is why I initially didn’t like it. I thought they were calling me American. In Ecuador the term is used very broadly, mostly applied to foreigners, but I have heard it applied as an adjective to generally fair skinned or blonde people as in “Esa senora es bastante gringa”. If I heard it in Mexico, I would take offence.

  • James Cope Jun 12, 2014, 7:20 am

    I don’t see “Gringo” as offensive. To paraphrase my Commander in the Army; “People are offended by things because they ***choose*** to be offended by them.”

    • Bryan Haines Jun 12, 2014, 7:24 am

      Very true!

      • David Garriga May 5, 2016, 12:04 am

        You could also say people ***choose*** to offend you. In fact, in active voice, that’s exactly what the phrase becomes. Whether you ***choose*** to be offended is separate from whether something is in fact considered, by some reasonable criteria, offensive. No offense (see what I mean?).

        • David Garriga May 5, 2016, 12:10 am

          I think to take offense is good when it is dealt with respect, with prudence, and with wisdom from the the one offended. Sometimes, the best thing like you imply, is to say nothing at all . But the problem, like a hairy spider, can crawl from its cave at any moment and attack. Something to think about.

        • Bryan Haines May 5, 2016, 7:58 am

          That’s true. Offense can be intended – but it’s nothing if you don’t “take offense”.

  • Pal May 29, 2014, 7:33 pm

    The shortest way to clarify this “If a Latino really wanted to insult you they would call you a ‘Yanqui’ [Yankee] not a Gringo. ‘Yanqui’ is the name that is used in pejorative manner in teaching in many university settings throughout Latin America. Not all I am sure but you can easily find anti-Yanqui statements throughout Latin America. The meme often is ‘how those racist Yanquis got rich by stealing everything from the poor, pure Latinos.’ It’s also taught in Spain, I know because my college educated lawyer girlfriend from Madrid told me about all the stuff they were taught about Gringos while in her days in the University system in Spain. jajaja. Right or wrong, it’s just part of the territory…. it’s their country, their culture so I suggest you just learn to live with it and not get your dander up.

  • Jack Wilkinson Mar 7, 2013, 3:39 pm

    “Gringo” is not an insult, nor is it originally Ecuadoran. It is among those words that grew out of the meeting of two cultures; Mexican and Anglo-Saxon. The most credible story is that the earliest Texas immigrants from Tennessee (generally the Scots-Irish), permitted by the Mexican government to settle in their state of Texas, arrived by ox-drawn wagons in the 1820s while singing a newer version of an old Irish folk song,”Green Grow The Lilacs” (which itself apparently drew on an earlier song from the 17th century, “Green Grow The Laurels”). ‘Green grow’ became “Gringo”, and the rest is history.
    Another version, though less likely, says the term arose twenty-five years later during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. In both stories, the song gives rise to the term. Today, like then, gringo is benign and is just short-hand for “white”.
    Since it is from the 1800s, most Mexicans don’t know where it came from either. Other common Latino terms are “anglo” (also benign), and “yanqui” (slightly pejorative). Similarly, “negro” or “negra” just means a black male or female and connotes no other meaning. …friendly reply from a Texan

  • María Isabel Dec 18, 2012, 12:08 pm

    Hi. Not every foreign person in Ecuador is called “gringo”, this is a term for the Caucasian, blue-eyed, white ones. We don’t say the Colombian living in Ecuador are “gringos”, for example.

  • j_major Dec 15, 2012, 9:53 am

    Here in Ecuador, most people use GRINGO with no negative bias at all. It depends on the tone. Commonly, we use CHINO for all asians, even if they’re not chinese. And this is not only for foreigners: asian ecuadorians are also called like that. Even Guayaquil mayor (Jaime Nebot, who has arab roots) is called CHINO.

    You guys should embrace the term GRINGO and turn it positive. That’s what ecuadorians living in Spain do with the SUDACA term they use to call a latin america in Europe.

  • Claudia Nov 22, 2012, 11:11 pm

    Just people who poorly speak spanish would say gringo. There are well educated Ecuadorians, probably not friends with the foreign community, who will certainly not address a foreigner as “gringo”.

    • Bryan Haines Nov 23, 2012, 6:28 am

      I have to disagree – at least with what I’ve seen in Cuenca and surrounding areas. While well educated Ecuadorians don’t just randomly walk up to me and call me “gringo” – they do refer to us as gringos, especially our friends and clients do. As with anything, it depends on how it is said. While we use the term “expat” to describe ourselves in English, I haven’t heard an equivalent term in Spanish. In Spanish we are either extranjeros (foreigners) or gringos – with the term gringo being more specific because not all extranjeros are gringos.

      Older, sophisticated Cuencana women frequently refer to us, and especially our young daughter, as gringos – but with kindness. My daughter is the “gringita” and always said with much love, even from complete strangers. Sometimes as we walk by strangers on the street, they will comment about us (probably not knowing that we understand Spanish) and refer to us as “gringitos”. Sometimes they will even stop us on the street to speak to us to find out where we are from and if we like their city.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • María Isabel Cartagena Faytong Jun 4, 2017, 5:33 pm

        That’s nice! I have the idea that cuencanos are kind.

        • Bryan Haines Jun 5, 2017, 9:13 am

          Very true – Cuencanos are kind and very accepting of foreigners.

    • Jakob Nov 23, 2012, 7:03 am

      Many years ago when my Mexican experience was still very fresh I hired a photographer in Ecuador to take pictures and a video of my wedding. He filed my material under the work “Gringo” (I guess I was the only one among his clients back then) and it was also written across the DVD with my wedding movie inside. I almost asked my money back and my in laws had to calm me down. That’s how I quickly learned that the word really is an everyday word in Ecuador unlike in some other countries of the Spanish speaking world. My family had to explain it to me over and over again for an entire day.

    • María Isabel Nov 4, 2014, 2:46 pm

      Beg to differ. President Correa uses the word -Not in a candid way, though.

  • jacob Oct 26, 2012, 9:01 am

    Heard a story that the word Gringo has its origin in the mexican – american war in the XIX century. The mexican told the uniformed soldiers; green – go!

  • Drew Haines Oct 19, 2012, 5:27 pm

    Here in Ecuador, everyone calls me ‘Suca’ which means Blondie. I used to find it very offensive, but now I think of it as normal and I don’t mind it. Another great post!

  • Audrey | That Backpacker Oct 13, 2012, 8:39 pm

    I lived in Argentina for 6 years as a kid and I was the ‘gringa’. At first it did make me feel like I didn’t belong but it eventually grew on me.

  • Nomadic Samuel Oct 11, 2012, 12:01 am

    This is definitely an interesting question to ponder. As a foreigner in Korea, I’m referred to constantly as a ‘waegook’ which is the equivalent of gringo and in Thailand I’m called a ‘farang.’ I think in certain cases they may be used in derogatory manners, but to be honest, most of the time it isn’t.

  • Jakob Oct 9, 2012, 10:54 am

    If you are really good friends among guys in Ecuador calling your buddy “negro feo” (ugly black) will probably earn you a big laugh and a pad on the back, regardless of their actual skin tone. Forget what your culture taught you about political correctness and loosen up to the fact that being able to call someone certain things is an expression of trust and bonding.

  • Barbara Null Oct 8, 2012, 10:17 pm

    I loved your description of the word. Having travelled many times to Central and South America during my career I have never taken offence to being called a gringa. I think of it as a term of kindness as I have found all the locals very congenial.

  • John and Mary Oct 7, 2012, 12:05 pm

    Here on the coast in San Clemente it’s a term used to describe all those who are not Ecuadorian. As others have stated it can be used as a derogatory term by the tone of voice and the way it’s said. As a expat, your actions and words will determine whether gringo is describing your origin or some character flaw. After living here for 10 months we are still the gringos though most call us by name Jon y Maria.
    A tidbit of info, there is a fish that the pescadores call gringo and another called gringoito, both excellent eating fish.

  • Michel Dubé Oct 7, 2012, 12:02 pm

    Gringo…

    You may be wondering why I didn’t simply look “gringo” up in a Spanish-English dictionary, since I was so determined to find its definition. Well, I did, and the word was defined as “one who speaks gibberish”.

    The word “gringo” was mentioned in Spanish literature as early as the eighteenth century. In his famous 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 accent. Maybe it sounded like gibberish.

    According to one opinion, “gringo” is a corrected form of griego as used in the ancient Spanish expression hablar en griego, that is, to speak an unintelligible language or “to speak Greek.” There’s that gibberish thing again.

    Where did “gringo” come from? If any of you readers are familiar with the paintings of scowling foreigners who hung out in Mexico a couple of hundred years ago, the gentle Mexican people probably took one look, decided the strangers should smile and depart, and cautioned them to “Grin. Go.”

    As far as I am concerned, I like the expression “Gringo” and I do not find it offensive if someone calls me that way.

  • Joel Oct 7, 2012, 9:41 am

    Having lived in Ecuador for more than a year now, I think David hit it on the head. It all depends on the delivery. If a person wants to insult you, Gringo is as good a word as any to say with contempt. I find nothing offensive about it unless it is intended. Also, to the “American” point. In my experience, a lot of Ecuadorians call us Americanos. I have been told by Ecuadorian friends, “we’re Ecuadorian, you’re American”.

  • Jan Elvira Oct 7, 2012, 9:40 am

    My husband is from Argentina and has always called me Gringa. It may be a bit offensive, but I’ve always embraced it even putting it on my luggage in embrodery! Yo soy La Gringa!

  • Paul Fine Oct 7, 2012, 9:20 am

    We are gringo’s, we are also guests in this country, if you have a problem get over it or move back to the USA. I would like to see the few jerks here from the USA move back, they give the rest of us a bad name. Taxi rates should be no problem, find out from your local friends what you should pay and have the exact change, I have never had a problem. Buses are the best way to travel locally anyway. You can get a schedule at the tourist office down town.

    Paul

  • Suzanne Thurston Oct 7, 2012, 8:49 am

    Thank you for your article. My experience in Cuenca has been Gringo just means all non-Ecuadorians. It’s some Gringos who use the term in a negative way about other Gringos!

  • David Akins Oct 7, 2012, 8:46 am

    If one has a thin skin and is ‘looking to be insulted’, saying “Good morning” is offensive. Truly it is how the term is used. I asked a Cuencana friend about the term ‘indian’ with regard to the local indigenous culture. I had heard several Cuencanos use the term indian and not indigenous. Her reply was that it was all in the ‘tone’ of how you said the word ‘indian’. I suspect one can determine by the tone of how ‘gringo’ is uttered, one can detect the meaning being expressed. For me, life is too short to be in anticipation of being offended. To me the level of how easily one is offended is an easy measurement of their personal insecurities. The more insecure the personality, the farther away I distance myself. lol

  • Mike Oct 7, 2012, 8:24 am

    The term is only offensive to me, when they (other Gringos)rip me off (like at a certain beach town in Ecuador)! Otherwise, I take no offense to the term!

  • Josh Oct 6, 2012, 8:39 am

    I’m Ecuadorian, and I’ve heard a lot of times that people call gringos to anyone that look blonde, tall and with blue/green eyes. It doesnt matter where they come from. People here dont know that for some people “Gringo” is consider as an insult. But theres where culture takes its part. As a foreign they should show their culture and learn new culture and dont get mad. But as long you stay in Ecuador you will notice that Gringo will be forever your nickname. Nice blog, bless.

    • Bryan Haines Oct 6, 2012, 2:50 pm

      Thanks Josh – I appreciate your comment. We actually like the nickname!

      Bryan

  • Lindsay Hartfiel Oct 6, 2012, 8:00 am

    I’ve actually wondered this myself and asked one of my friends (a Costa Rican) if it was meant to be offensive. He shook his head. Generally I don’t find it offensive, however, the way it is said can sometimes indicate whether it is used in disgust. And, many in Costa Rica use it only to describe North Americans…not Europeans.

    • Jakob Oct 11, 2012, 8:27 am

      Same in Panama and Mexico. Europeans are not “gringos”, only US citizens are. In Ecuador, however, all foreigners can be referred to as “gringos” as long as they look Caucasian (the term is not used for Asians for example).

      • María Isabel Cartagena Faytong Jun 4, 2017, 5:39 pm

        Exactly. Is just used for Caucasian people. The blonder, the “gringer”.

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