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What is a Gringo? (Am I One?) Origin and Current Meanings

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

Let me preface this post: I am a Canadian in Ecuador. While I don’t pretend to understand the implications or etymologies of racial/cultural slang, I am familiar with this one from my perspective, from the three years we’ve been in Ecuador. When we first arrived in Ecuador, we were referred to as Gringos and subsequently began referring to ourselves as such. 

More than a few expats in Ecuador are offended by this expression. I hope to shed some light on the origins of the word and what it really means here in Ecuador. (And I hope not to offend my fellow Gringos.) 🙂

Is “Gringo” Offensive?

So, Just What (or Who) is a Gringo?

what is a gringo

There are many different ideas. It seems the most popular idea online is that it originated during the Mexican-American War (1846 – 1848).

Here are the three most commonly stated origins:

  1. Green-Grow: This story states that the Mexicans misheard U.S. troops singing “Green Grow the Lilacs” an Irish folk song during the Mexican – American War.
  2. Green Go Home: Also during the Mexican-American War, this angle states that Americans wearing green uniforms were shouted at with the chant: “Green Go Home”.
  3. Green Go: From Brazil comes the following etymology: the English words “green” and “go”, reportedly linked to foreigners exploiting the Amazon rain-forest. Locals watched foreigners take the green (nature) away for profit.

As with many other popular beliefs these are also all incorrect. These all date from the 19th century. Below is a citation from the late 18th century.

Citation from Wikipedia’s Gringo entry:

The word gringo was first recorded in the Castilian Dictionary (1786) by Terreros y Pando, and was defined as:

  • Gringos llaman en Málaga a los extranjeros que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural Castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo nombre con particularidad a los irlandeses.
  • Gringos is what, in Malaga, they call foreigners who have a certain type of accent that prevents them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally; and in Madrid they give the same name, in particular, to the Irish.

Also, in an Spanish-French Dictionary (1817) by Antonio de Capmany states:

  • . . . hablar en griego, en guirigay, en gringo.
  • . . . to speak in Greek, in gibberish, in gringo.

Isn’t this a great entry? “To speak gringo” – means to be almost indecipherable in your Spanish because of your English accent.

Read about: Gringos Superiority Complex

What Does “Gringo” Mean in Ecuador?

From our experience, a person is a gringo if they are a light skinned foreigner. Not just people from the United States, but all foreigners. It seems that in some Latin American countries gringo applies primarily to inhabitants of the United States. But it has a wider meaning here in Ecuador.

Being a Gringo seems to also be related to the ability to speak Spanish properly. There are a number of Ecuadorians that are tall and light skinned. They look at first glance like someone I would describe as a gringo. But when I speak with them, they clearly aren’t.

So it seems that both your appearance and what comes out of your mouth identify you as a foreigner, er… gringo. A number of our Ecuadorian friends are light skinned (with either brown or dark blond hair) and are known among their family as suco or suca (meaning blond or fair skinned). Parents will sometimes call their fair skinned child suco (or suca for a girl).

From our experience, the term “Gringo” is not derogatory in Ecuador. But it is a common and descriptive term.

Am I a Gringo? 

Of course. We call ourselves gringos – because that’s what we are. We are funny-speaking light-skinned foreigners. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used in a derogatory way towards us or other expats.

We refer to all foreigners as gringos. Especially those that stand out as stereotypical tourists. You know, a guidebook in one hand and souvenirs in the other and a cheap panama hat on their head. Nothing wrong with that.

So, You Might Be a Gringo If…

  • you are from an English speaking country
  • you are light skinned
  • you don’t speak Spanish (or speak with an English accent)

Post References: Wikipedia: Gringo, Spanish on Gringo, Latinaish: Is Gringo Offensive?, Spanishdict: What is a Gringo?

So, what about you: Are you a gringo? What is a Gringo to you?

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Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Travel.

20 comments… add one
  • currybadger Dec 19, 2012, 4:22 pm

    I’ve been in Baja for a while before and heard people muttering gringo whenever they see me walk by. Not sure if that was a bad thing or not, but I knew I was slightly out of place!

  • pidosilencio Oct 16, 2012, 10:09 pm

    Gringo is a way to call United States people, nowadays gringo is a way to call caucasian people, if you are from Canada, Australia, Austria, Ireland, etc, you are a gringo/a.
    I had a romanian girlfriend, I referred  her as “mi gringa” 😉

  • peter hayward Aug 28, 2012, 5:04 am

    Re the comment about racism and maybe difficulty in relocating to Ecuador. I am aware of a government body aimed at anti-racismo and the development of the Afro Ecuatoriano people, It is

  • Betty Aug 27, 2012, 5:56 am

    I realize that whether we want to admit it or not, racism exist every where. There are many African Americans who would like to relocate to another country, especially those who are in the process of retiring. Ecuador seem like it maybe worth considering. How difficult is it for the African American to relocate to Ecuador?

    • Bryan Haines Aug 27, 2012, 5:52 pm

      I’m probably not qualified to answer this. Technically speaking, it is the same. Racism does exist here, just like everywhere else. Maybe another reader can better answer your question.

    • Jakob Aug 27, 2012, 8:36 pm

      Bryan is right that racism exists everywhere. However, of all the countries I have ever gotten to know, lived, or worked in, and those are quite a few in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, Ecuador has been the least race focused and most race egalitarian society of all. The USA are decisively more race conscious if you can put it that way. I believe that when you come here you will find that your race will matter a lot less than in your home country. Part of the reason is that many families are a wild racial mix with bloodlines from all over the world. I know people where one guy has red hair, the other is black, and they are cousins, especially in Guayaquil.

      I was in St. Louis, MO, a few weeks ago with my wife and we got stared at on several occasions in an uncanny way (I am very white, she is very dark and looks African to an extent) while in Guayaquil we are just a regular couple. She has always been telling me that she does not understand why in the US mostly African American men would try to make conversation with her on the street, but other types of people would ignore her. It is not like that in Ecuador. You socialize and make friends with everybody.

      I find Ecuador has other more significant divides than the almost non-existing racial divide, such as the divide between people from the coast and people from the mountains (different mentalities and historic strife), but even that is laughable compared to the issues in other countries.

      An interesting fact may also be that there have never been any African slaves in Ecuador. The African descent population swam ashore from a shipwreck a few hundred years ago and has lived here since. They make up around 5% of the population (living mainly on the coast), but there is probably a greater percentage of people of mixed descent. This might be one reason why Ecuador does not have the racial issues of the US.

      There are occasional conflicts with the indigenous population of the mountains and Amazon, but that is rather based on the differences between them and the government as to what can and cannot be done with the land they live on.

      I have also found the racial component to be much stronger in Panama and Mexico.

      Having said this and as mentioned before, there are occasional cases. I have an Ecuadorian friend in Guayaquil whose mother effectively prevented him from proposing to the girl of his choice based on the dark colour of her skin.

      Greetings from Manabi.

      • Jakob Oct 11, 2012, 9:06 am

        A friend I have in Panama who is a native explains the phenomenon of some families staying distinctively Caucasian (which might appear like there is a racist component) vs others that mix in the following way:

        Many societies in Latin America (including Ecuador) are still very much entrenched in their colonial roots. When Spain established their colonies there was a clear hierarchy of power in the new society depending on where you came from.
        1. People born in Europe (Spain) held the most power and were most wealthy and privileged.
        2. People born and raised in the Americas of European descent (called “criollos”) were behind, a close 2nd.
        3. Everybody else was well below in terms of wealth and power.

        The independence of the Americas resulted from the inherent flaw of that system that you had to keep bringing in the ruling class from Europe while the “criollos” who naturally were becoming more numerous over time did not get their fair cut. At some point the “criollos” created the independence movement to shake up that power structure. Simon Bolivar was a “criollo”. Those guys were still of European descent, however, and even after independence those families continued to control most of the country’s resources. It continues up to this day. So, not letting your kid marry a poor “esmeraldeña” of African descent for example is more about preventing the dilution of wealth and power than a real dislike of people of different skin colour. In Ecuador as in many other countries the regions where people of African descent are the majority are among the least developed. You will be judged as to how wealthy you are or what you do in life by how you look. An Ecuadorian friend who is a mom with kids distinctively whiter than herself once joked with me that people thought she was the domestic worker at her house and not the mother. At the same time there is no ideological hostility between different ethnic groups in Ecuador which sets it apart from many other countries. People do include you in their social circles no matter how you look.

  • Jakob Aug 24, 2012, 11:59 pm

    Bryan… This is a well researched article. I find it interesting that you actually found the definition of the word “gringo” in old Spanish sources. I never heard it used in Spain when I lived there (I heard “guiri” as someone else has already posted) and was convinced of its Latin American origin.

    I myself have had to deal with the different meanings of the word in different countries. Before I knew Ecuador I knew Central America. In Mexico and Panama “gringo” is used explicitly for people from the USA. In Mexico very often with a negative connotation. When I came to Ecuador I, therefore, felt insulted in 2 ways. First, I thought they were taking me for an American which I wasn’t and second I thought they were insulting me based on the assumption that I was American. None of these was true, of course. It is indeed a difference between when a Mexican calls you that vs. when an Ecuadorian does. Your observation about how the word is used in Ecuador is correct. It is not negative and the term is broadly used for anybody who I would refer to as a blonde or something close enough to it (this is a rather fuzzy definition in this country).

    “Suco” must be a word from the sierra region. I have never encountered it on the coast. Here, some people even use “gringo” as an adjective to describe any light skinned or blonde haired person, Ecuadorian or foreign (Example: “Esta mujer es bastante gringa”). It sometimes simply is an appearance thing. I have since stopped being offended.

    • Bryan Haines Aug 25, 2012, 6:51 am

      Thanks Jakob. I’ve heard other comments also say that it has become just a Latin American expression.

      Interesting that you don’t hear “suco” on the coast. It is very common here in Cuenca. Although I wasn’t considered light skinned in Canada, I get called suco here. It seems that anyone without black hair is considered suco.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Matthew James Long Aug 23, 2012, 5:33 pm

    You nailed it the definition of “gringo.” That’s the most accurate definition I’ve ever seen. The only thing I would like to add (so that we are being 100% truthful)is that it can have a negative connotation at rare times. If a light skinned foreginer is acting in a unappealing way, I have seen locals utter the word, “gringo” under their breath with contempt, as if the fact that they are gringo explains their bad behavior. Also, when light skin foreigners are clumsy or awkward in public, “gringo” is used as an epithet amongst the locals as they are laughing behind his back. It’s kind of like saying “Idiot.”
    Besides this, it is a benign word and is even used as a term of endearment. My Latino friends call me “gringo” all the time when describing me to others. At least I hope they are using it in an endearing way 🙂

    • Bryan Haines Aug 25, 2012, 6:56 am

      Thanks Matt – like most words, really depends on context and on how it is actually said.

      It’s funny, but some of our friends laugh out loud when we use the term. And when they see that we aren’t offended then they use it as well. In the Sierra people are very careful not to offend – we noticed a difference even over “polite Canada” when we arrived. I don’t mean to exclude the coast, but I haven’t spent enough time there to know.

  • steve Aug 23, 2012, 5:24 pm

    I guess i should have asked
    are you a “el pollo gringo”?

  • Steve Sorkin Aug 23, 2012, 3:43 pm

    Okay, we have ‘gringo’s’ in town. Any ginja’s?


  • William Fitzpatrick Aug 23, 2012, 1:24 pm

    we live in Bahia de Caraquez, it was the best move we ever made. Yes, we are gringos from Phoenix,Az but are treated by our neighbors all Ecuatorian as they treat everyone else they are always there to help if we need anything. a reply to Gorden, a bank account isn’t necessary we do all our banking from home, and bar on windows are to make you feel secure…we had them in the US, they can be removed if you don’t feel the need. It is beautiful here, you missed a great opportunity and experience. Bill

  • peter hayward Aug 23, 2012, 1:08 pm

    I currently live in Malaga and have done for 25 years (next stop is Ecuador). Here the word gringo is never used. Here the equivalent is “guiri” and it usually derogatory no matter how much you integrate or how well you speak Spanish. It largely depends how the word is used. Several of my best Spanish friends call me guiri to my face and I can “insult” them with appropriate spanish words-all good fun.

  • Silvana Aug 23, 2012, 12:23 pm

    Thanks for the article. Just want to add that gringo is indeed a relative term and different Ecuadorians have their own ideas about who qualifies as a gringo and who doesn’t. For example, I am an Argentinian-Canadian. My first language is Spanish … but they don’t know that until I open my mouth. They assume I am a gringa until I speak to them in Spanish. Then… some of them see me as a Latin American sister who is not from here but is familiar/close to them in culture and worldview, etc. And others still see me as gringa because I am still not Ecuadorian, speak English, and look like I could be from North America. So, depending who I speak to I feel more or less of a foreigner. But it doesn’t matter. Most Ecuadorians are welcoming, friendly, and kind. As long as you know who you are, are humble, are appreciative of being welcomed here, you can make Ecuador your home, feel like you belong. But please don’t try to change it. Don’t try to “fix it”. All of us gringos are here because something wasn’t quite right where we lived before… so let’s keep that in mind. There are also pros and cons in being a gringo. One of them is that we are allowed our excentricities because we are gringos (ha, ha). All is well, really. The sense of foreignness we experience here is nothing compared to what Latin Americans are made to feel in Canada, the USA and Europe (believe me). So, count your blessings and enjoy this amazing country, protecting it from gringos who want to move here and re-create their home countries… thus making Ecuador into what they ran away from. Think about it!

    • Bryan Haines Aug 25, 2012, 7:03 am

      You make some very good points. I agree that we shouldn’t try to change things – as foreigners it isn’t our place. Ecuadorians are the kindest, most welcoming people we have ever met. And in almost every case, the term gringo is said in either a neutral or even a kind way.

      Thanks for your perspective.

  • gordon quick Aug 23, 2012, 10:00 am

    Enjoyed the Gringo Artical… We are from Louisiana and there we have the French decendants run out of Nova Scocia way long ago. The “Slang Name” is “Koon A**”, it used to be thought of as offencive and now they are identified as “Cajun”. I remember
    in Service the Slang Names for many Nationals and locations.
    I think most are now accepted rather than being offended.

    About a year ago we had decided to move to Ecuador mainly because of the dislike the way America is headed. At the time I
    had a hard time gathering the things one should know. We later
    decided not to make the Move because mainly I think of fear
    of the unknown. I would have liked to have found a Pamplet or Book on the “Do’s and dont’s”, how things are done etc.. The
    Red Flags were “Opening a Bank Account” requiring a Lawyer
    and three Hours !!!!! The Banks are not really trusted, and Bars on Windows and Fences say a lot !! So we decided to stay here.

    Best Wishes………Gordon

    • steve Aug 23, 2012, 5:21 pm


      are you a chicken gringo?
      just had to say it……hahahaha

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