Monday, October 18, 2010

New article on the etymology of "gringo"

(I don't know who's in this picture, but the t-shirt is worth a thousand words...)

Here's an excerpt from the first draft of an article I just finished on the etymology of "gringo". If you'd like to help critique the article and make it better (in exchange for a beer and my thanks in the footnotes), post an e-mail in the "comments" and I'll send you a copy.

In early 2001, shortly after defending my masters thesis, Gringos (Blanchette, 2001), at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, I participated in three exchanges which brought home everything I had earlier written about the term “gringo”, its origins and its contemporary meanings, at least in Brazil.

The first occurred while I was lunching one day in the Museum’s cafeteria. A young housekeeping worker walked into the cafeteria and was greeted by the man behind the lunch counter with “Hey there, gringa! What are you doing down here today?” Both the housekeeper and the cafeteria employee were what U.S. Americans would call “black” and both were working class native born Brazilians. When I asked the counterman why he’d called the housekeeper a gringa, his response was quite interesting: “I’m from Rio and she’s from Pernambuco,” he said. “So she’s not from around here and she talks funny. Here in Brazil that means she’s a gringo. Gringos are people who don’t talk like us.”

A few weeks later, I was at a party with two American university students and their Brazilian translator. The Americans were in town on a three week long junket to “learn about life in the favelas ” and were excited that they were in daily contact with people they described as “real Brazilians” (by which they apparently meant the poor). At a certain point in our conversation, I referred to the pair as “gringos” (after several times referring to myself as such) and was immediately corrected: “Oh, we’re not gringos,” one of the young women said.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because I’m Mexican-American and she’s Korean-American. We’re not white.”

This statement was interesting from a Brazilian raciological perspective, because both young women were at least as phenotypically “white” as me. They obviously presumed that “gringo” was a racialized term which presumably only applied to people who were “purely” white, unhyphenated U.S. Americans.

“But here in Brazil, you are gringas,” I said. “Any foreigner is a gringo here”.

The women’s Brazilian translator and friend (a white, upper-class college student) then chimed in. “That’s true, but they’re not gringas like you’re a gringo. She’s latina and she’s a japa”, he said laughing ironically as he used the terms.

Finally, in early 2002, while enjoying a beer with some colleagues from the Museum’s Anthropology Department, I was treated to yet another mobilization of the term gringo. I was seated with Martin, a Swedish resident of Brazil roughly comparable to me in terms of build and coloration, discussing my thesis with two Brazilian-born colleagues, Cecilia (who had the same mentor as Martin) and Patricia (who was being oriented by Giralda Seyferth, my mentor). I had claimed that, although Brazilians thought they could spot out the gringos among them by looks alone, this wasn’t so easy. As Patricia got up to place our order, Cecília turned to me and said “Oh, but that’s not true, Thaddeus. I could identify you as a gringo from a block away! You just don’t have the jeito brasileiro . Now, Martin here, he could pass as a Brazilian, but not you…”

At this point, however, Patricia came back to the table and, not having heard Cecília’s comments, broke into the discussion: “Of course we can tell who’s a gringo and who isn’t. I mean look at Martin: there’s no way anyone could ever mistake him for a Brazilian. You blend in, Thaddeus, but most gringos are like Martin and are easy to spot.”

These three encounters illustrate some of the ways in which one hears gringo applied in Brazil. The uses may differ from each other but they are linked to the word’s historical meanings from its first recorded use in the Iberian Peninsula on up to today. The present article is an attempt to present some of these meanings within a Brazilian context, while highlighting gringo’s potential as emic or analytical category that aptly describes an increasingly numerous class of people in today’s glocalized world.


  1. hey, you got this bona-fide gringa on the hook .... would love to read more.