The Use of the Word Gringo

No matter how you feel about the term Gringo (or Gringa) the term is considered offensive, inflammority, and racist today and should never be used. While the term has been eradicated from the speech of many individuals it may still be found in use in the streets among those who were uneducated and with poor manners. 

National Public Radio (NPR) published an article by columnist Daisy Hernandez about the January 8, 2011 shooting of nineteen people during a political rally held in Casas Adobes, Arizona located in suburban Tucson. Six people died after being shot.

If you do not already know it, Arizona is known for its anti-immigrant stance, despite that the state was originally part of Mexico.

In her article, Hernandez wrote, “It’s safe to say there was a collective sigh of relief when the Tucson killer turned out to be a Gringo. Had the shooter been Latino, media pundits wouldn’t be discussing the impact of nasty politics on a young man this week; they’d be demanding an even more stringent anti-immigrant policy.”

Hernandez’s essay was called a “racialist rant” by other media and the general public over her use of the term, Gringo, and to some degree the inflammation of anti-immigrant policy in Arizona. There were over 600 comments on the piece after it aired before NPR shut down the comments. Some were calling for the US government to defund NPR as a racist organization.

Before the essay aired, NPR editor Ellen Silva who commissioned the piece was concerned about whether Hernandez should be allowed to use the term and consulted NPR’s new diversity editor, Luis Clemens. After some debate and research, he approved the word. Others signed off on it as well. Clemens stated he doesn’t always find “Gringo” offensive. He quoted the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, which he says Spanish-speakers consider the ruling body for their language, gives “Gringo” a neutral definition. Of course, NPR is not a Spanish station and should be held accountable for what is normal in the USA and not in Spain.

Rather than addressing the problem of the use of the word Gringo as offensive and racists, NPR tried to justify its approval of the word in Hernandez reporting. Clemons stated, “Gringo, in and of itself, is not a vulgar obscenity or an epithet. This was a commentary. If you look at the usage in the script, she is identifying people as Gringos who are not Latino.” Clemens noted that NPR has used the word “Gringo” several times in pieces and received little reaction.

NPR stated that the Merriam Webster dictionary defines the term “often disparaging a foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin.” But that the Associated Press style guide, which NPR uses regularly, says while it is a derogatory term for foreigners in parts of Latin America, and advises its use only in quotes. The word is allowed by wires services such as AP and EFE in their Spanish-language copy.

As it turned out, there was strong disagreement according to NPR, “among Hispanics and non-Hispanics – about whether the word is offensive.”

NPR editor Silva said, “Hernandez felt strongly about keeping the word. It should be noted that “Gringo” did appear inside a clearly-labeled commentary, which means it was Hernandez’s word and reflected her opinion.”

When Hernandez was asked to respond, she chose to issue a written statement;

“Many of you are upset by my use of the word Gringo… but I don’t see as many of you actually disagreeing with my argument: the only reason anyone’s talking about the impact of “toxic talk” is that the shooter was not Latino. If he had been Latino, the shooting would be used to actually justify toxic talk and anti-immigrant policies.”

The point being that neither NPR or Hernandez can effectively legitimize the use of the term Gringo, as Hernandez used it only to imply a “what if” scenario that allowed her to express her anti-immigration opinion that had nothing to do with the piece. As aired, the use of the word Gringo and talk of anti-immigration was a distraction from the true intent of the piece. The piece was poor journalism, and Hernandez should have known better than to bring her prejudices into play in her reporting.

The bottom line is that there are radically different interpretations of the word. It may not be an insult in Spanish, but it can be interpreted as one in English.

Today, on Facebook, someone asked the question, “If a Mexican calls you Gringo, what is the equivalent that you can call a Mexican?

First, it is incorrect to describe and assign differences when referring to others, including differences of race, ethnicity, social class, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

The term Gringo (and Gringa) originally came from Spain. It was first mentioned in the 1787 Castilian Dictionary as being derived from the Spanish word for Greek – “Grego.” The term began in Malaga and was used to refer to foreigners who had an accent that prevented them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally.

While there are many who believe it referred to the color of U.S. Army uniforms and implied as coming from “Gringo Go Home,” the Army did not use green uniforms before it adopted in 1954 and issued to new inductees only after 1957. It did not become the official mandatory color until 1961 as they allowed for existing uniforms to wear out. Apparently, this thought came into being after 1961.

The word Gringo is antiquated and improper to use. In answer to the question, “What do you call a Mexican person?” You should refer to them by their name. If you do not know their name and want to address them, then ask them for their name. It is the most proper and inoffensive manner. If referring to a third party across the room, you might state, “The person wearing the red shirt!” or other descriptive words that do not define a person by their race, ethnicity, social class, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

About G. William Hood

G. William Hood is a writer, fine arts painter, educator and world traveler. He lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
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