Gringo Viejo

Gringo [gring-goh] is a term, mainly used in Spanish-speaking and in Portuguese-speaking countries, to refer to foreigners. In Spanish, gringo refers especially to someone from the United States. The word was originally used in Spain (although it’s mostly unused in the country nowadays) to denote any foreign, non-native speakers of Spanish.

The word was first recorded in a 1787 Castilian dictionary: “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, and for the same reason, in particular to the Irish.’ The dominant view among etymologists is that gringo is most likely a variant of ‘griego’ ‘Greek’ speech (cf. ‘Greek to me’).

A purported problem with this theory is that such usage of ‘gringo’ in Spain had to do with peoples who originated in the eastern Mediterranean, rather than the northern European stock that dominated in the United States. However, the word gringo originated in Spain long before there was a Spanish-speaking Mexico and at one time.

Moreover, Spanish also contains the idiom ‘hablar en chino’ (‘To speak in Chinese’), when referring to someone whose language is difficult to understand, thereby re-enforcing the notion that alluding to the languages of other nations is a cliché. Furthermore, in the 1840s, Swiss diplomat Johann Jakob von Tschudi said that gringo was common Peruvian Spanish usage in Lima: ‘Gringo is a nickname applied to Europeans. The Germans say of anything incomprehensible, ‘That sounds like Spanish,’ — and, in like manner, the Spaniards say of anything they do not understand, ‘That is Greek.’

When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, several hundred recently immigrated Irish, German, and other Roman Catholic Americans who were sent by the U.S. government to fight against Mexico came to question why they were fighting against a Catholic country for a Protestant one, combined with resentment over their treatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, and deserted to join forces with Mexico. Led by Captain Jon Riley of County Galway, they called themselves St. Patrick’s Battalion (in Spanish, Batallón de San Patricio) and frequently sang the song ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O.’

One theory has it that there was no mention of the word “gringo”, in any publication in New Spain, or what would later be Mexico, until 1847, following the US occupation of northern Mexico during the Mexican–American War.[citation needed] Marching songs reportedly sung by US soldiers, such as ‘(Green Grows the Grass in) My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Green Grow the Lilacs,’ became popular in Mexico. This theory also has it that native Spanish speakers have difficulty pronouncing a second ‘r’ in ‘green grows,’ which was elided as ‘green-gos.’

Shortly afterwards Mexico City newspapers like ‘El Universal’ and ‘Excelsior’ began to use the word ‘gringos’ for Americans. The English-born Frances Calderon, who published an account of her husband’s terms as the first ambassador to Mexico from Spain (from 1842) never mentioned the word, even though she was fluent in Spanish, and familiar with Mexican vernacular. The word was never used in reference to the English-speakers who had settled in Texas when it was part of Mexico, although the settlers were known by names such as ‘filibusteros,’ ‘presbeterianos,’ ‘vikeños,’ ‘judios,’ ‘hereticos,’ ‘protestantes,’ and ‘barbarianos.’

In Puerto Rico, folk etymology states that the word ‘gringo’ originated from the English words ‘green’ and ‘go’ referring to the desire of some locals to have the U.S. military (who allegedly wore green uniforms) leave the island by telling them: ‘Green, go!’ Similarly in the Dominican Republic, the ‘green, go’ folk etymology may refer to military commands uttered by U.S. during their occupation of the country from 1916-1924 and again from 1965-1966.

Yet another etymology is on display currently at the Alamo, in an exhibit claiming that the term gringo originated from Mexican soldiers hearing their Irish counterparts yelling ‘Erin go bragh’ (the Irish battle cry) whenever they charged. Another version of the origin of the word dates to the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). When Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico the US Army was sent to Mexico in the Villa Expedition, so when the American Army asked the people for Francisco Villa, the people answer ‘Green Go’ (‘Verde vete’) because of the green uniforms that the American Army were wearing; this version is patently spurious because of the word’s documented usage predates these events by many years.

In 1969, Jose Angel Gutierrez (one of the leaders of the Mexican American Youth Organization) said his and MAYO’s use of the term, rather than referring to non-Latinos, instead referred to institutions or persons with attitudes or policies/programs that reflect bigotry, discord, prejudice, racism and violence.

In Brazil, the word gringo means simply foreigner, and has no connection to any physical characteristics or specific countries. Unlike most Hispanic American countries, in which gringo is never used to refer to other Latin Americans, in Brazil there is no such distinction in the use of the term. Most foreign footballers in the Brazilian Championship that came from other Latin American countries and are nevertheless referred as ‘gringos’ by the sport media and by sport fans. Tourists are called gringos, and there is no differentiation in the use of the term for Latin Americans or people from other regions, like Europe.

In Portugal the word gringo is not commonly used. Also, there is the word ‘Ianque’ (Portuguese spelling of ‘Yankee’). It is never used in a formal context. It specifically describes someone from the United States (as does ‘Americano’), and is not related to any particular physical or racial features. The most common slang terms used throughout the country are ‘Camone’ (from the English ‘come on’) and ‘Bife’ (pronounced like ‘beef,’ but equivalent to ‘steak’ in English) for English born. Probably the most used and correct expressions are ‘estrangeiro’ (‘foreigner’).

In Mexican cuisine, a ‘gringa’ is a flour tortilla with al pastor pork meat with cheese, heated on the comal and then served (not necessarily) with a salsa de chile (chilli sauce). Most commonly, it’s thought that the dish was born in a Mexico City taquería when the owner served it to two women from the United States (known as ‘gringas’) that asked for a Mexican dish but disliked corn tortillas. The name comes from the feminine of gringo.


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