If someone were to call you a gringo in Colombia, how would you take it? Should you be offended? Is the word “gringo” offensive or not?

Several Medellin Guru readers have asked recently if the word gringo is offensive. So, we now look at this. Would you shrug this off? Would you see it as funny? Would you be offended?

I have lived in Colombia for over eight years and heard this word used countless times, by staff in stores and restaurants, Colombian friends, other foreigners and even strangers on the street. Also, there are a few varieties of this word:

  • Gringo – a man
  • Gringa – a woman
  • Los Gringos – a group of gringos
  • Gringito/Gringita – a child

I have been called a gringo many times while living in Colombia. And I have heard many Colombians use this word to refer to foreigners from the United States, Australia, Germany, England, France, and many other countries. But rarely has there been a tone of offense in anyone’s voice.

In addition, I have asked my Colombian wife’s family and my Colombian friends and they all have said that Colombians rarely use this word disrespectfully or  “despectivamente” in Spanish.

However, you will often find gringo being used on online Facebook groups, where foreigners become insulted at the thought of being marginalized by the use of this word or using this word to down-talk other foreigners.

Who is a “Gringo”?

Aida Ramirez provided a decent definition of gringo in an article on NPR “Who Exactly is a Gringo”.

Gringo can be used to broadly and inoffensively refer to a group of U.S. citizens. I’ve also heard it used as a term for Europeans. I’ve heard the term used as a name for people who don’t speak Spanish. It can also be used to refer to Hispanics who speak very little or no Spanish at all. Gringo is also sometimes used as a name for Hispanics who are not in touch with their Latino roots, or for any person who is ignorant of Latin American culture or history.

Some foreigners at the February 2020 Medellin Guru event at Mercado De La Playa

Some foreigners at the February 2020 Medellin Guru event at Mercado De La Playa

What is the Official Definition?

In Latin America, gringo is a word that generally means “foreigner.” This is often a white person from the United States or Europe. It can also refer to a person who doesn’t speak Spanish.

According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, which Spanish speakers consider the ruling body for the Spanish language, the word “gringo” has a neutral definition:

Foreigner, especially English-speaking, and in general speaking a language other than Spanish.

Also, the word gringo is permitted by wires services such as AP in their Spanish-language copy. So, gringo, in and of itself is generally not considered offensive.

This word was first recorded in 1787 in the Spanish Diccionario castellano con las voces de Ciencias y Artes with a meaning of foreigner. In addition, according to the Spanish etymologist Joan Corominas, “gringo” derives from the griego Spanish word, referring to a language that cannot be understood.

Also, according to the Urban Dictionary, “gringo” has a neutral definition:

If you know any Mexican people then you’ll know this is a non-derogatory term used to refer to U.S. citizens.

Folklore says it was generated when the U.S. invaded Mexico, wearing green uniforms, and the people shouted at them “Green Go Home”.

With time it lost all derogatory status and was turned into the most common word to refer to any U.S. citizen.

However, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary definition, gringo is defined as:

(Often disparaging) A foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin. Broadly: a non-Hispanic person.

Can Gringo Be Derogatory or Offensive?

There is disagreement among some Hispanics and non-Hispanics about this word. But it really depends on the inflection and tone when the word is used. The word can be used in a derogatory fashion and can be considered xenophobic or an ethnic or racial slur.

If someone says this to you in Colombia, do not feel offended immediately. Check the context and have an open mind.

Keep in mind the definition of gringo in Latin America generally means a foreigner. But it really depends on the context – who uses it, the tone and situation it is used in and where it is used.

In my experience while living over eight years in Colombia, I have most commonly heard the word gringo being used in a derogatory fashion by foreigners in Colombia talking about other foreigners.

The English equivalent of gringo when being used in a derogatory fashion by a foreigner is typically being used to call another foreigner “jerk” or “dummy”.

Also, the word is commonly used by foreigners to talk about gringo pricing, which generally means when foreigners are charged higher prices for goods and services due to being a foreigner.

Medellin Guru November 2019 meetup at 20Mission Cerveza with over 210 attendees, the largest "gringo" event in Medellín, the largest event in Medellín with primarily gringo attendees

Medellin Guru November 2019 meetup at 20Mission Cerveza with over 210 attendees, the largest “gringo” event in Medellín

The Bottom Line: Is Being Called a Gringo Offensive in Colombia?

The number of foreigner tourists visiting Colombia is growing at a double digit rate each year. So, it is only natural that many Colombians have resorted to innocently placing foreigners in one category: “gringos.”

Race isn’t normally a matter of critical importance in Colombia. A foreigner may be identified by Colombians because of clothing preferences, language used, behavior and hair color and is not solely based on skin color. So, the word gringo is generally not considered an ethnic slur.

In addition, Colombians may use the word gringo instead of extranjero or estadounidense, as it is shorter and easier to say.

The bottom line in Colombia, the word gringo is generally not considered offensive, so don’t presume it is. And if you go to Brazil they appear to consider anyone not from Brazil a gringo – including Argentinians, Colombians and Mexicans.

Also, don’t be so shocked if you hear words in Colombia like: gordo (fatty), flaco (skinny), gordito or gordita (little fatty), vieja or viejo (old). These are all common terms of endearment. Colombians will say these words to family members or friends. But if they feel comfortable with you they might say these words to you also.

Are you offended by the word gringo?

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