Gringos: The People from Off


“Are you offended when we call you a gringa?” my neighbor asked.
“No. Actually, never,” I said. She surprised me when she asked because Nicaraguans have a totally different perspective of the word offensive than ‘gringos’.

It never occurred to me that gringo/a was an offensive term in Nicaragua because Nicaraguans define a person’s characteristics, nationality, and race with descriptive words like “gorda/o” (fat), “gordita/o” (chubby), negro/a (black), gringa/o (a foreigner), or “chele”     ( light color skin).

When I returned from the states a few noticeable pounds heavier, my neighbor said, “Oh, tu estas linda y gordita.” (You are pretty and chubby.) I’ve learned not to take offense to these words of description because they are not meant to be malicious or mean-spirited. They are simply a way to identify someone…nothing more.

This morning, I found this video, Why Costa Rica Hates Gringos-Explained. He describes gringos as only people from the United States. However, most Nicaraguans refer to anyone from another country as a gringo. In fact, I think our Arkansas neighbors could have called us gringos when we lived in the hollows of the Ozark Mountains. Most locals referred to us as “the people from off”, mainly because of our different customs, way of talking, and ‘otherness’  ( described in the article Who, Exactly, is a Gringo? linked at the bottom of the page).

Although I agree that some foreigners act this way, I find that more people from off tend to be compassionate, optimistic, and friendly.  He makes the term ‘gringo’ sound ugly and offensive, which is no surprise because he’s from Gringolandia, where the tiniest error is assumed to be offensive and politically incorrect. Although there is a grain of truth in what this ‘gringo’ says in his video, one has to look at it from the perspective of a Nica or Tico, not a person from the United States or a person from off.

Generally, most Nicas don’t think that way, and I suspect that most Ticos don’t either. In Latin America, it is all about saving face. Nicaraguans avoid confrontations with people from off. They don’t want to offend anyone because they don’t want to be offended. They will go out of their way to give you directions. Even if they don’t know the directions, they make up something to please you. They don’t want to appear stupid. If they don’t understand your Spanglish, they will try to avoid you, so as not to embarrass you or themselves.

Here’s a good example of avoidance to save face. The other day, the meter reader rode by our house on his bicycle. He stopped at our neighbor’s house for the umpteenth time to deliver our electric bill. “Marina, why doesn’t he deliver our electric bill to our house?” I asked. “Because he doesn’t understand you when you speak Spanish,” she said. “But, you understand me,” I said. “Quien sabe?” ( Who knows?) she laughed as she threw up her hands in amusement.

Honestly, Nicaraguans don’t have the same perceptions of the word “offensive” as we do. Julio was watching a movie with us and someone said, ‘honky’.
“What does honky mean?” Julio asked. “Well,” I tried to explain, “It’s used by an African-American to describe a white person.” The next day, a young foreigner walked by our beach. Julio shouted across the fence to me, “Honky on la playa,” while laughing hysterically because we usually shout, “Gringo on la playa.” Julio forced me to explain that honky may be interpreted as an offensive racial slur in the United States. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, not having a clue what I was talking about. To this day, he still shouts, “Honky on la playa” because he likes the word to describe a foreigner better than the word gringo. Oh! What have I done?

Take a look at this video below while you’re listening to Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, then read the article below. I would be very interested in reading your impressions and thoughts about what is considered offensive in Latin America vs North America. Maybe I should add a disclaimer at the bottom: The opinions expressed within this post are the sole opinions of the author, which may or may not hold true for all readers. 🙂

Who, Exactly is a Gringo?

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22 thoughts on “Gringos: The People from Off

  1. Pingback: GringaDiaries: Street Smart in Guatemala | Sunglasses Always Fit

  2. ‘Gabacho: A gringo. But Mexicans don’t call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos “gabachos.”
    Gringo: Mexican slang for a white American. What gringos call gringos.’

    -From Gustavo Arellano’s ‘¡Ask a Mexican!’ Glossary:
    http://www.ocweekly.com/2006-06-08/web/ask-a-mexican-glossary/
    Warning: Strong language may offend the over-sensitive types.

    I love reading his Q&A column in the various alternative weeklies. He wrote a book of the same name which I’ll bring for you next month.

    I don’t ever remember being called a gringo, even in Mexico in the 1970s. In the early days my mother-in-law couldn’t remember my name and often referred to be as el gabacho, but never in a bad way. I started calling her Cholita- always with a smile- and somehow within a week she could call me by name, sort of. More like Braya which I guess was close enough. A dear, sweet woman. I miss her so much.

    My favorite ¡Oops! in Spanish was my second day driving on my first trip in Mexico. My Spanish at the time was limited to Los Angeles street names and my mother yelling ¡Callete! at me. I got on the road early and wanted to eat. While driving through a small town I saw a bar with the door open, went inside and not knowing the word for breakfast asked the guy cleaning up if he had huevos,. He got a pained smile that told me “I know you didn’t really mean to say that, right?’ and I earnestly asked him again until I stumbled out the word comida. He laughed, said no and sent me on my way. I didn’t find out what I had asked until a few weeks later.

  3. Here in San Clemente, Ecuador people do not use the word,” gringo” in a negative way at all. I believe it means simply, “foreigner” and is solely meant to be descriptive.

    I also got a chuckle out of how you explained that people do not generally think their is anything wrong with describing people by how they look. I often refer to myself as a gordo gringo, but also rib my friends here that are muy flaco. People will describe someone as being muy obscuro or negro and not think anything of it. We are just too busy trying to be, “politically correct” in the U.S.

    Part of learning to live here is learning to go with the flow and accept the fact that we are gringos. No problem!

  4. Pingback: Vaho (o Baho) Nicaraguense | Encara-mado

  5. “oh what have i done?’ that’s funny! yes, i get the same question and the same baffled expressions when i say that i don’t mind.. here in jama, some locals call me ‘gringita,’ which i consider a term of endearment.

    i also get the eye (usually from a woman friend) and then the comment, ‘gorda..’ or ‘gordita.’ the last time someone said that, i looked at her quite funny and she said that i looked BETTER with a little more weight..

    it would be nice if you turned the word ‘honky’ into a status symbol!!!

    • Oh, I can’t stop laughing!!! You are so funny! Yeah…let’s turn honky into a status symbol. What will I bring on my next magic carpet ride? Of course, a honky lovin’ Nica. Oh…maybe I can turn my casita into a honky tonk. Now I have the country music song Honky Tonk Badonkadonk by Trace Adkins running through my mind. I need to add it to my post. Sigh…my internet is too slow.

      • yes, i often listen to the first fifteen seconds of a video to be sure it’s the right song/version! the video you posted took a long time, and the poor guy stuttered a lot, but it was worth every word, slow connection and all!

        honky tonk! wow, i’ve not thought of that in a while! z

  6. I grew up in Central America including a few years I spent in Nicaragua and the word ” gringo” was never used as an offensive term. We liked gringos. And since we didn’t know what country a particular white person was from we solved the problem by calling all of them ” Gringos”. Yes, we liked gringos a lot and I suspect that we still do. ” Yankee go home” well…… that’s a different story….. 🙂

      • That is correct Deb! Gringo means North American, and People from Europe you called them by their country of origin like Frances=French Suizo=Swiss English=Ingles German=Aleman and so on

  7. Living in Mexico, I am always amused by the different perceptions about gringos, Norte Americanos, Canadians, “Americans,” and on. and on. Evidently, we need labels? Anyway. Perhaps he still sees a lot of obnoxious behavior in Costa Rica – – I don’t see it much in my small village in Mexico (then again, I’m not in the Hotel Zone and Coco Bongo areas of Cancun during Spring Break) — I felt he was certainly stereotyping and pretty much off base, in general. Yep. Always a few people in every crowd drink a bit much and get Stupid. But I do not find that to be the norm…. I also read the Aida Ramirez article with interest — fascinating research. I feel any label carries the intent of the speaker (re: your Honkey example – certainly no malice intended). But. I’m rambling….Thanks for your thoughtful blog!

    • Mary, thanks for your thoughts. Here on our little island, the locals are very accepting of foreigners and try to help us. I have to laugh sometimes because since we are not totally fluent in Spanish (although we can understand almost everything) they think we need more help than we actually do. For example, I was mopping my floor one day and my neighbor came over and showed me how to mop the “right way.” “I cleaned for foreigners, and I know how they like things done,” she said. Meanwhile, all I noticed was that she was just mopping faster and harder. 🙂

      • Hi Debbie! You got me laughing when you said: “just mopping faster and harder”, I had to laugh because I think that is a Nica thing… I can just picture it and puts a smile on my face. Too bad that in my house, the only room that has to be mopped is the kitchen, I do miss big rooms ready to be mopped! Take care, I continue enjoying your posts!

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