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?