Last week Gustavo Arellano, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about a kerfuffle last year in Chula Vista, the second-largest city in San Diego County, between the mayor, Mary Casillas Salas, and a councilmember, John McCann. The two ran into each other in a local Mexican restaurant; after some pleasantries, McCann “admitted that he thought the restaurant’s food was too spicy.” Salas replied: “Oh, John, you’re such a gringo.” And, according to Salas, McCann laughed.
Nine days later, McCann reconsidered. Rather than calling Mayor Salas—his acquaintance of 20 years—and talking it over, he filed a complaint with the city’s human resources department, alleging, Arellano writes, “racial discrimination by the mayor for her ‘gringo’ jab.”
An outside lawyer was brought in. The verdict: “Though Salas’ use of ‘gringo’ was ‘inappropriate,’ it didn’t constitute discrimination.”
Old Gringo (1989), based on Carlos Fuentes’s 1985 novel The Old Gringo (Gringo Viejo). The title refers to the (real) American author Ambrose Bierce, played by Gregory Peck in the film.
Arellano writes: “The Voice of San Diego broke the story last month and also found out how much this combo platter of victimhood cost Chula Vista taxpayers: nearly $16,000.”
Arellano goes on to compare this “weak-salsa Gringogate”—I love that—with a lawsuit, also in San Diego County, over what some public-school parents are calling an “Aztec prayer” (actually a poem) that had been used in the ethnic-studies curriculum. But I want to stick with Gringogate. Where does gringo come from, and what does it signify? And just how offensive is it?
from American Spanish gringo “foreigner,” from Spanish gringo “foreign speech, unintelligible talk, gibberish,” perhaps ultimately from griego “Greek.” The “Diccionario Castellano” (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for “anyone who spoke Spanish badly,” and in Madrid for “the Irish.” Hence the American Spanish verb engringarse “to act like a foreigner.”
The OED’s earliest citation is from an 1849 book by John Woodhouse Audubon, the son of the famous ornithologist: “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes’.” H.L. Mencken, in The American Language (1951 revised edition), says it’s probably older. The Dictionary of the American West calls it “a derogatory word” and dismisses “folk etymologies” that trace it to “greens go home” (from the color of American uniforms in the Mexican-American War, 1846–1848) and “Green Grow the Lilacs” (a song popular during that war).
But gringo has never been too derogatory to be willingly appropriated by its targets. Arellano writes that gringos “have used ‘gringo’ to refer to themselves almost as soon as they learned what the word meant.” The L.A. Times itself used the term in 1882 “to mock the losing side in the Mexican-American War.”
Gringo (2018), “a dark comedy mixed with white-knuckle action and dramatic intrigue, explores the battle of survival for businessman Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) when he finds himself crossing the line from law-abiding citizen to wanted criminal.” Co-starring Amanda Seyfried and Charlize Theron.
One indicator of gringo’s mainstream acceptance is the 79 live trademarks that include the word, having successfully surmounted the trademark board’s bar for offensive or scandalous language. Some of the trademark filings include “translations.”
All-Natural Green Mountain Gringo Tortilla Strips (based in North Carolina): “The English translation of ‘Gringo’ is ‘American or Englishman’.”
Gringo Bandito hot sauce (Huntington Beach, California): “The English translation of the wording ‘GRINGO BANDITO’ in the mark is ‘American Bandit.’”
Stinky Gringo ready-to-pour margarita mix: “The English translation of GRINGO is foreigner.”
Loco Gringo Mexican vacation rentals: “The English translation of ‘LOCO GRING’ in the mark is ‘crazy American’.”
You can even advertise your gringo pride with a PINCHE GRINGO T-shirt. The trademark registration for this item translates pinche as “lousy,” but that’s a bit demure. According to Dictionary.com, “in many Spanish dialects, pinche is a strong swear word variously meaning ‘goddamned,’ ‘shitty,’ or ‘fucking,’ among other senses.” It’s also a noun meaning “low-level kitchen worker” or “scullion.”
The bottom line: context matters, and if you have a generous spirit you can interpret “You’re such a gringo” almost as a term of endearment between old friends. Maybe Mr. McCann would be happier if he increased his tolerance for all kinds of sauce—including slightly saucy language.