July 4, 2002 - Eserver: Gringos

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Thad Blanchette

Bad Subjects, Issue # 60, April 2002

"One cannot inhabit another country with impunity. One cannot live embedded in another society, another economy another world, in short without suffering change..." Abdelmalek Sayad

It's been my privilege to listen recently to several North American colleagues, themselves immigrants from Latin America, present papers here in Brazil regarding immigration from South America to the United States. What has struck me on these occasions has been their unconscious, almost natural, use of the word "gringo" to describe the native born, predominantly "white" population of the United States. They have set these gringos in opposition to themselves (and, I presume, "we"), "latinos". This use of "gringo" has fascinated me for the word as it's popularly used in Brazil is most definitely not the opposite of "latino".

I should know as, aside from studying gringos in Brazil, both as immigrants and tourists, I am one. Different from my North American latino colleagues, however, I have learned an important thing. They, too, are gringos. "Gringo", as I shall show here, means "that which is not of us, but is among us", an apt description for any foreigner in a world where life is increasingly lived across national boundaries and where acculturation, even into the second and third generations, seems more of an ideal than a reality. The word's transformation into a semi-racialized marker of ethnic difference, while understandable in political terms, should be seriously re-examined. In the stampede to use the term as a Barthian boundary stone, my North American colleagues are apparently unaware of its original meaning, depriving immigration studies of a concept that potentially offers an alternative to the increasinly obsolete term "immigrant".

Gringo as a contextual term

When I say I study gringos, the word generally causes raised eyebrows and poorly suppressed giggles among friends and colleagues at the National Museum here in Rio de Janeiro. I can't say I blame them. There's something about the very word that brings the ridiculous immediately to mind. Visions spring up of overweight, sunburned rednecks stuffed into polyester golf shirts and Hawaiian-print shorts, black nylon socks sagging over their patent leather loafers as they click snapshot after snapshot of Guanabara Bay from the peak of Corcovado. The visceral impact of such an image is mirth-provoking, to say the least.

My use of "gringo" might be politically incorrect in these times of heightened ethnic sensitivity, but I believe that it's an adequate choice which best describes the people I observe during my fieldwork as an anthropologist here in Rio de Janeiro. Most of my informants are quite aware that Brazilians do not generally use "gringo" as an insult. Because of this, they cheerfully apply "gringo" to themselves and other foreigners, especially other anglophones, and they generally do not take offense when Brazilians apply it to them. The term is bandied about between Brazilians and foreigners with a surprising degree of naturalness, in fact. But if "gringo" is not necessarily an insult in Brazil, what, exactly, is it?

First and foremost, the word is a marker for difference, especially foreign difference. As such, it can be and is applied to foreigners in general, regardless of physiognomy, ethnic heritage, or national background. I suspect this comes as a bit of a surprise to any latinos who might be reading this, but in Brazil, "gringo" is even applied to foreigners hailing from other parts of Latin America. The Rio daily newspaper O Povo recently ran a front page item detailing an attempted mugging of an American by three Ecuadorians in Tom Jobim airport. The headline? "Gringo rouba gringo" ("Gringos steal from gringo").

"Gringo" is not openly deprecatory. Though it can be used as an insult, aggressive intent is not clear in the unmodified use of the word. If one really wants a gringo to know that they are not welcome, a negative adjective like "damned" or "shitty" needs to be attached. Steve, a 25 year-old Californian who had been living in Rio de Janeiro for little more than a year at the time I interviewed him, described his understanding of "gringo" in the following manner:

"Any foreigner's a gringo here... At first I was shocked by the term, 'cause in Mexico, it's a total insult. Here, it's like a nickname, you know? 'Hey, go talk to the gringo over there...' A Mexican's a gringo here and so is an Argentine. It doesn't matter. At first I was taken aback, though... 'Shit! Man, it's just like Mexico. They're gonna kick my ass...' But that wasn't the case. [laughs]"

Like many gringos I've met, Steve originally classified the term "gringo" as a racial or ethnic insult, specifically used by Mexicans against white Americans and potentially associated with violence. He changed his definition, however, through contact with the term as it's used in Rio, where he sees it as merely a nickname for any foreigner, including Mexicans and Argentines.

This aside, however, it seems that even in Brazil the term is especially applicable to certain nationalities and physiognomies: all foreigners are gringos but some gringos are more gringo than others. Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Northern Europeans seem especially to attract the use of the word, particularly if they have lighter skin, eyes and hair.

Consider the experiences of three of my informants, for example. They've all been called "gringa" at one time or another but how often this occurs seems to have a great deal to do with their physical appearance. Carla, though a native-born U.S. citizen, is rarely called a gringa because of her straight black hair, morena skin color and noticeably Native American features. Amber, though a pale Englishwoman is petit and has dark, straight hair and brown eyes. She, too, is rarely called a gringa unless someone hears her speak and picks up on her accent. However, Amy, a tall American woman with blond hair and pale blue eyes is often catcalled "gringa" by strangers in the street. Amy attracts so much attention in fact, that Amber expresses a certain reluctance to be seen in public with her, even though the two women are friends:

"I find it interesting how people don't accept Amy here. She's constantly sexually harassed by men for being blond and blue eyed, yet she still feels that this is her home. That surprises me.... I could not feel at home in a place where if I walk around people shout 'gringa' at me. Which is what happens to Amy all the time. I hate that energy, that vibe.... Sometimes I don't enjoy being around Amy because of this, just because of all the negative energy she gets. It's horrible."

It would be an error, however, to reduce "gringoness" to a quasi-racialized term, as is apparently the current fashion among North Americans. More than most words, it's use in Brazil is contextual and relational. Whether or not it is applied to a given foreigner has more to do with that foreigner's ability to reduce marks of alterity than his or her physical characteristics, per se.

Take my own case, for example. As a foreign-born, 5 foot, 9 inch tall, relatively heavyset guy with blue eyes and what, in Rio, passes for blond hair, one would think I'm a natural mark for the word. However, how I dress and cut my hair has more to do with its immediate application than anything else. If I dress in casual but clean and well-maintained clothes, appropriate to the local middle class, with "normal", close cropped hair, I'm hardly noticed in a carioca crowd. When I shave my hair in a mohawk, toss on a pair of cut-offs and a ratty U.W. Madison t-shirt, however, I'm instantly recognizable as a gringo. So much so, in fact, that strangers will come up to me and try to ask me things in English.

Nevertheless, an interesting phenomenon occurs on these occasions. Being that I've lived in Brazil for almost all of my adult life, my spoken Portuguese is almost as good as my English. I have an accent, yes, but I can cover it up when I have to, especially for quick, casual phrases. So when I turn around with an emphatic "Qualé?" (the carioca equivalent of "wussamatta?"), my English speaking interrogators always drop back, saying

"Ah. You're Brazilian, then. I'm sorry, I thought you were a foreigner."

In other words, the fact that I speak Portuguese well is enough to disqualify instantly any visual marks of "foreignness", reframing them as indicators of Brazilian eccentricity. It's even enough to cover my accent, as least momentarily, though I've gone through entire conversations with people who think I'm a German descended Brazilian from Santa Catarina state. In the game of "Who's a gringo?" then, cultural markers, principally (though not exclusively) one's knowledge of Portuguese, vastly outweigh physical attributes.

The roots of "gringo"

The etymology of "gringo" is complicated, but it seems that Brazilians use the word in something approximating its original sense. Throughout the Americas, there has sprung up a number of complicated, silly, or downright apocryphal stories of how the word came to be. The least ridiculous of these can be found in Sobrados e Mocambos, a classic work of the Brazilian social sciences, whose author Gilberto Freyre favored the theory that "gringo" was originally a label for wandering gypsy slave traders. With the opening of the ports and the subsequent appearance of foreigners principally British among the rural mascates, the term naturally transferred itself to foreigners in general.

Most of the other theories I've heard, though repeatedly proffered by earnest students and colleagues, are on the level of "urban legends": "just so" stories that are quite easily unraveled with the slightest amount of effort. Chief among these is the old saw that "gringo" means "green go". Basically, the story goes that brave native civilians (either Vietnamese or Mexican, depending on which version of the story is told) taunted invading American troops with cries of "Green go [home]!" The story is obviously apocryphal for two reasons: 1) "gringo" was being used before the U.S. invaded Mexico (and long before they invaded Vietnam); and 2) U.S. Army uniform colors at the time of both invasions of Mexico were not green but blue, gray, or khaki.

There are other, equally erroneous stories of the word's origins that it comes from English sailors (or American cavalrymen) singing Robert Burns "Green grow the rushes", or that it refers to "greenbacks." However, it seems that "gringo" has been around in the Iberian languages (and in Ibero-America) for quite a long time since at least the 18th century, in fact. Its exclusive association with gypsies is also in doubt.

According to Father Charles E. Ronan, in the Spanish historian Terrenos y Pando's Diccionario, compiled in the late 1700s, the term is described in the following fashion: "Gringo in Malaga, [is] what they call foreigners who [have] a certain kind of accent which prevents their speaking Spanish with ease and spontaneity; in Madrid the case is the same, and for some reason, especially with respect to the Irish." Apparently in use throughout Ibero-America by the beginning of the 19th century, the true etymological roots of "gringo" may perhaps be found in the Spanish "griego", or Greek. All that can be said, then, is that the term probably originally applied to funny-looking itinerant speakers of an exceptionally unintelligible language.

"Gringo" is thus used today in Brazil in a manner remarkably similar to the way it was used two centuries ago in the Iberian Peninsula. Though it's not meant as an open insult it certainly is not a compliment. It is a euphemism for "funny speaking/looking/acting outsider"; a way of signifying that which is not Brazilian and which has little hope of ever being so. In fact, the term comes awfully close to the original Greek barbaros, a foreign babbler. The term's current preferential association with Americans, Canadians and Northern Europeans is thus perhaps more historically connected to the fact that these groups speak non-Latin based languages ("...foreigners who have a certain kind of accent...") than any physiognomic qualities per se.

In one important way, however, the use of "gringo" has changed since the 18th century. It now has a certain preferential association in Brazil with imperialism. Again, though any foreigner is a gringo, "true" gringos the kind that are traditionally cursed at in popular left-oriented publications such as (in Brazil) Caros Amigos, Pasquim or Revista Bundas belong to nationalities which are generally seen as taking advantage of Brazil. When Raul Seixas sang "Dar lugar pros gringo entrar/Esse imóvel está prá alugar...", he was not talking about renting Brazil out to the Angolans or Paraguayans as a solution to the nation's perennial economic crisis. This imperialistic aspect of "gringo" is presented very clearly in the popular theories regarding the word's origin that I've presented above. One theme that lurks in all of these stories is that "gringo" is a word invented in reaction to English (or American) military and/or economic imperialism in Latin America.

As we can see then, "gringo" is a contextual term that corresponds to a set of idealized physical, cultural and political characteristics making up a stereotype. Furthermore, these characteristics have idealized counterparts that map to the configuration of a stereotypical "native Brazilian". A partial listing of these characteristics follows below:

"Gringo" characteristics

Not born in Brazil

Parent(s) isn't/aren't Brazilian citizens

Speaker of a non-Latin language

Light skin, eyes and hair

Citizen of an "imperialist" nation

"Brazilian" characteristics

Born in Brazil

Parent(s) is/are Brazilian citizens

Portuguese speaker

Dark skin, eyes and hair

Brazilian citizen

To the degree that an individual's actions and appearances correspond with more characteristics in one grouping than the other, he is more likely to have the label "gringo" or "Brazilian" attached to him by others. Note that two out of five of the above characteristics are completely modifiable by human preferences and action: in other words, they are cultural, not biological indicators of difference. Even two of the remaining three characteristics parentage and physiognomy can be modified, if not completely changed. In the first instance, one can "marry into" a native family. In the second, one can reduce alterity by adopting appropriate clothing, hair and body language styles.

The frequency with which one is "spotted out" as a gringo, then, is something over which individual action can be expected to exercise a large degree of influence. One either takes the necessary steps to reduce one's differences from the ideologically defined national norm or one risks being defined as "other". However, to borrow a metaphor from Brazilian immigration studies doyen, Giralda Seyferth, one can cover one's alterity up with merit badges only so far: eventually, one's foreignness will become known.

Gringos and immigrants

As many theorists of immigration have pointed out, the term "immigrant" itself is becoming obsolete due to recent developments in the global means of communication. Traditionally, "immigrant" contains overtones of permanency and relative powerlessness. The immigrant commits, at least temporarily, to being a subject instead of a citizen in order to have the possibility of creating a new life in a new land. As such, it is expected that he will reduce his alterity, eventually becoming one of "us". The ability for even working-class individuals to maintain persistent and often renewed international ties with the homeland is now so well developed and diffused, however, that it's difficult to believe that most immigrants will passively subject themselves or their children to a regime of assimilation.

Furthermore, it's difficult to even know who is now an immigrant. Is a Brazilian who lives in New York for six years and then returns to his country of origin an immigrant? Is a Canadian who's lived in Rio for thirty years with no intent to ever leave? Reading some contemporary studies of immigration in the Americas one can easily reach the conclusion that every latino foreigner who's ever crossed the U.S. border is an immigrant. That large, enduring, anglo presences in Latin America are rarely described using the same term shows how polluted by power and politics our basic notions of human international dislocation are.

There is one further characteristic of the word "gringo" which merits attention because, while not immediately obvious, might make an interesting conceptual tool for immigration studies. Though the gringo is not of us, he's certainly among us. The term's contemporary popular use makes no distinction between tourists, businessmen, travelers, or immigrants. Historically however, it has been associated with foreigners who have acquired a certain degree of consistent presence. Recall that according to Terrenos y Pando, "gringo" refers to foreigners who have an accent "which prevents their speaking Spanish with ease and spontaneity". This situation presumes that they at least speak Spanish to some degree. Gilberto Freyre's mascate theory postulates gringos that were savvy enough in their comprehension of native codes that they could wander around the backlands of 19th century Brazil as itinerant merchants certainly not something our putative tourist atop Corcovado would feel comfortable doing even under today's circumstances!

A gringo can thus also be seen as a foreigner engaged in a process of approximation with Brazil a hesitant approach, appropriate to a "vagamundo" perhaps, but a definite drawing near. He wants or has to engage with Brazil, not merely observe. There's a bit of Levi-Strauss' concept of the floating signifier in the nature of the gringo. He is not of us nor are the things he brings, but we may use them and eventually make them our own. After a time, we may even forget that they were once ever gringo. In this sense, it is not so much the gringo that adapts himself to us (though this occurs) but we that adapt ourselves to his presence.

When I look at the vast majority of South American immigrants that I've met and known in North America, it is difficult not to see them as gringos like myself. We are both engaged in processes of stretching lives and generations across continents, eager to learn new cultural tools, distrustful of those who say we must indiscriminately discard the old. As such, we are "other" irreconcilably at odds with projects which demand we choose "this" or "that" nationality, exclusively. Unlike other immigrants who have come before us, however, the new developments in the means of communication put this possibility within our reach, at least imperfectly. My Brazilian ex-wife and I manage to see our parents and relations at least once year, despite the fact that we are both economically far from middle class, making salaries of less than 1000 USD a month. Neither her Syrian ancestors in Brazil, nor my Dutch-German forebears in the United States could avail themselves of that sort of opportunity. And our son speaks both Portuguese and English...

As the quote from Sayaad with which I began this article suggests, transnational dislocation still retains much of its power as a profoundly transformative experience. We would be wrong to think, however, that people are transforming their identities by moving from one national category to another. People are not so much immigrating and assimilating as they are stretching themselves across localities. The experience of living outside of the nation of their birth adds to people's identities: it does not replace the old with the new.

Though "globalization" is generally presented as an economic and/or cultural process it is also a phenomenon carried out via the dramas of everyday individual life, including marriage, kinship and affinity. This has, of course, always been the case throughout human history. New developments in the means of communications, however, have created a situation in which transnational dislocation is losing force as a marginal and marginalizing experience. The radical contact with "otherness" that such experiences have traditionally represented has been diminished, yet at the same time, "assimilation" and "migration" are more sharply separated than ever before. More than ever, a stranger in a strange land can (and in some cases, is even forced to) maintain his alterity. In such a world, to be a gringo is an increasingly normal state of affairs.

Thaddeus Blanchette is a 34-year old North American immigrant to Brazil, currently working on his doctorate in Social Anthropology at the National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. A copy of his masters dissertation, entitled "Gringos", can be had from him for free by e-mailing macunaima30@yahoo.com.br

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