Soy gringa... Or not.
January 20, 2010 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Is it a bad thing to call oneself a "gringa" (if one is indeed a caucasian American female) when speaking with Latinos? (context inside)

Here's the context: Earlier this week my son asked me to play an online MMORPG game with him (Runescape, if that's relevant). He's an experienced player but I am not, so we joined the first group we could find that accepted low-level players. It turned out to be a Spanish-speaking group, but the leader was very welcoming and took us under his wing. We were able to communicate fairly well even though I barely understand even rudimentary Spanish and our group leader wasn't very fluent in English.

As we got more comfortable in the group, some of the other members tried to talk to us and we were all doing pretty well. I noticed some of them making comments that included the word "gringa" and a lot of laughing ("ja ja ja") which I took to be laughing at me, but I assumed it was good-natured.

At one point, a player who had just arrived asked which person was the "gringa" ("Quien es gringa?") and I replied "Soy gringa" ("I am a gringa"), then the leader said to me "Do not say that!" I asked "Why?" and he replied "Is foolish." I didn't press the issue, but I was confused. Was he simply saying it wasn't a good idea to identify myself as female (which doesn't make sense because there were plenty of other females in the group) or was he saying that it wasn't good to use the term "gringa"?

I'm mostly curious because I'll probably play again, and I really enjoyed the group we joined, but I don't want to commit any cultural no-nos if I can avoid it. Anyone have any insight?
posted by amyms to Human Relations (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdata: A white coworker of mine who was fluent in spanish (I am not) and extremely involved with/integrated into the local Latino community used to refer to herself as a gringa all the time. However, I only ever saw her with Latinos she knew well, so I can't say for sure whether that was self-deprecating humor/some other contextual thing that wouldn't necessarily apply in your case.
posted by somanyamys at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have heard Latino people from a few different countries using gringo/a as an ethnic slur, roughly equivalent in severity, from what I gathered, to "kike" or "wop". My Latino American friends, on the other hand, use it much more playfully. I'm not sure what particular countries this holds true for, however.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having just come back from a holiday in Mexico, I was encouraged not to say "soy gringo" but rather "Soy Australiano" or "soy guerrito" if I wanted to be a bit less serious. But it doesn't seem that bad, maybe start a new user with the name Gringa :)
posted by Admira at 7:33 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whether the term is pejorative or not depends on where you're from. Some areas, it's used to refer to a lot of foreign non-Spanish-speakers. A lot of others, however, it basically boils down to something like "stupid foreigner". And yes, some people will use it jokingly, but that doesn't make it a positive term.

It may well be that among other things, they're asking who's the one they can make fun of without you understanding what you're saying, and inviting people to make you the butt of their jokes may do something for your popularity in the short run but is not necessarily a great idea long-term.

Kind of like... if someone shows up and asks "Who's the idiot?" then you probably don't want to say "I'm the idiot" even if sometimes you've been known to say of yourself, "I'm such an idiot." It's one thing to be self-deprecating, it's another thing to encourage others to make fun of you.

I would just tell anybody who asks something like that, "Me llamo (my handle)."
posted by larkspur at 7:39 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spend a lot of time in Latin America, especially Mexico.

"Gringo" is a mild slur. You can use it on yourself in a self-deprecating fashion. Other people might use it on you for good-natured teasing. And of course it can be used in an abusive manner. Like all slurs, it depends on the context.

The person who said your use of it "is foolish" is probably a) cautious, b) proper, c) prudish, or d) all of the above.

I'd say it's pretty safe for you to carry on calling yourself "una gringa".
posted by randomstriker at 7:47 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't know. I guess this will not make me popular, but I love referring to myself with derogatory terms, and I mourn the fact that there are so few. So, depending on context, I'll happily refer to myself as a gringo, or cracker, or dumb Swede, or whatever term of abuse is current. The trick is to never refer to anybody else in such a way. And wrt. "idiot" - I love that too. In arguments, I would always gladly own the "idiot", "fool" and other insults - in fact I'd insist, "no, please remember, I'm just an idiot" - great fun! The key is to be proudly an "idiot", have full self-confidence and be able to totally back it up. In short order, the sting is taken out, and the weapon turned on the other person, ha! I feel if more people did this, a lot of the insults would die away. So, good for you!
posted by VikingSword at 7:51 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. Just to be clear, when I answered "Soy gringa" I wasn't doing it to be self-deprecating, I just thought I was answering the other player's question. But, yeah, in the context of the group laughing about me being a gringa (and undoubtedly laughing about me being an inexperienced player overall), it probably did come across as self-deprecating and maybe the leader was just trying to be protective and/or cautious by telling me it was foolish (or maybe I'm just overthinking a plate of frijoles).
posted by amyms at 8:04 PM on January 20, 2010

I agree with randomstriker's description. I think that that person's reaction was probably a result of the floating lack of context on-line when you are typing and can't see the other people. In those cases, making attempts at self-deprecating humor can prove trickier.

Self-deprecation in general varies a lot based on cultural assumptions, because it's a kind of a game, as VikingSword describes. He doesn't really think he's an idiot. If someone doesn't understand the game of it, and thinks he really thinks he's an idiot, they won't react accordingly.
posted by umbú at 8:04 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Personally, I would say "Soy la gringa."
But that's just me.

I think randomstriker and vikingsword have it just about right. But if you don't have the language skills to be self effacing it is hard to pull off. So your group leader was probably taking good care of you.

Kudos to you for braving the wild!
posted by SLC Mom at 8:08 PM on January 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a Hispanic person and I would probably think that it's cute. Of course, I now live in a part of the country without many Hispanic people, so I always appreciate anyone who knows anything about Spanish. There is a Gringo Road in the next county over and I'm always amused at how the locals never know what it means.

Really, I think that guy was just being uptight and kind of protective of you. However, it might be different in places with tension between Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations and the term 'Gringa' has a lot more baggage. Still, it's a term best used amongst friends because it's easy for it to be taken the wrong way.
posted by Alison at 8:16 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Making an attempt to point out your ethnicity and "deprecate" yourself can have the opposite effect.

Imagine the smartest guy in the class joking about how dumb he is and how he's going to fail the next exam. For the students who actually do have a danger of failing, this kind of joking is incredibly frustrating.

Likewise, for ethnic minorities who have to deal with slurs and being "other"ed on a daily basis, this kind of self-deprecatory humor coming from a non-minority can be annoying.
posted by pravit at 8:19 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

A bit more on this: "Latinos" are a very diverse bunch, and the term "Gringo" carries a varying amount of baggage depending on where you are.

Other than Mexico and Guatemala are likely have the most conservative, formal and deferential cultures. They've also had the most bitter interaction with the USA over the centuries, especially through the Spanish-American War. In these parts, "gringo" refers exclusively to US-Americans, and not to white people of European or even Canadian origin. So you'll encounter some passive aggressive behavior -- if you're called "gringo" to your face it'll always be controversial.

The further south you go, the less bitterness they harbor about the USA (despite the USA having propped up numerous unsavory tyrants e.g. Pinochet in Chile) and the more "gringo" becomes a generic term for white people. People in these countries also tend to be more liberal and informal, i.e. blunt and open. The word "gringo" carries very little baggage down there.
posted by randomstriker at 8:31 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Other than Mexico and Guatemala are likely have...

Ugghhh...editing fail. That should read: Mexico and Guatemala likely have...
posted by randomstriker at 8:33 PM on January 20, 2010

But pravit, the "dumb" thing is annoying because it isn't true. I don't see the similarity. She's not saying "I'm a repressed minority!"
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:54 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm Mexican. I came to the US rather recently. I would NEVER call someone a gringo(a), and I wince when I hear people call themselves that. I'm definitely not prudish nor proper, and I'm young (20). It's a slur, akin to calling me a beaner. Latinos in the US are a lot more relaxed about it.
posted by cobain_angel at 9:12 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A little bit of an update: Just ventured into the game again, briefly, with the same group. No one used the word "gringa" while I was there this time, so I'm inclined to think that maybe the group leader was just being extra sensitive and cautious about making sure that no one used any terms that could lead to misunderstandings or uncomfortable feelings.

The whole group was, as they were they first time, very friendly and welcoming. I think we're all enjoying trying to communicate with each other, and the source of amusement seems to have transitioned from me being a gringa to me being the oldest one in the group and the fact that I'm there with my son. ("Hola, Mama!" etc.)

Thanks again to everyone for your thoughts, experiences, and insight.
posted by amyms at 9:43 PM on January 20, 2010

randomstriker is right about the diversity of language in south america. Here in Chile 'gringo' is very neutral and has no negative connotations on its own. In fact, it's not rare for exchange students to start referring to themselves as gringos after a couple of months here.
posted by Memo at 9:44 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's self-deprecating and probably cute.
posted by rokusan at 10:34 PM on January 20, 2010

Just a slightly deraily datapoint: I jokingly refer to myself as a gora when I'm with my Indian friends. I think it's a similar derogatory but not really offensive label.
posted by atrazine at 1:00 AM on January 21, 2010

Whether or not it's a slur varies by country. In Costa Rica, gringo/gringa was just the colloquial term for white American.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:32 AM on January 21, 2010

You're calling yourself a honky, pretty much.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:42 AM on January 21, 2010

White boy here.

For the record, the latino friends that I have and have had over the years (in Central and North Texas, FWIW) have been very relaxed, at least among friends, with mild slurs directed at *either* ethnicity. It has not been uncommon at all to hear both 'beaner' and 'gringo/gringa' in the same conversation, in the span of about 15 minutes.

I think 99.9% of it depends entirely upon the familiarity of the company. I would never, ever, EVER refer to somebody that I just met as a 'beaner', for instance. That's horribly presumptious, rude, condescending, and all of the above. But a good friend with whom you frequently trade barbs and playful jabs? Of course!

Basically, exactly what randomstriker said. The difference is all in the context.
posted by kaseijin at 8:32 AM on January 21, 2010

I'm Mexican. I came to the US rather recently. I would NEVER call someone a gringo(a), and I wince when I hear people call themselves that. I'm definitely not prudish nor proper, and I'm young (20).

I have been going to Mexico twice monthly for the last year. Not only do my friends there call me a gringo, they call me a pinche gringo puto culero. It's all just harmless teasing.
posted by randomstriker at 9:35 AM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that gringo/a is a mild pejorative and no longer really offensive, especially when used self-referentially. Gabacho/a, however, is meant as a harsher, non-cute pejorative for white Americans and shouldn't be used unless you mean to really insult yourself. It should be noted that the severity of 'gringo/a' (like much objectionable language) is locally variable, so you'll probably get your best answer asking a friendly Latino in your community.
posted by carsonb at 11:26 AM on January 21, 2010

"white Americans" is wrong, please disregard. 'Foreigner' is more correct.
posted by carsonb at 11:32 AM on January 21, 2010

Gabacho? Harsh? Not in Mexico City. At least, not that I've ever heard. It always depends on context, like gringo. See my previous related answer here.
posted by Cobalt at 9:02 PM on January 21, 2010

Chilean, "gringo" here can refer to USians or any White, non-Latin foreigner.
Gringo is not per se pejorative here, just depending on context.
Chile is fairly relaxed about this kind of thing, "gringo", "negro" (for anybody with dark skin) "chino" (for anybody with even slightly slanting eyes), "guaton" (lit." fatso"), "flaco", etc are all common nicknames.
posted by signal at 7:50 PM on January 22, 2010

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