“Gringo”

I’ve only been here a couple of weeks but I’ve been called “gringa” (the female version of “gringo”) LOADS of times. I’m still confused about whether I’m supposed to be offended by it or not.

The other day someone told me that you can’t refer to a black person here as “un negro” because it’s the same as referring to a white person as “un gringo”, which is offensive, they told me.

Today I asked Christian about it, because to be honest I still wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. He said the word originated years ago when the US army were in Latin America etc wearing their green uniform, and people didn’t like what they were doing so said “green, go!” which was abbreviated later to “gringo”. I looked on Wikipedia and this is listed as one of the theories but no one is sure which theory is true.

He went on to explain that Americans (and now white foreigners in general) have a bad reputation here because they generally just take advantage of the country, taking control of land and using it for their own benefit etc. He said that for example there is a part of Red Frog Beach (a popular beach for tourists on Isla Bastimentos) where local people aren’t allowed to set foot onto. I couldn’t believe it! Things like this make me so angry. I asked what would happen if he went in a water-taxi and tried to go there and he said there are Americans there who look after it and they’d take out a gun if a local person tried to enter, and they all know they’re not allowed. CRAZY!!!

Anyway he said that because of this, and because of the general negative effects of tourism (the same as in any country really – increase of drugs and prostitution etc), the people here don’t appreciate the presence of white foreigners because they think we’re all, in some way or another, taking advantage or doing something bad to their island, hence we are all gringos to them.

We have to remember this is just what Christian says, and not every local on the island necessarily thinks like this, but I believe him that it’s a common opinion, and I could already sense that the locals didn’t want to mix with the tourists. Obviously by thinking that all white people here are bad, they’re generalising too much and being racist basically, but to be honest I agree that most foreigners here probably aren’t doing much good to the local people…

…except bringing in money. This is what I said to Christian as an argument against what he was saying, but he simply said that in the past, people here got by without tourism so they could still do so today without tourists and the drugs problems etc wouldn’t exist. Maybe he’s right, I don’t know.

The kids I volunteer with call me Gringa as if it’s actually my name. Not one of them has called me Zoe but I think that’s because Panamanians find it impossible to pronounce my name and the kids probably don’t remember what it is. In situations like this I just think it can’t be offensive because surely they know, if I’m helping in their school, that I’m not here for a bad purpose?

One of them called me Gringita today, which you need to speak Spanish to understand but basically, if you add -ito (masculine) or -ita (feminine) to the end of a word it changes its meaning a bit.

For example, “el perro” is the dog, but “el perrito” is a little dog or puppy. Someone who’s “pequeno” is someone small, but someone “pequenito” is someone really small. It’s hard to explain because it’s not always in reference to size. It can turn things into a term of endearment as well kind of.

For example, as I said at the start of this article, you can’t call a black person “un negro”, but you can call them “un negrito”, no problem, so I’m 100% sure that Gringita isn’t offensive, and if one of the kids called me Gringita then I guess when she calls me Gringa she doesn’t mean it in an offensive way because the fact she called me Gringita means she likes me.

I think the only conclusion to draw is that historically the word is offensive/derogatory, but (same as with n*gga in England/America etc), you have to consider the context before deciding if it’s offensive or not (although with the N-word only black people are allowed to say it so it’s a bit different, but yeah).

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