the gringo

Coming to Mexico, I am easily identifiable as a griego, which has never been confused – when said – with a gringo. I ask sometimes why do you call the yanquis – mexican spelling for yankees – “gringos”? (As if I knew the origin for this alternative term – I didn’t. I checked today, only to find out that the origin of yanquis is as uncertain as the origin of gringos that prompted this post)

The most common answer I received is that the soldiers that invaded Mexico (1846-1848) were dressed in green uniforms and they were shouted at “Green go!”. This explanation leaves uncovered the question how did the population know the word “green” in the first place, although it might be that the soldiers tried to communicate their identity by pointing at their uniform. An alternative explanation put forward has been that they paid in dollars and therefore the “Green go!” referred to a demand (by the Mexican collaborators in this case?) to proceed with the (promised?) payment.

In a reunion of my neighbourhood, that is of the families living on a street block of Matanzas, in Lindavista, Gustavo A. Madero, Mexico City, my neighbour Ramiro commented that the colours of the Mexican flag closely map those of Ireland (orange has become red and there is a symbol of an eagle carrying a snake in its mouth stamped in the white part. The origin of this symbol has been another fascinating unknown – Dr Juan Riesgo Escovar suggested recently that the only pre-hispanic version of it bears little similarity pointing to a relatively modern – or foreign – origin).

I inquired for an explanation (why would someone link Ireland to Mexico) and Ramiro suggested that Irish soldiers that initially fought with the invading army (USA), upon realising the horrors that were being committed against a Catholic population, were reminded of the similar oppression they had fled from, the English boot on Ireland, and as a result changed sides and fought alongside with the Mexicans. Ramiro handed over to me a novel written by Patricia Cox “Batallon de San Patricio” that accounts for those years. He excused himself that the story was told under a romance, but I found the romantic part of the book – and especially the final encounter of the couple separated by war – very appealing (even if controversial). I must say, there was no indication that the Mexican flag derived its colours from Ireland in the century I am discussing: these were clearly determined during the previous century (more unknowns to me).

I sent in two tweets the paragraph from that book that gives, in my view, a great historical lesson and I translate it here:

The price a man pays for being a coward is high; the punishment deserved for accepting deceipt is very high… and it must be paid with the blood, the pain and the shame of those who resist to be slaves, of those who deny to themselves the right to be cowards. 

Towards the end of the novel, Patricia offers a new explanation for the term gringo. She says Mexico City had heard the invadors sing: “Green grow the leaves of the hawthom tree…”, which made the people baptise them with the gibe gringos. I couldn’t find the song as such, but this interesting link allows for me to try and reproduce the melody.

I see that gringo existed already in Spain (again from the previous eighteenth century) and that an alternative explanation for its origin may be attributable to a shortening of the word peregrine – peregringo – from the Romani people (the nomadic gypsies of the European continent). Peregrine has a latin origin meaning “one from abroad”. So as with many other things, the use of a term may take a different meaning depending on who says it, where and when.


5 thoughts on “the gringo

  1. Thanks Fanis for such an interesting post…never thought deeply about it. In a country like Chile depending on region (Chile is a very long country), they tend to use it for all ‘foreigners’ sometimes refer to U.S. nationals, English or even Germans. The use of the word ‘gringo’ among people from Chile and Argentina was recorded by the US Naval Astronomical expedition to the Southern Hemisphere (1849-1852, see link below).

    There is a great debate on whether ‘gringo’ comes from the Spanish ‘griego’ or from the English ‘green grow’. One early version proposes that the word ‘gringo’ seemed to have appeared in the Castilian Dictionary of Science and Art (Spain, 1786-1793) referring to foreigners that have difficulties to speak Castilian. Therefore, ‘gringo’ might be a distorted version of the word ‘griego’. The Spanish people called ‘griegos’ to all foreigners. The story goes back to Roman time and their Latin proverb “graecum est; non potest legi”. Curiously, Shakespeare used the expression ‘it is all Greek to me” in Julius Cesar.
    There are three other more recent versions in relation to the Mexico-U.S. War. One is that during the war, the U.S. soldiers sang the song ‘Green Grow the Lilacs: see link below)’ and the Mexicans might have taken the words ‘green grow’ as ‘gringo’. A second version refers to U.S. battalions having different colours to identify themselves and so the commander of the battalion might have shouted ‘green go’ ‘green go’ ‘green go’ to encourage soldiers to move forward and attack. The Mexicans might have mocked the commander shouts giving the nickname ‘gringos’ to their enemies. A third version is that the U.S. soldiers worn green uniforms and thus when arriving in Mexico the natives shouted ‘Green go Home’. This version is unlikely because the gringos uniforms were either blue or light blue.
    Finally, the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (Dictionario de la Academia Real Española or DRAE) have several entries on the word ‘gringo’ (in Spanish only; see link below).
    US Naval Astronomical expedition to the Southern Hemisphere:

    Song Green Grow the Lilacs:

    Word ‘gringo’ in DRAE

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