Is Gringo a derogatory word in Colombia?

February 2015

“Ones destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” …Henry Miller

Hey GringoMichael: We paid for our purchases at the store in Cajicá, Colombia. Then a voice boomed from behind us. “You can always find another gringo at Home Center.” The speaker was correct. Those of us from non-Spanish speaking countries are more do-it-yourselfers than most Colombians.

The words came from a six foot tall white faced Australian who introduced himself and his wife. They live in a small town not far away.

Over my ten years in the country I have been referred to as gringo on a few occasions. At markets salesmen will say, “Hey gringo,” then introduce me to their wares. I have been referred to as that gringo down the street. I have heard Colombians use the term to refer to Australians, Germans, English, French, and many others. But never has there been a tone of offense in anyone’s voice.

Graciela: In my over 60 years living in Colombia I have never known of my fellow Colombians to use the word in what we call “despectivamente“. In English that means disrespectfully. For me it identifies an American. Though many use it to refer to anyone from a non-Spanish speaking country.

Michael: In the USA there are many misconceptions about Colombia. But I did not think that gringo being a bad connotation was one of them. Then a person left a comment on our blog “Five Reasons why 2015 is Your Year to Visit Colombia.”. What I got from his comment was that he would not visit Colombia because Colombians call people from The United States gringos and to him gringo is considered (in his words), ” disparaging label for non-Spanish speaking people.”

Graciela: There may be a culture part that comes into play. Not just Colombians but many other Spanish speaking cultures use as terms of endearment words that people in other countries might consider offensive.

Michael: I remember the first time I heard my wife call her sister “gorda”. The word in Spanish means fat or fatty. I told her that was a terrible thing to call her sibling especially since she isn’t fat. But now I know that it is an affectionate term used by many Colombians.

Graciela: Even young married couples will call their significant other “vieja” (for a woman) or ‘viejo” (for a man). The literal translation is old. But it is like someone from The United States calling their spouse honey or sweetie.

Then in Spanish we also add “ita” or “ito to words to make them more personal and loving. Friends sometimes call me Gracielita. And when not mad at my husband I call him my gringuito.

Michael: Bryan and Dena Haines are Canadians who live in Ecuador. On their blog site in the article titled, “Is ‘Gringo’ offensive?” they wrote, “For us, being called Gringos is being called Canadian. It simply identifies our origins.” They concluded with “To us it is very kind.”

On his site Josh penned a blog titled, “Is Gringo an Offensive Word in Brazil?” While he notes it bothered him at first he soon figured out the word is good. He states, “One of the reasons this site is named Brazilian Gringo is to help my fellow gringos understand that it is ok to be gringo.”

The question on my mind was why would the person making the comment on our blog think the word is bad. American born and well known cartoonist and writer Lalo Alcaraz is best known as author of the comic strip La Cucaracha though he has also written two books. He lives in Southern California. For, of which he is editor and chief, he wrote the article “Gringos offended by the term ‘gringo’ are actually pendejos”. In that article he references words from a blonde news model (Wow, is blonde derogatory or a description?) for an American news media that in my experience has gotten more wrong about Colombia than correct. She said on her show that gringo is a very bad word. Alcaraz took his own research and experience and concluded that the only ones who take the word in a negative context are those who are looking to be offended.

I am also reminded of the book “The Four Agreements: a Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” by Don Miguel Ruiz. His second agreement is “Don’t take anything personally.”

Graciela: Some wonder why other words are not used. Those from the United States think of themselves as Americans. But South Americans are also Americans. Then there is the word in Spanish for someone from the USA “estadounidense.” But it has too many syllables and people usually prefer shorter words..

I decided to look in the dictionaries for different languages. None of them said anything about gringo being offensive. The dictionary for the Spanish language states, “Extranjero, especialmente de habla inglesa, y en general hablante de una lengua que no sea la española.” Translated means a foreigner, especially one that speaks English, and in general someone that does not speak Spanish. Even the Oxford dictionary says nothing about the term being offensive. Only the dictionaries from the United States say it is disparaging.

The word gringo has roots in Spain long before there was a Spanish speaking Central and South America. In the dictionary at that time the term referred to anyone who spoke Spanish poorly.

Michael: I may be called gringo by some here, but it is only when they do not know me. Colombians are very polite and etiquette minded people. When they know your name they use it. The word gringo is not a negative connotation. But if the word offends you then simply do not come to Colombia or probably the rest of South America. Your attitude will do more harm than good for the rest of us. However if you hear the words, “Hey Yanqui,” or “pendejo” then you might want to start moving your feet in rapid motion away from the sound.


  1. ¿Gringo es una palabra ofensiva en Colombia?

    No. Gringo no es una palabra ofensiva en Colombia. I agree 100% with Michael and Graciela’s well written article above.

    When I first came to Colombia many years ago I was confused why Colombians referred to me as a gringo because I am not from the U.S. At first I used to correct people and explain that I am from Australia…….but after a while I just accepted that in their eyes I am a gringo and I just have to get used to it…….and I did.

    I think, at least around my home town, the term ‘gringo’ simply means a foreigner other than a ‘latino’. If the locals want to call me something derogatory they use other words.

    1. Barrumundi,
      Thanks for reading and for your kind words. We enjoyed reading your comment and agree about other words being used.

  2. Very nice article. I am from Colombia, but my wife is from Denmark. Everytime we travel to Bucaramanga she is called la “gringa” or “mona” o “monita”. Non of those offend her or me, but i found myself correcting people because i was under the impression that the term was only for people from the USA. But even though most Colombians are very educated and most are more educated than most of other latin americans, explaining to people where Denmark is located, became more challenging than just accepting the name “gringa”.

    Mark Gonzalez
    Washington DC

    1. Mark,
      Glad you enjoyed the writing. We appreciate you taking time to read and especially to leave a comment.

  3. Gringo was originally used in certain mines owned by U.S. corporations with company stores. It ment “Green Go” referring to the green dollars and to leave the country since the workers felt abused. That context has dissipated thru time,

    1. jbdavid – Thanks for that information. It is one we have not heard previously. There are stories that it came from the Mexican-American War in 1846 and referrs to certain songs sang by the Americans.

      1. I was once a student in Mexico City – for some two years. I recall being called both ‘Gringo’ (US origin) and ‘Gueero’ (fair haired/skinned type). I took both to be friendly. I also have heard that story that ‘gringo’ was heard during the Mexican-American War – because the invading US troops wore greenish uniforms – ergo – ‘you guys in green go home’. Rolland Amos, Mexico City College grad of ’58.

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