The word gringo is an interesting one. It exists in both Spanish and Portuguese and generally means foreigner. In some places it refers specifically to someone from the US, but in Brazil it basically means any foreigner. That said, it isn’t an exact science – someone from say, Japan, for instance can be called a gringo (gringa for a female), but in general the term fits better for Europeans and North Americans.
The origins of the word are also open to some discussion. Several Brazilians have told me that the term evolved from the English expression Green Go (this being either a call for foreign armies, generally dressed in green, to leave the country, or an observation that when foreigners arrived in the Amazon, the green (trees and other valuables) was taken away.
The reality is far more likely to be that it came from the Spanish word for Greek, Griego – someone speaking a language that isn’t understood. As in “it’s all Greek to me”.
But what is the real meaning behind this word? Should you be offended if someone calls you a gringo? Is it a sign of falta de respeito (lack of respect)?
All Brazilians that I’ve spoken to about this have assured me that it is not a pejorative term. “No!” they cry with a smile on their face and their arms spread wide, “We just use this term to mean a foreigner. Actually we are being friendly, affectionate even!”.
Well I’m not sure it’s a simple as that! Sure, Brazilians often use the term in a perfectly friendly way and it certainly doesn’t have to be rude. But I have heard it used plenty of times to denote scorn or disdain. Not exactly nasty, but in a way that groups foreigners together as say stupid or naive. Put it this way – my wife doesn’t call me a gringo (not to my face anyway!), but when we recently saw a tourist walking in Copacabana with an iPad in one hand and talking on his iPhone, she said “Even I’d rob that silly gringo!” (in case there’s any confusion here, she was saying that the guy was just asking to be robbed – she hardly ever robs people herself…).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being hyper-sensitive here. I don’t run home, slam the door and cry into my pillow when someone calls me gringo (well, not every time!). In the vast majority of cases people are being friendly when they use the term and anyway, you can tell if they’re being nasty from the tone of voice they use.
But there are times when perhaps you wouldn’t want to stand out as a gringo – certainly it could make you a more juicy (tempting) target if a genuine robber happened to spot you. So, here are some tips to help you blend in with the locals while you’re in Rio.
1. Leave the bottle of water at home
This is a constant source of bemusement to my wife. “Why do you gringos always carry those big bottles of water around?” she asks. This is the classic backpacker look – I remember in my travelling days I would always have a bottle of water. You spend one 12 hour bus trip without water and after that you learn your lesson and make sure you always have some water to hand. But if you want to blend in here in Rio then leave your water back at the hostel or at least in your bag.
2. Don’t take a towel to the beach
Another classic gringo move. Brazilians don’t take towels to the beach! Pickup a canga (those thin sarongs they sell on the beach). Despite being a fan of Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (I do, after all, work in IT), I have to say that cangas are far better than towels. They are lighter, more versatile, pack down smaller, dry more quickly and you can brush the sand off with a quick shake. AND, they don’t make you look like a gringo when you go to the beach.
3. Don’t wear trainers to the beach
Cultural terminology disambiguation #1: Trainers (UK) == Sneakers (US) == Tenis (Brazil).
Cultural terminology disambiguation #2: Flip-flops (US&UK) == Thongs (Australia) == Chinelos (Brazil).
This is another one that gets my wife shaking her head in wonder. If you are going to the beach, just wear flip-flops! You will definitely see Brazilians wearing trainers next to the beach, perhaps if they’re going for a stroll in the area. But a pair of stinky rolled up socks sitting inside a pair of Adidas in the sand? They belong to a gringo!
OK, so those are my observations. Perhaps some of my Brazilian readers have some other tips?
Of course it doesn’t really matter if you end up looking like a tourist/gringo/visitor! Contrary to popular belief, Rio is not full of robbers just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting gringos (there are some though). But maybe you don’t want to look like a local! We saw a couple of guys at the beach yesterday who were wearing trainers, sitting on towels, drinking from 2 litre bottles of water and (bonus points!) wearing $100 fancy headphones. But they seemed to be enjoying themselves and probably didn’t care that they looked ridiculous!