Ever been called a gringo? It’s a common occurrence south of the border, the echo of the word reaching from Ciudad Juarez down to the northern border of Argentina and Chile (where they prefer the more political “yanqui”).
I lived in Mexico for a year and went through several stages of acceptance and disgust at being called a gringo, but ultimately ended up feeling rather indifferent about it. When I return, however, I feel rather sad at what the word means and what its sentiment represents to Mexicans.
Some say that gringo is a bad transliteration of “green go”, a rallying cry for Mexicans that wanted invading American troops (festooned in green uniforms) to get out and “go home”. It doesn’t just apply to Americans, either, rather most white and Anglo-Saxon foreigners fall under the broad gringo brush.
But caught up in the everyday use of gringo is a more troubling Mexican concept, one called malinchismo.
The popular lore has it that La Malinche (Malintzin in Náhuatl), everyone’s favorite tragic heroine of Mexican colonization, was an Mayan Indian girl to whom Cortes took a shine, bearing his child and serving as the colonial-era translator and power broker between her new master and lover and her native people.
Unfortunately, Cortes didn’t return the favor, and in time passed her on to one of his subordinates, Juan de Jaramillo, and then eventually ordered poor Malinche’s death. The story is even more tragic when you add the fact that her mother sold her into slavery, which put her in contact with the Spaniards in the first place.
A Mexican Uncle Tom of sorts, Malinche came to represent an important ill in Mexican society, and one that afflicts it to this very day. Dig down into its didactic roots, and the tale is one of a native Mexican so eager to please a foreigner that she gave her body and betrayed her people for proximity to a white man. Heavy stuff.
Fast forward to 2013. Being a gringo, you see it all the time, and being called a gringo is only one way the not-so-subtle privileges manifest themselves.
From bars and clubs that have white people standing in the entranceway to make the place look classier, to advertisements across the country with European-looking families smiling in front of Wal-Mart, it’s almost too easy to be white in Mexico. You see it in on television, where if you only watched TV Azteca or Televisa you might think that Mexico was a part of Andalusia.
And if you’re white, it’s too easy to be foreign. You see it in business meetings, and in diplomacy, where Anglo and European foreigners thrive despite terrible Spanish and questionable understanding of the country they live in. Many Spaniards and Argentines, meanwhile, make little effort to integrate and adapt into their new home, and live large off the privilege afforded them.
Neighbors from the rest of North America, bizarrely, are almost more sensitive to their surroundings, not least because it takes an adventuresome American or Canadian to move south of the border for work or study. Many are put off by tales of violence inside and outside the capital, and in fact before I moved one of my then-to-be coworkers told me on a Skype call that I “had a muggable face”. Great.
But for the added risk of being mugged I was privy to an everyday deference that more than outweighed any threat of violence.
Racism and racial privilege exist in some form in many societies, Mexico is not unique in that regard. And European/white privilege is alive and well across the Americas, with many of the region’s wealthiest families and most powerful figures holding dual European passports or tracing Mayflower-esque Spanish lineage.
But in Mexico what I find discomfiting is the country’s penchant to treat foreigners, particuarly white foreigners, with a level of deference and reverence greater than they afford to fellow Mexicans. Clearly there are other roots to this problem, including education systems that produce a bigger pool of skilled graduates in Europe and North America (and even Argentina). But the fact that many “gringos” do so well in the country echoes the humble and tragic story of Malinche.
After spending time all over Latin America, where being a foreigner often doesn’t afford you any other privilege than visa headaches and suspicious glances, it is clear that Mexico still has a malinche issue. It has its pluses, making the country far more open to foreign business and investment than the rest of Latin America. But I think its minuses are much more pernicious to Mexican society.
Mexicans are some of the most genuine, hardworking, and honest people on the continent, and anyone who gets to know the country realizes how different its image abroad is from its reality.
As Mexico and Mexicans become more confident in their identity and rising influence, I hope to see the memory of Malinche fade. Getting them to stop using gringo, however, is an entirely different story.