Ever since I landed in Lima and started strategizing my road to colonial Cusco, Machu Picchu’s cloud forest, the Chilean Patagonia, Mendoza’s Malbecs, Ushuaia’s Yacht Club and a Buenos Aires tango den, I knew that I was designing my own version of the Gringo Trail. This ubiquitous term is used to encompass the path of the pasty faces who arrive in South America with backpacks, very little Spanish and a generalization that all SoAm countries serve chips and salsa (embarrassing, but a let down nonetheless).
We gringos – or gringa in my case – are accepting of this slang vernacular for our out-of-placeness that at least lumps us into a minority together (group hug!), but most don’t know how we arrived at the brunt of the joke in the first place. When a Chilean gaucho asked my friend John Wayne to, “Tell me about that gringa,” I got to thinking, “Si, who is she? From where does she hail?” A few places actually.
Some believe that the term originated during the Mexican American War in the mid-19th century due to the popularity of the song Green Grows the Lilacs, based on one originally composed by Henry VIII called Green Grows the Holly, among American soldiers. Another theory surrounding this time frame is that U.S. soldiers wore green uniforms, so the opinion of the Latin Americans that the green should go stuck around longer than they did. Both of these are a bit far fetched as they originate from English words rather than Spanish ones, and they are out of sequence chronologically with the first time the word was documented…about a hundred years prior.
The most likely etymology of the term gringo is a derivation of the word griego, the Spanish word for Greek, which was used to describe someone who could not speak Spanish naturally or intelligibly. Its use was basically the same as that of one of our most well-loved phrases, “That was all Greek to me.”
So really, that gaucho was asking, “Tell me more about that foreign white girl who arrived with good intentions but uninvited and who tries to compensate for her nonexistent Spanish with an ever-widening smile and incessant nodding. Is she just adding an ‘o’ to the end of her words? I hope she doesn’t try to sing…”
Well cowboy, I think you just answered your question.