Story number 1: a few years ago, in an American town in Indiana, I used to play soccer in a semi-competitive adult league. One of my teammates was Mexican, and we got along quite well. One day, he told me that I should join him and his friends for their scrimmages; apparently, they were getting together once a week for two hours of friendly soccer. Of course I said yes. They were all Mexicans, so they used Spanish during the game. They accepted me without questions at the beginning and addressed me in English if necessary, although I could understand what was needed. After one hour or so, we took a break, and some of the players asked my friend in Spanish, “who is the Gringo?” My friend answered, “Oh, he’s no gringo. He’s Romanian.” “Ah, bueno, bueno!” End of discussion; we went back to soccer, and I think I received many more passes the second half.
I did not know what gringo meant exactly, so I asked some friends afterwards. The decision of the majority was that “gringo” was a term used to designate white Americans. I looked white, which would include me in the “gringo” category, but I was Romanian, and this excluded me, my friends told me. And the truth is that the moment they found out that “I was not a gringo,” they truly accepted me as one of theirs: I was a foreigner, just as they were, a foreigner coming from Europe (and, by consequence, having “football” in his blood), so I couldn’t possibly be a “gringo” even if I looked like one.
Story number 2: another Midwest American town, in an ethnic grocery store. A Middle-Eastern woman comes in the store and speaks with the owner in Arabic. I go in line to pay, and I smile when our eyes meet. She is quite full of life and greets me. I greet her back, and she immediately asks me a question, clearly expecting another answer than the one I had, “Where are you from?” “Originally from Romania,” I answer. A little disappointed, the lady says, “Oh, I thought you were one of ours.” On that day, my exterior appearance did not say “gringo” about me. I had not shaved for a few days, and my beard always seems to be in the habit of growing fast.
I answered with the first words that came to my mouth, “What do you mean? I am one of yours!” The lady started to laugh–she saw, I believe, that, to an extent, I was one of theirs: I was a human, just like her. We continued talking until we paid for our purchases.
I heard that nowadays people use the internet whenever they are not certain regarding the meaning of a term. So I looked up “gringo” as well. The online dictionary (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/gringo?s=t) gives a very interesting account: from Mexican Spanish gringo, contemptuous word for “foreigner,” from Spanish gringo “foreign, unintelligible talk, gibberish,” perhaps ultimately from griego “Greek.” The “Diccionario Castellano” (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for “anyone who spoke Spanish badly,” and in Madrid for “the Irish.”
There is something quite spectacular about “Greek” being the origin of gringo: the Greeks themselves had a word for those who could not speak their language: “barbaros.” Poor witnesses for people are the eyes and ears of those who have barbarous souls, Heraclitus says, arguably meaning that these souls cannot speak Greek. But let Heraclitus be.
Sometimes there is a very thin line between being a “gringo” or not, between being a barbaros or not: possessing the language of soccer, a different citizenship, or a beard which was not shaved for a few days.