An interesting feature of Brazil is that there really is no such thing as “looking” Brazilian. In my time here in the south of Brazil I have seen Brazilians that run the entire range of possible heights, hair colors, eye colors, and skin tones. The only rule is that there is no rule. I’ve met a Brazilian woman with light eyes and dark hair who could speak English, but with an Australian accent. I’ve met a Brazilian man who was the son of Japanese immigrants and who I assumed was an exchange student but who I found spoke perfect native Portuguese…though not much if any Japanese. Brazilians are red-haired and pale or tan with light hair. They are black, they are white, some are towering tall and others exceedingly short. I’m surprised that I’m surprised at all because in this Brazil resembles some parts of the US.
So, given this incredible wealth of physical diversity, how do Brazilians distinguish someone who does not belong? They certainly couldn’t tell by looking at you. You have to speak first using your obviously-not-native Portuguese. Then they know exactly what to call you…gringo. Gringo? Really?
To explain just why I had such a hard time with being called a “gringo” at first, I need to relate a little about where I come from. I grew up in San Antonio, TX which is 60 to 70 percent Hispanic / Latino and is situated about 2.5 hours north of the border of Mexico by car. In that area “gringo” is used as a pejorative for non-Hispanic and typically white people. Though it is not a term I use myself, my parents in the baby-boomer generation and their parents before them used or heard the term used commonly in a fairly negative context. In a more nuanced way “gringo” refers to someone who doesn’t get it or doesn’t belong. They’re not Latino, they don’t know any Spanish, they don’t have any culture. A person might say, “Oh look at the silly gringo paying too much for their Mexican food! They don’t even know how to order!” So for me the term “gringo” has always had a very specific meaning and, in my world, it certainly couldn’t refer to me.
So imagine my surprise when I find out that here in Brazil I am exactly that. I am a gringo too now. The Brazilians I have met don’t even really use the term gringo in an overtly negative way. After some questioning I found out that it’s not just Americans that qualify either. Here it just means other, foreigner, someone who is not Brazilian. Even other South Americans are “gringos” when they come to Brazil. (Apparently this is especially true of Argentinians.)
This is, I suppose, why we travel. To blow away our own expectations and reset what we thought we knew. This particular lesson was strange for me to comprehend at first. It struck right to heart of my childhood where a person’s beliefs and ideas are buried particularly deep. So, here I am in Brazil and I am a gringo. (Sou gringo!) And if you were here, be you black, white, brown or otherwise, you would be too. 🙂