Identity Below The Equator

Drew Hayes - Brazil


February 13, 2013

The definition of “gringo” is hard to pin down. The basic element is being a foreigner. Being white and pasty is a large component. Being from a northern hemisphere, Anglo-Saxon society is another big one. Being wealthy is important also. The cherry on top is the gringo accent. Whatever it may be, apparently I’m about as gringo as I can get.

The label is as easy to deconstruct as it hard to classify. Would I still be a gringo at seventeen if I had arrived here at thirteen years old? At ten years old? At seven years old? Also, if one were to put a German tourist next to a man from a German community in southern Brazil, how exactly is one a gringo and one not? Are my black Brazil Fellows gringos? To further complicate matters, if my Bahian friends don’t know a wealthy Brazilian from São Paulo, as far as they’re concerned, she’s a gringo.

I thought I had a pretty progressive insight when I arrived here. No, I thought: “gringo” isn’t negative. It’s just a label, a classification of outsiders, like a nationality. No one means ill with the word. I should embrace and acknowledge my gringoness. My conversations with my friends here have confirmed my insight. They insist it’s not discriminatory or negative, that it’s just what I am. Actually, they repeat, it gives me a social leg up and an incredible attractiveness boost.

My attitude toward the concept, however, has steadily worsened. I cringe at usage of the word precisely because of the way it’s used. Never will someone address me or tell me I’m a gringo. It exists only in the third person. The stock phrase is “can you imagine this gringo…?” Can you imagine this gringo dancing samba? Can you imagine this gringo winning the swim race? Can you imagine this gringo using the word [place Bahian slang here]?

My question: why is it so hard to imagine me doing these things? Why is it so funny to have a “gringo” doing this or that? I live here, I’m speaking Portuguese, and I know a bunch of people in the community.

I’m just sensitive, I suppose, to having my identity out of my control. I’ve never had this issue in the States. Here, I doubt I’ll ever be able to shake off my gringo identity, so I’ve set a more modest goal. My hope is that in five years, ten years from now, the friends I’ve made here won’t remember “that gringo,” they’ll remember Drew.

Drew Hayes