cultural issues, gringo, Latin America, travel

>Losing your Gringocity

>(Ed. Note: This article appeared in the October 20th issue of The Santiago Times.)

El Camino Cierto Para los Gringos Viajando en Latinoamérica.


grin-go-cit-y
[grin-gaw-sit-ee]
-noun.

  1. (in Latin America) the often ignorant way foreigners, esp. of North American or European descent, act towards the peoples and cultures of Latin America : his gringocity stopped him from enjoying the local delicacies.
  2. can describe the amount of foreigners present somewhere in Latin America: the were high levels of gringocity during the week of the festival.


If English is your native language, or you are light-skinned, to most Latin Americans you are a gringo.

Despite all that history has taught us, there are more positive ways a gringo can engage Latin America than supporting dictators, buying drugs or visiting your own little all-inclusive slice of paradise. This article will give you definite ways to lower your gringocity, enjoy yourself and have a positive impact on the people and places you visit.

Before leaving, people may warn you about the many dangers in these far-off lands where the rule of law is non-existent and people will shoot you for a couple hundred pesos. These same xenophobic people live in constant fear of the “bad guys” fed to them during the nightly news. Do not accept this derivative “us verses them” worldview. To quiet these fear-mongers, reassure them that there are no terrorists who hate our freedom in Latin America (Chavez and friends merely want an end to Western economic imperialism) and that you’ll stay far enough away from the bad barrios.

Author in fake horse tourist trap by Pio Nono bridge in Santiago de Chile.
In terms of crime, there is not much to worry about; in most places, you can just as easily get shot or stabbed in your home countries. I got robbed once on my last trip, during an impromptu late-night bodysurfing session on Rio’s Copacabana beach. It happened after I blurted in my best portuñol (a mish-mash of Spanish and Portuguese) at a kid to guard our clothes, “Clothes! You! Money!” He then did what anyone in his position would have: waited till we swam far enough out, rifled through our clothes, took the few crumpled cachaça-soaked bills and sprinted off. Crime should not be a big problem to anyone relatively intelligent, however, things like hour-long taxi rides at Moscovian rates and costly visa runs are inevitable.

It is useful to learn self-deprecating phrases like, “Sorry, I am just a huge gringo*.” as well as, “I love your country and if you rob me, then I can’t get back to my home and spread the word to my fellow countrymen about you and the brutal situation here*!” These sentences should help negate any perceived air of cultural superiority that is the impetus for many conflicts.

Still, these sentences are not fail-safe and if you are serious about going, the most important thing you can do before leaving is to actually learn the lingo. Meet with a friend who speaks, download some lessons, join Livemocha, take a night class or do some self-study more demanding than watching Dora the Explorer. Be it español, Quechua (an indigenous language of the Andean people), português or Chile’s slang-laden version of Spanish, you’re not going to get far without some basic understanding of the language. Nobody likes a boludo who assumes their imperial tongue is understood, and in this digital day and age there is no excuse for a total lack of knowledge of either the countries or their languages.

No matter how cunning the linguist, the best way for anyone to kick-start their trip is to spend a week, or several, living with a local family. This usually costs a little more than staying at a hostel or budget hotel, but brings boundless benefits. A home-stay almost guarantees that you will be fattened up with delicious meals and get to do things like beat the crap out of your little sister’s birthday piñata or play dominoes with dad. These gracious hosts can be hooked up through language schools which offer customized lessons for several hours a day; in most cases they are one-on-one which forces you to do some serious book learning. Schools are offered in virtually every country and are the finest and fastest way to get the hang of the language. Book a few weeks before and a great welcome will await you.

Most language schools also have options or contacts for you to help out some people in the city or town where you are studying. Assist in building a house (a two room pre-fabricated operation) for a needy family one weekend, or teach local kids English – even just a few phrases to help them sell goods to tourists. To truly engage highly polarized Latin American cultures is to identify with the struggle that so many have faced and still continue to face as they try to better themselves and their communities. Google the School of the Americas (SOA), Oliver North or browse through Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums and you will know that your efforts are appropriate. A reputable resource for finding a profound project is the Directory of Development Organization’s Latin American and the Caribbean online portal.

Playing “keep the box up” with kids of San Rafael, Copan Ruinas, Honduras.

Do not over plan your trip; no guidebook will prep you for falling out of one of Maradona‘s favorite clubs and helping a Peruvian dude haul a new front door 20 blocks to his family’s tiny apartment in Buenos Aires’ morning heat. Take a good hard look at the photos and blurbs of the travel writers inside the cover of your guidebook and ask yourself. “Are these the type of people I’d want to sit next to on a two day bus trip?” A lot of things in Central America and the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil) can be booked beforehand online or once you are on the ground. That guidebook is of use if you get to places like Venezuela or Suriname. A gringo trying to get a bus out of Caracas involves driving around for three hours in one of the world’s most congested cities, the whole time trying to figure out how bad your driver is cheating you.

If you treat people and their cultures with respect and dignity you should encounter few problems, but be aware that, though cognisant of your gringocity, you are bound to garner resentment in some places. It is a common Argentinian joke that prior to the collapse of their economy at the start of the decade you could walk down the street in Buenos Aires’ swanky Recoleta neighborhood and actually see a real Argentinian. Gringos spending like they would never be able to back in their homeland can stir up animosity anywhere in Latin America. However, most places need your tourist pesos and you will find people friendly as hell and very happy to show gringos around their jungle, concrete or natural.

Whether an ice cold açaí na tigela(delicious Amazonian fruitshake) at a juice stand in Ipanema, anticucho (grilled cow heart-kabob) on a dusty Lima street, pastel del choclo (corn and meat pie) in a hip Santiago eatery, tacos al pastor at Cuernavaca’s homegrown taco chain or aguardiente at an afterparty in Medellin – never shy away from the special local food and drink. Even though many down there love “MacDonal“, a surefire way to get to know the average person is to share with them a bit of their native food or drink. And let’s be honest, there will be times you just have to embrace your gringocity and ditch the salsa/samba/cumbia/merengue/tango to cut rug the only way you know how: ridiculously.

Useful Phrases-
* Sorry, I’m just a huge gringo. – Perdonamé, soy un gringo gigante.

* I love your country and if you rob me, then I can’t get back to my home and tell my fellow countrymen about you and the brutal situation here! – ¡Amo tu país, y si me robas, no podr regresar a mi estado y contar todos de tu brutal ésituación socioeconómico!

By Mike Hager

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2 thoughts on “>Losing your Gringocity

  1. >Hah, I love your 'basic self-deprecating phrases'. I'm surprised more travel guides don't include them for more, er, aggressive nations…I always travel alone and I've never had any kind of 'anti-tourist' sentiment, thank God. I've always been shocked at the hospitality that's been shown to me. But I guess, as I am alone, I don't have any backup — and one guy walking around is less intrusive than a couple strolling around and being noisy…I hope to visit Latin America one day!

  2. >Hola Miguel- it's Dr. Russell, using our dog's blog account; this is a hoot; so talented. Anyway: leaf through that Planet of Slums and find the chapter on urban guerrilla counter-insurgency. I thought of it today reading the news from Tegucigalpa.Again, this is a great post!

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