Gringo and Proud

Before learning about other cultures in an abroad experience, first you must embrace your own.

Just past the halfway point of my study abroad experience, I have seen and done plenty of things in my adventures across Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and finally my home from July to December: Chile. Three months ago, I can easily admit that I was a stereotypical gringo, blissfully ignorant, roaming the streets of various Latin American towns asking for directions in broken Spanish. Today, I can admit that I’m still a gringo. And despite what some may believe, that’s a good thing.

Here in Chile, it’s not unusual to have a nickname based on your blatant physical characteristics. Anything from flaco (skinny), gordo (fat), negrito (black-haired or black-skinned), and of course gringo (white/American/foreigner) flies out of the mouths of Chileans without any hesitation. In fact, calling someone by such a name is often seen as endearing.

Basing preconceptions off appearances is something we all do, regardless of culture. But in a relatively homogeneous society such as Chile, appearances are often what dictate how people interact with you.

When I enter a salsa club (or any other club for that matter) in South America, I get stared down like I’m some sort of celebrity. Unless my diet of empanadas and sopaipillas has somehow made me into a supermodel, I will assume the looks are because of my gringo-ness. Many, I will also assume, believe I have no working knowledge of salsa dancing and/or cannot keep a beat. As I spin and twirl with various dance partners, I prove them wrong. While I still ignore the glares and chuckles and rather loud conversations about the gringo bailando (dancing gringo), I have a really good time.

Those stares don’t stop once I leave the salsa clubs. While walking in the street, riding the metro and even being a daily patron of my favorite sopaipilla stand, I have far more attention than I have ever had before. But what I do with that attention can shape those stereotypes and perceptions into something positive. Many of such stares are those of curiosity, and capitalizing on sharing your own experiences and your own culture can be beneficial for both you and your Latin American counterpart.

Being a gringo isn’t about dancing badly or always carrying an expensive camera and lots of cash to possibly get stolen. But it certainly can be. Simply put, being gringo is what you make it to be. If you solely follow the stereotype of being a gringo, you provide a reason for Chileans and denizens of the world to make a negative judgment of those who also look or behave like you. If you defy those negative stereotypes, you help those different from you help understand that there’s more to being from the U.S., and there’s more to being myself than having blonde hair and blue eyes.

By being a gringo, I have the power to change people’s perceptions of my own culture. And it’s probably the closest thing to a super power I’ll ever have in this diverse world.

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