In mixed company, g-word now off limits
Whites demanding equal consideration
By Timothy Pratt
Las Vegas Sun
April 19, 2007
It's the g-word.
Some rank it up there with the n-word.
Although employed with mirth in a recent Sun story about attempts to lure Hispanics to this month's Vegas Grand Prix, one reader said the word was racist and possibly warranted a lawsuit.
Hitting the in-box just as Don Imus was being shoved away from the microphone, the strong feelings made for thought.
The term, after at least two centuries of use and incarnations on many shores, seems to have become a fighting word, at least for some “white, LEGAL, American citizens,” to quote another reader's e-mail.
Experts said the anger was symptomatic of a shift occurring in parts of the United States, where members of the white majority have begun to feel they may soon be a minority and therefore deserve the same consideration about bigotry afforded minorities.
The source of the problem: immigration.
“It's a very sensitive word, especially at this historical moment,” said Vincent Perez, associate professor of English at UNLV and an expert on Hispanic culture.
Especially in our neck of the woods, he added.
“Given the highly charged political atmosphere (around immigration) in the Southwest … the word is suddenly charged with a new meaning,” Perez said.
As to the origins of the word itself, a commonly cited answer is that U.S. soldiers in the Mexican-American War sang a marching song that began, “Green grow the rushes, o.” That version makes the term a reference to people from the United States.
But academics note that the term existed in Spain a century before, often referring to the Irish. And in other South American countries, such as Brazil, it can refer to any foreigner, including other South Americans.
Regardless of its history, a reader who insisted the word is a slur accused this Sun reporter of “help(ing) in the takeover of this Country by 3rd world illegals and their handlers.” As evidence, he sent along a quote from a controversial April 1969 speech in San Antonio about Mexican-American civil rights by Jose Angel Gutierrez.
Nearly four decades later, precisely what Gutierrez, then head of the Mexican American Youth Organization, said in what often is referred to as his “kill the gringo speech” still is being debated.
Anti-immigration groups have quoted him as saying: “We have got to eliminate the gringo, and … if the worst comes to the worst, we have got to kill him.” The second half of that phrase, however, did not appear in news accounts of the speech. At the time, Gutierrez explained that in calling for the elimination of gringos, he meant removing their economic, political and social base of support, not killing white Americans.
In an e-mail, Gutierrez, now a University of Texas professor, declined an interview, saying, “I'm not interested in rekindling debate 38 years later on that.”
However, during the past 38 years, Gutierrez has not avoided the word or the issues it raises. He has authored books titled “A Chicano Manual on How to Handle Gringos” and “A Gringo Manual on How to Handle Mexicans.” Along the way, he has said in interviews that he has come to think of the word gringo as referring more to a state of mind than anything else.
“It's a mind-set,” he was quoted as saying in a 2003 Dallas Morning News story. “To me, a gringo is anyone with anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant views. Some of them are us.”
Perez called the 1960s remarks linked to Gutierrez an artifact of political history, a time when “everybody was spouting this type of rhetoric” – including other minority groups.
He noted that the Internet makes it easier today for people to perform a sort of cut-and-paste job, where a college radical's remarks from the 1960s can be attributed to a retirement-age professional as if they were spoken yesterday, all in the interest of supporting a point of view.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that favors tightening immigration laws, found the issue somewhat amusing but not surprising.
First, he said, there are the times we live in, illustrated by the Imus episode in which the talk-radio host lost his job after using a racial slur to describe a college women's basketball team.
“It's likely that the objection to the term is due to the ginned-up sensibility we're seeing about other racial epithets,” he said.
In addition, he said, as the racial and ethnic make up of the U.S. continues to change – particularly in areas such as the Southwest, where minorities are becoming the majority in some cities and counties – sensibilities about language will become even more heightened.
“You're only going to see more of this,” he said. “You're going to see a whole bunch of contesting minorities … (and) when whites become the minority, everybody will care about what everybody says.”
Still, Krikorian added, the term gringo doesn't provoke the same reaction in him.
“It's actually kind of funny – the way I think of gringo is Speedy Gonzalez … (It's) a comical term that comes from a cartoonish version of Mexico.”
Perez insisted that those who take offense to gringo don't understand Mexican or Mexican-American culture.
“It can be used negatively, or be neutral, or con cario,” he said, the last term meaning with endearment or affection.
He also believes Imus-like episodes are bound to reoccur, involving an ever-wider circle of groups and words.
“You're going to have to be more and more conscious of what words you use.”
Timothy Pratt can be reached at 259-8828 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.