As the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who currently calls Honduras home, I often feel like I’m walking an uncharted path. I’m the first in my family to leave home for reasons beyond economic survival and the one who speaks Spanish better than her mother tongue. Yet when I look for traveler examples to learn from, the only one I am automatically assigned to, as a US citizen, is gringa.
If being a gringa was only an acknowledgment of passport privileges or US ideological tendencies, I’d find the word more helpful (and I think it is helpful, even needed, as a response to US intervention in Latin America). But in conversations today, gringo-ness often seems more related to visual presence—a visual presence that has little to do with my afro.
When we joke, “All these gringas, they’ll get a boyfriend abroad in the next three months,” I see gringo-ness constrained to heterosexuality.
When we remark that gringos can get away with disregarding store policies or avoid prolonged police stops in other countries, I see gringo-ness constrained to whiteness.
When organizations search for a gringo to add punch to a press conference, I again see gringo-ness constrained to whiteness and the power it has historically held.
Where does that leave the rest of us: the adopted child going back to their birth country, the child of Korean parents who grew up in Latin America and goes to college in the States? Do we belong in gringo-ness?
I think that within individual tales, people use the word “gringo” for good reasons—as an acknowledgment of difference or in self-deprecation. But when used as a universal term—”all gringos experience…”—it fails to capture many of our distinct experiences. As a result, our images of travel still predominantly center on the straight, white, US voyager to the exclusion of imagining and documenting other stories, other embodied realities.
When I’m out and about alone, people don’t read me as someone from the States. Even when I do speak in accented Spanish, Hondurans often assume I’m from a Honduran afro-indigenous community. When I do share my story, some struggle to process the seeming duality. I always laugh when I remember the llama fur coat seller in Guatemala who argued with me, confused that I could be both black and from the States. After some thought, he exclaimed, “Oh, like Obama!”
I don’t quantify these experiences to average whether they lean overall positive or negative. The truth is, sometimes not being perceived as from the US feels like an opportunity to be free from certain stereotypes. Other times, it feels like another reminder of the way US media has exported the second-class status of its people of color. In both cases, I am an ambassador for myself and those who look like me, fielding questions on hair, excitedly sharing the cultural links between Latin America and Africa, and pushing back—”No, black people are not genetically better at hard work, sports, or singing.”
Broadening our storytelling beyond “gringo-ness” pushes us all to become better ambassadors of our countries’ multi-facetedness. US culture has its unifying experiences, but certain elements (from jello salad to jollof rice, direct to indirect communication, even individualism to collectivism) shift and morph depending on our religious, immigrant, and sociocultural experiences. These are the wires I codeswitched across growing up. Yet the simplistic stories some travelers tell about the US leave people like me with the weight of explaining our existence.
Imagining realities beyond “gringo-ness” also gives us the opportunity to disrupt closed power circles. In our work, study abroad, or church mission groups created “by gringos, for gringos,” who is assumed to have the visual presence to lead and contribute? Who do these programs invite and center on? Do my friends of color come to mind as quickly as other friends?
I want to hear all of my friends’ funny, insightful stories about specifically being a gringo, and I want to hear all the other stories out there about our common and different experiences as extranjeras (foreigners). Whatever space we open in our vocabulary, let’s then do the work to listen and document these in-between spaces. The more stories we have access to, the better we will understand both the right and privilege to cross borders and the deeper we will connect and move justly throughout this world.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.