The term “gringo” generally refers to an English-speaking foreigner, most often from the United States, though the connotation varies greatly – while in Guatemala it’s most often used as a friendly, matter-of-fact descriptive term, the exact meaning varies greatly depending on both country and context, and sometimes even holds negative or contemptuous connotations. By now, I’m pretty used to being called a “gringa” at least a few times each day, and I know it’s usually not meant in any sort of negative way. I am a “gringa,” my Spanish isn’t perfect, and no matter how long I live in Guatemala, I’ll never fully be able to understand all of the local traditions and customs.
Sometimes, being a gringo is a good thing. Our campaigns tend to be way more accessible when our university students are around in the summer, because of the buzz that a crowd of gringos inevitably generates. But while we always appreciate the sales bump, since Soluciones Comunitarias itself is a Guatemalan-owned and Guatemalan-run social business, we also actively try to temper the idea that SolCom is a “gringo”-run organization, because really, once the summer is over, our asesores are back to running sales campaigns on their own, with perhaps some (though limited) help from the regional coordinator (Juana) or field consultant (me!).
Gringos are also perceived differently in different communities and regions, usually depending on that community’s past interactions with gringos/gringo-run organizations. Some communities see gringos as having professional “expertise” – for example, seeing students or field consultants as licensed medical professionals when giving eye exams, when our actual “medical” knowledge is limited to basic eye exams. Or they see a crowd of gringos selling eyeglasses, and assume that they’ll be given out for free – because that precedent has been set in the past. But other communities are extremely wary of gringos, due mostly to negative experiences working with foreign NGOs or organizations, who perhaps made promises they couldn’t fulfill or left projects half-finished.
There’s a mentality in some organizations that an “ultimate” goal for sustainability should be phasing-out gringo/foreign participation completely, leaving the organization completely locally-run and managed. I agree with this to a certain extent, but I think it’s also important to recognize the different kinds of added value that can come from foreign/local collaborations, both from an organizational standpoint – multilingualism, international connections, different forms of education and management styles – and from a personal perspective, meaning the value generated for individuals from both cultures of learning to work with and appreciate the work styles and different kinds of expertise and knowledge. It’s all about knowing yourself, getting to know those around you, and learning to balance what you can contribute with what you can gain.