Fiction and Responsibility

The Gringa

by Andrew Altschul
Melville House, 421 pp., $27.99
Lori Berenson at a parole hearing, Lima
Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images
Lori Berenson at a parole hearing, Lima, January 2011

A gringo, in US English, is generally understood to be a white person from the United States. “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes,’” is the first recorded use in the Oxford English Dictionary, from John James Audubon’s Western Journal of an 1849 trip to the gold fields of California. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster’s agree that the word is pejorative or contemptuous.

In Spanish, gringo is a way of saying “foreigner,” applicable to whichever group is locally most numerous. In Uruguay, a gringo might be an Italian or a Russian. La Gringa, by the playwright Carmen Rivera, which has run for decades at Repertorio Español in Manhattan, tells the story of a Puerto Rican woman raised in the United States who visits the island for the first time. The dictionary of the Real Academia Española currently notes no disparaging connotation and says gringo is usually associated with English speakers, though in Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru a gringo can be anyone with fair hair and light skin. Gringo can also mean a foreign or unintelligible language. One etymological conjecture derives it from griego: Greek.

The palefaced English speaker from the US who heads south of the border is a familiar figure in the literature of the Americas. Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo (1985; translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) takes up the story of Ambrose Bierce, the midwestern journalist who, in 1913, disappeared in Mexico; it was the first Mexican novel to become a best seller in the United States. A complete literary history of the gringo would have to extend back at least a full century, to María Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don, published in San Francisco in 1885 and mostly ignored until 1992, when it was republished in the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage series by the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press.

Born to a landowning Mexican family in Baja California, María Ruiz married Henry Burton, the commander of the US troops who occupied her town in 1847. The Squatter and the Don explores, in English, a tangled web of connections between a Spanish-speaking “native Californian” family and a white family from the North who are squatting on land to which the Mexican government once granted the Californians title. Ruiz de Burton wrote the novel to push back against the negative stereotypes the squatters used to justify their land grab. Of their patriarch, Ruiz de Burton writes, “It can hardly be said that he understood himself, for he sincerely believed that he had forever renounced his ‘squatting’ propensities.” The characterization is classic: the gringo always believes, erroneously, in his own innocence. Ruiz de Burton believed in hers, too. The adjectives she most often pairs with the…

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