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Is ‘gringo’ grounded in racism?

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If someone were to call you a gringo, how would you take it?

Would you simply shrug it off? Would you see it as funny? Would you be offended?

When the Las Vegas Sun newspaper printed the word "gringo," it sparked angry feedback, even though the word was used lightheartedly. The Sun reported that one reader called the word gringo racist, possibly meriting a lawsuit.

Was it an overreaction?

Alex Segura, who heads the Utah Minuteman Project, doesn't think so. He said the term has long been a racial slur for white people and should be taken just as seriously as any other slur.

"It's like calling someone a w--," Segura said of a bygone slur for Italian immigrants. "I never use it."

But not everyone shares that sentiment. In fact, some whites embrace the term.

"I think of myself as a gringo," said Gil Beckstrand, owner of Gringos, a Mexican restaurant in Murray.

"Basically, to me it's an American making Mexican food, it's a gringo making tacos," he said. "I certainly wouldn't have picked the name if I thought it was offensive."

Beckstrand said he's never received any negative feedback on his restaurant's name, but that he has gotten a few history lessons.

According to one customer, the term originated in Mexico during the Mexican-American War.

"The Americans wore green uniforms and the Mexicans didn't want them in their country, and they kept saying, 'green go, green go,"' he said. "I don't know the veracity of that."

The actual origin of the word isn't clear. Gringo is often thought of here as a Mexican word for "white American." However, it's also used in other Spanish-speaking countries as a general reference to all foreigners, said Zach Townsend, spokesman for Gringo Times, an English language newspaper in the Dominican Republic.

"We've lived here nearly a year, and never come across anyone who has used it derogatorily," said Townsend, originally from England. "The locals do refer to us as gringo."

The term was selected for the title of the new publication to show it as "slightly lighthearted and obviously aimed at the non-Spanish speaking population ....

"We only launched two weeks ago and people are loving it," he said.

So, should gringo be taken lightly?

It depends, says Anna Jane Arroyo, an Ogden Latino community advocate.

"Gringo is just a white person," she said. "A lot of it is inflection and tone. It can be derogatory."

She suggested the flap could simply be white Americans starting to feel the same sensitivity that minorities have long felt. In Utah, despite a booming Hispanic population, whites remain the majority — the Census Bureau majority, with estimates racial and ethnic minorities comprise about 16.4 percent of the state's population. Nationwide, there is a population shift toward a minority majority — an estimated 1-in-3 Americans are now minorities.

"Maybe Caucasians are going to start saying, 'if we can't do it, why can you do it?,'" she said.

It all comes back to increasing sensitivity in today's politically correct culture, according to Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah. He sees Don Imus' recent downfall over derogatory comments as further evidence of a need for public figures, especially, to choose their words with care.

"We have to be very sensitive," Yapias said. "Forty years later after the civil rights movement, we are still feeling some of those racial tensions."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com