Why Some Latin Americans Are Fed Up With 'Gringos' Living in Their Countries

Why Some Latin Americans Are Fed Up With 'Gringos' Living in Their Countries
Police guard the exit of the Blue Parrot nightclub in Playa del Carmen, Mexico on Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo)
Autumn Spredemann

The subject of U.S. citizens receiving a less-than-warm welcome in neighboring countries isn't a new one.

When John Woodhouse Audubon, son of the famous naturalist and painter John James Audubon, arrived at Cerro Gordo in Northern Mexico in 1849, he was all but run out of town.

In his travel diary, Audubon wrote that he and his companions were "hooted and shouted" at while being called "gringos."

Arriving on the heels of the Mexican–American War, such behavior wasn't unanticipated.

Foreigners are drawn to Buenos Aires, Argentina, because of its European-influenced cuisine, architecture, and culture with an affordable price tag. Photo taken on Aug. 4, 2022. (Autumn Spredemann/The Epoch Times)
Foreigners are drawn to Buenos Aires, Argentina, because of its European-influenced cuisine, architecture, and culture with an affordable price tag. Photo taken on Aug. 4, 2022. (Autumn Spredemann/The Epoch Times)

Nationals from the United States and other countries move to the more economically challenged parts of the Americas for a variety of reasons. However, across the board, people have expressed wanting a more affordable, slower pace of life.

Today, the term "gringo" has become more versatile, and for the most part, locals say it with less vitriol. In most of Latin America, the word gringo has become nearly interchangeable with "foreigner."

However, some U.S. nationals and other foreigners living in the region are experiencing darker shades of what Audubon described back in 1849.  They're becoming the targets of crime, racist commentary, or even assaults.

Such incidents are manifestations of an undercurrent of anti-foreign and anti-U.S. sentiment in some of the region's colorful cities. Much of that stems from a surge in expatriate (expat) arrivals from Western countries who haven't come to sip tropical drinks at a luxury resort, but to live.

The international relocation company Where Can I Live has recorded a 193 percent spike in traffic by U.S. residents since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Politics aside, U.S. citizens have been broadening their footprint in other countries for the past two decades, especially in the Americas.

Among the top choices for resettlement are Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, and Uruguay.

'Making the Area More Expensive'

While the government lacks a formal tracking system for citizens living abroad, a recent estimate from the U.S. State Department puts the figure at nearly 9 million. That's almost double the approximation from 2018, which was 4.8 million.

In Mexico, there are nearly 800,000 U.S. expats living as residents. Ecuador has an estimated 10,000 U.S. nationals as residents, while another 60,000 live in Argentina. Upwards of 30,000 U.S. expats also live in Panama.

That's a lot of gringos showing up in countries that, in many cases, lack basic infrastructure and endure high levels of poverty.

And money is at the root of the problem.

Rey Empera, a Nicaraguan living in Ecuador, says that while she's not against foreign immigration to her country, it causes problems when many expats move to the same city or village.

She told The Epoch Times that foreigners inundating the seaside town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua is "making the area more expensive."

"If a local wants to buy land to put a business, it's no longer worth the same as before," Empera said.

Higher land prices in the wake of so many expats arriving to live in her country meant resentment was a predictable outcome.

She noted that the only ones who can afford to buy land and operate businesses in San Juan del Sur these days are from the United States.

Like Empera, many Latin American locals have pointed to gentrification as the underlying cause of the new wave of "anti-gringo" resentment pulsating in the region.

It's certainly not a problem everywhere, but a common thread has emerged.

Many of the expats reporting issues of racism and criminal targeting live in places that were already considered expensive by locals. Capital cities, popular resort towns, and places subject to prior land conflicts are hot spots for anti-foreign sentiment.

Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico, is a popular spot for foreigners and digital nomads to work and live. Photo taken on Dec. 31, 2021. (Autumn Spredemann/The Epoch Times)
Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico, is a popular spot for foreigners and digital nomads to work and live. Photo taken on Dec. 31, 2021. (Autumn Spredemann/The Epoch Times)

Texas native Miguel Firz told The Epoch Times he was the victim of a violent incident after being robbed by locals where he lives in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. A group of five locals beat Firz while threatening to cut him with a knife for trying to reclaim objects he said they stole from his home.

Once the police arrived, Firz was astounded that his attackers were let go and he was arrested instead.

"I now have charges against me," Firz said. "Thieving isn't a shameful endeavor if the person you're stealing from is either rich, foreign, or both."

And though he's suffered robbery and discrimination while living in Mexico, Firz claimed Costa Rica was worse for him.

He declined to elaborate about his experiences in Costa Rica, other than saying, "You can't have any relationship with a Tico [Costa Rican] without them gaining financially from you."

For others, the appearance of racist attitudes has been more subtle.

One U.S. expat, who preferred to be identified as "Jennifer" due to the small size of the town where she lives in Quintana Roo, Mexico, told The Epoch Times that hostility toward foreigners often manifests in casual conversation.

While dating a Mexican local, Jennifer recalled a taxi ride across town earlier this year, when the driver told her boyfriend—right in front of her—"You shouldn't be with her. You need to find a nice Mexican girl."

Jennifer wrote off the comments as just "some racist old guy from another generation," but it definitely stuck with her. It also highlighted, for the first time since she arrived, that not everyone was thrilled at the idea of gringos dating locals.

A Slice of Paradise

Jim, a U.S. expat and former military service member, came to Ecuador 10 years ago to buy his own little piece of naturalist heaven. He asked to use a pseudonym to avoid retaliattion from locals.

Renowned for its stunning landscapes and affordable real estate, Ecuador has been a top choice for savvy international buyers for nearly a decade. Jim runs his own bakery near the town of Portoviejo. He also spent time living in Salinas, where foreigners are quickly snatching up oceanfront properties.

Because of high rates of poverty and drug trafficking in the coastal cities, there's also a lot of crime.

"More than likely, at some point, I'll be assassinated in Ecuador," Jim told The Epoch Times.

Speaking out against institutionalized corruption in a place such as Ecuador can be dangerous.

Jim knows this, but he refuses to back down because Ecuadorians are afraid to push too hard on the subject. But Ecuador is his home now, so he feels the need to speak out against criminal dealings within the country.

“I love my land. I have my farm, I even have monkeys," he said.

Jim has been developing an eco-lodge on his land so he can share its wild beauty with guests, but the project has been full of unpleasant clashes with locals.

"Neighbors come onto my property to steal fruit, I have it on camera. We argue, of course. They feel like it's allowed, like they're entitled to take what's yours when you're a gringo."

He also explained that after paying an electrician thousands of dollars to wire his property, the worker still refuses to complete the job. Jim originally hired a lawyer to put together the contract with the electrician, but owing to a lack of fluency in the language, the contract ended up being useless in court.

Jim noted that locals "take advantage when you're not good at the language."

He says cultural clashes are also part of the problem, and gringos are willing to pay two or three times the local price for things such as rent and eating out at restaurants. It creates a culture of preference for doing business with foreigners, and sends the message that all expats are rich so they can afford to lose money.

"When you [expats] take that North American mentality, giving away all that free stuff, you're not helping them," Jim said. "You want to be generous, that's our way, but you're also causing a problem in a culture that isn't yours."

Not-So-Welcome Wagon

For some foreigners living in the region, being mistaken for an American also can cause trouble.

Candice Williams recalls walking down a street in her neighborhood when a local woman walking toward her, for no reason, took one look at her fair complexion and called her an "American [expletive]."

Not sure what to do, Williams, who is a South African native living and working in Quito, Ecuador's vibrant and fast-paced capital, kept walking.

"It was strange, I'd never met this woman in my life."

Her sister endured a similar, but more violent encounter around the same time. A different local woman ran at Williams's sister while out in public, knocking her to the ground without provocation or apparent reason.

Williams said her sister fell so hard that she needed medical attention for bruised ribs after the attack.

She also recounted a time while out at a bar that an Ecuadorian man told her she needed to "go back to America."

She politely explained to the man that she's actually from South Africa, to which the man replied, "Oh, so you're a colonizer then?"

"There's noticeable racism [here]," Williams said.

Farther south, Kristian George is an Australian who moved to Bolivian wine country after attempting to buy a hostel in Argentina. He told The Epoch Times "there's definitely an anti-West sentiment" that's noticeable in the country.

George also noted a prevailing mentality within certain social classes that foreigners come to take everything and take advantage of everybody.

Kristian George in the mountains in Chuquisaca Department, Bolivia, on Sept. 12, 2022. (Courtesy of Kristian George)
Kristian George in the mountains in Chuquisaca Department, Bolivia, on Sept. 12, 2022. (Courtesy of Kristian George)

He described clashes with his neighbors, who've told him to "go back to his own country" on more than one occasion.

Recently, someone broke onto his property and stole his passports, both Australian and Bolivian. Shortly after, the thief reached out to George and offered to sell him back his identification.

Despite the challenges he's faced with occasional racism and criminal targeting, George maintains the vast majority of his encounters with locals while living in Bolivia have been wonderful.

It's a sentiment echoed by Jim, Williams, and Jennifer. The anti-foreign sentiment exists, but it's not enough to make them pack their bags and leave.

The lower cost of living in many of Latin America’s cities continues to be a draw for digital nomads and those looking to put down permanent roots alike.