“Gringo”, a household word

No, this is not about the intrepid Gringo Honasan who was at National Defense Minister J. Ponce Enrile’s side when the Marcos government was toppled by People Power in February 1986. Gringo  also led a few coups d’etat against President Corazon Aquino which she narrowly survived. Despite his being a  cashiered military officer, Gregorio  Honasan was elected  Senator of the Republic for many years, maybe because he looks like a personable “gringo”.  I am joking,  of course.

As far as I can remember, “gringo”  was practically a household word in the Guerrero side of my family. My grandparents, Alfredo and Filomena, spoke to each other in Spanish, and to my mother and her brothers as well. Instead of using the term “Americano ” like everyone else did, they referred to a person from the USA as  “gringo”,  with undisguised aspersion.   The  “  gringos” of the nearby American School would block our street with one-way signs, for the convenience of their school buses, just when my elders were coming home for lunch. You can’t imagine the broadsides, it was the Filipino-American War all over again!   ”Gringa” missionaries would prey on my grandma, on the Escolta and Plaza Santa Cruz,  and urge her to turn Protestant.   The most obstreperous pressured   Pres Ramon Magsaysay to fire his  Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs ( my uncle  Leon) for making a pro-Asian commencement speech at the Manila Law School.  He was exiled as  Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James.

According to my mother, “gringo”  came from the song “And the Green Grass Grows All Around ” which battalions of American soldiers used to sing as they staked territory in Spain’s last possessions. Originally from the    Appalachian mountains,  it was first published in “Miss H. Mason’s  Nursery Rhymes and Country  Songs” in 1877.  Filipinos who heard this song during the Filipino-American war began to call  American soldiers  “gringos” which was how  “  green grass grows” sounded to them.  Here is a stanza from that song:

There was a hole, a hole
In the middle of the ground
The prettiest hole , the prettiest hole
That you ever did see, that you ever did see
And the green grass grows all around, all around.
And in that hole there was a tree, a tree
And the green grass grows all around, all around…

My grandma sang my mother to sleep with two lullabies. The first one was the “Ultimo Adios” of Jose Rizal and the other a song in pidgin English that went:

One, two, t’ree, Americano nata – @@@ (digestive function)
Four, Fie Americanong namatay
Mini- hot tie, hot- tie tonigh.

Mommy wrote in her memoirs: “ It was a very catchy tune, for I can still sing it today, to the tune, as Mama did of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”. I did not know then that it was a mock rendition of an American campaign song popular during the Filipino-American War of 1899. Filipinos used to sing it in derision of both the teaching of English and the many American casualties. I was being sung to sleep with a sardonic reminder of the horrors of American annexation. Was it a form of deliberate brainwashing? Or, merely the musical remnant of a terrible time under the Americans?  I should have brought it up when , in the 1950’s,  CIA agents in Manila were busy psychoanalyzing me for the roots of my anti-Americanism.”  My grandmother sang that very same song to my brother and me.

“Hot time” was composed in 1896 by Theodore Metz with lyrics supplied by Joe Hayden, each stanza ending with “We’ll have a hot time in the old town tonight.”  Apparently,  Metz first heard it in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1893. At the end of the 19th century, it became a favorite of the American military during “the splendid little war” against Spain in Cuba. It was the campaign song of Theodore Roosevelt’s “ Rough Riders.”  They must have sung it so often, that the Spaniards in Cuba thought it was the national anthem of the USA. In 1941, the song was featured in the movie “Citizen Kane” as the background to the scene where someone asked,  “Are we going to declare war on  Spain, or are we not?”

Mexicans also use the word “gringo” to refer to their northern neighbors who in the 19th century grabbed half of their national territory as the USA expanded westward towards the Pacific Ocean. .  Gringos are also called yanquis, and both these household words sound more like invectives than praise.