Even though you probably won’t have heard this word before coming to Spain, once you arrive, you will most likely be called a guiri. Like the Mexican word ‘gringo’, guiri is a word that Spanish people use for foreigners. In this case, it refers specifically those white, blond, German-looking people who wear socks with their sandals. Don’t worry though, they will probably include you into this group too if you don’t look Spanish and/or speak with an accent. You will most likely be asked “where are you from?” because they know you are not from around here (although African and Asian Americans will probably also get “but where are you really from?” because Spanish people don’t recognize someone as Spanish until the family has been living in Spain for three or four generations so they might not accept you are American right off the bat, but that is another conversation).
After living here for a while, we now fully accept that we can be referred to as guiris. While Claudia comes across as a guiri at first sight (her light skin, light-ish brown hair, and hazely eyes), Dani can sometimes blend in. However, even if we manage to confuse people with our mostly great accents and fluent Spanish skills, sooner or later someone figures out that we are not from around here and we can easily be called guiris.
In fact, a close friend talks about three levels of guiri-ness: guiri guiri guiri (which is probably what you are if you haven’t spend much time in Spain), guiri guiri (which could be anyone from Dani to Claudia), and just guiri (such as you cannot even tell Claudia’s brother is not Spanish). In fact, Claudia’s brother is now such an integrated guiri that when they go out together and he introduces her as his sister, people will get thrown off and say, “but she looks guiri.” The obvious reply is “duh, we both are.”
We find this term to be really difficult to explain because we are not trying to be oblivious to the fact that we are being judged (and judging) constantly based on external appearances. We are also completely aware that being lighter-skinned foreigners makes a big difference, especially in a country like Spain—more on this soon! At the same time, being a guiri has allowed us to understand at a deeper level what it means to be labeled, and it is not always nice.
In general, we try to treat this label as a positive one, which we often do as our Spanish friends will use it to speak about us affectionately and it feels like a waste of energy to get offended. On the other hand, it can provide us insight into how we may make others feel when we label them because it doesn’t always feel great to be called a guiri. And when it is in the context of people saying things when they think we cannot understand, it can sometimes really hurt.
We would recommend that you take this label as it comes to you and try to make it into a learning experience. Understand what it means when you talk about other people in a general way, and try to comprehend what it might make them feel. If you feel like an outsider, take this opportunity to become more empathetic and compassionate with those people who are in similar situations. If you are never someone who has been the “other,” let this be your chance.