Exiliado: Almost Everything You Assumed About Gibraltarians (And Felt Too Privileged To Actually Just Ask)

Two weeks ago, on Gibraltar National Day afternoon, I had a lot of fun being interviewed by Robin Sheppard-Capurro for Radio Gibraltar’s evening show (thanks Robin!). One of the things we briefly talked about was the questions and assumptions you get when you tell people you’re from Gibraltar while you’re abroad. I mentioned that it always feels like you need to bring a history textbook and a flipchart with you. Far from mellowing as I get older, I’m much less willing to let it drop.

I think the reason for it is because it’s not a debate on ideology I’m having with people, it’s often a discussion around basic facts. I’m happy to drop debates around Brexit because, well, you’ve been on Twitter. You know how those end. But basic geography? Like the woman in last week’s Exiliado who insisted Gibraltar was in Spain. Let me pull out my flip chart and my atlas.

It’s also heartening, or maybe it’s depressing, to have received a lot of positive feedback on last week’s Exiliado talking about how many Gibraltarians abroad have heard the same things and experienced similar issues. So I thought it would be fun/cathartic to go through a few of them. This is by no means exhaustive. I think that would probably require a book-length proposal.

“It’s just a question, sorry.”

I’ve always said I don’t mind questions. I’m so happy to answer. Ask me how big Gibraltar is. Ask me where I went to school. Ask me what language I speak at home. I’ll speak to you for hours. You’ll probably regret having asked.

The problem starts with when questions aren’t questions, but rather assumptions. “Do you feel more English or Spanish?” is a question, but it’s a loaded question. You’ve established a paradigm on something you don’t know anything about. A better question would be “how do you identify?”. And if you know anything about Gibraltarians and the struggle for nationhood and identity, you’d know why it matters.

See also: Are you parents Spanish? Are your parents English? Are your parents Forces? Where did you learn English? Where did you learn Spanish?

“Your English/Spanish is so good!”

To be Gibraltarian in an English or Spanish speaking country is to be a perpetual Other. Spanish speakers will assume you learned Spanish because they see Gibraltar as ‘English’. English speakers will assume you learned English. What sounds like a compliment is steeped in a condescending tone, an ignorance to native bilingualism, and quite frankly, an imperialist attitude.

“Ha, you said that word wrong!”

I used to work in Morrisons in Gibraltar stacking shelves at night for a while. A Spanish man asked me where the manager was, and I said he was doing the inventory. I said this in Spanish. Except I said ‘inventorio’ instead of ‘inventario’. The man started laughing. He told everyone else I had gotten a word wrong. He spent the rest of the week reminding me. I wondered why the overreaction to such a simple mistake. Then I realised he didn’t speak any English. Sometimes the gatekeeping comes from a deep insecurity.

Likewise at pronunciation. When I first moved to the UK, all my flatmates laughed at the way I pronounced ‘mayonnaise’. It became a running joke. They tried to ‘fix’ me, which of course I did to spare myself further humiliation. Until I realised there’s nothing wrong with the way I said mayonnaise. All I had was an accent. A few years later at a party, somebody laughed at the way I say ‘aubergine’, a word I still have trouble pronouncing ‘correctly’. What did it matter how I said it? ‘Because it’s wrong,’ he replied. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Say jalapeño.’ He said…of course…jah-la-pee-noh. ‘Aha!’ I replied triumphantly, ‘you said it wrong.’ Except apparently he hadn’t, because he had said the word ‘in translation’. Sure.

Another example is all our Llanito and Andalucian words. I worked in a restaurant for a while and a table of Spanish speakers laughed at me because I asked if they wanted ‘pan moreno’ instead of ‘pan integral’. I decided I had suddenly lost the ability to speak Spanish, and let them try with another waiter in their non-existent English. See also: rubber shoes, likirva and chinga.

“How often do you go back to the island?”

Not an island. You’d think this one would be an easy win. But no…people either ignore you or insist it’s an island. To you, who grew up there and are from there. I’ve had people tell me they went across from Spain on a ferry because it’s an island. Someone, when I kept telling her Gibraltar is not an island, replied with ‘well you’re very young and when I visited it must have been before you were born and it was an island then.’ Apparently this is a popular Mandela Effect subject, but I’m chalking it down to ignorance and a refusal to be wrong.

“Gibraltese. Gibraltan. Giblish.”

It doesn’t matter how many times you tell people it’s Gibraltarian.

“Ah Gibraltar! So…Brexit eh…”


“Surely it’s time to just give it back to Spain. We shouldn’t have colonies anymore.”

I don’t like xenophobes, but at least you can see them coming. Far worse is this rash of people trying to be somehow liberal, educated and forward-thinking (yes, woke) while also robbing an entire nation of agency. Thanks. See also: Would it be so bad to have a Spanish passport?

“Ah Gibraltar! But where are you from?”

This one baffles me, but probably goes back to this binary way of thinking. The Rock is often seen as a chunk of contested land or some kind of extended military base. Which means you either settled there, or you’re passing through. You couldn’t possibly be a Gibraltarian! Once again, Imperialism. See also: “You don’t look Mediterranean”. Sorry I’m not walnut brown 365 days a year while I’m picking olives, sleeping my siesta and bullfighting in my spare time, Karen.

“But you’re practically English.”

I once had a boss who came to visit me in my store to go through all my new employees. One of my hires was from Granada. “Be careful with the Spanish,” he said. “They tend to be lazy.” I pointed out this person had grown up a couple of hours away from me. I had more in common with her than I did with him. “Ah yes,” he said, “but you’re basically English.”

I don’t think it was his ideas about Gibraltar that led him to this disgusting conclusion. I think it has more to do with pre-conceived notions around the way someone looks and speaks. I look ethnically ambiguous enough to fit in almost anywhere in Europe (evidenced by the fact most places I visit in Europe I get spoken to in the native language, apart from the Scandinavian countries where my 6'5 blonde husband gets it instead). Having lived in the UK for 16 years, my Gibraltarian accent tends to slip. So what was the difference between me and the girl he was incorrectly warning me about, other than skin tone and accent?

And that’s how it feels, even in our own land. We are a curiosity, a quirky contradictory place with a complex history and a multi-culturalism people find hard to grasp, and often don’t want to. We’re proud and happy to be open and define who we are, answering questions and engaging in dialogue. But then come the assumptions. That we’re lazy, we’re loud, we don’t speak properly in either language, we don’t belong to our Rock and our Rock doesn’t belong to us. It’s often sadly just a fine line between cultural exchange and defense.



Queer Llanito writer exiled in London. Entre dos aguas. Fiction in Untitled:Voices, Fruit Journal & Emerge Literary Journal. Twitter: @JSPZRO

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Jonathan Pizarro

Queer Llanito writer exiled in London. Entre dos aguas. Fiction in Untitled:Voices, Fruit Journal & Emerge Literary Journal. Twitter: @JSPZRO