Exiliado: Leaves of Us.
My family tree is adorned with myth and secrets. It’s still not clear to me whether a great-grandfather on my father’s side was Portuguese or a Gitano or perhaps even both. The stories I am told are full of the misremembering of childhood and the bias of various sources, but they are dotted around the landscape of Gibraltar. Whenever I pass by Lo Humphrey, I think of my father telling me his aunt lived there, and how she would send him out to buy slices of ham for their tea as a treat. But maybe it was his abuela. One of my great-grandmothers was from Ronda, but the reasons for her move to Gibraltar or where she lived and what her journey looked like are probably lost to time.
My mother is a good source of information. I’m not sure what she makes of me when I fire off another WhatsApp message, randomly asking what her recipe for rosto is, or what my grandmother’s cousin was called or the age her grandmother was when she was evacuated during World War II, but she always answers. She’s also very happy to correct me, even when the legend that has grown in my head is a far better story.
Last week, I browsed through Ancestry looking for any form of official narrative to my history. I thought it would anchor me somehow, that I could trace the lives of the people that came before me. Nothing pleased me more than when I spoke to my great aunt, who lived in London during World War Two, and I found out that she had spent time around the area in which I lived. There’s something that excites me about that, the link through times and the imprint of her footsteps on a pavement and environment that has long changed. Surely nothing would be better than finding official documentation on a site like Ancestry.
What I found was fleeting and slippery. Links to evacuation records made freely available in the Gibraltar National Archives. Records of me on the electoral register in the UK through the years, which is hardly story inspiring. And then I stumbled onto Anthony Pizarro, who sailed onboard the RMS Carpathia with his family in 1906 from Gibraltar to New York City.
Now I had tangible things. Addresses in New York and places of work. Dates and names and even heights and eye colours. Yet what struck me the most was then I started to realise that Anthony Pizarro had not started his life as Anthony Pizarro, but Antonio Requena.
There’s not enough information as to why the surname changed, but it looks like a remarriage of some kind. The change from Antonio to Anthony held my interest more. This idea of sailing across the world in search of a better life, but also forming an image that makes you more palatable for whoever is waiting to provide you with opportunity. And then, even more changes. Requena becomes Requina on immigration cards by some sloppy hand, and Pizarro becomes the all too familiar Pizzaro. I’ve seen them all: two Zs, one R, an extra I for no reason, and even a B.
And I have relented to this. I’ve let it slide. I’ve politely nodded at the ‘ooh that’s a weird surname’ and the ‘well it’s just a very hard thing to spell’. I’ve learned to say ‘Pizarro…p, i, z, a, double r, o.’ Because what you get in return when you’re challenged is the feeling that you’re being as difficult as your surname is to spell. I can imagine for the newly-named Anthony’s family, that was probably not worth the bother when it came to the gatekeepers of opportunity.
Stranger still, is the country of origin and residence listed as Gibraltar, but the following category being tricky enough to make the immigration inspector sweat. What to put in the race and ethnicity column? It seems there was no such thing as Gibraltarian in 1906, and Spanish would have caused all sorts of problems. Probably too swarthy to be listed as English, which would also come with a set of privileges that the Requena-Pizarros didn’t deserve. So they end up as Italians, and just like that a whole new group of Italian-Americans via Gibraltar are added to Brooklyn.
And then, a couple of decades later, Anthony applies for naturalisation papers in order to become an American citizen. The papers (which say he was born in ‘Gibraltar, Spain’) state that in order to do this he must renounce his allegiance. But to whom, exactly? It turns out they’re a little confused, because they ask him to renounce allegiance to George V of Great Britain and Ireland and/or King Alfonso XIII of Spain. I imagine Anthony isn’t about to start an application for naturalisation with ‘well, actually…’.
It’s this and/or that I feel the Gibraltarian is faced with constantly when navigating the world.
‘So do you feel more Spanish or English?’
‘Are you Spanish or English then?’
‘Are your parents Spanish or English?’
‘Your English/Spanish is so good!’
‘You don’t look Spanish’
‘Are you sure you’re not Italian?’
Harder still, when the formation of an identity for our people took so long, and with so much sacrifice, and even then is still a work in progress. Even within our own nation, I see people waving Great Britain flags and singing God Save The Queen but refusing to teach their children Spanish. In school, I was punished for speaking Spanish, and in Spanish class you might as well have sworn if you ever said a word in Llanito.
But we are a people, and we should fight for our culture, our language, our art and our stories. Our past may be slippery, but we can have a control of our future. Never more powerful than when we navigate the world proudly and tell our own stories, rather than have them told for us. British media rarely gives a voice to the Gibraltarian, but rather the focus is always on a piece of land treated like some precious custody battle. We as well be a flock of sheep grazing on the South District, for all the consideration that is lent us.
I think of Anthony Pizarro in New York City, and how at least through some process his story is there waiting to be discovered. Or at least some aspect of it. Now I stand at the intersection between cultural heritage and Queerness. To cross that border is indeed to enter a wasteland.
Queer Gibraltar history is secret and underground, told solely by spectators. There are stories we will never be able to hear. I often think of how I stumbled online onto the story of Azuquita, or ‘Sugar’ Ochello, a flamboyant personality who owned a bar called The Sugar Bowl in 1960s Gibraltar, who danced flamenco and broke jaws. What a story to tell, now mostly lost to time aside from anecdotes by Navy personnel (read here, p. 3 &4) which as fondly as he is recalled in, are still looking at it from the inside out.
Who will tell our stories, if not us? History books are full of simplicity, bias, and erasure. The dead cannot speak. The Queer dead were never allowed to speak. Maybe along the way, I’ll mistake an aunt for a grandmother, but I hope I can at least give a voice to those to who history never allowed a say on the spelling of their name.