Exiliado: The E Word
I used to work at a famous tea shop on London’s Strand. It’s not far from Gibraltar House. You could argue there’s nothing more English than tea (a story of Empire for another day), so of course the shop was often packed with tourists.
And when you’re bilingual, you’re useful in a tourist hotspot. I was often called over by another attendant in a state of panic pleading help, because a group only spoke Spanish. I love it when this happens, you instantly share some kind of bond. The border, so to speak, opens up and are no longer navigating as a person who has a basic need to be met. You can talk to people, ask them how they are and where they’ve been. You can share jokes and recommend places to eat.
It also fulfils the chance to connect to a part of myself that as a migrant I often leave neglected. The Spanish-speaking side of myself is like a whole other person. It’s a pleasure to be able to ease into it while I am in the UK.
When the visitors were from Spain, particularly from the South, this made me even happier. Because I heard my lexicon in their voices. I could talk about how much I love Sevilla. I remember once it turned out a woman was from La Línea De La Concepción, and it made her so happy to hear I was from Gibraltar, she gave me a hug as she left.
Those were the positive experiences of working in the shop, and they are the positive experiences when I interact with Spanish-speaking people while I have been living in the UK. But if someone is from Spain, and they ask where I’m from, I always take a breath before I answer.
The one that stands out the most from my time working in the shop is when I was asked to help a group of middle-aged women, who didn’t speak a word of English and looked completely lost. I spent about 45 minutes with this jovial troop of abuelitas who reached up to my collarbone and held their handbags in the crook of their elbows. Women with tight permed hair. Pearls and gold crosses around their necks. I carried their shopping baskets. I gave them free samples and free fancy shopping bags we usually charged for. And it wasn’t until the moment that I was checking them out at the till that one of them asked where I was from. And I answered. And she said the most dreaded phrase…
I thought maybe I hadn’t heard her properly. Especially as she was smiling. I’ve often heard that expression in terms of anger, of indignance, of my father’s Spanish friends when we used to go camping over summer who had a little too much to drink and told us how they really felt about it all. But no. This tiny woman was looking at me smiling, turning around to her friends and repeating it. Again and again.
I told them I didn’t think that was very nice of them. They took their bags and walked out without so much as a thank you.
I’ve had it said to me in other places. The first day at work. At university. From the waitress while having drinks with friends at a bar. A first date. A particularly jaw-dropping one came in the form of an email from an exchange student while I was working in a school. In that instance, the child didn’t even know I was from Gibraltar, he’d just decided he wanted to tell English students that when he grew up, he wanted to become a general and take Gibraltar back for Spain.
I think about that child a lot, and the home they’ve grown up. I wonder if they could even point to Gibraltar on a map. And I suppose there are children who grow up indoctrinated on aggression of that kind, but what do they think Gibraltar is? I imagine they see it as some mythical place to be liberated for the glory of the nation. Maybe the ‘original’ Spanish residents are under some form of servitude, or locked up inside the Moorish Castle? Will it look like the ending of Return of the Jedi once Gibraltar is free, swapping Ewoks for monkeys?
But then, it’s more disturbing for the young people I have encountered, who throw out ‘Gibraltar Español’ as some kind of joke. Let’s accept that the abuelitas grew up under Franco and all that entails. How does a 20 year old person living in Spain today, keep the vitriolic slogan alive to the point of feeling bold enough to say it to a Gibraltarian during their very first conversation?
Because I don’t think they actually mean it, or even know what they’re saying. They’re just repeating what they’ve heard. And heard it enough to keep repeating it themselves. Which means it is deep in the culture, it is being passed down from generation to generation, it is tradition.
So what does it mean? And why can’t we escape it?
If you think about it, it’s a pretty genius slogan. It’s blurted out as a statement of fact. It’s so determined in its rabid fascism, it doesn’t even have the time for an auxiliary verb. There’s no space for argument or discussion, or for stating your case. Those two words together are a bullet aiming straight for the head, causing as much damage as they can muster.
Because what those two words do is erase. They erase an entire nation. A people. A language, a culture, a history. They take the pain and suffering of the Gibraltarians and put a salted finger into that wound. The expression makes a statement, but what it really says is “I don’t care. You don’t matter. You don’t even exist.” And where can a conversation go after that?
In this digital age it’s more unavoidable than ever. I counted about 150 Twitter accounts, mostly faceless, devoted singularly to the very hashtagable expression. Then there are those who use it as a hashtag, including, of course, members of the Vox party. They lie in wait for any moment of #Gibraltar they can infilitrate themselves into, capital letters blaring, accusing us of being pirates and criminals and stealing their land.
Some of the expression’s online presence borders on the ridiculous. Who decides it’s a good idea to make a Spotify playlist called ‘Gibraltar Español?’ There are plenty of them. The most amusing part is that instead of military band and tauromaquia music you would expect to hear, they’re full of completely random songs. Nothing says jingoism like Rihanna. I can’t even escape it on Medium. When I add tags to Exiliado, the second option if you put in #Gibraltar is #gibraltarespanol. I don’t have the stomach to click it and see what’s being written.
Language matters. If we’re to survive as a nation, considering our size, even more so. We need to celebrate our language, our culture, our music, our people, our history. We need to take up that space. Gibraltar is not in the South of Spain, it is next to Spain. Or opposite Morocco. Or in the Mediterranean. Yes, I speak Spanish. No, I am not Spanish. Yes, I have Spanish heritage. I am British, but I am not English. I don’t need to feel ‘more’ English or ‘more’ Spanish. I don’t need to give up either language, or any of my LLanito, which is just as valid. Gibraltar does not ‘belong’ to the United Kingdom. Nobody needs to ‘give it back’, it’s not a stolen phone.
When it comes to words, I have often been accused of being difficult. But two words can make all the difference. They are weaponised against us constantly.
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