Origins

What with beginnings on the mind, last weekend my thoughts turned to my own origins. Every year on the 10th of September, Gibraltar, my home country, celebrates its National Day. And although I wasn’t there to participate, my internet channels were flooded like the streets of the city, with friends, family and countrymen, dressed in the flag colours (red and white) exalting their national identity.

Now Gibraltarian national identity is a funny old thing. For the unaware, Gibraltar is a British Colony on the very southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, underneath Spain and opposite Morocco. It’s a small peninsula itself, based around The Rock of Gibraltar, the ancient mountain that dominates the surrounding scenery. Although British, we have what’s basically an independent government, excepting in military matters and foreign policy, which are still controlled by Britain. Across the border and all around are the rolling hills and whitewashed pueblos of the Spanish province of Andalucia, and across the Straits the mountains of Morocco salute their European brother.

I won’t blather on about the history and the whys and wherefores of how things this situation came to be, there’s plenty of information on wikipedia. But for those both intimately and passingly familiar with the Rock, it’s true that its culture is encompasses many dualities and downright contradictions. The majority of citizens are mediterranean in ethnicity, British in nationality and bilingual in English and Spanish. I myself count as part of this group, the archetypical ‘llanito’, or Gibraltarian. So there’s that. Tapas and Marks and Spencers, everybody at the beach in the summertime, stopping to have tea and biscuits 5 o clock on the dot, “ok, te llamo p’atras when we get to casemates, vale, bro?”

That’s not really the duality I wanted to talk about, and to be honest I don’t think its as important as its played up. a lot of the National Day revelers will be exclaiming how they get the best of both worlds, that they lean more to one side than the other, or will vehemously claim a specifically unique, Gibraltarian culture (not an entirely invalid claim, but I don’t like to see things that way, preferring to see cultural identity as much more fluid). Although I’ve always felt more inclined to British culture (the music i listen to, books I read, things i watch, my writing etc is overwhelmingly, but not exclusively in English) I have enough mediterranean tendencies to ensure that I was often called Spanish in Britain, and guiri in Spain. So sharing in two identities doesn’t mean being able to be properly accepted into either (or being able to accept them within yourself). You can perfect the role of one side or the other, but the shadow of the other will always be there, visible from without and lurking within. There are obvious benefits to this demi-existence in two cultures, but my favourite would how it helps you see the perspective that national and cultural identities are just masks that we put on to assume roles, choosing whichever best fits the scene. A tutor of mine, whom I highly respect not just as an academic but as deeply ethical individual, once explained (in the context of Latin and Frankish identity in Merovingian France, but it applies through space and time) that cultural and ethnic identities were like cards in your hand in the game for social status. You played which were most advantageous in the current social situation. Gibraltar, with its mix of ethnicities and social groups in such a small space, is a great location to observe that particular phenomenon.

But Gibraltar’s dualities are more than that. For one thing, it has the population of a small town (around 30000 citizens, though there is a sizeable population of non-residents, especially in the summer months) but it’s also a nation, almost a city state, with a mix of peoples and cosmopolitan atmosphere missing from the hundreds of other small towns. It’s hard to realise just how strange Gibraltar is, as a place, until you’ve travelled outside of it and seen what larger countries are like, looked at towns and cities and villages and their communities.

A lot of people I know from home who’ve tried living abroad come back to settle in Gibraltar, just not being able to feel comfortable outside. They miss the sense of community and belonging and I can understand why. You grow up with so many points of reference and in-jokes that just don’t apply anywhere else. Personally, that sense of belonging has never really been strong for me, mainly because at its heart, Gibraltar is an insular community and doesn’t look too kindly on anyone who steps off the beaten track.

Narrow-mindedness and a lack of opportunity to express oneself are typical of small-town life but the island-like nature of Gibraltar means that an adolescent friki (spanish term for ‘nerd’ but in Gibraltar usually targeted at punks, goths, metalheads and the like, but generously extended to all vaguely subcultural identities) finds it hard pressed to identify with the community spirit so loudly celebrated on the Rock. Kindred spirits in the UK are too far away, ones in Spain are across the border and scattered around in shitty little towns, almost in as bad a situation as you, and speak a different language with different cultural references anyway.

Although in many ways life there can be considered quite easy, no one’s in starving poverty and you always have family and friends close to you, in fact the density of people living together in a bottle town generates quite a lot of pressure on people. Living spaces, good jobs, opportunities are limited. There’s a lot of people fighting over a very small pie, and when someone gets theirs, they tend to sit on it with a big stick and beat anyone else that sniffs around it, handing out crumbs for big favours. A mafia culture of cliques and cabals and monopolies. Every aspect of government, business and culture is controlled by a family or clique. Nearly every job I’ve worked in Gibraltar saw me working under the boss, his wife, his kids and in-laws. In all fairness some of these have been very good at their jobs regardless, but it’s still depressing. So your choice? Fuck your way up into the family tree or spend your life as a hard-working prop for a potentially incompetent dynastic successor. Oligarchy extends from the government down, as they parcel out contracts and money to anyone mounting a business or cultural venture. Want to mount a concert, art expo, anything like that? Be prepared to lick some (typically arch-conservative) arse, and I mean really get your nose dirty.

There’s a popular saying among Gibraltar locals- ‘La envidia mata’ (envy kills). It makes sense when you see it in the context of small cliques competing for few resources. With little room to grow out, people spend on their lifestyles, boy racers charge around the great scalectrix track around the Rock with tricked out Honda Civics with back lights and reggaeton-blaring subwoofers, in a place that takes just over an hour to walk across lengthways. Everyone’s on display, everyone will be talked about and badmouthed. People jealously guard their status, and the ugly side of friends and families helping each other out is that when people inevitably screw each other over to get to the top of their chosen pile, they end up backstabbing the people close to them. Thus tribalism, clannishness and community breed rivalries, resentment, omerta and feuds. Don’t even get me started on the damage the environment does to sexual and romantic relationships.

Official propaganda makes a whole lot about the strength and uniqueness of Gibraltarian identity. I realise that I haven’t said much positive about my place of origin, although the truth it does have a few things to recommend to it, that I might cover later.

For me, being Gibraltarian means feeling forever like a misfit at home and abroad but I’m thankful for it. For showing me the artificiality of group identities in the first place, for preparing me to confront tribalism and nepotism on a larger scale in the outside world, for honing the discrimination to pick out genuine friendship in the midst of posturing and opportunism. For giving me a hope safe enough to grow up in, but hostile enough to stop me from becoming too comfortable, too complacent. For opening up a space in my head forever in between different worlds, which I’ll always live in.

Maybe next year on September the 10th I’ll be there to celebrate, and if it’s not for the reasons that everyone else does, the celebration is genuine enough. Among the red and white crowd, I’ll be the one in black.

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~ by theserpentscircle on October 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “Origins”

  1. I can really relate to this, as one who has never felt “accepted” by Gibraltarian culture – if you’re a little bit different you seem to stick out like a sore thumb. To be pretty frank, I’ve never considered myself truly Llanito/a because of the narrow-mindedness of many people back there. Oh well, I’m much happier living in England where it doesn’t matter if I don’t have the accent, in fact it seems to work more to my advantage to sound like some bizarre Welsh/American/Martian combo! 🙂

  2. So very true all of it. I can completely relate. I often find myself having to feel at home in my own skin as a “friki” from Gibraltar normally has difficulty fully fitting in socially in any part of the world.

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