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A growing differentiation between the communities on both sides of the border: Today in Gibraltar it is not hard to find people who articulate the difference between them and Spaniards in starkly essentialist terms: “We are biologically different” or “A Spaniard is a different animal”. Nevertheless, in the past, the differences between a Gibraltarian and someone from immediately across the border were barely discernable. Well into the twentieth century, La Línea de la Concepción functioned as a working-class district of Gibraltar where people shared a language, a culture (music, food etc.), strong kinship links and, in large measure, a religion with the people of the Rock. If people noted that there were certainly economic differences (the Spanish were poorer) and political ones (Spain was under a violent fascist dictatorship and Gibraltar is remembered as being a well-ordered colony with no political oppression), people rarely mentioned any cultural differences much less expressed them in nationalist terms. As one nonagenarian interviewee pointed out: “We didn’t have time to think about such things in those days. We were too busy earning a living”. From the Second World War onwards, however, there was increasing differentiation as the Gibraltarian education system became more British and there were deepening restrictions on crossing the border. Economic and political differences gradually became cultural ones.
Religious tolerance and the respect for diversity as a key element in Gibraltarian nationalist discourse: Gibraltarian nationalist discourse emerged in opposition to Spanish fascism. In this process, the defence of values such as tolerance and respect for cultural diversity played a major role as, from mid-century, Gibraltar’s democratic institutions developed. Spain did not transition into an established democracy until the early 1980s. Despite being a liberal democracy for almost 40 years and becoming much more culturally diverse, many of our respondents cite, often quite emphatically, that religious tolerance and cultural diversity is what fundamentally separates them from Spaniards. In sharp contrast to this narrative, many interviewees recall the often petty and humiliating discrimination they suffered under a colonial government which was present in Gibraltar for almost the entire century. Gibraltarians appear to have embraced British democratic values as historically theirs even as they forget that these values were denied them, often within their own lifetimes. This is one of many apparent contradictions that emerged from our interviews.
Progressive disappearance of Spanish in Gibraltar: Gibraltar has experienced a profound linguistic change in the course of the twentieth century. In the first decades of the century, Spanish was the most widely spoken language and where the most widely read daily newspapers such as El Calpense and El Anunciador were published in Spanish (the former until the late 1960s). After the Second World War, however, there was a conscious effort to improve English proficiency in Gibraltar through education reform and this was aided by the advent of satellite television in the 1980s and the rapid fall in Spanish-Gibraltarian marriages in the 1960s. As with other colonies, the language of the coloniser had greater prestige among Gibraltarians because, as well as giving access to certain areas of employment such as the civil service it also increased identification with the UK. Although a substantial proportion of Gibraltar’s population is bilingual to some degree and many engage in a kind of code-switching known as ‘llanito’, today the majority of Gibraltar’s children are effectively monolingual English speakers. Many middle-aged and older interviewees report that, even though they may speak predominantly in Spanish with their partners, they speak English to their children and grandchildren. There is no question that learning Spanish has become politically tinged and, moreover, since local Spanish today has a large number of unique or archaic words, and non-standard constructions its use is increasingly restricted to private domains. ‘Educated’ speech is English and many Gibraltarians forget that Gibraltarians used to be literate in Spanish in the relatively recent past. Many Gibraltarians say they make a point of speaking exclusively in English to each other in Spain when they might speak mostly Spanish at home. This is partly accounted for by an anxiety to be taken for Spanish people or because they identify their Spanish as inadequate. Attitudes to Spanish in Gibraltar are deeply ambivalent if not downright contradictory. The loss of Spanish is widely lamented, and the poor quality of the Spanish that is spoken widely criticised; yet, few Gibraltarians make the effort to speak to their own children and grandchildren in Spanish. “The words just don’t come out of my mouth [if I try to speak Spanish to children]” as one woman in her 80s put it, even though she had a career as a Spanish teacher to children when she lived away from Gibraltar.
Generational difference in expressing ethnic identity: Whereas older respondents stressed a British identity forged through the experience of a WWII evacuation to the UK, middle-aged Gibraltarians tend to articulate a specific Gibraltarian-British identity with a more complex relationship with Britishness. Younger people, in turn, usually express much less nationalistic and essentialist identities, often turning to a European, Latin or Mediterranean identity which includes a Gibraltarian or British one. They tend to be more comfortable with the idea of sharing a culture with Spain even though they are less likely to be Spanish speaking.
The image Gibraltarians have of Spain is determined by a traumatic past: General Franco is still very present in the collective memory of Gibraltarians and this plays an important role in determining the populations’ often essentialist image of Spain and Spaniards. Many of our interviewees have not forgotten how Franco’s regime hurt them, their families and the Rock’s population in general. Many remember, for example, having to go the border gates to shout across personal news to their families, others how they were unable to visit dying relatives who were only a few hundred metres away. Others still recall relatives killed or incarcerated during the Spanish Civil War, and these stories are handed down across the generations. Many of our interviewees see the persistent Spanish territorial claim and border harassment as merely a continuation of Spain’s totalitarian past. Spain is often described as barely democratic, corrupt and intolerant.
Erasure of Spanish ancestry: During the first half of the twentieth century up to a third of marriages contracted in Gibraltar were between Gibraltarian men and Spanish women. However, the effects of the “hate campaign” inaugurated by General Franco and the border closure between 1969 and 1982 contributed to a profoundly anti-Spanish sentiment on the Rock which led to, among other things, to Spanish ancestry being elided in people’s personal narratives of their ancestry as well as the collective national narrative. Furthermore, the current Gibraltarian national narrative describes the population as a melting pot of nationalities (chiefly Genoese and Maltese) in which the Spanish contribution is minimised at best. Gibraltarians have an exceptional ability to trace their family trees and almost everyone can go back to the ‘first’ person in their family to come to Gibraltar. This is part of a nationalist ideology which, unusually, stresses origins outside the nation since Spanish identity is the principal foil for the Gibraltarian one. Older interviewees recall, however, when no one was aware of the difference between a Genoese and Maltese surname, much less concern themselves with family trees.
The border as safeguarding Gibraltar: The origin of the current border lies in the erection of a fence by the British in 1909 to prevent dogs smuggling tobacco across the border. The fence was not built to stop people crossing, however, and many older people remember the ease with which they crossed this ‘amorphous’ and ‘porous’ border which was virtually invisible to them. All changes with the Spanish Civil War when the border both protected Gibraltarians from the horrific violence a few hundred metres away and was the occasion of large numbers of people seeking refuge on the Rock. After this war, the dictatorship imposed increasing restrictions on crossing until finally shutting it altogether in 1969. This border has played a huge role in configuring Gibraltarians’ identity as well as their relations with Spain and it is hard to imagine today when the border, for all intents and purposes, simply wasn’t there physically, culturally or mentally. The border has kept Gibraltarians safe but it has also kept Gibraltarians economically secure for now, as then, they enjoy a higher standard of living than their Spanish neighbours.