#ChasingNelson: Me Suena Heavy
My eight-year-old niece is obsessed with Disney’s new film, Encanto. No shock there, I’m sure. We’ve been through them all, from ‘Let It Go’ playing a million times on repeat to the Moana themed birthday party. But there’s something about some of Disney’s films in the last decade that linger that much longer with her. It’s like she’s able to find what’s on the screen and translate it into her worldview. It’s still too early to tell what it might be with Encanto, but I have a feeling it will stick around too. Because what I think she sees in some of them is the world she inhabits daily. There’s a little bit of Gibraltar in them.
Consider our singularity. Where do we go to see ourselves? It’s not going to be something based in London. British we may be, but when I first came to the UK I may as well have stepped down on another planet. In many ways it wasn’t just the being away from home, it was all the little signifiers that were missing from the daily routine of my life. The food is different, the weather, the slang, the way people socialise. I missed, and still miss, the bubble of voices on Main Street. The winding lanes in the Upper Town. The orange blossoms outside the Cathedral. It’s almost become a trope but it’s true that people don’t say hello here. A ‘good morning’ is enough to make them sweat. I even miss, I promise, the stupid buzz of moped engines.
And we have Spain next door, and there are things I miss greatly about it, but even when I watch shows now based in Spain, even the ones set in Andalucía, it’s not Gibraltar. It’s not us.
So where do we find us when we stare at a screen, or look between pages?
For my niece it seems to be in films that are Hispanic or Mediterranean, but in English. That play between languages and culture seems to just about fit into a small sensation of what being Gibraltarian feels like to her. If you watch Luca, you could just about get away with thinking it’s set in Catalan Bay. And Coco had a family unit that didn’t look too far away from some Gibraltar ones. Many of us have had an abuela or a mum who is a firm matriarch and is precise and deadly in the ways of the chancla.
When I was younger, I don’t think there was much on television that made me feel some representation. At a stretch, maybe the X-Men cartoon, where the main characters were a small group who were perpetually misunderstood. Or in books, Anne Rice’s vampires, another group with their own different way of life that nobody seemed to get. Not much by way of joy, I have to say. I think the most excited I got was with the character of the maid in The Birdcage, Agador Spartacus. Or John Leguizamo’s Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo. Or even Consuela, yet another maid, in Will & Grace. At least they spoke some Spanglish. We can unpick the cultural representation of scrubbing floors some other time.
Where I really found it was in music. Gloria Estefan was a revelation, as a Cuban living in Miami who spoke both English and Spanish and embraced her border-person experience. Similarly, Nelly Furtado as a Portuguese-Canadian went even further, particularly on her album Folklore. She even has a lyric about plastic on furniture. We all know at least one Gibraltar family who kept the plastic on their sofas.
My point is…breadcrumbs. Even now, I find a lot of shared experience in stories by writers from Morocco like Abdellah Taïa and Leïla Slimani, or Neapolitan writer Elena Ferrante and her descriptions that may as well be of Gibraltar’s Old Town. Writers with Lebanese heritage (just on the other end of the Mediterranean) like Saleem Haddad and Rabih Alameddine. In real life, I come together with people, and we embrace and work and write with each other united by our difference. Whether that’s through our diaspora, our Mediterranean heritage, or the rich cultural background they bring to the table. But when I switch on the TV and I read a book or a short story, there are very few moments when I see us.
There are incredible Gibraltarian writers telling their stories, and very much telling their stories of what they feel it means to be Gibraltarian. But I am sure every one of them will tell you it is an uphill struggle to be heard and to be considered. You can line your shelves with books about Gibraltar’s sieges and military history and that is in itself fantastic, but where is Luca, actually set in La Caleta? Where is Encanto, but with a family from El Castillo? Where is Normal People with a boy from Varyl Begg and a girl from Sotogrande?
Writing my online blog Exiliado online, what always strikes me are the number of people who have messaged me privately to tell me their story. They mention that by talking about Gibraltarian culture, by reminiscing about my childhood or talking about an aspect of Gib I find amusing or interesting or important, they wanted to share their own experience. I have been to beautiful, rich, absorbing and complicated stories of everyday Gibraltar lives that could fill a thousand books, and could produce a thousand seasons of shows.
During the first lockdown, I wrote a short story, which was published in the Borders issue of Popshot Magazine. It was an imagining of the night the border closed in 1969, a small moment between a mother and a daughter on a terrace roof while they hang up some washing. The editors commented on the fact they had never seen a story about an event like that before, and definitely never one of somewhere like Gibraltar.
Despite being a national literary journal that can be found in practically every WH Smith in the United Kingdom, I had the misfortune of the story being published when most, if not all, were shut. Determined, I took my ‘daily exercise’ to Liverpool Street Station and managed to find a copy in the probably the only WH Smith open in the entire country. I was overjoyed. Not just because of a personal success, but because that story now lives in print. For people, however few may they be, to read it and think of Gibraltar as more than just red phone boxes and monkeys and fish & chips in the Mediterranean. For Gibraltarians to hopefully read it in years to come and see themselves, or their mothers, or their mother’s mothers in there. Because I’ve also learned that mother’s mothers go and take their untold stories with them.
When I walked home from Liverpool Street Station that day, I passed the statue dedicated to the Kindertransport, the 10,000 Jewish children who escaped war and persecution during World War Two. I also thought of my grandparents, now gone, who braved the Evacuation and it all entailed. I wonder how those stories will live on, and I hope one day my niece can read them in a book or see them on a screen and find a part of herself in there.