Painful proximity: two women’s accounts of the gibraltar/spanish border
Anthropologist, University of Essex, England
Many peoples are separated by borders that prevent them from going home. This particular longing, this nostalgia, is neatly encapsulated by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1998) who, talking about the Palestinian diaspora, evokes the pain of being far from home: “We are from here; far from there”. In these contexts the homeland is imagined through one’s own memories and stories told by older generations. This is common enough but what is particular about the border between Gibraltar and Spain is that “we” are not “far from there” but, rather, in very close proximity. That is, although the distance is keenly felt, it is not a geographical distance since home, on whichever side of the border it may fall, was visible from the other side any day of the week; it was not some distant land that emerged through imagining and photographs but quite simple there in front of one’s eyes. This adds particularly poignancy – and pain – to the separation that the border entailed between 1969 and 1983. As Donnan and Wilson (1994:4) point out, much of social science research on borders “seems to ignore ‘people’ in favour of theories, causes, and events” but borders, even as they appear as Cartesian constructs, are lived on a very human level. Here I look at the experiences of two women, one Spanish and one Gibraltarian who end up on opposite sides of a closed border, far from their natal families and friends. Their experiences are also reminders of the fact that the border was not always difficult to cross and relations between Gibraltar and Spain were open and fluid (STOCKEY, 2009).
Carmen was 14 when she met Pepe, a young Gibraltarian who travelled to La Línea, across the border in Spain to visit his mother’s relatives in the summer of 1973, a year when the border was shut. “He was different to the boys around me who were rather rough”, says Carmen, “Pepe was always well-mannered, understanding and attentive” and they fell in love. Carmen makes clear that she had no interest in politics and her father never worked in Gibraltar so the closed border was not something to which she had given much thought but, rather had grown up with. At the age of 14, however, “we were just children” she fell in love and immediately had to confront the implications of Gibraltar and Spain.
Pepe had to go home and they could only communicate through letters. After several years of letter writing (there was, then, no telephone connection) and visits from Pepe as often as he could, Carmen persuaded her parents to let her visit Pepe for a couple of weeks in Christmas time. This was her first time in Gibraltar and she was enchanted by the lights and the excitement of a new place. La Línea and Gibraltar are almost contiguous; La Línea being a border town whose original raison d’être was to function as a dormitory town for Spanish workers. Although Gibraltar dominates the La Línea skyline, Carmen had to travel to Algeciras and take the ferry to Morocco first and then another to Gibraltar to make the journey. Pepe made the same journey to visit her as, at the time, that was the only way to travel between the two points. Carmen didn’t return after a couple of weeks, in fact she didn’t return at all. She was worried that if she returned to Spain the Spanish authorities would never let her go back again and she wanted to be with Pepe so she decided to stay with Pepe’s grandparents. She had no way of communicating immediately with her parents and they had to wait for a letter to arrive. Much like personal travel, the letter did not take a direct route but had to go to the UK first and then to Spain, an absurdly circuitous route to communicate between two points which appeared a stone’s throw away. They were soon married but, as much as she was happy and in love with Pepe and he with her, the border tore through her, not because she felt confined “Really, that didn’t bother me at all” but because she couldn’t see her family. “We would go and see my parents, arranging the time by letter and we saw each other. And I saw my parents there, my sisters, my brothers and I was here with Pepe. And, and then we began with what you have surely heard many times: ‘Mum, how are you? Dad, how are you? It was really painful (era un sufrimiento). So there is when I really felt the closure of the border… And to see us, so near and yet so far… (tan lejos y tan cerca a la vez)”.
The most painful moment she remembers is when her first child was born: “When my daughter was born — she was a few days old — I took her to the border so my father and my brothers and sisters could see her. My little girl was very small, so very small. And I lifted her out of the pram and showed them. I had to lift my baby up for them to see. They could see but not hold her.” For his part, her husband Pepe hated going to the border; he found it too difficult to see the people crying and shouting across personal news to the other side.
What Carmen is expressing here was recounted by many other people: the intense longing and frustration of not being able to cross the few hundred metres and be with one’s loved one. The pain that is at the very root of the word ‘nostalgia’ is keenly felt not because of the distance but because of the proximity of people and places tantalisingly close. If much of nostalgia is about how the ‘home’ is imagined, the border closure in Gibraltar added another dimension because much of the home need not be imagined — it was visible every day.
Pepita is also someone who felt the pain of the border closure. In her case, she is a Gibraltarian woman who married a Spaniard who worked in Gibraltar in the 1960s. Towards the end of the decade he decided to return to live in Spain. Pepita and her husband and their young daughter lived with Pepita’ mother in the Laguna Estate, a few hundred metres from the Spanish border. Where she lives today is just on the other side of the border. When I went to see her it took me twenty minutes to walk from Laguna Estate to her house. That distance, however, if significant in 1968, was about to become immense a year later. Pepita didn’t want to go: “My husband wanted to go but I didn’t want to go. My mother said, ‘You have to go where your husband goes.’ It’s not like it is now.” With her daughter she followed her husband. “I couldn’t get used to life here [in Spain]; there was always something missing.” Some time later they had an argument and she decided to go home but by then it was becoming difficult to cross and she wasn’t allowed. “The day they shut the border was deadly: we suffered a lot; it hurt so much… From the day Franco shut the border leaving Gibraltar with nothing: without oxygen in the hospital, without bread, without food. Things changed. He tore families apart: fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, dying on both sides without being seen [by their loved ones]. ” She, like Carmen, had to communicate by shouting across the border fence and that is how she heard her mother was dying. She had no one with whom to leave her five children as it took in those times an entire day to get to Gibraltar and an entire day back. So she never saw her mother alive again. Over time, “I got used to my life here but always looking to my Rock (siempre mirando a mi Peñon). I looked at it every day and cried a lot. My brother came, but not very often… I had a really bad time. Then they gave a few permits, allowing us to visit relatives and once I fell ill there and had to be admitted to hospital. And I asked myself “Why don’t I stay?” I was in hospital for three weeks and could have stayed; I could have stayed, but I came back. [Deep sigh]… But I got this house, we got this house and, you see, before they built the building opposite I could see Gibraltar from the balcony… I was very lonely and I would go to the balcony and look at my Rock. Every day… But now I can go.”
For Pepita, crossing the border is not simply a matter of going to visit her family and friends, it seems rather more than ‘going home’: Now when I cross, when I go from the Spanish [customs] to the Gibraltarian [customs], I notice the difference: I feel freer. I don’t know, it’s different… I can’t go for a week without crossing over to Gibraltar.” This sense of freedom and a sense of feeling safe were mentioned by many people and it is quite clear from the rest of Pepita’ interview that Gibraltar for her represents political and economic freedom which she experiences kinaesthetically as she crosses one way and another.
When the border was shut, Pepita, could see her beloved Rock whenever she wanted: “When going about I can look up and see Gibraltar, even if I cannot see it from my window I can see it from elsewhere. No one can take that away from me, no one take away my Rock (que nadie me quite mi Peñon!).” This clearly was very important to her but the accessibility of the view — and from her balcony one could easily see buildings and movement of traffic – also seems to have added to her pain.
When thinking of the nostalgia of migration one inevitably focuses on the distance that separates people from their homelands. The Gibraltar situation adds a particular twist to the tale because here one could see one’s homeland every day, one could see one’s loved ones at the border but not touch them and not have a normal conversation. The effects of that proximity and distance working simultaneously were experienced as particularly cruel and the consequences continue to be lived today.
- Darwish, M. (1998). Sareer El-Ghariba (Bed of a stranger).
- Donnan, H. & Wilson, T. M. (1994). Border Approaches: Anthropological Perspectives on Frontiers. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- Stockey, G. (2009). Gibraltar: A Dagger in the Spine of Spain?. Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press.