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La Ignorancia es la Dicha (Ojos Que No Ven …)

May 2000

“I wish we’d been out to visit our daughter six months ago,” said the mother from the wilds of Essex, sitting behind me on the plane back to Blighty. “I’ve been so worried about her wandering the streets of a foreign city at all hours.”
Daughter dear was doing her year abroad, like she of the swimming pool eyes downstairs, but for her the University had only been able to find accommodation well up the spit in the new town and by the “tourist” beaches. It can be a hard life.
“Now that I’ve seen the place I know what she meant when she said, ‘Mum; I walk home regularly at three in the morning and nobody takes a blind bit of notice.”
It’s true. For all its poverty and unemployment, as high as 40% in some districts, Cádiz does appear to be a very safe place. One doesn’t hear of the levels of street crime for which cities like Madrid or Seville are celebrated and there are plenty of places in Essex where one would feel distinctly nervous at any time of day. For every street corner on which a group of young men are congregated, there is another nearby on which a bunch of their grandmothers will be taking the night air and reminiscing about their flamenco days. It’s quite obvious that any chico causing aggro will be led away by his abuela and his ear pretty sharpish.
“But they don’t like foreigners much do they?” she added.
I was taken aback, not to say flummoxed by this. How dare she challenge my romanticised view that Cádiz is a port that has welcomed visitors for centuries, resulting in the all the vibrancy that a rich gene pool entails, with or without tasteless puns about passing seamen? Add to that a long history of libertarian politics and it’s no surprise that 'Paqui' Gil, a local woman arrested last year for hiding illegal immigrants in her home, is seen by many as a hero and had her conviction quashed by the judge. Paqui stated that, though she was and is scared, she will continue helping immigrants. ''If they fine me, bad luck, and if they arrest me, bad luck again.''
But here was a woman expressing a very different view. The people of the modern tenement blocks may be different, I suggested, perhaps with an inland background and more xenophobic attitudes. Ports can be hotbeds of fascism as well as anarchism, after all.
“Perhaps. All I know is that people — usually the older women, come to think of it — always seemed to mutter ‘¡Gita´!’ to one another as we passed them with our daughter. On one occasion I even heard a woman on her own mutter it to herself — ‘¡Gita´!’. It means ‘foreigner’, our daughter tells us.”
That didn’t sound right to me but I just commented that it must be a local dialect term. Then, remembering that the Spanish word for foreigner is extranjero, it suddenly struck me what gita’ must mean. Oh dear. If the mother was right, the daughter would surely know, studying Spanish and living there, that gita’ is short for gitana which in turn means “Gypsy”. Were those women clocking the little Essex girl and saying “gippo!” Judging by the parents, it’s doubtful if this was due to any gypsy-like appearance so, given the reputation of M. Merimee’s Carmen, I guess they were just calling her an Essex girl.
Could it be the way the lass dresses? Clothes here are usually basic, if scanty, hot-weather gear; and make up is applied sparingly, if at all, so it takes very little to be considered “tarted-up”. Tattoos and piercings are less common than in London but far from unknown. So the question was, what kind of reputation might she have in the Puerta de la Tierra? What was she walking home from doing at three in the morning?
Obviously it would be far from gentlemanly to disillusion the poor mother. Noticing that a window seat was unoccupied, I moved in order to watch the setting sun illuminating the western slopes of the northern sierras as they tumbled down to the Bay of Biscay and all that sort of rot …



Postscript
The first rule of journalism is never to let the facts spoil a good story but, after speaking with she of the swimming pool eyes, the record must now be put tediously straight. Every community has its fair share of xenophobes and those of Cádiz are indeed more likely to be found in the newer parts of town. And either I misheard the mother or she misreported the epithet in question. The disparaging local term for a foreigner is guire (pronounced ‘gear-eh’ — derived from the last two syllables of extranjero, perhaps?). But I still prefer my version and promise never again to let research impair my ignorance.

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