When people ask me what my cultural background is I like to set them at ease by telling them I’m half second generation Australian. If you put the word Australian in there it makes them feel better like they could be friends with you. I bring this up because it’s something I’ve been thinking on since Australia Day and whether you celebrate it or not, I think we can all agree on the same thing, being Australian means different things to different people – like to racists it is a day to drape a flag over your car and drive around yelling out to people like myself to ‘go back to where we came from’ or the more enlightened but equally oblivious leftie idiot, it’s a day to let me know that ‘my people’ enrich this country and they’d totally ‘ride with me’.
Australia Day seems an endless parade of the question ‘where you from?’
To be clear I’m half Spanish, half Port Melbourne bred Irish. I’m as white as they come but to quote Rashida Jones ‘I’m ethnic’. I have a certain glow about me, a tan like I’ve just returned from holiday – really you must tell me your secret…
My gripe with the ‘where are you from?’ is that the question lacks nuance or a curiosity for a more complex answer. As if saying where you are from gives us all the answers. Surely we would get a more enriching response if we asked ‘what is your story?’
My father who immigrated here as a teen built a life and became a successful chef, but what came before that I don’t really know. I’m not sure what Spain was like other than being acutely aware that ‘the food’s better there’ and ‘they sleep after lunch.’ I was never told stories of the old country, partly due to my dad’s unrelenting work ethic and my relationship with my Abuela (Spanish for grandmother).
It has always been fractured. Since I can remember she didn’t seem to like me. She displayed this lack of affection towards me in her own special way, like only an emotionally estranged adult could – like buying me bras made for flat chested men and making me put them on, parading in front of her. Or refusing to speak in English to me, or getting annoyed when I voiced an opinion that challenged her traditionalist sensibilities, or forcing me to role play being a ‘maid’ or ‘wife’ whilst my brother got to be a ‘man’ and was rewarded grandly with lollies and personal freedom whilst I was ‘allowed’ to learn the secret art of ironing men’s underpants…
I never knew why my Abuela had so many issues with me. My mother explained it away over the years by telling me she didn’t like her either and true to form, when my grandfather (Abuelo) died late last year mum found photos of my father and the woman they wanted him to marry instead of my mum stuck behind old picture frames. They now sit pride of place in my parent’s house because my mum reckoned my dad looked pretty hot in them and it would have been a shame to have thrown them away.
Of course I never confronted my Abuela over any of her problems with me, I was young and, to be honest, my biggest interest was myself. As far as I was concerned, I was her granddaughter and it was her job to love me and shower me with praise regardless of clashing personalities. I always knew I could blame her reluctance to speak English to me as the reason I never really got to know her. If she didn’t like me then why should I have bothered asking her questions about her, about her life, you know before she became my grandmother – the role she had been reduced and relegated to only in the last 16 years of her long life.
It was only at her funeral that I got a bit of a glimpse of the person my Abuela had been and it was eye opening.
The crematorium was filled with other Spanish immigrants as expected, armed with tortillas and paellas, but there were also other ‘new Australians’ all eager to pay their respects to a woman who had opened up her home to them, helped them set up homes by donating furniture, clothes, food, accommodation and providing language classes run in the front room of her house when they arrived in Australia, isolated and alone. WTF? As her eulogy was read I couldn’t help but think ‘this was a woman I wanted to know. How come these guys got to know her and I didn’t?’
A few years after her death my parents, on one of their regular pilgrimages to Spain to eat and talk of retiring there one day, connected with some relatives long ago estranged. It was on this trip that my father learnt that his mother hadn’t always just been his mother. She had a been a woman with a challenging, complex and at times brutal past.
The story starts with my bisabuela (great grandmother). She worked as a caretaker and domestic whilst actively involved in the Republican movement. In my fathers words ‘yes, she was a communist.’ She was also a mother of two boys and one girl. One of the boys was adopted, a result of a rumoured illicit pregnancy of a famous Spanish actress whom my bisabuela worked for.
My father learnt that one day when he was out playing, a priest with strong fascist leanings in the town, frustrated by the noise of children playing outside his window, tossed out a brick, killing the boy instantly. This was the catalyst for my bisabuela to become a gun runner for the resistance movement, hiding and stockpiling live ammunition in her home for her fellow comrades. The story goes that she outed by a fellow freedom fighter (snitch!) and one day the police turned up her house and arrested her, well not before she blew up the arsenal she’d been in charge of.
Taken to a prison, that to this day people are very reluctant to admit existed (even though it functions as a prison still…) she was summarily sentenced to death. My bisabuelo, told that she had been executed eventually hung himself but not before being known to sit in his backyard with a glass of wines as bombs dropped around him because he wanted to face his death. His body was discovered by his remaining son, who realising what the death of his parents meant to the children of the resistance, fled Spain and joined the Foreign Legion. My Abuela, now alone, was sent to an orphanage that from all accounts was abusive (think Pan’s Labyrinth) and eventually she was released into a life of servitude. The kicker in all of this, it turns out, was her mother wasn’t killed. The powers that be had lied. My bisabuelo was eventually pardoned and returned home to find her husband dead, her son gone and her daughter living in the belief her family was dead, as a domestic.
Hearing this story made me wonder, why had Abuela come here? Was she still afraid of persecution and rightfully so? I heard that my bisabuela was almost stopped from visiting when my father first immigrated because of her communist connections – maybe my Abuelo wanted to escape that ongoing association and that’s why she never spoke of it. Maybe her problem with my outspoken opinions and causes scared her because after all she had experienced first hand the devastating effects fighting for what you believe in can cause. Maybe her work with immigrants and refugees was fuelled by an empathy and understanding for their situation, their want and need to escape their old life. Maybe because as cliches go I ‘look’ Spanish…maybe, maybe, maybe.
I don’t know. Sadly I didn’t know the woman. I wish I had.