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My father’s mother tongue

After reconnecting with my family in La Línea, I made a resolution to stop using Google Translate and learn Spanish.

By Francisco Garcia

On a bright autumn afternoon a little over two years ago, I found myself in the municipal cemetery in La Linea, the small city on the very southern tip of Andalusia, where mainland Spain melts into the absurdity of Gibraltar. Walking along the marble shrines and rows of varyingly ornate family plots with two of my Spanish aunts, I knew that there was no way of ignoring the obvious, that this was one of life’s unavoidably significant moments. To visit your long dead father’s grave is one thing. To visit it for the first time aged 29 is quite another.

The facts are clear to me now, though this wasn’t the case for many years. Cristobal Garcia Ferrera died on Christmas Eve 2003 aged 32. He is buried in the same neatly tended plot as two of his younger siblings, Javier and Maria, who had both died before the turn of the millennium aged 17 and 26 respectively. The graveside pictures my aunts took on that first visit are not particularly flattering. Crouching awkwardly, forehead and arms bearing the first traces of approaching sunburn, eyes squinting against the peak of the afternoon light, I’m not sure my visage, a cross between bemusement and an obviously strained attempt at wistful neutrality, matches the weight of the occasion. This much feels fine: an authentically flawed visual record of a beautiful, if disquieting experience. Instead, what troubles me about my memories of that day is their lack of intelligible sound, the absence of a common language between my aunts and I.

My, their, origin story is not so uncommon. After all, people move for love all the time. In the mid-1980s, my mother Stephanie, a Londoner in her late twenties, had visited Spain and found the country to be more like home than the cramped, halfway decrepit city she’d left behind. Andalusica in particular seemed to have everything she needed. If La Linea, a rough and tumble post-industrial frontier city, wasn’t Granada or Seville, it had one major benefit. It had Cristobal, the man who would later become my father. When it came, their move back to London was at first a moderate success, culminating in my arrival in Lewisham Hospital on 13 July 1992, followed by a series of modest council flats around the borough. When it came, the collapse was gradual, then all at once. For him, a rash of dud jobs, ill health and a spiralling drink problem. By the mid-1990s, they had separated, with Cristobal moving back to Spain. In 1999, mum died of breast cancer, barely into her forties. And that was it too, for me and dad, barring a faintly catastrophic visit to La Linea a few months later. Somehow life moved on, as life has the tendency to do. House moves were embarked upon, addresses were lost and the connection deadened to silence for more than 20 years.

In late 2019, I’d begun work on my first book, a study of the UK’s missing persons crisis. Perhaps predictably, I’d always been drawn to stories of disappearance and my reporting brought me face-to-face with all manner of absence and loss, from the everyday to the flatly intolerable. At the book’s core was the haphazard search for Cristobal. In September 2020, I’d visited La Linea alone and eventually concluded that I was fine with a future of not knowing what had become of him. A few months later came the Facebook message request from my cousin Javier, a jovial bespectacled young man around my age. “Hello Isco,” it read, “we’ve been looking for you for a very long time.” The family, my family, is a loving, sprawling clan – grandparents, aunts and uncles, innumerable cousins, yapping Pomeranians and house-bound tortoises – as the following years have confirmed. There were answers. Dad had died young and regretful, and this was not so easy to hear. I have visited La Linea twice now and the city has begun to feel familiar, or at least a solid, real place rather than the fantasy ghost town of my youthful imagination. Rancour just hasn’t come into it. The future is the thing to focus on, rather than the missteps and confusions of the past.   

[See also: Dispatches from the land of Long Covid]

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Language is the issue, if an issue can be said to remain, though there hasn’t been anything but self imposed pressure in the matter. There is an absurdity, I’ve often been reminded, in being a Francisco Garcia-Ferrera without a word of Spanish to your name. As an adolescent, I’d wanted little to do with my “heritage”. It wasn’t angst exactly, more an unconscious attempt at repressing and dispelling the memories of my earliest years and their fraught implications. Another more prosaic explanation is that I was a state-schooled teenage boy in the mid-2000s. To me then, languages were just a doss and a piss-take; a fundamentally unserious waste of time and energy. The total idiocy of this outlook has been clear to me for many years – and by the time I returned from that first emotionally charged trip to visit my family in La Linea, I’d made a resolution. I would do what my mother had done so many years before, and learn Spanish. Very few people who have experienced my sort of predicament in early life receive the gift of resolution, let alone a welcoming, ready-made family to reconnect with. The least I could do with my good fortune would be to learn to communicate with them without constant recourse to Google Translate. I am not a stupid or uncommitted man, I reasoned. It could be done.

Last July, I spent a week travelling back and forth across south London to a warren of cheerfully rundown buildings a few minutes walk from Clapham High Street station. The intensive beginners Spanish course had come both reasonably priced and recommended. Our class felt like an AI-generated case study in big city cosmopolitanism. A winningly belligerent Kazakh man in his fifties with a son on the Costa Brava; a shy young Ukrainian woman who wanted to add to her existing stock of five languages, and a Scottish university student flush with enthusiasm after a month travelling Central America. Our teacher was a smiling woman from Madrid in her mid-twenties who showed what seemed to me incredible restraint at our collective fumblings, as well as the middle-aged man’s incessant attempts to railroad her into a philosophical debate on the apparently infinitely subtle distinctions between Spanish and English lager.

Her refrain was simple. Practice, practice, that’s what matters guys. She was interested in the outline of my story, which I’d offered to the class during our mutual introductions. You know the accent is different down there, she’d laughed, nothing like Madrid. They speak much faster, she told me, to the point that even she sometimes couldn’t understand. None of this was new to me, though it was gratifying to hear as I butchered my way through the most basic grammar and pronunciation. Before starting the class, I secretly wondered whether I would prove an unprecedented prodigy in my father’s mother tongue, that it might only take a couple of lessons to miraculously reactivate some long dormant corner of my brain. This has not been the case. Months later, I am still a fumbling novice, still too cowed to try out anything but the most basic day-to-day conversation.

Part of this is a simple lack of skill and attention. But part of it is fear. What would it mean if I failed? Would it taint or cheapen the opportunity I’d been granted after so many years? Would our connection mean less, if it was always limited to gesture and translation? There is no way of answering these questions with any certainty. Sometimes I let myself imagine some glittering bilingual future, free of misunderstandings and bouts of involuntary muteness. I wonder if it could ever be more eloquent than the short voice notes I sporadically receive from my uncle David, my dad’s youngest brother. His English amounts to a few phrases – the magic is in their performance. Few people I’ve known have ever said “I love you” with such depth of feeling.

[See also: As an Albanian, I know first-hand the cruelty and contempt of UK immigration]

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