In the Malasaña neighbourhood of Madrid, there’s an English language bookstore and bar that I like to frequent. It’s a great spot for a pint and when the table in the back corner by the window is free, a great spot for writing. Here, I’m surrounded by English speakers, many of whom are American, and I’m acutely aware of how guiri the scene is—and why many Spaniards resent it.
Guiri is a somewhat pejorative term Spaniards have for foreigners; specifically, native English speakers, regardless of race. The stereotype of a guiri is a damning one: guiris flock to Spain in droves, work few hours for generous pay, and do it all in their enclaves, not bothering to assimilate to Spanish culture. Sitting in this bookstore, typing away, I see the irony of writing about such a topic in the very “safe space” I’m referencing. And while I’m sensitive to the guiri label, the truth is that I see both sides of the argument.
The stereotype of a guiri is a damning one: guiris flock to Spain in droves, work few hours for generous pay, and do it all in their enclaves, not bothering to assimilate to Spanish culture.
I have been guilty of guiri faux pas. The first time I lived in Spain in 2014, I built a life around other English speakers. I spoke Spanish only when necessary, made no Spanish friends, and then wondered why I felt like an outsider. I grew to resent my new home for reasons completely due to my own ignorance and perceptions. I compared everything to cultural and social norms in the US and found them different and thus lacking. I viewed the social norms around me as rude rather than trying to understand what they meant in context.
When I moved back to Madrid toward the end of 2018, I began to see other English-speaking expats through somewhat Spanish eyes. I was annoyed at hoards of loud, and often drunk, young Americans I saw in the streets and in bars. They didn’t try very hard to communicate, laughing while they said in English that they didn’t speak Spanish. I have met expats who have lived here for a number of years but are barely functioning at an A2 level of language proficiency.
I understand the frustrations felt by Spaniards. Compared to the average local worker, we make significantly more money for doing significantly less. Many participants in the auxiliar program are fresh out of college and treat the experience as a gap year; not taking the job seriously while drinking away their stipend; not bothering to invest time or money in language lessons. In the end, what one wants to do with their time overseas is completely up to their own discretion. However, I think it is important to take the experience seriously and respect the country where they’re living as guests.
But like the sibling who calls their brother stupid then turns around to threaten the friend who agrees, I am sensitive to the term and the way it is sometimes used unfairly to further segregate foreigners. For someone like me who speaks B2 level Spanish and tries—despite my own language insecurities—to engage native speakers, I feel offended immediately being branded as a guiri.
On a terrace one day with my Spanish boyfriend and his friend having some drinks, I mentioned that I wanted to order a small snack. Looking at the menu, I decided on a piece of tortilla.
“It’s not very good here,” my boyfriend remarked. “They warm it up in the microwave. But, you’re a guiri, so you won’t mind.”
I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt my feelings.
Being a non-Spaniard doesn’t exempt me from good sense or taste. Just because I don’t speak with a perfect accent doesn’t mean I haven’t put in the time or effort. Enjoying the security and comfort of people who speak my language while I’m living in a very different culture doesn’t suggest I have no interest in getting to know the locals. While I learn more about the others around me, it is clear the we can only reach a common ground if both parties work toward one. The problem with these kinds of prejudices though is that they run deep.
As my year in Madrid progresses and I seek out more opportunities to fit in in this new country, I accept that no matter what, I will always be a guiri. Sipping on my pint, listening to the snippets of conversations around me about why these people moved from the US to Spain, I find I don’t feel guilty in this tucked away corner of home away from home.Add this article to your reading list