Gatos: Why are people from Madrid referred to as cats in Spain?

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Gatos: Why are people from Madrid referred to as cats in Spain?
To be a gato, your parents and four grandparents must have all been born in Madrid. Photo: Christopher Alvarenga/Unsplash

If you know someone who hails from the Spanish capital, you may have heard them proudly refer to themselves as ‘gato’. But not everyone from Madrid can call themselves a cat. What are the origins of this peculiar nickname?


One of every two people living in Madrid was not born there, according to 2020 stats. 

This makes sense for a 21st century metropolis, but when we look back at the 1930s, the rate of inhabitants in the Spanish capital who were born there was even lower: only 37 percent.

Madrid has long been a city where people from the countryside moved to in search of work, consolidating its reputation as an open and welcoming city, one that lives on to this day. 

But being a true madrileño (the demonym for a person from Madrid) is also a source of pride, and those who want to flaunt it may say ‘yo soy de Madrid, soy gato’ (I’m from Madrid, I’m a cat).


Technically speaking, for a madrileño to proudly state that they are un gato, their parents and four grandparents must have all been born in Madrid, as well as themselves of course. 

It’s certainly a peculiar nickname to adopt, and you may be wondering what being a cat has to do with being born in Madriz, as locals are renowned for pronouncing Madrid.

Well, there are several myths and theories, including that the name comes from madrileños’ reputation for staying out into the late hours of the night.

But the most popular theory goes as follows. In the year 852, during the Muslim rule of Spain, Muhammad I, son of the fourth emir of Córdoba Abderramán II, arrived in central Spain and built a fortification made up of a great wall that surrounded the Manzanares valley and the Sierra de Guadarrama. 

He called the settlement Mayrit, present-day Madrid.

Years later in 1083, Christian King Alfonso VI was determined to conquer this Arab city.

Legend has it that one brave soldier managed to climb the 12-metre city walls to inform the troops they could begin the siege. 

Ruins of Madrid's Muslim wall, built in the 9th century. Photo: Esetena/Wikimedia

Impressed by his dexterity, the king remarked ‘he’s like a cat’. The nickname stuck and soon after the soldier decided to change his surname to Gato for his feat to be immortalised.

His descendants inherited the feline surname and over the years it came to be associated with some of the most illustrious and powerful families in the city.

Fact or legend? 

No one can truly know, but what’s for certain is that to this day referring to oneself as gato in the Spanish capital is a way to flaunt that you and your family are pureblooded madrileño.


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