Getting lost in the winding streets of sunny Sevilla, and finally semi-jogging to the meeting with Ramon was no new experience for me; I’ve been in the situation countless times, though usually in nastier weather. But spending hours talking about identity and the crisis of the ego in Spanish with a free thinker from Las Tres Mil Viviendas? This was a first.
Ramon Vasquez, known as Ramon “Ravasza” in Spain, spent some time in the activist world before retiring from the field a few years ago. More importantly, he is an independent thinker, having embarked on many personal studies of non-mainstream spirituality — though he feels completely a part of the Roma community in which he lives, he also relishes having a pattern of thought that is dissonant, always trying to make people think. But superficially, this family man with longish, curly hair who met us for a meal in his blue and white adidas jacket is just one of many Roma men living in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, surviving the economic crisis which has deeply affected his community, living his life with his family.
Las Tres Mil Viviendas, meaning “three thousand homes,” is a famous neighborhood in Sevilla. It is home to many Roma, who live alongside non-Roma as well. On the southern edge of Seville near the highway to Cadiz, the core of Las Tres Mil Viviendas is a grouping of 624 prefabricated homes, housing many of Seville’s less wealthy tenants.
The Roma (or “gitano”) population of Las Tres Mil Viviendas was unexpectedly boosted in the 1960s when, under Franco, many families were forcibly relocated there from the center of the city. Historically, they were concentrated on a street in Triana known as the Cava de los Gitanos, which was also known for its strong flamenco tradition; but in Franco’s attempts to “embellish” Triana, officials pushed many of these families to this pre-fabricated ghetto.
At first, the two men talked, graciously using Spanish instead of Calo (the Spanish dialect mixed with Romanes, spoken by many Roma here) while I scrambled to follow their philosophical ruminations in my third language. But eventually I was catching enough of the conversation to contribute.
“A lot of researchers, Roma and pallos, have tried to classify many Roma cultural elements, but they always stay on the surface,” Ramon said at one point. “They might have come up with four or five superficial traits — like that Roma are patriarchal, virginity rituals, respect to the elders — but they just stay around those. This is just how it looks on the surface, but it doesn’t get at the deeper significance of Roma, the human experience.”
“That’s what we, that’s what I’m hoping to do with this trip,” I said. “But on some level I know that I won’t be able understand the significance at the heart, it’s just not my history. But I guess I’m here because I think it’s worth it to try.”
“But it is your history,” he said.
Was it, is it my history? What we live becomes a part of us, but on some level I will always be in the external, in the researcher role… won’t I?
“You know, some Roma also accept these superficial assessments, and the way they are perceived. But they don’t have a deeper reflection about what it means to be Roma,” Ramon told the two of us. “Take, for example, flamenco. Flamenco was born free and wild, as a Roma expression. But then, academics tried to classify the different kinds of flamenco, and to copy it. But their copy was plastic, fake.”
But despite his allergic reaction to the classification of an identity he knew as felt rather than listed, Ramon advocated moreover for a perception, an assessment of humanity, of the selfless and the selfish.
“There is no Roma problem,” he said. “There is a human problem. The structure of society needs this kind of scapegoat. And if there were no Roma, they would find someone else.”