“Do you know the story of the Roma Christ?” Toñi asked as we wandered through the old section of Sevilla, looking for a cheap place to eat. By now, these streets were familiar to me, after Vicente and I had spent several hours multiple times lost on narrow, cobblestone one-ways looking for parking near the downtown apartment of Toñi Nuñev and Tamara Amador.
Their warm, spacious apartment, shared with Tamara’s boyfriend Cristobal, has started to feel like home in the last couple of days. I guess this tendency for attachment will fade as I get used to a sense of perpetual motion in the coming months, but the image of Toñi waiting up for us with home-cooked dinner on our first night on the road is bound to stick.
Our days in Sevilla, hosted by these two wonderful young Roma women, both of whom moved to Sevilla for work — Toñi originally hailing from Benarraba, and Tamara from Malaga — have led to countless conversations and debates that revealed how both of them have spent a lot of time reflecting on their own identities. Though they each grew up in a very different, more traditional context, their strong senses of self have followed them to their current life in Sevilla, as have certain prejudices against them.
According to Toñi, in small Spanish villages anti-Roma discrimination is more under the table, as it is considered shameful, and peaceful coexistence is more common. “But even you have a good coexistence, in the end you feel you will always be seen as Roma, with all the negative stereotypes — no matter if you have education, or work, or you coexist, you will always be The Roma.”
Toñi often spoke about how she advocates that Roma people need to know their rights, and when necessary to fight for a change. Tamara, in turn, has expressed concern about the tendency to take “integration” to mean “assimilation”: “In our world, integration tends to mean conforming to the most powerful, to the first world. If not, you are automatically left with less. In my perfect world, other cultures should be given a similar value.”
Tamara’s boyfriend, a non-Roma man who grew up in Santiago (the Roma neighborhood in Jerez where flamenco was born), attributed this tendency to fear. “I do believe racism could go down, and even disappear, if we accept people as they are with their individual cultures,” he said. “I think racism is a fear not to accept different concepts.”
The lives of Toñi and Tamara in the center of a city provide their own challenges, especially in the need to constantly defend or hold tight to this Roma identity. But, as Tamara put it, this fact does not make either one-dimensional. “I always say a phrase that may sound stupid, but it is real. Roma people, besides being Roma, are many, many other things.”
Though these days have been made thick with such topics as identity and discrimination, our conversations have rippled far and wide beyond these points. I even know, now, the legend of Sevilla’s Roma Christ:“There was a sculptor who wanted to create the Christ of inspiration,” Toñi told. “He spent a long time trying to create the face, the face of the last breath of Christ before he died, but he was not able. At the same time, there was a Roma man living in Triana. All the Roma women were in love with him, but he didn’t want to get married. Everybody saw that he was passing from Triana to Sevilla, and he was a couple of days out, so everybody started to suspect that he had a palla lover.
“Then, one day, the sculptor got sick, and had a very high fever. He was wandering all over Sevilla. He wandered down many streets, and ended up at a Roma bar. There, he heard screams, and saw how one Roma man was killed with a knife.
“Later, they found the sculptor lying in the street, and they brought him to his house. And when he woke up, he remembered the image of the dying man, but did not know if it was real, or if it was a dream. So then he started to make the face of the Jesus Christ. And when he finished the idol and brought it to the street, all of the Roma said, ‘this is Cachorro, this is Cachorro, the Roma who was in love with a palla!’”
Earlier that day, Vicente had recounted a different story of the Roma Christ of Sevilla: at one time, not so long ago, most Roma in Spain were Catholic. Even though this was the case, only one church in Sevilla really stood up for them, while they faced widespread discrimination elsewhere. In this church, there stood a statue of Christ. Eventually, this statue became known as the “Cristo de los Gitanos.”
If nothing else, I have learnt that Sevilla is a city of many layers. Both of these stories are important; each legend tells a different piece of the reality.