When I first arrived at Vicente’s house in Alfafar, Valencia a couple of weeks ago, things were a little weird. The two of us rolled in around 6 am, having taken an overnight bus from Madrid; I received a warm, though sleepy welcome from his mom, but I knew from Vicente that my presence was more than a little strange. I was not only a non-Roma, non-girlfriend coming into his small family home, which is dramatically unusual in this context, but I was even Canadian — a slightly crazy Canadian, getting ready to go with Vicente to India.
Since that initial moment, everything has changed. We still eat every meal at the table, the five of us not quite fitting appropriately around the wooden square, his dad telling me long stories about his best friend the bullfighter, life before the recession and the way Roma traditions are shifting in unfortunate ways with modernity. I still have the sense, sometimes, that my palla tendencies make me stick out like a sore thumb. But this time, when we got back from the first leg of our trip, I greeted his parents like an aunt and uncle I haven’t seen for too long. I am still a square peg fitting in a round hole, but by this point I am able to squeeze in. Or, as Vicente put it, “my mother has totally adopted you.”
This relationship, and the little things I am learning from it every day, is shifting my already dramatically altered knowledge and perception about the myths associated with Roma communities.
Sitting with the family over a lunch of chorizo sausage, fried egg and bread, Vicente’s father was lamenting about how people didn’t often bother to take a look at the richness of Roma culture.
“It’s a pity, you know. Roma are a people that are not very understood,” he said. “People think that because they are often poor, they don’t have culture. It’s true, Roma people can be happy with very little. But the culture is very rich! We really take special care of our elders and our children, for instance.”
Then he started to tell a story, a story that perfectly recalled something Vicente was telling me the other day: “you know these stereotypes about Roma stealing children? Well, in our culture, children are the most important, it is shameful to abandon any child. So there is actually a history of Roma families taking in abandoned pallo children.”
His dad didn’t make this connection to the stereotypes, but simply launched into an account: the sister of his father, his aunt, daughter of his grandmother, she was actually a palla that his grandmother took in when the child was only four. She didn’t know that she was “not” Roma for her whole life, until she was older; when she found out, she had problems, got a little depressed even, because she didn’t want to accept it.
“She thought she was Roma her whole life, she grew up as Roma,” he said. “And she is, she is like us. She walks and talks like Roma and everything, she is taken as one of the family.”
“The father of the wife of my uncle, the same. He was the son of a priest in the Catholic Church. And, you know, that wasn’t allowed, so when he was born, the priest said, ‘go with the Roma’.” The young man eventually found out that the priest was his father because the clergyman had written him into the will. But even though he was a poor man, he didn’t accept any of the money from the will; he was happy in the community, with his family, with his wife.
A community that is able to completely adopt an outsider as one of their own but retains a very strong polarity between insiders and outsiders. This might seem paradoxical. But at the same time, to me, it is totally logical. To really, truly perceive humans as all born equal — in some ways, this itself represents a deep vulnerability.
At one point, a great-aunt of Vicente told me that when she was young, her family was just transitioning from a traditional, mobile lifestyle to a settled one, among the last to transition in Spain. The family would go to school and experience incessant teasing from other children, and chiding from the teachers. But for her and her brothers, she said, this made them stronger, it bound them together. They felt sorry for the other children, for their lack of education, because these pallos tended towards hate and cruelty just because they perceived the Roma kids as different — when in reality, everybody was equal.
“But this generation is at risk.” Vicente’s father’s last words over lunch echo in my head. “Roma are different everywhere in Spain. They are equal, but different. And in this part of the country, as the older generation is dying, and the traditions with them, some youngsters are getting lost in drugs. Drugs destroy your life, making you selfish and distant from your family, so that culture and traditions get lost.”
I thought deeply about this statement. Poverty does not necessarily kill a culture; at least, not this one. Nor do outsiders, nor does discrimination. But selfishness — with selfishness, all could be lost.