A Project to be Roma


The sun was still strong when we arrived at Alfafar’s open-air market just after noon. The vendors, most of whom were Roma, had spreads of every color of scarf and every brand of purse; I had my eyes peeled for the churros stand, likely somewhere around a corner. But before churros, we had to say hi to Vicente’s mom, of course — her table, replete with women’s stockings and socks, was not far from our point of entry.

“I have a friend for you to meet!” she said as we approached, and took me by the hand to a nearby stand that boasted patterned scarves dangling from metal beams. There, we were both introduced to the wife of the famous pastor Juan Hernandez Carbonell, also known as Patato. She looked at Vicente in a surprisingly reasonable way as he recounted our India plan, and handed me a leopard print scarf from her stall as a present since I was bound to end up cold at some point; then, to our surprise, she invited us to take a coffee with her and her husband in nearby Torrent later in the evening, before the 7:30 pm church service.

The open-air market in Alfafar. [Photo by REBEKAH]

A quiet day at the market. [Photo by REBEKAH]

The conversation thundered on, and soon Vicente was launching into a discussion about the church and political representation with Patato’s 36-year-old son Juan and I sank back into a chat with the women in my broken Spanish about politics and the effects of the recession. As I have been told many times by now, the market used to be a different place, a place where one could make a decent living. Then chain stores like Zara came along, undercutting the business. And now that the recession has hit Spain so badly people don’t shop like they used to, saving their sparse cash for food instead. Now, the once-bustling market street was calm enough that vendors could even step around the corner for a chat.

Later in the evening, Vicente and I left the house with his mom to head to Torrent, about 15 minutes away by car. I was a little more nervous at the wheel this time around — not only was I carrying Vicente’s mom, but we were meant to go straight to pick up Patato and his wife at his house, to drive together to the church. I’ve never driven such a prestigious charge! But we pulled up to the church door safely and in good spirits, and waited for someone to unlock the historic room — now the church café and meeting space — where, at 19, Patato attended the first Roma evangelical mission in the region of Valencia in 1972.

Our odd party sat around two wooden tables at the back of the room, and we sipped a round of Café con Leche as Vicente and I presented ourselves more thoroughly. Before asking the wise man any questions for our own interest, Vicente took some time to present a proposal he has personally drafted for Filadelfia, to encourage their involvement in a larger fight for the rights of Roma. “Imagine the impact the church could have,” he said. “I mean, so many people in our communities are turning to the church. Filadelfia is where a real voice of the grassroots could come from.” We both know, from previous conversations, that the church is reluctant to involve itself in political matters. But Patato seemed to react well to the proposal, and our conversation transitioned to a discussion about Roma identity and the potential reasons for the overwhelming success of evangelism in Roma communities worldwide.

For Patato, evangelical Christianity is successful in the community precisely because it gives added value without undermining any fundamental traditions or aspects of Roma identity. “One of the worst mistakes of historical Christianity is that people used Christianity to destroy the cultures of places where they arrived,” he said. “But in the gospel, we see how God gave gifts to certain people to avoid exactly this kind of phenomenon. Maybe it is too direct for me to say this, but the two do not conflict because Christianity is not a culture. It is life. So God made it possible for us to bring gospel, but also to conserve the aspects of the tradition and the culture which we consider positive.”

He spoke of the historic development of the Filadelfia church in terms of an apostolate — it wasn’t based on strong leaders or institutions, but instead on messengers. Clément Le Cossec, the French preacher and the first Pentecostal to preach to Roma in this part of Europe in the late 1940s was not a leader in any community, but rather a tool for the movement, a movement that would really take hold in Spain starting with the 1952 inception of the Filadelfia church.

According to Patato, the Pentecostal church has truly been at the crux of a social reform from within many Roma communities here, especially those living in bad conditions due to the drastic changes in the recent history of traditional Spanish Roma (or “gitanos”). This declaration mirrored facts I have gradually come to understand about communities here — the self-imposed moral codes of Pentecostal Roma are, in some ways, far more deliberate and extreme than those of any single group I have met in my life.

“Where there are broken families and broken neighborhoods,” Patato said, “the gospel is able to do, sometimes, what even good colleges and good neighborhoods cannot do.”

Patato and his wife, in the Roma Pentecostal church in Torrente. [Photo by VICENTE]

Patato and his wife, in the Roma Pentecostal church in Torrente. [Photo by VICENTE]

Vicente and I also caught some details about Patato’s life before the church. In the 70s he was very much involved in the popular movement of the time, even performing with his well-known band Paco Paco. But despite his very different pre-church lifestyle, he does not consider that he converted out of necessity for his family, or himself.

“When the gospel arrived to my family, we were not going through a bad time,” he said. “We were not a family lacking in values. We had no personal or moral needs. But I can say that, looking at the development of things, if I didn’t meet the Lord, if I didn’t meet the gospel as I did, it could easily have happened in the past 40 years. One of the things we have found in gospel is that it is the tool to keep family together. That, even not having so many resources, if you want to have a healthy family you have to take care of the neighborhood you are living in, to take care of a certain kind of resources, to take care of the scholarisation of your children.”

Patato’s eyes smiled as he talked, playing with his environment. Meanwhile, a constant stream of parishioners entered the room through the metal doors, and most insisted on greeting both the important couple and the rest of us at the table. The wife of the preacher kept introducing me as “una hermana de Canada,” an unprecedented gesture of warmth and acceptance from such an important woman, especially since I am a palla who met her the same afternoon.

My shock at their unprecedented acceptance of our strange pairing only intensified during the church service that followed. Not only did Patato invite Vicente to come to the pulpit to preach, but he welcomed me, the Canadian non-Roma with broken Spanish — in other words, the alien — to speak as well. Vicente gave a deep speech about his life, while I only managed a heartfelt thank you before returning to my seat to lose myself in thought and in the music filling the space.

“What next?” Patato asked after the service, when the swarms of people quieted down. Vicente suggested what I have now come to accept as the norm here: “how about a burger?”

If I felt strange driving a car of important elders to church, then driving us to the Burger King down the street brought me to a new level. We each got something from the menu, and I was asked some more questions about Canada — with the formal interview and church service both finished, we were all a little more relaxed.

As Vicente told the pastor a little bit about his strange childhood, his aptitude for memorization and detail, Patato reflected many of his sentiments back to him.

“I stopped formal education, but I loved to read. Philosophy, you know the modern works of philosophical thought? I read the whole lot. It was what I did at bedtime; I would fall asleep reading these massive volumes. And I was not reading to memorize, but now when someone says a word, it all comes back. It’s all in here,” he said, pointing to his head.

“You know, I have been suffering, in my own flesh, racism,” he confessed. “Still, if you talk, if you show any kind of intelligence or education, people will accuse you of not being Roma. And in these words, there is something I cannot express. Maybe there’s some part of the brain, some cell, something like DNA, that is strongly against Roma having any kind of education, against Roma having any kind of information, against Roma being able to express themselves. This is true racism. I mean, the neglect that says, if you behave like this, you are not Roma. If you behave well, you are not Roma. If you have formation, you’re not Roma. If you speak English, you are not Roma. But yes. Yes, I am Roma.”

The conversation on identity did not emerge from thin air, but was actually based on a complaint about EU internationalism. According to Patato, the major flaw of this “European identity” is that it does not have any kind of continuity in its project. For instance, one politician can come along and say to Roma, we don’t want you as part of a European identity, and then another can say the opposite. There is no consistency, not even a concept of what it is to be European.

Roma identity, on the other hand, is a very clear project. “I have chosen that my project is to be Roma,” Patato said. “And if Roma is your project, you are willing to make sacrifices for it — whether it means you will be discriminated, whether it means you will be poor, if it is your project, you will make these sacrifices.”

And what is it to be Roma? For him, to be Roma means to position yourself in a purely human attitude, to decide not to harm another human being.

Driving back to Alfafar, Vicente was still incredulous about the service. “I don’t believe it! I don’t think you appreciate how rare it is that they would let you do that, to speak in church,” he said. “I mean, they gave you the right — if you wanted, you could have preached!”

“They say he is very progressive,” Vicente’s mom said. “He is a smart man, too. A very smart man.”

I swelled, mostly with emotion, but probably partly from the Burger King. This couple, their wisdom, their pride in how unique their Roma identity is and yet their willingness to accept me so openly for who I am, this had really touched me. I drove away from the fluorescent American logo with a smile.

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