Nestled in the town of Callosa, situated on the border between Alicante and Murcia, Vicente and I sat with his uncle Antonio in the shadow of the town’s looming mountain. That mountain, as I learned before we left Alfafar, is where the family of Vicente’s mother grew up.
Back in Alfafar, she had spoken to me of a tranquil childhood. Simple, but peaceful. “We did not have many toys, but we played in the street,” she told me. “Our house was tiny, humble, but clean. My mother kept it very clean. And we had each other, we had a strong family.”
Now her brother Antonio was expressing much the same attitude as we sat together outdoors, taking in the southern sun before our journey would carry us farther north.
“When I was a child, I was happy. I had a very happy childhood. Very poor; we lived in a house made of wood, in the mountain. We only had water when I was an adult, never showers. Well, we lived in a very poor way. But even like this, I was going to school since childhood.”
His whitening hair and blue eyes caught the light, drawing attention to his wise face. He was a painter, Vicente said, and a good one. A quiet but sensible man, a man who had been betrayed many times in his life, in many relationships; a man who found wisdom the hard way.
“In my home, we had a special sensibility,” he said. “My parents hardly knew how to write, but me and my brothers, all of us were reading since childhood. We would take books from the library — we were a little bit like the movie Matilda. We were reading poetry with 10 or 11 years, old classic Spanish poets. We were reading novels of Camilo José Cela, Miguel de Unamuno. Things that were not usual for Roma of my generation. But in my house, it existed. Since childhood I loved to draw, as well. It was impossible for me to have an academic education in this, so it was like a hobby.
“My father was also a very strange person, according to his own time. He was very honorable, very honest. Very very poor, but very honest. And that’s what he taught us: to be very honest, and honorable. In contrast with what people think, most Roma are like this. It is true that the sector of the population we are always occupying is the lowest, which makes many people live in a marginal way in which the only manner to gain easy money is either theft, or drugs. But I remember when drugs started, Roma were very against them.”
I had already met his father, Vicente’s grandfather, by that point; when we drove into Callosa that morning our first stop was Antonio’s home, where a table full of family and homemade paella welcomed us. We were seated at the table set for 14, eating and talking, when the grandparents made their entrance. Though my presence as such an outsider caused some quiet family drama, we were both received beautifully. I caught myself envying the reality of living with so much extended family close by, missing my own parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins. But as numerous people told me that day, the mountain had a special hold on people — not many moved away.
When they were growing up on the mountain, though, the family of Antonio was physically separated from the rest of the town, the kids going a little farther than the rest to get to the school every day.
“I had non-Roma friends in the school,” Antonio confessed. “Since my childhood, it was strange for me that in school, I was just one more kid. There are a lot of dark-skinned Roma, but there are others who are not. I am not dark-skinned. There was no physical difference between the others and me, so some did not know that I was Roma. But I was. In my family it was one reality; in the school, it was another world.
“You know, there were a lot of people who claimed publicly to be Roma. But often, these were the people who could not deny they were Roma, who were obvious. The ones who can simulate he is not, he prefers not to say it to anybody, because this way has much more advantage. I learnt this when I was just a child.”
A slew of memories flooded back, memories about instances when non-Roma people labeling Roma seem to have gotten it painfully wrong. As recently as this past October, the little blonde Maria was caught in the international spotlight because officials assumed she was a baby “stolen by gypsies.” It turned out she was not living with her biological mother, who had left her in the care of another Roma family in Greece, but that she was indeed a Roma girl; meanwhile, the press attention saw officials sweep in and strip both of the spotlight-thrust couples of many of their children, placing them in foster care.
Ironically enough, Sasha Ruseva — the biological mother of Maria — was apparently working as a seasonal farmer with her husband in Greece, when she had to leave Maria behind; the same line of work that Antonio’s family took up.
“I had the opportunity to go to school, until my father got very sick. I was the oldest brother, so when my father got sick I had to start to work at 13 years, to collect oranges as a seasonal worker. I was not even strong enough to carry the bags of oranges! I was just 13.”
I learnt from Antonio something that I hadn’t known: in Spain, many Roma had worked for generations as seasonal farmers and workers. In the place where we were, in particular, many Roma worked in the fields. Ever since his 13-year-old debut, Antonio had followed suit.
“Spanish Roma have many ways to gain their livelihood, especially now,” Antonio reminded us. “But historically, it was essentially to sell and buy horses, which is now over; then to sell, in the markets but also door to door; and there was a sector of Roma who worked as seasonal farmers. In this area, most Roma were working in the fields, and some also sold in markets.”
I was curious about the history of Roma in Spain, which Antonio seemed to know well. He confessed that a lot of his knowledge, especially of the discriminatory practices of the state, he has learnt gradually over the years.
“There’s a very good book, by Angus Fraser,” he said. “He is talking about the laws in Spain against Roma. There were many many laws that we Roma didn’t know. We didn’t know that they existed, but we knew the result. And when you read this, then you understand why what happened, happened. It was not allowed, for example, for Roma to live in small towns. By law. For Roma, it was better in small towns, because you could gain your livelihood better. But for non-Roma, it was better if we were in big cities, because there was more police control, and they just allowed Roma to live in predetermined areas, to control them.”
Antonio’s historical knowledge made him a pleasure to listen to, but what was really striking was the stability of his sense of identity. He was not only proud of who he was, but also sure, clear.
“For me, being Roma is the natural,” he said. “For me, the difficult would be to be pallo. To live like a pallo, think like a pallo and be a pallo. For me, to be Roma is the most natural thing in the world. It is to be like I am. I think it’s something transcending education. I don’t know if it is genetic memory, but it is something that is certainly transmitted in some way. It is in the little details. In reality, we are like anybody else. But there are little things, things that only the people living through it can know.
“Most people look at the externals. They look at how people sing, how they dance, how they talk. How they live. But to be Roma is something deeper. It is little things that make the difference. It is true, the way of singing, of talking, of living is something cultural — something that is also transmitted from father to son. But what makes Roma stay Roma are the little things that you have inside of you. Little ways, little codes that make you see things in a different ways. Nobody can explain this; there is no manual. It just is.”
Aware that this sounded difficult for me to understand, he put forward an example.
“One curious history is that everyone talks about this ‘Roma law’,” Antonio said. “Nobody has ever written Roma law. Nobody writes it, nobody reads it. There’s no law that says you can make this, you can’t make that. But it exists. So, then, where is it?”
He pointed to his heart; we all smiled. “Yes,” I said in recognition. “It’s true,” Vicente echoed.
“There is something between Roma that is very strange, very very strange,” Antonio reflected. “Usually, Roma are very closed in their own families. But we also search for the others. Even if we are living far from each other, we try to meet somehow. For example, the first thing I did when I had Internet was to search “Gitanos.” It is very curious, the empathy between Roma. It awakens your curiosity, to know other Roma from the world, and to discover that they are equal, no matter if they are German, English, if they live in the United States — the type is the same. You see a wedding of German Roma. Taking out the dance, which might be different in Spain, everything is the same. The same, the same. I would compare this to birds that fly together. They move all together, and they move at the same time, but they never crash. Roma are like this.
“There is something else that non-Roma don’t know. As I said before, there are dark-skinned Roma. This is more well-known, because they are more recognizable. But there are other Roma who are not. I don’t know why. Non-Roma cannot always make the distinction. But Roma, if you are dark-skinned or if you are white, they can recognize you. There are even Roma who look like Germans! Blonde hair, blue eyes. But one Roma will look at another, and say ‘you’re Roma.’ It’s strange. It’s something visceral. And that is what pushes you to search for the others.”
After multiple hours of conversation we had listened to many profound, sometimes controversial reflections. But before driving back to his house from the cafe, Vicente urged his uncle to share with us any last words, messages or sparks of wisdom he wanted the world to know.
“Even when there are political personalities who are Roma, they will never catch the attention of Roma, because that is the non-Roma way,” Antonio advised. “So they can convince the pallos, but they can never convince Roma. This power that exists, the power of the people, Roma will never put it on policies and politics, nor in the associations and NGOs, because these are non-Roma things. The development of the power must be in another sphere.”