A Castle of Cards


Nicolas, with the Santa Barbara castle at his back. [Photo by MAGNETO]

Nicolas Jimenez, with the Santa Barbara castle at his back. [Photo by MAGNETO]

“This is a history completely unknown to most Spaniards, even in the academy,” Nicolas Jimenez told us, our three bodies cutting through the fierce wind as we climbed the winding path to the top of the castle of Santa Barbara.

It was our first afternoon in the city of Alicante. After a few hours of needle-in-the-haystack search for a parking spot and a delicious lunch of soup and veal, we were on the first quasi-tourist mission of our trip: we came to visit the castle where Spanish Roma from Valencia were imprisoned during the Great Raid of the 18th century, a genocidal attempt to “purify” the Spanish kingdom.

“There are not so many episodes like this,” Nicolas advised. “In just one night, the night of the 29th to the 30th of July 1749, there was an effort to round up all the Roma that lived in Spain by that time. Gomez Alfaro made a calculation on the actual Roma population in Spain, and said that their number was probably between 10, 000 and 12, 000. Some days after the 10th of August there was a complementary raid to catch the nomadic Roma, approximately 1000 people.”

Even with the early spring sun beating down on us, the biting gusts kept us walking fast up the increasingly steep cobblestones. Mothers and babies, husbands and wives crossed our path, having come to the castle to see the great landmark, take in the spectacular view of the city. A chill ran through my spine, this time not related to the cold. It was eerily peaceful, ghostly tranquil, this site of this largely unknown mass violence.

“Really, this is the banality of evil though,” I muttered to Vicente, quoting Arendt a little out of context in reaction to the calm.

“In the time since the doctoral thesis by Antonio Gomez Alfaro,” Nicolas said, “there have been some books published about the Great Raid. But officially, it still doesn’t exist  — there is no recognition in any curriculum, and of course to is not part of any history books.”

The “Roma question” was the hot topic at the time of the Great Raid, he told us. The Marques de la Ensenada proposed the king a concrete solution: general imprisonment, separating men from women. But the extraction of the Roma population happened in secret, due to the fear that local authorities, police and civilians might oppose the raid, protecting their Roma neighbors instead.

“The entire thing was carried out by the army. Secret letters were sent to army officials all over the country and opened simultaneously; everything happened during the night, so as not to call the attention of the Pallo population.

“In this specific place, the the castle of Santa Barbara, they imprisoned all of the Roma from the Kingdom of Valencia. But today there is no memory of it, no monument, no movement to promote it. And unfortunately, the current situation is reminding us more and more closely of the past, of this attempted genocide and others. Of course, antigypsysm is growing; it seems humanity has not learnt so much between WWII and now.”

I remembered our conversation with Uncle Antonio, who had recounted pieces of this same history. Apparently, the crown ran into space issues, trying to imprison so many people at once; the army even put some Roma to live in the slave galleys of ships, but without moving them — just leaving entire groups to live on the water, in the port.

But the Great Raid, in English sometimes referred to as the “Great ‘Gypsy’ Round-Up,” was not an isolated response to the Roma population. Like WWII, the lead-up to the event saw many instances of deliberate population control, such as royal edicts in 1695 and 1717 that restricted them to specific towns and districts.

“I told you,” Vicente muttered to me. “He is the perfect person to tell us about these kinds of historical encounters.”

Nicolas, a Roma sociologist who has become a full-time academic and activist, is well-known to many communities as one of the few Spanish Roma who speaks the Romani language very well. He has helped many Roma in Spain to learn, and was responsible for writing the first Spanish teaching handbook for the language. He sets himself apart in other ways as well, for instance in his ardent position as one of the last atheists standing — as he says, “still an atheist, thank God.”

Originally from El Pozo del Tio Raimundo in Madrid, he is understandably skeptical of non-Roma researchers and journalists, something that Vicente warned me from the beginning. He faced a steady stream of these personalities during his life: they would visit the community, he would introduce them to people and show them around, and then they would disappear — leaving nothing in return.

We paused at the top of the castle for a minute. The wind was ferocious up here, unbridled, and the Spanish flag christening the peak whipped back and forth, mirroring my own growing mane. I felt like I was listening to crackling voices on an old-school foreign language radio, and tuned out for a moment — “this is beautiful,” I caught myself thinking.

Retracing our steps to the parking lot, the conversation turned to more polemic matters.

“But structural racism will not end through historical memory or symbolic acts,” Nicolas preached. “The change must come from power. But there are not so many episodes in world history when we see the rise of minorities who suffered marginalization. Sure, there’s a black president in the United States. But he is circumstantially black. Most Afro-Americans still live in a situation of structural discrimination and practical segregation in their own communities. In this sense, Obama is a white guy of a different color, who belongs to the bourgeoisie.” I cringed a little, but took his point.

“I’m not saying anything crazy, really,” he continued. “In South Africa, it is the same. A few families gathered the power. And in Spain, the same families that controlled the country for centuries are still deciding for everybody. It is a question of conception, really. If people still think that to kill an Afro-American or a Roma is possible without any real legal punishment, then the possibilities that this will happen are very high.”

He started speaking about violence and power, and the idea of a “Roma state.” It is not total madness to talk about a state for a stateless minority, he said, as Jews proved with Israel. But a state is just not an appropriate path for Roma. What has proved difficult, according to him, is to sustain an alternative, to save an identity and a way of life in the absence of state power.

“See, violence is the patrimony of the state,” Nicolas said. “The state is the only one who can apply violence, but in the heart of Roma communities this does not exist. We do not have this kind of controlling violence — things get solved through dialogue and respect. We don’t have police or army. We are already a living alternative in a sense, that’s the interesting part. But unfortunately, it is not popular, because the easiest way for mainstream populations is the exercise of violence, army, police, and laws. Roma teach that none of these things are essential. The key in order to sustain our way of life is, rather, economic independency.”

Curious, I asked Vicente later on if he knew any Roma police or army men.

“Very few,” he told me. “Maybe two police men, but they are from families that are not so connected to the community. And many Roma have served in the army, but only because they were conscripted. Why, though?”

I was just wondering, I said. Multiple Roma adults have shown me their military photos with pride, having done their duty valiantly. But it was true; all of the examples I knew included forced conscription.

Another flashback from Uncle Antonio smacked me in the face. There was a legend, he had said, from the Napoleonic wars. Two Roma men were on the front lines, one on the French side, one on the Spanish. Back then, people knew that there were Roma in both countries, but they didn’t know much about each other. But they came together, muskets pointed at each other, and looked one another in the eyes — “sinelas Kalo?” they asked simultaneously; “are you Roma?” They proceeded to drop their guns and hug, right there on the front line.

But despite Nicolas’ strong stance on certain aspects of Roma identity and oppression, he also gave some attention to the constructivism of Roma-ness.

“These racial separations are a lie, a political invention for granting the victory of the powerful,” he said. “How do you know that I am Roma? I can situate myself in the Roma universe; because of my father, my mother, my family, I have my referents. That does have an importance in my environment, where a series of values and a specific education created my conscience. But the idea of us being essentially ‘Indian!’” he exclaimed with indignation.

“Imagine how long ago ‘Proto’-Roma started their trip from India. 1000 years, right? Well, lets say one generation has passed every 10 years. If in every generation there was one percent of Gadjo mixed in with us — which is really nothing — at this point, how much ‘Indian’ blood do we have? Hardly a drop. And the Indian component is not the determinant of Roma identity, not even the language! Romani has an Indian lexicon, but the structures and the syntax are European.”

At first, the contrast between Nicolas’ strong sense of identity, and of the uniqueness of the Roma nation seemed to contradict this constructivist point, his concept of Roma culture as essentially “European.” But then one has to imagine, as well, the specific pressures of mainstream society’s lens. This mainstream perspective must greatly affect the reflections and perceptions of seasoned Roma activists across Europe.

The point is, theories about the Indian origins of the “Roma nation” can be understood as interesting historical ruminations about a complex culture, or even nation-building exercises. But they can also be weapons, used out of context by modern nation-states to suggest that Roma don’t belong. The fact that people seem to forget so often is that every culture is at the same time both distinct and hybrid. Roma lived in most current European countries long before they existed as modern nation-states. So, are Roma and non-Roma Spaniards different? Of course. But why should Roma be thought to belong here any less?

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