We were an hour and a half early to the 1000 Viviendas in Alicante, a neighborhood thought to be one of the more dangerous Roma settlements in Spain. I pulled into a parking spot, and Vicente slipped our Camaron CD case onto the dashboard.
“Why?” I wondered aloud. According to Vicente, in so-called “dangerous” neighborhoods it’s a good idea, not just to protect the car from Roma vandals but because everyone is afraid to touch a Roma car, since they don’t want to get into a mess with the owner’s whole family. In a city center, I later learned, it is best not to leave any sign at all that you are Roma, lest the police target you without reason.
We were supposed to meet Saly nearby, once she finished work; for now, we fell back on our typical time-kill, and went to take a coffee.
Deep in a multi-day argument on prejudice and protection, Vicente was cautioning me to be careful in this neighborhood, urging me that he knew what he was talking about — “if a pallo is telling you to be careful in a certain context, it is probably mostly prejudice; but if I am cautioning you, as Roma, you should listen!” — while I was trying to assure him that I knew how to take care of myself, and urging him to rethink his perception of what makes a neighborhood “dangerous,” a classification that is usually misrepresented or exaggerated by the media and popular stereotype.
The argument persisted in full force, wearing us both out a little, as we jumped into everything from gender roles to cultural and intercultural understanding. But when we finally met Saly Cortes, a lovely, dark-haired woman with a confident stance, the arguments melted away. On the way to the car, we listened to stories about her latest endeavor: while rearing two young sons and working at the market, she managed to write a book.“I wrote the book in 3 months, I love to write,” she told us. “I’m a very creative person, so I do all kinds of things — I design weddings, I make artistic cakes and pastries, I have made 3 shortfilms. But after writing the book I realized this particular feeling is wonderful. You realize that every character in the book has a piece of yourself. It’s a whole process of internalization, almost like you are giving birth.”
Her eyes sparkled as she began to tell us pieces of her story — though it has many fantastical elements, the book is also a contemporary love story between a Roma woman and a non-Roma man. She has used the fantasy, played with the fiction as a vehicle to talk about aspects of Roma identity and daily life.
“Today it is still almost a shame to share with people that I wrote a book,” Saly told us. “Out of my relatives, I think only 10% know at this point; people see it as something very strange.”
We had pulled up to a nearby mall by this point, where we sat on the food court’s red plastic chairs and sipped soda. Saly started to talk about her endeavors to get her book published: she had tried to wait for the help of her brother and other connections, but ended up growing impatient.
“I’m a non-conformist, I’m a dreamer. One day I just presented myself to a guy working in the sub-delegation of the government. I asked for an appointment, and I told him ‘look, I wrote a book, and I’m the only Spanish Romni who has ever written a book. And more than that, the book is good!’
“So his eyes became shiny and he asked me, ‘you are really the only one?’ And I said to him ‘yes, the unique, the one and only ever.’ I mean, I am sure of it. He took his phone and directly called a friend and editor from a famous company; and two weeks later, I was in the editorial house with the director and the sub-director for an evaluation of my work.
“This may all sound crazy. But either you sell yourself, or you’re lost. If you start by showing you weak point nobody will ever take the time to even read your work, that’s how life functions.
“The first reaction of the editors was full of prejudice itself. They supposed I was a woman who had suffered domestic violence just because I am Roma, and that my book would complain about a terrible reality, which is not the case at all. But nevertheless, they were interested; the boss of the editorial staff himself is reading it today. Whether or not it gets published, just for this I am happy, and it is worth the experience.”
I was a little surprised to hear the reaction of the editors, less familiar with this female stereotype; I asked her if this assumption about her as a Romni was common. She nodded her head, yes.
“People cannot understand that we choose to live like this, we choose to be Roma,” Saly said. “Nobody exploited me as a Roma woman, or forced me to behave in certain way. We have certain traditions, and that’s all. I agree that some of them can result in a series of limitations, but that’s another topic. I’m a happy woman.”
Like Vicente and so many others, she referred to the sense that Roma distinguish each other as such due to a certain set of cultural codes and details, mostly involving the ways people demonstrate respect; outsiders, on the other hand, try to fit them into a box based on a series of physical and cultural “attributes” or just based on stereotypes.
“There is one thing that I hate most of all,” Saly told us. “When my Gadji friends accuse me of not being Roma because I am not stereotypical according to their perception. That’s something a truly hate, that even my friends from different backgrounds don’t understand that I am Roma like other Roma women.”
In that moment I remembered the doctor of Camarón de la Isla, the man who told Vicente “you have nothing of Roma!” How will Roma ever escape stereotypes if their categorization is invalidated without them?
Vicente wanted to know about her specific experiences of racism, whether she remembered a particular moment.
“When I was a child I was running in Benidorm,” she said. “Accidentally I touched one woman in the street with a piece of paper I had in my hand. The woman stop and pointed at me with her finger, and then started to scream: “Gitana! You small gitana, you beat me!” She was an adult woman, and I was only 8 years old. I will never forget this, the moment will remain tattooed in my mind forever. If I could have the chance to meet this woman again, I would probably take out her eyes with my own hands. How can somebody attack and humiliate a child like this?
“I will never forget that episode, but unfortunately these kinds of experiences are not strange for us.”
The three of us soon stood up; Vicente and I had been planning to leave Alicante hours ago, after all, but had gotten carried away in conversation. But when Saly invited us to come back with her for dinner, we weren’t able to say no.
Her apartment, a warm, comfortable space, was full when we walked in: her visiting parents were sitting on the living room’s white couches, while her two small sons were running in and out, lugging toys back and forth between rooms. I sat with her and her husband in the kitchen while she prepared dinner. I exercised my Spanish trying to explain what we were doing, the motivations for the trip, a little more about my own life. I learnt that her husband was a pretty good Flamenco musician, often playing with a group of his friends; later, Vicente said it was such a shame we didn’t have a chance to talk to him too, even to share a clip of him playing. I’m sure that the more people we meet, the more we will wish we could share every individual story with the world.
After a hearty meal of delicious homemade burgers, we had to say goodbye and finally hit the road — Madrid was calling. But as we rolled away, the final words of Saly’s interview were still ringing in my head:
“I will never change what I am. We are a colourful touch on the world. In a grey world where we are attacked for being different, we are still full of colour; we are the icing on the cake.”
One week later we found out that Saly’s book, ‘Cuando Callan las Estrellas’, was accepted for publication.