“I’m Sebastian Fernandez Manzano, 18 years old, Spanish nationality, Roma condition; people call me Sebitas.”
He leaned into the small recording machine as if on the air, a total actor, laughing a little at the absurdity of an interview between friends. Five of us were sitting at the typical, cafeteria-style Spanish restaurant, leaning back after our full meal capped with ice cream and flan: Sebitas, his sister Raquel, their niece Albita, Vicente and me.“My parents were pastors, my grandparents were pastors. I may not have studies, but I have culture and I have values, I am useful for my family and I fight for them. I don’t currently have a job, I’m living from what we earn selling in the streets, but that does not stop me from having joy or from being Roma. And to know that I will die being what I am, nobody can steal this from me.”
I first met Sebitas when my flight from Budapest to Spain landed here in Madrid, now almost a month ago. He and Raquel joined Vicente picking me up from the airport: Raquel, his confident older sister, was waiting at the arrivals gate with Vicente, while Sebitas pulled around with the getaway car. A sweet-eyed, attractive young guy, he had stretched to speak his limited English with me as the triad drove me through the city and pointed out the main attractions; now, the second time around, our roles reversed as I tried my best to keep up in Spanish.
Vicente, on the other hand, has known the boy since he was eight years old. He describes the younger version of Sebitas as a sweet child, a little overweight, but whose life changed pretty severely after a chain of bad experiences in the school system related to discrimination.
“I grew up in La Plata. I saw very bad things since I was a baby, drug trafficking, people being assaulted,” Sebitas recounted. “Since I was very young I saw isolation, especially in the school; you could see the Roma all together in one table and Gadjos in other places, simply for that, because we were different. Even the teachers used different approaches for one group of children or another, so the class was divided. The teacher, the same guy, behaved totally differently with Roma and with Gadjo.
“They teach you that for them you don’t have value, that you’re not worthy. If you start to receive this poison from early childhood, then you look at the injustice most grow up with rage, with anger, and it will forever be like this until Jesus comes back to earth. We don’t have studies, no education. My grandpa was called the Pescatero, he spend his life selling fish; every time he wanted to arrange one document he ask the young people to help him. Why? Because we don’t accept teachers or authorities, because they didn’t accept us from the beginning, and that’s how life is. We remain together to take care of each other, and that’s why we are united.
“So, Roma parents, take care of your Roma children, sons and daughters, and don’t let them hang out with non-Roma. Because they are the ones who bring drugs to our neighborhoods, they are the ones who created violence. Why? Because they don’t care about us, our race. Within the community, nobody will show sexual stuff to our daughters and sisters because we are Roma, but Gadjo hate the way we are so they have isolated us, to make ourselves copies of Gadjos, and then they take our sisters and make them like Gadjis, destroying their innocence.”
His words are strong, angry. But his laid back stance and broad, frequent smiles are far from menacing; and, moreover, his demeanor towards me as a Gadji is warm and welcoming. By the time he was giving us this speech we had already passed the day in Madrid, meeting Raquel in the morning and then visiting Sebitas at his parents’ small shoe store where he was running the counter. We had picked up their niece Albita from school, and spent a few hours in the apartment. Now, we sat in the restaurant semi-comatose after our Spanish feast of paella and lomo.
“In this very restaurant I have suffered discrimination,” Sebitas said, giving the example of coming with a group of Roma, and being denied a seat for over an hour while later arrivals were invited to pass them in line.
“Police have also stopped me many times. They attacked and humiliated me, not for how I look, but for listening to Camarón and for talking the way I talk. They’ve stopped me many times to ask me if I am Roma. One of these times, we were in the center, we were going to party like everybody else, but we listened to flamenco so the police pointed at us with their guns. We were celebrating the engagement of our cousin, but for police, happy Roma are a problem. So I complained to the police, putting my life in risk. Another policeman came and defended me, but on that day I witnessed the total shameful behavior of Spanish police.
“The ones who say that Spain is not racist against Roma are the first racists. When they tell you this they are depreciating our suffering, our history, our reality.”
He said that the racism he spoke of wasn’t about a lack of assistance from the state, but about a targeted marginalization: according to him, the traditional occupations of Roma have been attacked one by one, Roma communities have been evicted, state policies have selectively affected Roma. He seemed to speak from a place of anger, of sadness for his community, but also from a place of pride.
“We, as Roma, are able to go every day to bed without nothing but peace, giving thanks to God for our families, and the fact that we don’t depend on anybody, not even the economy. Maybe we don’t have a cent but we will cross the world for our bread, and our children will never starve.
“Unfortunately, today romanipe, our honor, is disappearing, only the gospel remains as a place for us to meet and to share. But they have been trying to kill us for 1000 years and nobody has managed to do it. Why? Because we have a gift, we have a gift that nobody else has, not even Muslims or Jews whose traditions sometimes match our own. But to understand us is impossible, to find the key. You need to be Roma to understand. If you are not Roma, you will never think as Roma, but you will realize soon the incredible potential Roma have.”
The conversation finished with a dialogue about his experience living in Madrid — his mounting anger has grown with his move to the huge city — and his understanding of the Roma concept of Gadjo.
It was strange, to be at the center of this conversation that turned to the subjects of deep anger, suffering, racism and stereotypes, sitting in the midst of a bustling restaurant; even more for the fact that, despite the heavy words, Sebitas spoke in a way that seemed bright, even joking. I remembered a comment Raquel made earlier in the day about the difficulty she has found with her non-Roma friends, that they don’t understand the Roma sense of humor.
I smiled as they laughed, but later wondered if I’d really gotten it.