Warrior of the Ghetto


“This guy is a phenomenon.”

It felt like I’d heard the words leave Vicente’s lips at least a dozen times before I met the lean, wise-looking young man, his head full of tousled curls. One evening, before we even began our drive, we had taken the train to meet José María Martínez Picón for a beer; we drank to the upcoming adventure, christening the idea with a conversation about his life and mine followed by a burger and fries at the nearby Burger King. Now, meeting him for the second time in a slightly classier Valencian joint, I was still caught by his simple, down-to-earth attitude.

In Valencia, Romanian Roma have a saying: “first is God, then my children, then José María.” He is constantly in demand, has friends from all different Roma groups in the city, and speaks Romani perfectly. When Roma meet him, they are convinced that he is one of them. But he is not; he’s a Spanish gadje.

José María, catching a breath of fresh air after his life story was through. [Photo by MAGNETO]

José María, catching a breath of fresh air after his life story was through. [Photo by MAGNETO]

“I was born in Mazarron, a little village in Murcia,” he explained to me. “I passed my childhood there. My relationship with Roma children started in school, in the neighborhood, and much more specifically when I started to breakdance. You might think it sounds strange, but in my village most of the children who were dancing breakdance were Roma. I didn’t feel so different from the Roma children. And that’s the way I grew up.

“Many times, I have commented to Vicente that I only really became conscious of my identity as non-Roma when I was in university, when I met Roma that were not from my background, from my childhood environment. Because even though I knew I was non-Roma growing up, I never felt different. And Roma from my town, they never treated me as different. My relation with Roma from my town was especially close during my teenage time, when I was also figuring out my own identity. To be close to Roma, and also to hip hop, gave me a certain kind of roots, a set of roots that I was never able to find outside of that environment.”

According to Vicente, he was completely convinced this man was Roma when they first met. Later, when he found out otherwise, he didn’t want to believe it. José María had all of the habits, the details of behavior, he said. “We know, usually; we don’t get it wrong. It was super strange for me, super hard to accept him as non-Roma.”

José María was acutely aware of this absurdity; after all, he has had his identity mistaken by both Roma and non-Roma individuals throughout his life.

“There are many things about Roma culture that I have internalized unconsciously during my development. Roma usually recognize other Roma based on the small details, and a lot of those details have become a part of me. Of course, now I cannot take these out. Now, how can I explain to people who treat me as Roma that I am not?

“Even when I explain to people that I am not Roma they forget it, and they treat me again as Roma. This happens very often. I find the easiest way is if I try to show people pictures of my family, but even like this it is very difficult. Because when Roma, or a group of Roma, meet someone that they are very happy with, it is difficult for me to prove to them that I am not Roma.

“For me, it is very difficult to be non-Roma. Very difficult. I don’t understand the non-Roma sense of humor, I find it very dry. Right now, and even more with time, I find it hard to express. It doesn’t happen with all non-Roma. But with many of them, I feel a strong cultural shock, and a shock at the lack of capacity for non-Roma to understand not only Roma culture, but also the actual circumstances of Roma people.”

Caught between worlds. Maybe I was projecting a little, but I felt I understood him completely. I didn’t fully get his sense of humor, of course; nor do I have a single Roma “detail” as far as I know, unless I have unconsciously absorbed something this year. But feeling at home and out of place at the same time, this is something I am very familiar with.

My obsession with identity and perception led me to study psychology in university; I was a little unsure of my decision after my first year, but I stuck with it. Then, I hit my third semester, and I started the mandatory course titled Personality and Social Psychology. I remember the day exactly, even the page in my textbook: Professor Reid took the classroom stage dramatically as always, his booming voice and stature gluing our attention, and started to lecture about theories of in-group and out-group relations, perceptions of “us” and “them”. He taught us about the psychology of categorization, identification and discrimination as if he was telling the history of the modern world. And that is exactly how I understood it: this was the mechanism of nationalism, of culture, of identification; this was the key.

Now, sitting in this dimly lit restaurant in Valencia and looking at José María against the backdrop of an absurdly red cushioned booth, I felt my own mental process was being reflected back to me.

“In university, I started to study psychology. For my three first semesters, I was not clear whether I wanted to finish the degree or not — I started to get demotivated with exams and writing. Then, I discovered social psychology, when they were talking about stereotypes, prejudices and inter-group relations. Then I thought to myself, this is something that really interests me. I finished psychology in order to learn about prejudices, and the relationship between majorities and minorities.

“One day, there was a study they presented about prejudices of the mainstream population against Roma communities, and prejudices of Roma people against the mainstream population. I raised my hand, and asked why this study had been done without asking any Roma about their opinion. The teacher asked me, would you have the resources to ask members of the Roma population, to have that outcome? And I said, of course. She asked me to come to the department to assist with the study, so that is what I did.

“My motivation for studying social psychology was to fight against racism in general, not just antigypsyism. But when I found a job, I started to work as an educator in a marginal neighborhood. In this neighborhood there was a non-Roma population, a North African population, and a Spanish Roma population. There, I discovered that people make a difference, and that Roma were always in the last place. From that moment, I took conscience of the fact that we need targeted, specific work against antigypsyism. From that moment, I have been focused on this.”

Though I found traces of my own development in his history, José María has had much more acute, alarming personal experiences with racism than me.

“Since I was very small, before primary school even, I was already conscious of the discrimination that Roma children faced. Even in that time, I didn’t understand it, it caused me pain. In fact, I think that being dark skinned helped me to feel this way; my color of skin and my type of clothes were closer to those of the children who were being discriminated to those who were not.

“When I finished my university degree, I spent the night in prison. It was the same day that they told me I had achieved honors in my practicum work. It was my last day, my last exam, and I slept in prison. I was accused with two other Roma guys of trying to steal from someone, and trying to beat up a policeman. We had been on our way to see Paco de Lucia and we were accused of this while we were in the cue, waiting to enter the show. And it was completely fake, all a lie. They put us in prison for two nights, where we were showered with insults that included the word ‘Gitano’. They assumed that the three of us were Roma. We tried to bring the case to court later, but the lawyer advised us not to follow through with it, because the police might take revenge.”

Even knowing that this type of treatment is not unusual, I was alarmed to hear how he told the story, so nonchalant, with humor even. “You know, life continues” he said, smiling.

Now, José María works for a large Roma organization in Valencia, mostly helping Roma who have emigrated from Eastern Europe with everything from paperwork to cultural mediation. Since beginning the job, he managed to become fluent in Romani, now even working to learn different dialects.

“I had many possibilities,” he explained. “I could learn Romanian, I could learn Bulgarian, I could learn Bosnian; these were the distinct groups of foreign Roma who were in Valencia. But I thought, if there existed one language to speak with everyone, why learn three different pallo languages if I could learn one single Roma language? Anyways, it appealed to me more. And I knew Kalo [the language spoken by Spanish Roma, which mixes some Romani vocabulary with Spanish grammar], which is very useful for learning Romani — even more than you might think.”

Even after he explained the ideological and educational reasons he had ended up in this work, all of the process he had gone through, the line that stuck in my head was still one of the first things he said during our pre-trip beer: “I love [my job]; I get to hang out with Roma all day, what could be better?” He is not on a mission to alter a people. He feels a love for those he works with; in many ways, he feels like them.

Since he grew up surrounded by Spanish Roma and now spends all of his time speaking with Romanian Roma, I wanted to know his opinion about whether the attitudes that people impose on the groups are similar, and how they perceive each other.

“Well. To destroy Romanian Roma even more, people use the pretext that Spanish Roma are integrated, that Romanian Roma need to learn this from Spanish Roma, and that social services need to do the same work they already did with Spanish ones, as if they were the ones who granted Spanish Roma ‘integration’. This is the only difference. But the people who say this are exactly the same ones who are still racist against Spanish Roma. It’s just an argument. That’s what I believe. Because the argument itself is racist, even against Spanish Roma.”

Neither group is homogeneic, so of course there could be vast differences between any single Spanish Roma and Romanian Roma as individuals. But in general, José María feels at home with Romanian Roma, and the two communities do recognize their similarities, to some extent.

“First of all, Roma of all backgrounds choose to relate primarily with their families, then with the Roma that are related to their small communities, then with other Roma. This happens with all Roma. For instance, in Valencia, the Ursari Roma from Romanian origin, they relate between themselves. But here, they live in contexts where there are other Roma, also Romanian but from other groups, and Spanish. They might develop closer relations with other Romanian Roma groups, since they have more things in common due to their shared nationality, but they also relate with Spanish Roma because they are in a context where there are many, many Spanish Roma. But above all, they prefer to relate within their small groups, this is a clear preference.

“Now, for example, we see marriages between Spanish Roma and Romanian Roma; at the beginning the families may not completely accept it, but once they are married, they are married. Sometimes, there are certain kinds of prejudices between the various communities. Here in Valencia, for example, the arrival of many Roma from other countries who have the same traditional occupations as Spanish Roma, like the searching and picking up of steel and other materials, there was an unexpected competition over resources between them. In this context, there will always be a conflict. This conflict doesn’t spread so far, though. Because even though you can hear things like ‘these Romanian Roma are stealing the steel,’ the vast majority of Roma hold the belief that everyone has the right to eat, and this principle usually outweighs the prejudice.”

Vicente prompted him to tell a specific story about smoking taboos between groups of Roma, to illustrate the perceived “differences” between communities.

“Okay,” José María said, laughing. “I have learnt that there are Roma women who smoke in every community; there are some communities that accept it, and others that don’t. In Spanish Roma communities, they often do not. Some time ago, I listened to this: in one Romanian Roma community that didn’t accept that women smoke, they were going on and on, complaining that Spanish Roma women smoke. But the reverse was true as well — around the same time, I heard Spanish Roma complaining that Romanian Roma women smoke. And about the pants, [whether or not Roma women typically wear pants or still preserve the tradition of skirts], it is the same.”

But from his perspective, one that seemed to mirror Vicente’s, the similarities between Roma groups goes much deeper than what women wear or whether they smoke in front of their families.

“First, let me say that on the individual level, each person feels and lives his or her identity differently,” he said. “But on broader levels of analysis, there are many things that are shared by most Roma communities. First, and most obvious, is history. All Roma communities come from historical persecution; all Roma communities also came from a series of traditional jobs, at least in every country. There is even a shared tradition, in terms of occupations, to switch from job to job depending on the needs. The ancestors of Spanish Roma were selling in the streets, selling animals, making handmade products, working with metal, etc. And that is the origin of Roma traditional jobs.

“The Roma language, even being so diverse between countries, has its roots in a specific Indo-European language. And the feeling of what is pure and impure, in different degrees, is shared — I won’t say for all, because I don’t know — but in a large, large, large portion of Roma communities. In that sense, there is a great degree of homogeneity.

“Another important similarity is the importance of family.  The way to understand health is also very shared among Roma. And the sense of not accumulating riches, of taking what is needed to survive, of living day to day. The value of children, the sense of humor, the value of life, the value of the present moment, and the value of religiosity or spirituality. In my experience, even Roma who declare themselves atheist are often spiritual. The value of music; I think all Roma communities give the same kind of value to music.

“So all Roma come from the same tradition. Then you have ‘modern’ and less modern, and even there you have degrees. But I will say that those small details that I was speaking about when I talked about myself, those are very, very shared. The other thing that is very shared is a strong desire not to be pallo. In these things, you will not find much diversity. And there is more. The respect for elders, the avoidance of violence. Of course, there is violence between Roma, even overwhelming violence. But the attitude towards violence is the same — the key of Roma morality is respect. Respect, knowing how to behave, and shame. These things are very internalized. Then, from this base, you find diversity.”

Returning to his story about approaching Roma to participate in the psychology research at his university, he told us that he approached many Roma women during that time who he hadn’t previously known. Even though he told them otherwise, they were all convinced he was Roma. Later on, when he had become friends with some of them and their husbands, they told him in confidence: “do you know why we all thought you were Roma? Because non-Roma men are always touching.” Based on the codes he had absorbed, he would naturally keep a bit of distance with women, offering his hand instead of kissing their cheeks. To them, his particular way of showing respect was a detail, something that had led them to label him a Roma man.

Though it sounds like his unusual identity sometimes makes things difficult for his life, it also affords him a profoundly unique perspective and sensitivity. Unfortunately many of his acquaintances, particularly those who are not Roma, have a remarkable inability to comprehend him.

“I have a message for non-Roma,” he told us. “Many non-Roma people don’t understand that my wife and I have this spirit regarding Roma people. Many believe, since both of us work in FSG, that this is just a job; they often try to make an alliance with us regarding Roma stereotypes. For example, they say things like ‘what a good job you do, making Roma children go to school. Such hard work.’ And, for example, regarding hygiene issues, ‘your job is very good, very hard, you have a lot of value making Roma people appreciate hygiene, because in school they look at other models of life.’ And these are the progressive people!! It is very difficult for me to have any relationship with people who make comments like this.”

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