Destination one in Barcelona: Gracia, a downtown neighborhood that has always been filled with Roma, is the home of our Gitano Catalan friend Ricardo Valenti Gutierrez. The area has now become a hotspot for hipsters and artists, and this creeping gentrification can just barely be felt in the quiet cobblestone streets overlooked by light-colored apartment buildings.
“It used to be different,” Ricardo told us as we walked. “Back in the day, there were more people around, they even had fires going in the middle of the street — the sidewalks were always full, there was always music.”
We were on our way to meet his grandfather for a coffee. We hoped to learn more from him about life in Gracia over the years, about the personal histories of a wise, respected old man. Along the way, our friend was proudly delivering an impromptu tour of his neighbourhood.
“Look,” Ricardo pointed; we passed a stone placard commemorating the place of birth of El Pescailla, the famous Roma musician whose real name was Antonio Gonzalez. His claim to fame — the melding of Rumba and Flamenco — is called “Rumba Catalana” on the sign, but is known to most Spanish Roma as “Rumba Gitana”.
Yet another coffee shop, yet another café con leche. This was a nice spot though, a little neighborhood place on the corner. As we walked in, Ricardo knew most of the people we passed. Soon after we settled in, his grandfather Ricardo Valenti Carbonell arrived.
He smiled as he heard our plan; he had traveled a bit himself, and urged us to take advantage of the opportunity. That’s the real way to learn, he told us. To learn about the world, the two most important things to do are to travel and to listen to other people’s experiences — to listen, because while you’re taking the stage yourself, you don’t leave space to challenge your own point of view. I let his advice soak in with a smile. It’s nice, once in a while, to hear someone validating your own philosophies.
“So what would you like to know?” he asked.
Vicente began in Spanish. “Could you maybe tell us a bit of your personal history, of growing up in Gracia, of how it was here around the time of the war?”
For the next ten or fifteen minutes, neither of us said a word; Uncle Ricardo strung together his personal history into a perfectly laced narrative, telling us a story, an intrigue, as if he had all the pieces on hand and just had to stack them together to build up his message.
“I was born few month after the war. Some people say, and I do believe it’s true, that even if we suffered during the war, post-war Spain was worse. In the post-war there was nothing; nothing but misery, starving and cold, nothing. The little food we had, Franco gave it to Germany, Russia or I don’t know where, but here there was no food. When I was 7 years old, my mother was widowed. And I was not alone, I had another little brother. So we went to Mallorca, to the fields.
“For everybody in Mallorca we were like foreigners. But even being rejected, my little brother and I use to beg for bread during the day so that in the night when we came back home we would at least have something to eat. It was hard, very hard; in the summer we use to sleep in the fields, open air, and in winter we tried to survive sleeping with the sheep and the other animals inside the farms because of the cold. We were there until I was 12 years old. Then I started to work as apprentice to a carpenter. I was meant to go to school in the afternoon, but I entered through one door and escaped through another because in the school there was no money to gain. I used to run so I could search for everything, pieces of broken clothes, pieces of wood, and in the afternoon I sold it to people to gain 3 or 4 Pesetas, something to give to my mom for the dinner.
“Slowly, when things got better, we moved to Ibiza. That’s why I speak better Mallorquin than Catalan. I even speak Ibizenco and the dialects from Menorca. Formentera was like the promised land for us, because in the 50s still they did not know electric light, so they used carbide lights. This you did not see, it was before you were born. So we use to be sellers, until suddenly life changed again.
“When I was 16 years old my mother died, so I was left with 3 little brothers. I was 16, another was 14, another 10, and a small one, 3. It was like a movie. I could write a bestseller. So we ate when we were able to eat, and we use to sleep where it was possible. My small brother was eventually adopted by a old woman in Ibiza, another brother was saved by his father who lived in France, and my last brother and I were reclaimed by the family of our father, in Gracia, in Catalonia.
“My brother became chef, a Roma chef but a very high class one. He served thousand of people in Mallorca, a complete hotel of foreigners. But I chose to be a seller until I meet my wife. When we met she was 15 and I was 17, and we engaged when I was 18. We were right here.”
Uncle Ricardo pointed to the street by means of illustration and we were right there with him, transported by his narrative nostalgia.
“In this corner there was a workshop of rubber so I started to work there till we had enough money for the wedding. We went back to Mallorca again, and Ricardo’s father was born. But when he was just 3 months old the government called me for the military service, so I was forced to go and to leave my wife and my first child, with one of my brothers in Mallorca and the other in Ibiza. We were forced into this separation by life circumstances. After 16 months I returned, and the next day we decided to move to Ibiza. There, we fought to establish a family.”
From Ibiza, he had traveled to Brazil to save up some money, an experience he delivered with a smile on his face; before long, however, he returned to be with his family.
“That was life for us. I was born in hard times, and life hit me again and again. So one day I had some good money, but maybe the next day I would not be able to pay my taxes. And that was the Roma life, our life.
“Until I had the luck to meet a Roma man was the older brother of El Pescailla. This man was working at Telefónica, so one day I asked him for work, and I remember how that man laugh at me.’You want to work with me?’ he asked. ‘You, who has been travelling in America, the professional seller?’ I told him yes; I need your help, I said, because today life is getting harder and harder and I need to look after my 4 children. Now it is not about me, but about my children. It was a hard time until Ricardo’s father was 16 and I introduced him to work with me in the Telefónica. We hardly survived, but they eventually made me the boss, so things got better.
“But you know something? In my 20 years working there I never took holidays, not even once. Not even summer, not Christmas. I used this time to make some business in the famous franchise El Corte Ingles, and I gathered all Roma in this area who had minivans to work with me. I spent a few years like this until El Corte Ingles offered me an official job. I was glad, because the work at Telefónica was very, very hard. Imagine spending 8 hours per day going from building to building, climbing 4 floors in each place, with more than 40 kilos in your hands, going up and down many times. That was very hard work. So I was happy to have the job on El corte Ingles. I spent another 20 years working hard there; I did not take a holiday, in 40 years not even once. Difficult for Roma eh?” He smiled at Vicente, his eyes glistening with the joke.
“Now, I finally gave my place at the company to a family member who needed it, because it is a hard time again. So that was pretty much my life. And for many people in this neighborhood their lives were mostly the same, until the market arrived and most of the Roma became sellers. There was a good time for that, too, but now it has passed. We are in the thin cow times.”
I was rapt with attention during his monologue, enchanted with his ability to give us a window into the past half-century in just a few minutes. After the story ended, it was even hard to think of anything else to ask.
Approaching the subject of racism, we were both curious about whether Gracia really experienced a difference compared to other Spanish Roma neighbourhoods.
“There was always racism in this neighborhood, as there is today. But we were very lucky in Gracia, not because we are better than other Roma but because of the Catalonian society. They love people who speak Catalan; they see your efforts, and in some ways Catalonian society is 50 years more advanced than the rest of Spain. In Catalonia many Roma live well, have good jobs. But then again many had to deny that they were Roma to get their jobs, that’s also the truth. But I never denied. I confess always: yes, I’m Roma, but I’m not a wild person; Im Spanish, Catalan and Roma.”
Despite his challenging life, Uncle Ricardo was not sad about the era he lived through; more than anything, he seemed to feel frustrated with the contemporary state of morality.
“Today people have culture and knowledge but zero education, no moral values. Even your grandchildren are disrespectful. These times are weird. I wish I had been born 100 years ago. Woe to the ones who are born today.
“Today, if you go into the streets, two teenagers can assault you without respecting anything. Everybody does wherever they want, values are lost now. But still, I will give you a piece of advice, since you are youngsters: I repent today the things I didn’t do with my life, not the things that I did.”
By this point we were paying and standing up, gathering ourselves to leave. We all would have stayed longer, but the old man was late for a meeting. With his sheath of paper in hand and sharply trimmed moustache, he looked every inch a dignified, respected elder. As we walked through the streets watching him nod in recognition to those we passed, Vicente asked him about his opinion of the current situation of antigypsyism internationally.
“What do I think about the situation?” he reiterated. “I think it is incredible, shocking, that in the 21st century this rejection still exists. I know that I am an ignorant old man, but I can’t find words in the dictionary to describe how it is possible that in the 21st century there are people with so much culture and knowledge who still reject us. They don’t have a conscience, I don’t know. They don’t have mercy for the children, these small creatures. They don’t care about all of the people who are suffering misery and hardly survive. But gadjos want everything for themselves, so the rest don’t deserve the right to live according them, not even if they are working! Why? We don’t have rights?”
In Gracia today, he said, everyone is hoping and praying constantly that fascism will end, that antigypsyism will stop. Even the charity in the neighborhood, the efforts to feed the poor, is fundraised from within the Roma community.
“Tomorrow, I will talk in the church about this very topic, in front of everybody. We cannot do anything, but at least we can pray and ask God to stop these evil people, to give them conscience about how evil they behave. How is possible that nations as advanced as Germany, the north of Europe, how is possible that they are so racist? I always tell to myself thank God the time of slavery passed, now we have rights. I love to think we now have some choice. But I will be the first to criticize many things.
“If I don’t fit as an architect, I will be a seller or a bricklayer. But if I fit, if I am like you, why do you reject me? Because we are a minority that suffered isolation for centuries? I wish all of these landlords could be in our place, to see if they could survive like us, day per day. Imagine the boss of a factory who humiliates his workers daily, if he put himself in their place! In one month he would come crying with a long beard and broken pants, begging for forgiveness. I would just love to see how the ones who rule would do in our place.”
He was a straightforward man, but not the least bit simple. A hard worker, the strong roots of a large family, with an inspirational smile and a proud, straight spine.
It was hard to imagine how people could have made such a man as this suffer simply for his Roma identity. I turned his earlier proclamation over and over in my head: I confess always, he had said; I confess always that I am Spanish, Catalan and Roma.“This is me, world,” his pride, his attitude read. “Take me, accept me for who I am.” And based on what we learned this afternoon, he certainly had enough to be proud of.