Behind the Iron Curtain


We entered Sant Boi late in the evening, around  7 pm. We passed through the city until we reached the industrial area where our guest was waiting for us, arriving in front of two big doors of steel. We knocked, the metalic sound shocking us a little. A young voice called out: “who is it?” It was one of the sons of Mariano, who worked with him in the junk yard. Mariano, a 50-year-old man with the experience of a lifetime, brings the Iron Picker lifestyle to a brand new level. He is a very intelligent man and a gentleman.

Hard at work. [Photo by MAGNETO]

Hard at work. [Photo by MAGNETO]

“Well, I was born in Barcelona in the year ’64. I feel firstly Barcelones, and just a bit Catalan,” he smiled. “I’m Roma from a typical family. We were typical Roma, a big family, a happy family who worked in the market, a family that was full of love for each other. We shared everything from bread until business, always willing for a wedding — the classic Family, I guess.

“All my life I’ve been selling in the streets. When I was 18 I meet the Gospel. I’m married and I have 4 children and 3 grandchildren, and I always searched for independence in my job. Because I’m Roma and I hate to work for others, I always preferred to work for myself, so I became an entrepreneur some years ago. I sold flowers, clothes, everything you could imagine, till I found the business of the Junk Yard. Today my 3 children, and a total of 8 people are working here, so I can say happy that we are moving.”

Uncle Mariano is dressed fine, seated smartly behind his office desk. He received us with elegance, and after introducing Rebekah we quickly got lost in our talk about the Roma political world.

“I consideer myself somebody who invest his life in a single project. I founded a political party, because I am one of the few who still thinks that the only option Roma people have is to have political power. Either through our own party, which is difficoult due to the electoral law in Spain, or through a big branch in a regular democratic force, a real branch and not a smokescreen. For this to be real, as I have said many times, in those municipalities which are 20 or 30 percent Roma, there must be at least 3 or 4 Roma councillors. In regions, if 2 or 3 percent of the population is Roma, at least 2 percent of the politcal representatives should be Roma, thats the natural flow of life. We are not simply regular citizens. In fact, at a state level, there should be at least some voice in the parlament so we could have a chance to have a voice in every law which affects us, a Roma voice from our point of view. Because up until today our voice, our people is like nothing.

“To put an example, the laws of enviroment and ecology. These laws are beautiful but nobody took in account the Roma who work as iron pickers, maybe 20 percent of Roma in Spain. They don’t care if the new enviromental laws are dragging us to the gates of misery. The same can be applied to the street sellers. How many reforms can they make to their own legislation? They know that selling in the street is what most of us do, but nobody takes us into account, they simply force us to accept their reform, no matter our reality. That’s not democracy, it’s tyranny. The Lords dont give us no right, no voice; nobody has until today, in the history of democracy.”

He soon asked me about Filadelfia, because he knows, as I know, that in Spain any attempt of real representation for Roma grassroots must pass trought the church. So here we were, Mariano and me, an old Roma Big Boss in his 50 years of life and a young Roma acitivst of 25, both struggling with a church that, up until now, does not break its silence.

Mariano has tried for the last 30 years to gather together all Roma old men, the respectful men, in a single assembly. He managed to do so 6 years ago, with 72 representatives. It was the beginning of a political party, but moreover it was the dream project of autonomy, an attempt at independence which was the dream of the pioneers of the Evangelical Church, the early NGO industry and the community stakeholders. There was a moment when the dream was close to life, very close; but as always, something terrible happened.

Juan Jose Cortes, who was chosen equally as a leader by all Roma segments of the society, the only one who had the respect of all the Church, the civil society and the communities by himself, a man who lost his daugther in a very well know episode in our recent history, a Roma evangelical Pastor who was supossed to be our Martin Luther King Jr., he was accused of attempted murder and resistence to authority, though he was recently found innocent. With this fatal accusation his political power, along with the viability of a project of autonomy for the assembly of 72 Roma elders, was over almost as swiftly as it began. It all happened suddenly, in a turn of events that he, and many others, believe was a deliberate plan to ruin the chances of Roma unity in Spain.

Mariano, the old Roma Politician, well known and respected in all of Spain for his charisma and style, knows things that could destroy the life and the reputation of some of the most important religious and political leaders of the country. While speaking with him I had no question about the veracity of his relate, though I may be criticized for this article; I am merely telling what was long ignored but openly known: the supreme degree of corruption which Roma communities are suffering from the ones who are supossed to be our political class.

The truth is out there, I guess, for anybody who has worked in an NGO, a public administration or a political party; there is an invisible force, that will never allow Roma to receive a real equal treathment, as the Uncle Peralta an old Roma leader of La Mina said:

“I am living for a long time dragging my body across the world, chained to a wheelchair. Well, now, if you want me running against you in an equal competition we will never be equal. I came from a differente reality, a different history, you must to give me some choice, I guess more than a choice, you should give me a very high advantage.”

The Uncle Mariano had a dream once. It cost him his whole life. Today, his project of a parlamentary assembly for Roma is already lost, and he is pointing clearly and without fear at the responsibles.

“It was during ’98 or ’99, there were many projects on Roma issues. The church played dirty by that time, well the direction of the church, as example Paquito. He was not president because he did not want to be, but I know, as others know, that he recieved many ‘gifts’ from the politicians, especially for playing this political game. And thats the problem in the church, they pretend they dont want to be involved of policies and then they bring the mayor or a candidate for election to the church, and they receive him and go with him to dinner. Well, that’s politics. They pretend they don’t want it; they don’t want you there, thats the truth! In fact, they play politics on the back of all of us, which means that they don’t eat and don’t allow anybody to eat. Because if they wanted to be involved clearly in politics only defending evangelical Roma, I could understand a clear statement. So even if they just wanted to benefit their own people, I would not like it but I could accept it. But the problem is that they don’t even want to make this, no, they want to represent us but wihtout making anything for us, and then if you complain they start to say that it’s not their job to make policies. But then how can anybody make politics for Roma, if they steal all our human resources? Since everybody is in the church people dont think in anything more. So every time they make a meeting, they bring in 5000 people. The politicians see this, and of course, what credibility will remain for us? For the ones who are not spiritual leaders and are just interested in social change and justice?

“I will give you an example for you to see what I am talking about. If Filadelfia wanted, they could make a single service on the 8 of April in every community, in every region, in the door of the municipality. Is it possible? Of course it is, and this way you could gather 4000 or 5000 Roma in every big city. I’m not talking about a demonstration, I’m talking about a religious service in an open space like they used to make. Politicians would be shocked, the impact would be worldwide, but you know something? They dont want to do it.

“We are more than one million Roma in Spain and we are fully ignored in the XX century. There are even still people who tell you, ‘sure, you are Roma, but you are Different!’ Oh God, even today I need to explain every day that I’m not a wild caveman. And look at the media, at the image we have, in every reality show, every news magazine, etc. For last 50 years I’ve been demostrating to evrybody I am the ‘good Roma.’ Im tired of this, I am an old man. What I saw in my life is that the white is the good and the black is the bad. I remember one history, a Roma man denounced a Gadjo and the police arrested him thinking that the Gadjo was the victim; later on they apologized, but look at the kind of society in wich we live. We are supposedly guilty, no presumption of innocence exists for us.

“I’ve been stopped 10 of 10 times in every control in the streets by police, and it drives me crazy. White people dont think about it, they are stopped once per year. But I’m not white, I belong to the Black people, the dark-skinned people, and I would love to denounce this part of my reality. So police stopped me for 50 years, and later on they always apologize, always, but Im tired of it. To stop Roma like this should be illegal. Why did they stop me? Because I look Roma. That’s why they humilliated me like this, not for my car model; not for anything except for the colour of my skin. And these things are a pure expression of discrimination. So imagine, we are in the most democratic and advanced country in Europe, we allow the marriage of Homosexuals, we regulate the adoption of LGTB, we fight hard for the rights of every minority. But why do we still suffer sporadic episodes of violence by the force of police?

“For me to be Roma is something that always produced pride in you; sometimes, when the world is pressuring you, and you feel anxiety, and sadness, and you feel lost, the illusion of a wedding, of a Christmas celebration with your family, that raises your soul and gives you the will to live, a real Roma feeling.

“We are in the middle of a crisis of values inside our own communities, a crisis of Roma values. Some days ago I was in a meeting with other Roma elders, some of 60, others of 70 and myself with 50. Among the younger ones, we agreed to use the new values and tendecies to mediate within families in the intervention we use to offer Roma families. But the older ones said to us, don’t count on me, I do prefer to lose my voice than to go again my conscience as Roma. So who was right? We were all right, but that’s just a reflection of the conflict we are living today. And in practice there are thousands of Roma who are being assimilated very fast. I think we should all think of our ancestors, fathers and grandfathers who left us this heritatge as something precious. We need to put our hand on our chest and to take this pledge, this huge responsibility. Today families are broken, husband abandon their wives and vice-versa. In old times, this was completely impossible. And today, if we don’t all make our best effort, we will lose everything we have.”

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