by REBEKAHWe caught up with Luis Fernández Jiménez in downtown Barcelona, not far from Gracia. The 27 year old father, who lived in Roquetas with his young family, was happy to head for a coffee with us; we started chatting easily about his perception of Roma identity, even before we were ready.
“Wait — can you say that again?” I asked, fumbling for the recorder so that I could be sure not to let his words slip from my mind before writing them down.
“Sure,” he replied. “The concept we were talking about is that there are some Roma who are Roma from the cradle, and others who are not. I really don’t want to offend anybody, but I feel a huge privilege to be Roma. I’m proud of it, very proud to be Roma.
“My wife is non-Roma, but that doesn’t mean that I am less Roma, or that my children will be less Roma. The only difference is that I fell in love with a non-Roma woman. My children are Roma because they were raised Roma, in a Roma environment. That is something you cannot change.”
The identity carries significance for him, but not in its stereotypical attributes.
“There are Roma who are pure blood but belong to the gadjos, they are huge gadjos. So I will always say it, this about pride. Maybe I don’t know how to sing or to play guitar. But this is not important. I don’t believe in putting Roma people in boxes, and I don’t believe in classifying Roma as Good or Bad.”
The bartender raised her eyes in our direction. I wondered if this was a reaction to our unusual coffee break conversation — maybe it’s paranoia, but I feel we’ve had a higher attention-grabbing rate than usual, starting up conversation after conversation about Roma in coffee shops across the nation.
“Someday I will be an Old Roma, if it is God’s will. But we are living in boxes. Up until today, we face so many prejudices and stereotypes.
“Yesterday, one gadji woman and one Roma friend of mine asked me about the Roma marital ritual of pañuelo. Why this concept of Virginity and purity?”
This Spanish Roma tradition is a significant aspect of identity for many Roma here, although not all. My own perception of the practice has been challenged over the past month, as different individuals have explained to me how it is less about a “test” and more about the link to tradition, about the way that the Spanish Roma wedding traditions as a whole embody aspects of the culture that remind people of their pride in their community values.
“They asked me,” he continued, “because they wanted to debate. They though I was a caveman, that we traditional Roma force women to prove something. But that perception is totally false. It is not about proving anything; it is about purity, like many things in Roma culture. Today, one of the few things that remain in our communities is this purity. Women offer their purity as a way to honor their families, and especially their father. The day we lose our traditions we will be extinct, because without rituals, what will be the reason of a wedding in the middle of this huge crisis?
“When they started to argue, they thought that if a woman is not a virgin we kill her, or I don’t know what! But oh, God! We are Christians, we don’t kill anybody! If a couple decides not to marry before sleeping together it is okay, we don’t like it but it is their life. The problem is that even though we Roma respect all kind of cultures and traditions, people usually don’t respect ours, they don’t respect the things that make us different from others. We have a strong culture, but our traditions, our way to see life is not respected, it is attacked. I like to call the attention to my identity and to celebrate what we are.”
Well, I thought, if the bartender hadn’t been eavesdropping before, we had definitely caught her attention now. Optimistically, I thought she might be taking in the speech, learning something.
“If you are Roma and you reject the tradition, the culture, the customs, you have the right, but then when you claim to be Roma I will not believe it. For me you are not Roma, at least not Roma like me. You may have been born Roma to a Roma family, but you made your choice. I can respect you, but you cannot represent us.
“Today we allow everybody to represent us, and that is our biggest problem. If I had the choice, only community elders like the Grandpa of Ricardo would talk in our name. We need to gain conscience, to have better communication between gadjos and us. We live a common society, so we need to improve our ability to communicate — our image is essential. Right now, as a gadjo, if you had the choice, whom would you contract: a Roma lawyer, or a non-Roma lawyer?
“I use to not vote, until I discovered how important it was. Now I repent for not studying, because I would love to have more power to facilitate the life of my children as the elders did for us, even if it was not recognized by society. What I want is to share with the whole world how special we are, how wonderful is to be Roma from crib. We are another concept. Our details, our hospitality. We are made of other material, we are different. Compatible, but different.”
There was a tinge of discouragement in his voice, and a complete lack of anger. But despite this calm, his words were strong, proud, powerful.
“We Roma never give up. We move fast, we do amazing things. Look at this guy,” he said, indicating Vicente. “He wanted to travel, and he traveled all over Europe. But today, unfortunately, self-esteem is a huge problem for us. Your parents are bombing you along with the rest of the world, telling you that you’re not made for these kinds of things. But it is not true. We are a special people.
“Never believe we are inferior. We have the power to raise our voice and to do things that will shock the whole world. Life is very difficult for us; they tried to exterminate us for 1000 years. But you know something? They will not win. As much as they oppress us, God is with us as the people of Israel.”
When Luis began to talk about discrimination, the stories that came to his mind told of the same moments that we have heard a hundred times in the last few weeks: they aren’t insults hurled between equals, but moments when Roma feel themselves belittled by officials within “gadje” systems.
“I suffered many episodes of discrimination in my life. One example is in discotheques. You listen to flamenco music and you try to enter a flamenco show, but then the guy at the door doesn’t allow Roma to enter. Such a crazy thing! Flamenco music is Roma music, and they ban you from your own place! That really marked me. In a Roma place they didn’t allow me to enter because I was Roma. So in a Roma place where they play Roma music and talk about Roma culture, a gadjo can tell you at the door: no, you don’t enter because you are Roma.
“But really, everything started with discrimination in school. For all of us it is the same, and I don’t believe things are advancing.”
These words made me sad. Not because I disagree; I really have no way of knowing if things have gotten better or worse. It is difficult to believe in change though, I think, if you don’t believe that things are changing.
But despite the apparent pessimism, the wisdom in Luis’ young spirit was clear. He saw the need for pride, for change, for persistence, and thought it was worth working for despite the lack of change he had witnessed. And he saw the evil. He saw the evil, but not as a thing to blame on a specific group of Roma or Gadje; rather, as a historical lack of understanding and compassion for Roma identity and reality.
“Today I’m married, and the situation is very bad for our family, for my children. But Roma reinvent themselves. I live illegally in my house, as many Roma in Spain. They menace me every day to evict me; but I’m not worried, because God is with me. Always, throughout my life I loved to make deals, and that’s the other reason I’m not afraid, because I have this ability. I will not be exploited, because Roma are able. You search in dictionary Gitano: man able to gain his life!
“We have needs but we survive, we are like machines. We take a pen and we build a car. I am a seller; I’d be able to sell a cow to an Indian to make burgers. I feel capable. I don’t know anything about cows, but it is my gift. It’s just our magic, our essence.
“For me, Roma are purity, the real Roma are purity. It is like a fragrance that would make you drunk with 2 drops. There’s a difference between pure and impure water, and if you try it, you will see. We are love, we are respect. Our love means something different, and that’s why any gadji woman who has been with Roma wants to stay with Roma, because Roma fully love. Our heart is open. I know this firsthand. We are authentic, we are special, we were created with a purpose — as Vicente, as me, Roma from the cradle, pure Roma.”
Despite the worth that Luis put in his Roma background, he had nothing bad to say about non-Roma; after all, he was deeply in love with his own gadji wife. And when I asked him about how he would define a gadjo he clammed up, refusing to offend me.
“I cannot say anything bad about gadjos, not even a small thing,” he said. But after a short hesitation, he concluded: “if you think about that gesture, maybe you will understand why we are different. Roma can’t speak badly about gadjos in front of them. Even if don’t like certain things. We respect.”