Since wandering into Sant Roc that afternoon asking for Alfonso, better known as“El Petete,” Vicente and I had stood out like a sore thumb; one old man had watched us from his curtained window for at least half an hour, and I’d be surprised if loiterers hadn’t started counting the number of times we lapped the block with the Consorci, Alfonso’s old workplace.
Just to put the icing on the cake, when Alfonso finally came over to meet the two of us in the street, he embraced Vicente, shook my hand, and then led us to a café — the same café we had been walking past, back and fourth, for over an hour. By this point the neighborhood looked a little different, though; we’d suddenly jumped to an insider’s perspective, by Alfonso’s side as he saluted his neighbors in full command of the street.
This was his place. Alfonso had grown up in Sant Roc and made his own life here, caring deeply for the people and the space. But that didn’t mean his life was easy — it had been complicated, sometimes dangerous, sometimes terrifying living in this urban slum, a place Franco essentially created when he forcibly moved Roma here from downtown Barcelona, a place where different groups of new immigrants have ended up in recent years and where he feels the local authorities make the situation much worse with their doctrine of fear and force.
“García Albiol is a dog. Albiol, the Major of Badalona created a special police division for Sant Roc neighborhood. He called it the Alpha division. They can stop you in every place at any moment, for no reason. And how can you complain when they point at you with a machine gun?
“He did this for the Romanian Roma, he hates them. Even today he has court cases against his declarations, because he is a racist. It’s worse than you can imagine, this place is now completely corrupted. He destroyed everything here, everything.”
I thought back to something our new friend and host Daniel had said to us a few days earlier, about how certain policies intentionally pit ethnic or cultural groups in this kind of neighborhood against each other, inciting and perpetuating violence. Of course, if the rest of Barcelona doesn’t have to see San Roc, if the violence is “self-contained”, nobody will care that there is an Alpha Division… right?
“This is corrupt, literally talking. And this is the best part of the neighborhood; if we cross to the other side — look, there are 4 districts inside Sant Roc, 4 parts, and this is the best one. The quiet one, where you have some new buildings. But if you go to the other side, literally talking the 3000 Viviendas are nothing in comparison. Everybody can check on the Internet, San Roc is the number one most dangerous place in Spain. Unfortunately, that’s the image people have of us. Sometimes we think that it is even an strategy. Politicians are interested in Ghettos. Like [the right-wing political party] Platform for Catalonia: they claim it is not racism, it is survival. This speech is not so far away.”
Alfonso spoke a little forlornly about his neighborhood. He wanted things to be different, to get better, but during his lifetime he had only seen them get worse. He even tried a few times to do something for the kids, to save them from what he himself had gone through; but what might seem like kicking a stone to someone on the outside is the equivalent of thrusting a boulder for his life, his situation.
One effort that he believes would make a difference is to start a football team with the kids in the neighborhood. But by now, he has all but given up.
“We tried to move, we knocked on so many doors, so many places asking for help, but nobody wanted to help the youth from Sant Roc. I feel sad watching the children grow, slowly falling into crime and drugs. They get lost and you see that they cannot avoid it, but how can you help them? I’m 36 years old, is not so easy for me to connect with them, though they respect me always, they love me. Football is one of the few ways I think I can reach them. But I did not find the way. I don’t even have water or light in my house, I take them illegally. I don’t have a job; I eat in my parents house very often. So how can I help anybody alone? By now I have given up, I’m tired.
“I tried to create an NGO, with some youngsters, to work in projects, but with an NGO you need some money even to print statutes, and honestly I don’t have enough for a coffee most of the time. Sometimes 20 euros are the difference between eating or not. Everybody should look out for their family, and today I’m married and with 4 children. And here I am, wanting to save Sant Roc.”
He spoke for a while about his aspirations, his frustrations. He only needs 1500 euros, or even less, he said; the kids already play all the time in streets, but he wants to give them something different.
I believe that despite the best intentions, it is hard for me, and hard for most of us to understand, to believe, to feel how deeply structural discrimination can suck you down, unless you are someone who has been to the bottom and brought yourself back up again.
“These children call me Uncle,” Alfonso said; “and you see them, how they grow. And of course the church is an option, but a lot of them, when they are young, how will they go to the church? When you are 13 or 14 you just want to get out and to live your life. I help them in everything, and they know that I want their welfare. But I see them to get lost. They start with joints and hard drugs and some get saved later but most do not, most became lost persons. At this point nobody can help them, they don’t listen to anybody, and the cycle follows because the children of these children will see how their families are broken and copy what they saw.
Alfonso’s frustrations and dreams for these kids are deeply rooted in his own life experience.
“When I was a child I was a little disaster. Why deny it? My father wanted to put me in the army! Look, no Roma want their children in the army, so imagine how bad I was. He wanted for me to go church, all my life he wanted to put me there. He was a very good man, a serious man, but I was a shame, I was a thief.
“I started to work at 15 because my mother wanted to make me busy doing something good, to occupy my time. So later on I met Isabel and we married, and with time I got more mature, thank God. I give him thanks for all the smacks my father gave me. This may sound strange; in the moment I did not understand, but now I thank him from the depths of my soul. I survived many things, many, many things, just because God did not want to allow my destruction.
“When you are a child you don’t know the gravity and the danger of the things you are doing. I rarely tell this story. But I remember when I was 11 or 12, just a baby child, and I was a thief. I had a knife, and the knife was bigger than me. I used to go to old people, people of around 40, and ask them to lend me some coins for the metro; and when they showed me the wallet I took my razor, and told them ‘now you give me all the money you have’.
“I remember one of these times in particular. This is why I say God has always protected me. One of these times I found 4 guys on a bench. It was very late at night, and they were preparing some joints. I hadn’t found other people, so I decided to rob them, same line as always. These guys look at each other and realized I wanted to attack them. They took out their wallets, full of money. I though it was my best hit, so I took my knife and I told them, ‘give me everything you have’. They glanced at each other, then all of them whipped out their knives at once. I staggered backwards. I was a child; I had tried to rob them equally because I was ignorant. Thank God for fortune, the civil guard appeared at that moment and I started to run. I was 11 years old, four guys of 30 could easily have killed me. I ran to hide in the ground. It was the night, it was very dark, and I hid in a hole in the ground for hours while they searched for me.”
After making it through this period of his own life, the last thing Alfonso wants is to watch the kids of his neighborhood suffering the same.
“These children today, they grow up in the street. And what you don’t want is to see in them the same things you lived. Today is a different time, but it is the same — drugs are the problem, because the youth cannot pay for the drugs but they want to smoke, and if you don’t give them money they will search for it. And that’s the problem; they start to steal, to attack, and how you can help them? They tell you that they are innocent, but I lived this so I see them coming form very far, and this is happening everywhere. I care for these children because I grew up here, but I feel I can do nothing.”
Before meeting Alfonso’s wife for dinner we walked through the neighborhood, talking about Roma political representation and the way things used to be. He pointed out the tougher parts of the neighborhood, and we walked through the jungle of concrete where children played on one side, watched by older ladies and men occupying the park benches; looming on the other side of the square was one of several police car lineups, apparently part of the Alpha division.“You know, they will drive around all day menacing us, but if some violence happens they will never step in to break it up,” Alfonso said. “They just wait until it is all finished and come to clean up the bodies.”
He was a little wistful about the neighborhood. Apparently, back when it was only Spanish Roma, things were more peaceful, people felt safer. But ever since there was an accidental death in a fight between a Pakistani and a Rom, there have been conflicts between the groups, and in general the area just seems to be getting worse.
We spent a good deal of time with Alfonso in Sant Roc by the time we left Barcelona. Without his contextualizing speech and our frequent cop sightings, it seemed like a pretty normal downtown neighborhood; poorer, sadder, but just like any district it was full of businesses, school children, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Walking around the next evening we even caught sight of the Filadelfia church as the service let out. My personal favorite was a particularly bad graffiti portrait of Camaron de la Isla; “it doesn’t look like him at all! People were very angry about it at first,” Alfonso noted. But if he was near impossible to identify by face, the small star and crescent moon symbol adjacent to the artwork acted as a trigger. The graphic is now a symbol of Spanish Roma in general, but was originally taken from his tattoo of the same form.
I worry, sometimes, about the way we talk about ghettos, even when sharing the voices of people who live in them. For people like Alfonso, his difficult life was inseparably related to his physical space, and this suffering, this danger becomes omnipresent in the way he explains himself. It is true that Sant Roc is dangerous, that it is economically devastated, that the people who have grown up there do not deserve the hardships they are faced with every day. But let’s not start imagining such neighborhoods as evil places, places where one wouldn’t be able to walk without witnessing violence, places where every person wields a weapon. Because these exaggerations are wildly unfair. In my experience, people like Alfonso, the gentle, poor, peaceful dreamer, the family man who married at 18 and now has four children, the respected uncle who would desperately love to “save Sant Roc” but doesn’t have the first clue how to access any European funds or warm the hearts of corporate donors — people like Alfonso are more the rule than the exception.