Sons of the Pharaoh


The first night I drove to La Mina, after dropping Vicente off — he was spending the evening with friends in Sant Roc — it took me about half an hour to get to the street where I was planning to park. The area was full of strange outlying blocks that were cut off from the main road and one-way streets; the GPS didn’t seem to have them figured out, and neither did I.

I didn’t know I was going to La Mina, of course. I was heading to spend the night in the family home of my friend Jose Antonio, who had graciously offered to take me in. Later, when I discovered that I was in one of the most significant Roma communities in Spain, a historically marginal neighborhood like the nearby Sant Roc, and that the city had recently done some city planning tricks to “improve” it, the whole thing made a little more sense.

When, after an embarrassingly long time, I figured out how to manoeuver into the parking space that Jose Antonio was saving for me, I settled into the beginning of two beautiful days. His parents, a Roma man and Spanish Gadje woman, filled the table with food; we talked about everything from music, to politics, to the ways of the neighbourhood.

Jose Antonio's family with Vicente and I, outside of their home in La Mina

Jose Antonio’s family with Vicente and I, outside of their home in La Mina. [Photo by stranger in the street]

Jose Antonio had lived here his whole life. Here he was surrounded by the family of his father; he even worked in the neighborhood in the evenings, tutoring from the local library. I spent some time seeing other parts of the city with him: his university campus, his favorite library, and then the standard parks, churches and government buildings. But one more special moment was when, on my second day there, Vicente came to join me and we were able to meet his grandfather.

El Faraon was a respected old man. We were all seated when he walked into the house, dressed entirely in black to respect luto for the passing of his wife, but we quickly stood. He was the very image of an old Roma man: white moustache, suede hat, smart shirt, pressed scarf, pointed shoes, and a brown, fringed cane that he swung slightly, but deliberately as he walked.

We were particularly fortunate to meet him, since his luto made it a little complicated for him to go out, especially for such a member of the older generation who observed the practice strongly.

In old times, people who observed luto for a deceased family member didn’t eat at tables, but instead stayed on the ground; they didn’t sleep in beds, but in chairs; music, tv and cinema were banned, because they were not meant to do anything that took your attention from mourning the dead. And it was important to tell everybody. Part of the reason you dressed all in black was so everyone would know about the passing.

According to Vicente, the “rules” of luto have shifted today. Generally, people enter in church, but they can only listen to Christian music. They still can’t enter bars and can only drink coffee in houses or if you offer it to them. But importantly, the tradition isn’t so much a set of rules to be observed, but a way of demonstrating respect to your loved ones. It tended to go on for a long time, not because it was an extreme practice, but because the loss of family is so significant in Roma tradition.

“I was a very hard man, going to the church. It was very difficult for me, and everybody knew it,” Faraon told Vicente, sitting next to him on the couch while the rest of us clustered around the nearby table. Apparently his wife had been a devout Christian, and had always been giving him testimony; when she grew sick passed away, he finally became more convinced.

A few years ago, Faraon had gone to the church when the pastor was preaching about Moses and the Pharaoh. He stood up in the middle of the service, saying “shut your mouth! I am the Faraon, and I didn’t say any of that!” Everybody in the church couldn’t help but laugh.

Now, the man was beyond convinced. At the very beginning of the conversation, he spoke to Vicente like a brother.

“You know, God is always with us. We were in the roads, we were beaten, life was very hard. But God was always with us, and still is today.”

It turned out that they were actually from the same area, the Faraon and Vicente; the old man was from La Pobla de Vallbona, in south-central Valencia. It all came out over gastronomic nationalism: apparently, Catalonians don’t particularly like pig face, but Valencians certainly do.

“Many Roma here don’t like it,” Pharaon said. “But you know why I do? I was born in Valencia.”

The conversation was dominated by the bonding between Vicente and Faraon, although Jose Antonio, his father and I chipped in once in a while — on my part, most of the time it was to try to catch the meaning I had lost for complicated Spanish vocabulary. But it hit a brief boiling point, right on the brink of an argument.

“Many people don’t like me,” Faraon had said. “And you know why they don’t like me? Because I always tell the truth.” It was a funny sentence, given that he was a very well-liked, respected man in the community; he had been called on to mediate fights between two Roma, between Roma and Gadje, and even to discuss with the police. But in the context, he was talking about the deteriorating morals and values within the community.

“In the old times,” he said, “among Roma there was a lot of respect. Nowadays, you go to a child to tell him not to play football in the street, and he can even tell you ‘I do what I want.’ Look how the situation is!”

But then, he hit one of Vicente’s sore points.

“I ask you, though,” he said, “who is the most racist: Gadje? Or is it us Roma?”

I waited for an explosion, but Vicente delivered his typical argument calmly. Of course, I thought later, he would never disrespect this man.

“I think there is a difference, though,” Vicente said. “The racism of Roma is based on fear. It is true, some don’t want mixed marriages, or talk badly about gadje in general; but that’s not the same as active racism, the kind that comes from people within the system.”

In old times, the old man told, Roma and non-Roma weren’t interacting at all, they weren’t ever speaking to each other; neither group wanted any kind of relationship. Now, things were gradually changing. But, according to the Faraon, he always knew that Roma and non-Roma, they were all human. When Jose Antonio’s father first introduced his wife-to-be to the family, his father commanded him to respect her, threatening that he should never, ever raise a hand against the woman.

The brief moment of debate dispersed into the atmosphere, and after a few more benign minutes The Faraon was on his way. The rest of us stayed for hours talking in the house, though; a late meal of fine salami and cheese, a session of musical exchange — I played guitar, while Jose Antonio’s father brought out his high tech drum synthesizer and impressive old-school boom box — and long conversations about life, travel and NGOs.

Late night music with me on the guitar, and Jose Antonio's dad on the coolest drum I've seen in a while. [Photo by MAGNETO]

Late night music with me on the guitar, and Jose Antonio’s dad on the coolest drum I’ve seen in a while. [Photo by MAGNETO]

It was not until the next morning when we got into a thick conversation about La Mina. Apparently, I learned, people in the neighbourhood had likely thought I was coming to the area to buy drugs.

Fights between families were also concerning the family. It had been a while, apparently, since the last significant violent episode, but talk of such episodes was ongoing.

“I’m not worried about Jose Antonio,” his father said; “he has a calm nature, and they know him, they respect him. But I worry about his brother.” They had even thought about trying to leave La Mina.

These worried conversations were far outnumbered by the positive discussions, though; Vicente mostly talked with the father, as Jose Antonio and I listened, discussing for hours all the small details, the little things about their Roma lives, families, traditions. I am always smiling now, when these topics start; though I can’t relate from my own experience, I’m learning the rhythm of the conversation by absorption. It’s nice, familiar. And it always makes people happy.

At one point, the father reflected this to Vicente.

“It’s nice to talk with you about this stuff, you know, to talk about all of the good things of Roma.” He had clearly grown frustrated of his own people on some level, jaded by his difficult environment.

“Well, it’s a whole language in itself,” Vicente said to him. “The whole range sits within it, from good to bad.”

Right before leaving, the two men reached the high point of their bonding: Jose Antonio’s father had taken out his collection of rare coins and metal pieces, which he uncovered with a metal detector at the beach. Vicente seized the opportunity, pulling out his favorite show-and-tell: a WWII-era German Nazi coin, gifted to him by a German friend. First and foremost, as he explains, it is the coin that the Roma character Magneto turns over and over in the first X-Men movie. But more importantly, it is a constant reminder of why it is important to him that he continues to fight against antigypsyism, a reminder that another genocide is not so unfathomable, a reminder to guard that spot between rage and serenity.

Seeing his own open window, Jose Antonio’s father brought out the coin that he carries everywhere: an American Silver Dollar, gifted to him one day by an American tourist in Spain, a true vagabond, traveller, some manner of hippie. They had been talking, and when the American realized he was Roma, the present followed — “I’ve been traveling all over the world,” he said, “and the only people who will do something for you truly for free are Roma.” Now, he kept it with him always, a symbol of freedom.

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