When we walked into the Cavaillon home of Vicente’s uncle Miguel, we were immediately ushered us to the table for food.
“We’ve started eating on this French schedule,” Miguel said by way of explanation. It was almost three o’clock, after all; they’d really waited for us, since here the noon meal is usually actually eaten at noon.
At first, it was just the four of us, catching up about our trip and their life in France. Miguel had followed other family members to France in the hopes of working the fields, when the Spanish market crashed; for this university graduate previously employed at an architectural firm, his new, small apartment and immigrant worker status was an unwelcomed shift for Miguel, but he took it all in stride.
“Realistically, for Spanish Roma the South of France is a part of our habitat, a part of where we have been living. In fact, my grandfather and my great-grandfather, something like 100 years ago, they were in this same area. And when it was the time of crisis in Spain, the only way many Spanish Roma could survive was to come to France, to try to search for a job. But for us, it was always something like a tradition to come here.
“My case is pretty strong, because my situation was very good in Spain, but from one day to the next I found myself without a job, without money, and the only hope I had was my family in France, that they might help me to find work. So I came here, with my wife and sons.”
Miguel had done the only thing he could, the only thing many Spaniards could when the crisis hit — to fall back on his family. But Miguel’s family didn’t have a generations-built safety net, and all continue to face problems based on their marginalized identity.
“The problem is that in Spain there is racism, but in France there is even more racism. Here, you cannot tell anyone you are Roma, you must say you are Spanish, because the general perception of Roma is very negative. In this village, concretely, because there are a lot of Spanish migrants, the schools are full of Spaniards. So now, the teachers don’t give any attention to these children, they treat them as something separate, isolated. You can really feel the disdain for all foreigners, but especially for Roma.”
“There are few Romanian Roma here, for example, but I imagine it is because of the greater prejudice they are suffering from the authorities. They are suffering so much persecution in France that they aren’t able to go everywhere. Here in Cavaillon, you must never say that you are Roma, you must say that you are Spanish. And even if you say you are Spanish, you will have problems.”
By this point Miguel’s house had slowly become overrun with family, with other uncles, aunts and cousins of Vicente, come to join the party. The kids played video games, crowded around a small TV while the rest of us sat, chairs turned towards Vicente’s attempts to convince his uncles of the dire situation of Roma and the need to do something to come together, to move. The respectful men had a sobering influence on my friend, listening calmly, considering each word while weighing them against a lifetime of experiences.
Eventually we moved to a coffee shop in town. I was feeling very French in this old-style café, bragging a little patio and rustic-looking bar. But my Spanish conversation at this round mahogany table, carrying three wise Roma men, two young Roma males and myself, stuck us automatically in the anti-French box.“I was lucky growing up, because my older brothers were working, so I was very lucky to be able to study until I was 19 years old,” Miguel told us. “That allowed me to have a stable job until now, which is not so usual.
“I want to say that sometimes, there is a situation when you’re forced away from working in an office with a stable job, where you have money for your home and for yourself, a respectable career. From this, to become a seasonal farmer working in the fields, working as a sort of forced labor. If you think too much about it, you can start to have depression, to get very, very down. But thanks to God, this is one of the advantages I have, being Roma. Every time I start to think that my life is terrible, I think that I am Roma. And I am thinking that my ancestors passed through much worse situations; but we adapted, we survived. When the depression comes, I say to myself ‘hey, I’m Roma, there’s no reason to be afraid.’ I am able to eat each day, my children are healthy, and that’s all.”
His pride in this identity, something he had always cherished and had now become his means to survive, seems to have influenced Vicente more than he even realizes.
“Many many years ago when I was a child, my grandmother, rest in peace, my grandmother started to talk about when they would go in carts, when they went to Galicia to buy horses, when they came to France,” Miguel said. “And she was talking about the old times, the free life in the carts. My childhood imagination was totally captivated by these scenes. This meant that from my early childhood, I felt a lot of curiosity, and I felt very lucky, happy and proud to be Roma. My mother was always showing us to be proud, to be Roma. So, throughout my life, I tried to search as much information as I could. And now that we have new tools, the internet for example, I automatically used them to search for information about Roma.
“At one point I created a forum about Roma culture that allowed me to put myself in contact with Roma from other parts of Spain. For me, at the time, the social issue was not interesting, but the cultural things were. The history of flamenco, the oral tradition regarding Roma, the Romani language. For me, this allowed me to meet very interesting people. And, on a small scale, I put my small grain of sand into some works related to Roma tradition — for example, regarding Roma tales, or the history of flamenco.”
Vicente often brags about how his uncle is a flamenco aficionado, even a flamencologist; but when we prompted him to talk about his passion, he denied the title.
“No, no. I just like the history of flamenco,” he said.
“Before I went on the Internet, I didn’t think there were such huge barriers between the flamenco made for Roma, and the flamenco made for non-Roma. I thought there was a stylistic difference, but I didn’t think there was racism in this music world. So when I started to participate in forums related to this issue, I discovered there was a real fight, because of those who wanted to “de-gitanize” the history of flamenco, to take out the Roma roots of the history. This is something totally ridiculous. It is like to say that Afro-Americans had nothing to do with the history of Jazz.
“For years and years I was fighting this, until I got very tired. I realized that it was something so clear, so obvious, that it was not even worth fighting about. Because the historical data is all there. Even the word “flamenco” means Roma, it is what they called Roma in the 19th century in Andalucia, and up until today there are still Roma who call themselves ‘flamenco’.
“Flamenco was a music that was touched by many peoples in Andalucia, but its crux is the way that Roma approach art, passion, and virtuosity. That’s all. It’s a very specific way to understand music.”
Since we had talked to so many Spanish Roma already, I wanted to know about the differences, living in France — unlike Spain, where most of the population with shared Roma ancestry are Kalo, known as “Gitanos,” along with some very recent migrants from Eastern European countries, France has a huge diversity of Roma groups. I wanted to know what it was like as a Kalo, a Rom immigrating from Spain. Was their community absorbed into the existing Roma communities, accepted, or rejected?
“The strongest relation we have here is with French ‘gitans,’ who are of Spanish Roma origin but who were born in France for three or four generations,” Miguel told me. “They maintain old Spanish Roma traditions, and their identity is very marked by flamenco, and other classic traditions. We have a lot of relations with them. We are in the same evangelical churches, and we have very good relationships. Also, this is the area where most gitans live, in the South of France. They recognize us, and we recognize them, one hundred percent.
“There are mixed marriages, and some French gitans still have relations with their distant relatives in Spain. In some ways, they might be even more close to the old Spanish Roma traditions than the ‘gitanos,’ or Spanish Roma, themselves. They wanted to keep it very very close, since they were far from home.
“Personally, I don’t have many relations with other groups. I know there are Manouche, but I don’t think there are so many in this area, and I know there are Romanichals, but we have the question about whether or not they are Roma like us. We don’t have relations with them. Some say that they are Roma, and others say they are not.”
“But let me tell you a story. The other day, I was walking. A young Roma guy came up to me; he was so dark skinned, I thought he was Moroccan. ‘You Roma?’ he asked me, and I said ‘yes.’ He said he was a French gitan, and that he didn’t even know how long ago his family came to France. He told me, he had been all his life in the same place, and he felt he also needed to move, because to be Roma you need to move.”
Miguel laughed, and a ripple of chuckles spread around the table.
“Gitans speak some Kalo, and they speak Spanish, like us. But for them, the whole Spanish language is the Roma language; inside their families, they use Spanish, which they mix with words from Kalo, and even some words from French. There are even some youngsters who hardly speak Spanish, after four generations here
“There is one old gitan from here. He was telling us that he went to a wedding in Marseilles, and he was enraged that none of them spoke the Roma language any more, that they were all speaking Pallo — but he said this meaning that none of them spoke Spanish, they spoke French instead! ‘So,’ he said, ‘In my house, we speak Gitan!’
“Even when they speak French, they do it with a very strong Spanish accent. A philological study of how they speak Spanish would be super interesting. It’s something like the old Sephardic Jews, who were talking in a Spanish that is now obsolete. They speak the Spanish that my grandmother spoke!”
I smiled; I love this story. It is one I had heard already a few times this year, and I think it speaks so well to the experience of holding on to an identity under attack. In Spain, Kalo are mourning over their loss of Romanes, while their relatives in neighboring France hold on to a disappearing Spanish to preserve their Roma identity.
But the most powerful part of our entire conversation came when Vicente posed him the question we try to ask each person we speak with: “do you have a message for the world, something that you think is important to share?”
“I want to say that Roma people are disadvantaged, and our biggest problem is that we don’t want power,” Miguel said. “We just want to eat every day, to raise our children, and to move forward together with our families. That makes you very happy, able to adapt to any situation, because you are always together. But that also makes you lose your political power. Until now, we are surviving, and I think we will continue to survive.
“In the age of George Borrow, he was talking with Roma, and he was saying that Roma would soon be over because the social situation was killing Roma, destroying their traditional way of life. But now, almost 200 years later, we are still here. And sometimes, when I see everything and think about how hard it is, I think ‘lets see, in 40 or 50 years, if we’ll still be here.’ But I think yes. I do believe we will survive, and we are surviving. Because we have a purpose. Nobody knows what, but we do.
“But the persecution we suffer is tremendous. Just look at Spain. You turn on the TV and they go for you 100 percent, attacking you, your identity, your self-confidence. It’s a campaign, it’s a campaign. In Europe, you can see it daily. But I think we will survive. Because Roma, we reinvent ourselves, we reinvent our identity.”
As a message to Roma, this is a powerful statement: don’t give up now, he suggested, because there have been desperate situations in the past, but the community, the identity did not die. But for me, the implicit message to gadgo society is even more important: how just could our collection of societies really be if our structures have been busy persecuting for generations a collective that has never wanted to dominate us, but just to live happily with their families?