This article follows the narrative history of the Vicentes. For an extended background please read the article recently published: Vicente’s Black Legend.The small French Village of Cavaillon has witnessed many things during its long history, but probably the arrival of my relatives was the most surprising phenomenon ever experienced by the Cavallonaises.
The Coverteras searched long and hard for their promised land before the Spanish crisis forced them to beg in the streets as in old times. They thought that the huge seasonal farming industry in this French village well known for its famous melons was the grant of a better future for their children and they decided to move.
One of the first adventurers was my cousin Vicente, family father and married man. The first evangelical pastor of my family, Vicente was a respected and well known young man in the place. Bekah and I had the joy to meet him for a coffee. We walked into his small house. Bekah was listening carefully as my uncles Miguel and Antonio sat in front of me, and my cousin Vicente started to talk into my phone recorder.
“My experience is the following. We were used to living in a certain way in Spain; we, the Roma people, if there is somebody who arrived from another city or country who doesn’t know how things can move, we always give help, and there is always somebody there for you. When we arrived here, an old Roma man offered to help us, he saw that we were lost and he offered us his hand, because that’s our tradition.”
I ask him about the Gitans, Roma from Spanish origin, belonging to the same group of Kalos who are living in Spain but who arrived France in different waves for the last 200 years. I also ask him about the different groups of Roma living in France, and the Manouches and Sinto.
“My experience with Roma here made me see how we are: all Roma, but in some things we are different. We, the Roma born and raised in Spain, have a more open mentality, I might say. We are very well prepared in many senses and we see things from a different point of view, but I will say something about the feeling here, the feeling of unity between our people in France, of brotherhood. There is a deep feeling of the need for mobilization, a deep feeling of conscience. We all agree on the things we need to do, and I see the willingness that Roma from France have; their Philosophy is not based on understanding every decision in the community, but on supporting from the heart every initiative.
“And it is true, they surprised me; my experience with other Roma here was not bad, but good. I think all this made me grow as believer, as Roma and as human being. Many things I heard before that I did not understand, the struggles of my parents when they were young for example. But here, for the way Roma think and live, I’m passing through it and slowly seeing the similarities. Roma here have a need to grow, to improve. People want to make the proper — even if they just have a caravan, they take the caravan and they cross the whole world with their families to make the good. As an evangelical I will say that they take the Gospel very seriously.
“This is an experience which marked me, one that I will never forget: one winter in Paris, I visited a congress because Antonio De Almoradi was preaching. We went there because I though that he could give me some advice on a problem I was facing. It was a beautiful experience; we drove 700 km with some brothers and together we saw 5000 people, all Roma, to listen to other Roma to talk about the Bible. I remember the feeling that woke up in my heart when I saw how God was calling our people. I thought always that it was something only in Spain! In Madrid, on a single day they named 200 Roma pastors. But of course, to see more than 5000 people waiting for one humble Roma to share his message made me think that what was happening was not just happening in Spain but in all of Europe. That make me think, also, that everywhere in Europe the Roma people are still in the same situation, a bad situation. But thanks to gospel we Roma are very happy to be with each other. We feel respected and loved, and we know we have real family everywhere, a true Roma family.”
Talking about the similarities and the differences between Roma communities, a question jumped into our conversation. Can Roma recognize other Roma, even from different countries?
“I dont need anybody to tell me, ‘that Guy is Roma”. Honestly, most of the times Roma make their best effort to hide. They will never tell you that they are Roma, but we cannot hide from ourselves. Most of the times if you see a Roma man, I don’t know the reason, if for the way they walk, or comb their hair, I don’t know how, but you say to yourself, that guy is Roma! And few, very few times we are wrong.
“When I was in the military service I had the ocassion to meet one guy who was a redhead with freckles, white as a sheet of paper. But when I saw him, just his way to talk and to move the hands, I said this man looks Roma. Later he came to me and openly said the name of his family, and of course the fact that he was Roma. I cannot explain how it works, what are the reasons; you see somebody, and maybe just for the clothes you say, this is a Roma man or a Romni woman. And on some deep level you feel identified with this person, because regarding the differences, weherever we are we are all Roma. If you are in Germany, you are Roma; if you are in France, you are Roma. In any place, if you are Roma you will always be, and the ones who are not… simply they are not… but you are, indeed.”
Coming back to his words, there are many things Vicente can talk about: the difficulties of being Roma, the struggle of poverty he suffered, the responsability he faced as a family father, fighting to preserve his values and his identity in a hostile world. But his history started far from France, far from his life as a pastor in Vie et Lumière. It started in Valencia, in Alfafar. It started with the Coverteras.
“I was born in the heart of a Roma Family, a humble family. My grandfather, Vicente Rodriguez, he was a very good man, a very intelligent man, a man very able to gain his life easily. My father, also Vicente Rodriguez, has been a man who tried to give us a decent education to 4 brothers and 3 sisters. He tried to give us the best he had, and my childhood, I guess it was like the childhood of any other child — I was very happy with the little they gave me. I never celebrated a birthday, I never had Christmas presents the way I do with my daughters. Instead, my daily challenge was to eat, to have some bread, and that was the first occupation for my poor parents as they did what they were able to.
“But since you are small you face the reality, even if you don’t know it, you face the reality that you are different. You go school and the first thing you learn is in the way of insults, when the other children start to scream at you, ‘gitano, gitano!’ At the begginging you don’t realize, but after some time you discover that gitano is a regular insult. Then, when you are growing some children will come to you and tell you to your face, ‘I don’t want to play with you because my mother told me that I cannot play with Roma children’. It is amazing, but all this, you assimilate it slowly, and that’s how you isolate yourself and build a barrier between you and the world. Also, that explains the reality some people face sometimes. When you are in love with a gadji woman and her family doesn’t accept you, that’s also a reality. Things like that are very usual.”
After his relate of his early years, I feel very proud of my cousin. In fact, I felt proud of my family for how, like many other Roma families in the middle of the struggle, they have survive prejudices without giving up and have become real heroes.
“I married when I was 21 years old. I married a Roma woman; she was living just around the corner and I was in love with her. We made an small wedding at that time, we did not have so much. As father and husband I faced very difficoult times. At just 23 I became a father, and at the same age I started to work like hell so that my daughters could have what I did not. Nobody ever gave me a single toy, a single present; no holiday, no birthday. To my daughters, their birthdays are sacred. Their presents, their things, for me these are essential, but equally inside all the efforts we made as parents to sustain our small family we taught our daughters to respect and to love their tradition, as my parents tough me. To respect certain things, because these things are what we are. If we forget our culture, we forget who we are.
“So there is a challenge, to tell your daughters, to explain them that they are different, that their friends are different and that the way we see life is different. Youngsters today make a million things we Roma don’t agree with, things we respect but that for us are shameful. We teach our daughters to respect themselves first of all, and today that’s very difficult. And it is getting more difficult by day, looking the panorama, but all these challenges a Roma father must get over; because as we say, if we get integrated, we will de-integrate ourselves. “We will never change for nobody. Our culture is as good as any other, it is our way to live and according to me, it is not at all evil.”
The time is passing, the church service approaching. We want to be there, but before leaving my cousin asked to share a small relate.
“There were many racist incidents I suffered in my lifetime, many insults, many episodes where I found just stereotypes and prejudices, in school especially. But the strongest episode of racism that I remember, the incident wich really marked me — it was not a cruel child’s game, it was a teacher who started to talk badly abour Roma in the school, in a terrible tone. After saying all kinds of racist things, he wrote the word gitano in the blackboard, and then he called me to the front. He asked me, ‘Vicente, is the word gitano written correctly?’ And I said very shyly, ‘yes it is well written’. And that episode really marked me. I was just a child, but that really hurt.”