BARCELONA (2001) – He has big brown eyes and a robust frame. And yet, Pedro Aguilera insists he is invisible.
“I am a Gypsy,” he says plaintively, “and mainstream society doesn’t see me.”
At first glance, Aguilera looks older than his 32 years. Dressed in a business suit, his tie wrapped tightly around his neck, the son of a letter carrier and housewife is working on his Ph.D. and lives a comfortable life in the outskirts of Barcelona with his wife Barbara and their two children Pedro and María.
Mercedes Porra, 28, is all fire. Tall, lean and with cinnamon skin, she plays Fátima, a Gypsy and pediatrician on “Barrio Sesamo,” Spain’s “Sesame Street.
If it weren’t for their ethnic background, you could say that Aguilera and Porra are like any other young people strolling the streets of the city. And in many ways they are typical hardworking thirtysomethings, except for carrying the dreaded weight of racism levied against them by society.
Gypsies are thieves. Beggars. They are messy. Con artists. Nomadic. Flamenco and ole! They only care for the rattle of cheap jewelry dangling from their arms and choose slums over tree-lined neighborhoods.
About 12 million Gypsies live throughout the world; 10 million in Europe, mostly in the east; and some 600,000 in Spain. Andalusia is home to the majority of Gypsies. Here in Catalonia, an estimated 52,000 live, mostly in poverty.
According to the Spanish government, nearly 95 percent of Gypsies in Spain live in shanties; more than 70 percent of school age children never enter a classroom and the $2.7 million annual budget set aside by the government for addressing Gypsy issues may break the record books for the most time a budget has stayed stagnant: 13 years, or $450 per Gypsy per year since 1988.
Not one Gypsy holds public office in the European Union Parliament, nor in any of the parliaments of its 15 member states. Just over two dozen non-profit associations across Europe handle issues such as housing, health and education. In Spain, the non-profit Asociación Secretariado General Gitano publishes a monthly magazine that features news, profiles and in-depth reporting.
More than 2,000 years of history in Europe, and five centuries in Spain, produced only one political representative in the Spanish government, and he, Juan de Dios, arrived and left in the 1990s.
Aguilera and Porra are exceptional in that they both grew up middle class and enjoy social advantages that most in their community do not.
Still, Gypsies feel like immigrants in their own cities. Careful that his point not be misconstrued, Aguilera notes that for the recent protests against a new stringent immigration law, undocumented immigrants here have had more support and protection from political parties and labor associations that Gypsies have ever seen.
“The media doesn’t pay attention to us in important ways,” adds Aguilera, who writes for the monthly magazine Pensamiento Gitano. “I would love to have an opinion column published in El País (one of the country’s leading newspapers) but at most, they’d print a letter, if that.”
“I don’t feel different than other people that I pass on the street,” he says during an interview at his job, where he’s spearheading a pilot program funded by the European Union to place 2,500 Gypsies in jobs throughout Spain within five years. He handles the Catalonia region.
“I lead a regular life, get up in the morning, come to work, and go home in the afternoon. But this is considered as something “wow” by many people, he says and rolls his eyes.
His wife Barbara is not a Gypsy, “but at home we are constantly enriching our children through multiculturalism. She respects my traditions and my elders, which is something very hard to find in people who are not Gypsies.”
In the small but important way that is available to him to contribute to a vast and diverse community, Aguilera prepares a handful of Gypsies to enter the mainstream workforce. “In our society, work as you know it is not valued,” he says. “For us, punching in and out every day is not something we aspire to do. We are natural salesmen, entrepreneurs; we excel in the open market. We don’t define ourselves by our job titles and office work. This is a slow process of adaptation.”
A fan of the innovative musician Mike Oldfield as well as Gypsy kings Paco de Lucía and Camarón, Aguilera longs for the day when he can no longer say, “Today’s politicians forget that we exist.”
Porra considers herself Catalan or Spanish, whichever you prefer, she says. Born and raised the in the city’s vibrant center Eixample, Porra balances her time between preparing her doctoral thesis on ancient Egypt, acting on television and minding her treasurer’s post at the Fundacio Pere Closa, a non-profit that helps 70 young Gypsies stay in school by providing tutors for the kids and counseling for the parents.
The ties that bind Gypsies together from all walks of life are varied and strong, they say.
Aguilera quit his job in the private sector to join Lucha contra el discrimen (Fight against discrimination), the job-training program.
“It’s always been other people counseling us on job training; this time, we’re going doing it,” he says. “We’re the only organization that’s staffed entirely by Gypsies, so when Gypsies come to us, we can cut immediately to the cultural shortcuts,” he says, such as respecting the tradition that young women do not go out alone at night for work or play.
To which a thoroughly modern Mercedes, wearing crocodile boots and ivory-rimmed eyeglasses, adds, “Tradition is very strong in our community and I think it’s perfectly fine. But there are some things that I don’t agree with. Like, if a man caught me with this pack of cigarettes!” she says, picking up the box to light one.
The daughter of a chef and housewife who came to Catalonia from Andalucía, Porra radiates friendliness. Maybe that’s why four years ago she won the role of Fátima.
“I cure little kids and put band aids on Muppets,”she says, laughing. “My brother Sebastián went to the audition. They were looking for two people to play a Gypsy couple, so he wrote my name down on the list and here we are, Fátima and Manuel, the Gypsy couple on ‘Barrio Sesamo’ ” she says.
“Manuel is a computer guy on the show. Exactly what he does, no one knows. It’s for kids; they get the general idea.”
Last year she played another Fátima on a Catalan television soap opera. “It was a regular soap opera, you know – love affairs and assassinations. Mine was secondary role, I played a Magrebí (North African) because they couldn’t find one who spoke Catalan.”
Between dubbing from Catalan to Spanish “Barrio Sesamo” and work at Pere Closa and researching her thesis, Porra awaits to hear whether she won a grant from the Autonomous University of Barcelona to study an archeological dig in Peru.
Many things interest Porra, but not a career as an actress. “Don’t say actress; it would demerit the profession! Let’s say that I have played roles,” she says, sipping strong coffee at an outdoor cafe. “My real passion is ancient history. I would love to teach it at the university level and write a historical novel about anything from the 19th century back. I’m a modern woman but I’m passionate about ancient history. People were more genuine then; what mattered more was their character not what car you drive.”
There’s a prejudice for everything, for what you own, what you are, what you do. Porra believes that in the end, classicism is the egg that came before racism.
“People respond more to what you have and not what you look like,” she says. “Here, no one would mind living among Gypsies if we were all rich.”
Growing up middle class, she says, opened doors that she’s still walking in and out of easily. As a Spanish cinema lover, avid reader of history books and part of a wide social circle, Porra sees the world as hers to claim.
“We had a stable economic life and I think that’s the thing that makes it easy to study, to attend university and have a wide selection of opportunities. It’s not racism that keeps us down, it’s classicism,” she says.
Adds Aguilera: “In 1999 the Spanish parliament took up issues affecting us, and named its commission ‘Addressing the Gypsy Problem.’ Problem? That is how we’re seen, as a problem,” he says.”You only hear about us when there’s a problem, or because you hear flamenco.”
It’s as if he had just recalled that time, when he was a boy, neighborhood children yelled to him as he walked down a street, “Lookout for the Gypsies! Run!”
He kept walking, perplexed. “Why should I run from Gypsies?” He drops his shoulders and arches his eyebrows, still mystified, and today, with anger.