Today I witnessed a Christmas miracle in a six-year-old who doesn’t even understand what Christmas is. She is tiny, even among her fellow first graders, and wears the same red sweatshirt nearly every day. Her black hair is always pulled back in the same long braid and her skin is a few shades darker than most of her classmates. She is a gypsy. And in Spain that makes her “the other.”
Gypsies here (and in most of Europe) are not the free-loving hippie folk that I used to associate with the word. In Spain, gypsies are a separate race, both physically and culturally different from Spaniards. Gypsies — more politically correctly, and more rarely, called Roma– have lived on the Iberian peninsula for centuries, but they have never integrated into Spanish culture. Gypsies are typically migrant people, often working in traveling fairs, shows and circuses. They are stereotyped as drug dealers and thieves. From my eyes, they are the last, albeit slightly modernized, remnant of the Javelin-tournament era where traveling storytellers and dancing bears enticed village people while their cohorts pick-pocketed the crowd’s gold coins. Or at least thats the feeling I get from many of the Spaniards at school.
In a country where every resident has access to full health care coverage, the blatant racism towards gypsies stands out like a glaring anomaly to an otherwise equality-driven society. The word alone incites a specific facial expression among most people that falls somewhere among pity, exasperation, anger and ambivalence. And that’s in Spain, where the Roma people have more rights and access to services than just about anywhere else in Europe. One of those rights, which gypsies apparently don’t have in some other European countries, is to public schools where they are integrated into normal classes.
For many at my school in the Madrid suburbs, that integration is both a blessing and a curse. For example, in fourth grade there is a gypsy boy who missed the first two months of school because his family thought it was more important for him to work at the fair than to go to school. He is ten years old, he can’t read and he can barely write. During his bilingual science class he draws pictures and traces the English words his teacher writes for him while his fellow students recite the differences between metamorphic and ionic rocks. When I asked him what his job was at the fair he said with a proud smile, “I was the dragon.”
Of the handful of gypsy students I work with, not one of them can tell me the colors in English. Most can’t even write them in Spanish. The first grade girl I mentioned before can write her name but only barely. She hasn’t figured out yet what the letters mean. That stems largely from the fact that she’s continuously absent from school. In the two days per week that I am in her classroom, she is absent about a third of them.
But when she is in class, she is bounding from wall to wall with excitement. “Me ayudas?” she asks during every section of every activity, bouncing in front of me until I come over to her desk and attempt to explain which picture is the fireman. Today while the students were pulling out their English books she ran over and threw her arms around my thigh, the highest part of me that she can reach. She just stood there for awhile hugging my thigh. When I reached down to pull a stray clump of her hair behind her ear the other teacher in the room warned me to “be careful of her hair.” Apparently she’s afraid the girl may have lice. The teacher later explained to me that the child lives in what amounts to a slum outside of Madrid, where the houses are made from scrap metal and “low quality building materials.” That would explain the warts and sores I’ve seen on the girls face and hands.
When I first walked into class today the first graders were all rummaging around in their bags, getting their materials out for the lesson. This gypsy girl was tugging on something in the small pink drawstring bag that she carries with her to school. She doesn’t have a backpack, or a worksheet binder or a red homework folder… or any folders for that matter. She doesn’t have any of the school goodies that pour out of her classmates roller-wheeled backpacks and trifold pencil cases. But she doesn’t know that. She has her pink princess drawstring bag and a pouch with a couple of pencils.
And today she had something else that she was struggling to pull from the pink bag. “Me ayudas?” she asked me as I walked in. I took her bag and pulled out a heavy sack of something wrapped in a plastic bag. “What is this?!?” I asked fearing that it was what it felt like: a sack of paper-wrapped ground beef. It took me a moment to understand her reply. “Es para los niños en pobreza!” she said, both pride and sympathy flashing across her face.
Then I saw it. The red lettering on the bag. This was the plastic bag teachers were handing out last week for donations to the holiday food bank. Inside the little gypsy girl’s ripped plastic bag was a brand new sack of lentils. She was donating to the poor.