The Gypsy Who Taught Me What Christmas Is

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.”

Madrid Street

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.”

Spanish toys and candy

Candies and toys for sale at Feria de Abril in Sevilla.

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.

Granada Gypsy Hills

Some immigrants in Granada lived in caves dug out of the hillside overlooking the city.

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.

Never Stop Loving

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All things Spanish, Christmas-style.

The Grinch Lives in Spain

Christmastime is in the air in Sarria, and for many Spaniards that apparently is a bad thing. After wrapping up the last of many Navidad-themed lessons (a Frosty the Snowman sing-along with third grade) I was practically skipping down the hall, debating how many bars of turrón to take back to the states for my family and admiring the elementary Christmas crafts adorning the walls, when I fell into step with another teacher. “Feliz Navidad!” I said, perhaps a little too cheerily considering it was pre-afternoon coffee. “I hate Christmas,” she responded, straight-faced and even-toned.

Whaaaa?!? This profesora, whose name I annoyingly can’t remember, went on to explain that, roughly “in Spain we don’t live as intensely as you do in America. We don’t celebrate as intensely.” She said Christmas for her is just a lot of work. It’s stressful and makes her miss the family members and friends who can’t be here with her. “If you have young kids, it’s fine,” she added. “But now it’s just mucho trabajo.

At first I thought she must be an anomaly. After all, who can really hate Christmas?!? But minutes later, when I asked the gym teacher (and resident Galician historian) Jose Manuel what his Navidad plans were, he gave the same response: “I don’t like Christmas. It’s too much work. Too much stress.”

As a unabashedly enthusiastic Christmas-lover I was initially flabbergasted that this culture that I hold as a standard-bearer for living as happily as possible was so llena with Grinches. But this Scrooge-dom, I suppose, has a pretty sturdy footing considering Spain’s Christmas traditions.

Just like most (all) Spanish holidays, the cornerstone of Christmas is two massive family meals, one on Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena, and one on Christmas Day. Unlike in America, where we have one ham or one turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, in Galicia these Christmas meals are chock full of protein options. In the Galician Christmas spread you could find roasted pork shoulder, shrimp, fish filets, cured ham, chorizo, sausage, clams, and fresh sardine-like fish all clustered onto the table between side dishes of usually garden-grown vegetables and varying shades of bread loaves.

Preparing such a feast not once, but SIX times over the Christmas break (on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years Eve, New Years Day, January 5th for the night before the Three Kings, or Reyes Magos, arrive and again on January 6th for Three Kings day) must be positively exhausting. And while spending the holidays with family is what makes it so special, mingling with those stubborn relatives for three weeks straight would undoubtedly give me a gray hair or two as well.

Despite the apparent lack of love for Christmas time among these middle-aged Spaniards, my little town of Sarria hasn’t let that Grinchiness prevent a full holiday transformation. Blinking snowflakes and glowing christmas tree lights line all of the main streets and Santa Clause figurines are hanging from a smattering of windows and balconies (apparently Santa climbs up buildings instead of slides down buildings in Spain).

Christmas spirit was in full swing during my weekend trip to A Coruña, Galicia’s second-largest town that sits on the Atlantic coast. Here’s a taste of that Spanish-style holiday cheer! (Click any picture to pull up the full-sized gallery)