Two women from the Gypsy community from two different generations share their personal stories and their views on the progression of women’s rights in their community. We hear about the ways in which their lives weave together, the ways in which their paths split, in the voices of the young and the old.
ANA VARGAS IS 65 YEARS OLD AND FROM LEBRIJA, an agricultural town of 26.000 inhabitants, situated near the le bank of the Guadalquivir river. Yaisa is 21 and from the neighborhood of Las Tres Mil Viviendas, in the south of Seville. The Gypsy community is known for having conservative views on women; Yaisa herself says that their culture is “very sexist.”
Ana sits solidly in her armchair, her blackish-grayish hair pulled up into a tight bun, feet planted like roots extending throughout the room. It is hard to picture her at any other age or time or place. Inside the small, clean but filled to-the-brim living room, there are five of us seated: her husband, son, daughter-in-law, grandson and granddaughter. All eyes are on Ana, drawn magnetically to the woman in the worn armchair, waiting for her to speak. Others filter in and out of the house, mostly grandchildren (of which she has 15). Apart from spending five years in Huelva, Ana has lived in Lebrija her whole life.
It is hard to fully capture the way that Yaisa walks down the halls of Ramón Carande, her former high school. She’s so at ease and self-assured with the teachers and staff that it seems more like a family reunion than a student returning to her high school.
“Is it rare for students to have such good relationships with their teachers?,” I ask. She pauses briefly. “Yeah, I think so. Other alumni visit sometimes, but I visit a lot. These are my friends.”
Yaisa talks with a cafeteria worker about her family and baby (the woman is pregnant). One of her professors assures me, as we walk along the halls, past adolescents standing in circles, that “Yaisa is the best!” She weaves her way in and out, bounces from English teacher to school superintendent. The place comes alive for her. I wonder if everything quiets the moment she leaves, everything loses a bit of its shimmer, and Ramón Carande turns back into your average high school.
I was initially under the impression that Yaisa was 18 and still in high school. In reality, she is 21 and graduated last year. She is currently taking a course that will allow her to take care of children, preferably somewhere far from Seville. With long brown hair, perm, winged eyeliner and vibrant pink lips, a striped skin-tight dress, Yaisa stands out.
The work day started at 9 am and didn’t end until 6 pm. “My childhood was very bad. My father died very young, the poor man, at 52, because of a bad heart,” Ana says. Her mother was forced to work in the fields. As Ana was the oldest of the female siblings, it was her responsibility to take care of her eight brothers and sisters. She began working when she was nine, “Because at that age, I had the same body that I have now,” she laughs and gestures at herself.
After a long day of working in the fields, while the men relaxed, women washed dirty clothes in a well from which they drew water, using the light from the tractors to be able to see.
“Our lives were work, only work.”
Yaisa’s tone shifts when I mention family. Her eyes sparkle less and she takes longer to respond, filtering her words and speaking softly.
After talking emphatically about her relationship with the mother of one of her friends, I ask her about the type of relationship she has with her own mother. “Good.” She pauses before saying, “She is a bit outdated.” By this, she means that her mother is very traditional and does not think that Yaisa should be in school; she wants her daughter to focus on marriage and having children.
Yaisa’s mother is 45 and sick with cancer. She barely leaves the house. Is her mother happy with the life that she has led? “No,” Yaisa replies.
Then why does her mother not support Yaisa bettering her life? “My mother is not happy, but she is accustomed to this life. She wants me to continue the tradition. She wants me to honor the family.” Yaisa does not talk to her father. He strongly believes (even more so than her mother) that women should not be educated. Yaisa does not want to end up like her parents and does not share her brother’s beliefs. She wants to get married in the future, but is in no rush. And she will not bow down to her husband: “Because I am not submissive.” This attitude often leaves Yaisa at odds with her family and many of the people she knows in Las Tres Mil Viviendas; she subsequently calls herself the “black sheep.”
“My mother was a very good woman.” Sometimes, Ana has a lot to say about life in the fields, about the chores she had to do; other times, it is di cult to get her to talk, to elaborate, especially about her relatives. I ask about her relationship with her father: “very good”. Her siblings: “fantastic.”
But she does, little-by-little, start to share the reasons she loved them, the reasons she misses them, as well as the burden that was placed on her because of her father’s death and her mother’s absence at home.
“I don’t have many friends,” Yaisa says. But she does have a best friend who is 20 and also lives in Las Tres Mil Viviendas. They have been close since they were 12, but are currently not speaking to each other, which happens every once in a while. “We are fighting right now. And so, I don’t have much to say about her at the moment,” Yaisa says with a laugh. Her English teacher, Julia, says that Yaisa is “more relaxed and more traditional” than her friend, and that is part of the reason why they have problems. Her friend likes to go out every weekend, and has many boyfriends, and this is not Yaisa’s scene. Nevertheless, Yaisa emphasizes: “she’s good, she listens to me, she helps me.”
But, her friend is not a gypsy. Yaisa does not have any gypsy girlfriends. “I do not like gypsy girls. I don’t get along with them. They envy me.” Yaisa believes that the reason why they are jealous is because she gets to study, which is rare for girls in the community.
Ana was washing clothes in the water well when her future husband, Andrés, approached her. She was 19 and he was 23. After four years of dating, they married. Marrying at the age of 23 was rare –and from Yaisa’s perspective, it still is–; Ana was considered old to be settling down.
Their relationship does not seem to follow the common narrative. And, at least on the surface, it is her presence in the home that is demanding, dominating. Andres, thin with brilliant white hair and tanned skin, sits and watches his wife while she speaks, not once interrupting or correcting.
Ana did not have to work in the fields after she married her husband; she stayed home and raised the children. Ana does not nd her role as a homemaker oppressive and considers her life to be much better than her mothers’: “My mother, my poor mother, could never rest, especially a er my father’s death. Her life was very bad. And my grandmother’s life was the same. I was lucky.”
There was no school for Ana to go to when she was young. And besides, she was so busy taking care of her siblings that she wouldn’t have had time to go anyway. But, Ana’s brothers and other men in the community were able to learn a bit. “My brothers learned how to read and write in the fields, after they finished work or during their hour of rest. While they smoked cigarettes, they practiced, with the help of one of the few men that was literate,” Ana explains. “I learned my name so that I could sign the marriage document. I have not forgotten it.” To this day, her name is the only word that Ana knows how to write.
For Yaisa, school has been transformative. It al- lows her to escape the isolation and opposition she faces in her own community: “Before I came to Ramón Carande High School, I thought I was the only one that felt the way that I did. I started school and met people who believed that girls should be educated, who shared my beliefs. I felt less alone.” She and her English professor Julia smile at each other.
Ana is grateful for her family; she explains that all she wants is for them to be happy. Her eyes shift towards two of her grandchildren, a boy and a girl, both in high school, and says that things are getting better. •