Spain: 80 years since the martyrdom of Cefferino Gimenéz Malla
Tomorrow, 9 August, marks 80 years since the martyrdom of the first Romani person ever to be beatified, Cefferino Gimenéz Malla, also known as "El Pelé" ("the brave one"). Let's review what is known about the unusual life of this unique figure.
Childhood and youth
Cefferino (sometimes also referred to as Ceferino Jimenéz or Zefferino) was born on 26 August 1861 into an impoverished family of Spanish Roma, also referred to as gitan or Kale. Traditionally such people lived a traveling lifestyle, but Cefferino's kin, according to available sources of information, lived a so-called semi-itinerant lifestyle, which meant in practice that the family permanently settled for the winter in one place and traveled the rest of the year.
His uncle made his living through basket-weaving, and as a young boy Cefferino accompanied him to markets where he sold his goods. It is said that the family's material situation was so precarious that it was sometimes uncertain whether any "smoke would be coming from the chimney" that day, i.e., whether Cefferino would even get something to eat.
Despited his impoverished conditions, the boy was renowned from an early age for his exceptional compassion for others and for his humility. While he never attended school and remained, like most of his peers, illiterate his entire life, as a youth he earned widespread respect rather quickly because of his charisma, diplomatic capabilities, honesty, modesty and sense of humor.
In the beginning of his adulthood he made his living as a horse trader and became renowned on the market for his honest dealings. One anecdote tells how Cefferino once allowed a customer to "overpay", but regretted his dishonesty so much by nightfall that he sought out the customer the next day to right the wrong.
Traditional Romani marriage and a deepening relationship to God
Cefferino's marriage was arranged, which at the time was not an unusual institution. He and his wife Teresa lived in Barbastro in Catalonia.
The couple never had children, but shortly after Cefferino's mother died they took in his younger siblings and began to raise them. Among other things, they sent them to church schools, apparently as a consequence of the fact that Cefferino's relationship with the Catholic Church was already very close by then and the Bishop of the local diocese would sometimes seek his advice.
This was not, however, just a formal relationship with that institution, as Cefferino was famous for his visible devoutness, reflected, among other things, in his frequent church attendance and his instruction of the catechism. He was primarily a deeply faithful man who, until his final days, did his best to live in accordance with Holy Writ and his own conscience regarding the actual nature of so-called Christian values.
Thirty years after he and Teresa were married according to Romani custom, they were also officially married by the Church. "The blessed Cefferino Giménez Malla spread harmony and solidarity among Romani people and was a negotiator during the conflicts that afflict interrelations between non-Roma and Roma," Pope John Paul II said of him during his beatification ceremony in 1997.
From the oral histories of those who knew Cefferino, many recollections have been preserved of how he would convene his non-Roma and Romani neighbors to study the Bible together and how, with sincerity and unusual diplomacy, he would resolve all disputes in the area. He espoused his Romani identity and spoke both the Romani ethnolect of the Kale and Spanish.
An old age marked by charity
In later life Cefferino managed to improve his financial situation, building a home and stable where he raised donkeys and horses. Reportedly he frequently allowed impoverished Romani people to take animals of their choosing from his farm home with them, telling them that they could pay him back once they made a profit or could afford it.
At that time he also voluntarily joined the local priest, accompanying him on his visits to those who were bedridden, to christenings, and to funerals. He was a member of a charity group and distributed many alms, unpretentiously, if possible, to make sure his generosity did not embarrass the beneficiaries.
In old age Cefferino went to live with relatives and looked forward to telling legends and reminiscences to their youngest children. When he was at an advanced age he experienced the events of the Spanish Civil War and General Franco's putsch.
During the fighting, numerous attacks were carried out against clerics. At one point it was dangerous to walk through the streets of Barbastro, but Cefferino wanted to see what was happening in the town, no matter the cost.
Despite the dissuasion of his relatives, Cefferino left the house, and when he witnessed a priest being arrested, he stood up for him. The soldiers apprehended him, beat him up, arrested him and had him imprisoned.
"Long Live Christ the King!"
Cefferino spent more than two weeks imprisoned in a former monastery together with 350 other people and was reportedly visited there by an acquaintance, a young anarchist who reportedly did his best to convince Cefferino to lay down his rosary as a sign that he was symbolically renouncing his faith. Cefferino refused to to so and on the morning of 9 August was taken together with the other prisoners to a cemetery where they were all executed.
Allegedly the 85-year-old Cefferino shouted "Long Live Christ the King!" on the way to his execution. The celebration at which Pope John Paul II beatified Cefferino Giménez Malla on 4 May 1997 was attended by as many as 40 000 believers.
Cefferino was beatified a mere 60 years after his death, which is quite unusual in Catholic circles. Romani people from all over the world attended the 1997 ceremony in great numbers and were reminded by the Pope that "it is necessary to overcome the old prejudices that lead to your suffering, which is caused by various forms of discrimination and objectionable marginalization."
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