Coral and her family: A Spanish gypsy chronicle |

Coral and her family: A Spanish gypsy chronicle

Story and photos by Morgan Smith
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Coral, center, as a girl in Guadix, Spain, August 1985.

It’s the summer of 1985, our oldest son has just graduated from high school and we’re taking a family trip to Europe. One afternoon, we end up in the small town of Guadix, about 40 miles east of Granada, Spain. The name Guadix is taken from the arabic word Guadh-Haxi, which means the river of life. It’s an odd name for such a dusty and impoverished place.

Learning that many of the residents live in caves, we drive up to what is called the Barriada de Cuevas. Three gypsy girls stand by the roadside. We ask if we can take their picture and then, for a small fee, they show us the interior of a cave home.

Many years later in 1999, my wife Julie and I move to Barcelona. In the course of our five years there, we travel extensively throughout Spain. Remembering that earlier trip, we begin visiting Guadix again, taking photographs and coming to know several of the residents – a widow named Francisca (Paca) Encina and an older couple named Maravilla Garrido and Manuel Jabalera.

This turns into an article that the Aspen Times Weekly publishes on Sept. 4, 2005, using photos of Paca, Maravilla and Manuel as well as one of the photos of the three gypsy girls from 1985.

A month after the article comes out, we’re back in Guadix and I’m taking more photographs. “What for?” people ask, and I show them copies of the article.

Then Maria Paz, who manages the new cave museum, spots the 1985 photograph of the three gypsy girls and recognizes one of them.

“Her name is Coral Cortes Fernandez,” she says, “and she lives near here.”

Maria Paz gives me Coral’s address but warns me not to visit. “This is a tough woman. I don’t recommend that you go there.”

• • • •

Of course, I ignore the museum manager’s advice and soon end up at a dark, gloomy looking apartment building perhaps a mile from the cave area. As I’m trying to park, two young guys appear on a motorcycle and warn me away. Nervously, I continue to a barren, grassless area behind the building and call out for Coral. A man stares suspiciously out of a doorway. I can see several people in the darkness behind him. I hand the article to him. He looks it over, then calls, “Coral.”

A heavy, dark woman appears. She looks at the article, nods and slowly a small smile appears. Several kids appear and cluster around me. I ask if I can take more pictures and she agrees.

This is the beginning of a series of visits over the next three years. The ritual is always the same. The kids come running out. Some are Coral’s, some are nephews or nieces; I’m never really sure who is who. I give them photos from the previous visit, we have a few laughs, then I line them up next to the gloomy building for more photos.

• • • •

The January 2007 visit is tricky. When I arrive, the kids grab my arm and pull me toward the apartment building. Coral has just had a baby girl named Tamara and they insist that I come into the apartment and photograph her. Coral’s husband isn’t there and Coral is in the shower, so going in their apartment is obviously a very bad idea. Nonetheless, with the kids pulling at me, I dart inside, take two quick pictures of the tiny baby and dart out again.

These visits never last more than 10 minutes. My real goal in Guadix is to photograph people who are actually living in caves, so visiting Coral’s family at the apartment is just a sideline.

But in October 2008, something changes. When I stop by, only two children are there: Tamara, now almost two, and Tania, the oldest at 20.

Tamara has gone from being the formless baby that I first photographed to a clear-eyed and very attractive little girl. And Tania is about the age of Coral when I first photographed her in 1985.

What is going to happen to the two of them, I wonder? Will they age as quickly as their mother? Will they end up in a dingy apartment building like this one, estranged from Spanish society and barely eking out a living?

Because the Aspen Times Weekly published Coral’s picture in the 2005 article, I’ve become the unofficial historian of this Spanish gypsy family. I’m the American stranger who shows up without warning every six or eight months, takes a flurry of photographs and then disappears. Seeing Tamara and Tania makes me feel that I should do more, but I don’t know what.

• • • •

Now it’s Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, and I’m in Guadix giving Coral photos from the October trip. Standing with her is a well-groomed young woman with glasses and dark hair. I ask her who she is and she says, “Tania.” She has a serious boyfriend, has completely changed her appearance and seems like a different person. Maybe this is her break, her chance for a different life.

Let’s hope so.

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