Sacred earth for the Christian faith, the Camargue was, according to historians, the first site of the Christianization of France, which then proceeded north along the Rhone valley, converting the Gauls. According to tradition, Mary (the sister of the Virgin) and Mary (mother of the apostles John and James the Elder), escorted by the revived Lazarus, by his sister Martha and by the sinner Mary Magdalen, thrown out of Judea by the Jews in Jerusalem, landed on the shore around the years 40-45 of the Christian era.
Sara, an Egyptian woman, the repudiated spouse of Pontius Pilate, had, according to certain accounts, accompanied them. The gypsies claim that the fugitives were welcomed on the shore by their ancestors with Saint Sara, the "mother of their tribe," at their head. The corpses of the first two Maries were exhumed and identified in 1448, and the remains of Sara later on. The cult of this black Virgin began in the sixteenth century, and was associated with the "procession to the sea" which re- united the three saints in 1935, thanks to the intervention of the Marquis Folco de Baroncelli, an aristocrat of Florentine origin who was interested in reviving local traditions (having become himself, in 1900) a breeder of bulls and horses).
Each year, it's the next-to-last Sunday in October that one celebrates Mary the sister of the Virgin, and May 24th and 25th Sara and Mary the mother of the Apostles. The gypsies take the statue of their saint from the crypt in the church, and transport it to the sea, in which they enter, to commemorate the welcoming on the beach almost two thousand years ago. Whether legendary or historical, this tradition has taken on a reality over the centuries in a fertile environment. A kind of swamp with its cowboys, its herds of bulls and cows, its immenses stretches of unpopulated land, inhabited by pink flamingos, egrets, and ducks, the Camargue drives crazy those who love it. Is it the wind, the ocean air that scatters the clouds and chills the bones, or the mosquitos?
The gypsies have little by little rooted their magic in a country where those who tolerate them the least perhaps resemble them the most: tormented by the preservation of their liberty, jealously guarding their secrets, the people of the Camargue go through life like a mirage. People from the sky who mix with the sea and the seamps, people with white horses who gallop towards the moon. For those who remember "the old times," not so long ago, when there was no electricity, in the home, when a small train linked Arles with Saintes, there's nothing but regrets.
That's the feeling of André Bouix who, about ten years ago, confided his memories to Jacques Durand of the "Gardian de Camargue": "Around the 25th of May, the train would fill up with gypsies (called "caraques" by the locals), going on the pilgrimage. They came from Perpignan, Marseille, Beaucaire, and Arles. Hardly any further away. After the war, the success of Saintes-Maries overwhelmed the pilgrimage. Gypsies came from further away. Some, like the Bouglione brothers, had magnificent caravans. May 25th became a huge fair. An old gypsy friend of mine from Nimes said to me one day that Saintes-Maries 'was no longer what it had been, there were too many people and too many gypsies.' Outside of Saintes-Maries, the gypsies traveled around the villages. They sold baskets, recaned chairs, sharpened knives. To get them to recane a chair led to endless transactions. They'd ask for wine. You'd bring them wine, then it was a chicken they wanted. They were marginalized but tolerated. The villages (though not all) left them a camp to camp. At Saint-Laurent-d'Aigouze, one family lived, on the edge of the village, on the bridge at Vidourle. There they developed a trick. On one side of the bridge, they were in Saint-Laurent, in the province of Gard, on the other side twenty meters away, they were in the town of Marsillargues in the province of Hérault. About every two weeks, they'd change town. Truly, nomadism on a small scale."
Even though the fame of Manitas de Plata and the Gypsy Kings has attracted to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and its shops crowds of tourists seeking for the exotic, almost all of the merchants in this small town of 2,000 inhabitants, always close their shops during the gypsy festivals. Though they're tolerated, the gypsies are never really welcomed. And the craze, every twenty years, for the gypsy artists of the region irritates many of them. The opinion of the famous Buffalo Bill, invited to the Camargue by the Marquis de Baroncelli, who declared that, in his opinion, the gypsies were directed related to the American Indians because they both examine horses' teeth in the same manner, confirmed the locals in their opinions: all these 'strangers' who are so interested in the gypsies really know nothing about them."
Perhaps they prefere the study, published in 1936, of a certain Professor Seillens, a member of the Society of French Folklore. He declared the the gypsy pilgrimage was an anomaly, related to the local site which was conducive to the flourishing of primitive mysteries. A propos of the different kind of gypsies -- gitans, tsiganes, caraques, and bohemians -- he expresses reticence confronted by "this strange people" which the Council of Trant banned forever from the priesthood. What André Bouix neglects, perhaps, when he deplores the influx of gypsies for the pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries after the last war, is the symbolic importance of this gathering in the eyes of the gypsies who were coming from all over Europe just after having experienced the Nazi genocide.
Although the infamous "Z" (comparable to the yellow star of the Jews) for "Zigeuners" (the German word for gypsies) didn't catch up to many gypsies in the south of Frence, who fled in their trailers and disguised themselves as Spanish agricultural workers with the complicity of some bosses, there is, nevertheless,the episode of the Occupation in France which, André Bouix emphasizes, one mentions little in the Camargue, as if it were a shameful illness. He was one of the horrified witnesses: "In 1942 the French authorities created a camp where they grouped together some gypsies with a majority of blond gypsies from Eastern Europe, whom the dark-haired gypsies called "rabouins." Mostly women and children. There were very, very few men. One of my friends in Saintes- Maries, a former sailor on the Black Sea, Maurice Verollet, was constructing cabins for the "cowboys" of the Camargue and was contacted by the French authorities of the time to construct this camp. Out of respect for the surroundings perhaps, or just to create a pretty facade, the camp was built in the Camargue style, with these cabins. Large and small ones, two large dormitories and a watchtower. Electricity was installed, and the transformer was covered with brush. From afar, a pretty village street. Close up, the set up was rather rudimentary with floors of beaten earth, thick walls thrown up quickly with the red gravel of Saint-Gilles. But, the ultimate coquetry, on top of the cabins were crosses facing towards the south, just like real crosses in the Camargue. The camp was inaugurated in a big cememony, in the presence of Mister des Valliéres, a local official from Arles who'd been appointed by the Vichy government. At this inauguration, the Marquis de Baroncelli was present; I wondered what the fuck he was doing there, he a former pacifist and a self-styled protector of gypsies.
"An article in the 'Petit Marseillais" explained that by establishing the gypsies on the earth of Sara, they would take root and develop. A nursery, so to speak. But behind the official discourse, the reality was much different. The camp was an abomination. People there died of hunger and a doctor from Saint-Gilles, responsible for everyone's health, an honest man, preferred to resign than to cover up such an enterprise. The first winter was terrible, cold and rainy. As the camp was on a level with the swamps, the cabins become inundated at the least rain. Since they obviously were not heated, the authorities allowed the women to go gather dead wood from the banks of the Rhone at Albaron and Saliers, three kilometers away, but escorted by sentinels. One woman, over three kilometers, cannot carry much wood. Once a week, those who had a bit of money came, always with guards, to the grocery store in Albaron.