Andalusia: New model home for the Roma

Spanish gypsies during a procession of the "Virgin of the Sierra", in Cabra, near Cordoba.
Spanish gypsies during a procession of the "Virgin of the Sierra", in Cabra, near Cordoba.
6 September 2010 – Tygodnik Powszechny (Cracow)

Marginalised in several countries, recently expelled in great numbers from France, the Roma enjoy a relatively safe haven in the south of Spain. Other European countries would do well to take a lesson from this example, notes the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny.

In the face of prejudice and rumour, it may be surprising to learn that there are places where the Roma feel at home. In Spain, the Roma and the payos ("whites") have demonstrated their capacity to live in peaceful coexistence, most notably in the southern region of Andalusia. The number of Roma, or Gitanos, as they refer to themselves there, is estimated to be between 500,000 and 800,000, and most of them live in Andalusia. Just as in France, there are also Central-European Roma, but they number only about 40,000 and live mainly outside of Madrid. The Andalusian Gitanos have been in Spain for hundreds of years, through good times and bad, never far from the recurring threats of persecution, poverty and forced settlement. But today, Andalusia can serve as an example of successful Rom integration, and for several reasons.

Professor Gunther Dietz, author of a report entitled "The State and the Roma in Spain", reveals that the traditional values of the Gitanos, such as the importance of family and clan, the notion of honour, and the authority accorded to family elders, are all compatible with the traditional rural culture of Spain. The integration of the Roma in Andalusian villages was therefore much easier than in the larger cities to the north. "For example, in the provinces of Granada and Seville, that have the largest concentrations of Gitanos in Spain, and Western Europe for that matter, villages are informally divided into Rom (Gitano) and non-Rom (payo) areas. But interethnic exchanges, mixed marriages, and general reciprocity are more frequent there than in the 'pseudo-ghettos' of the industrial centres", Prof. Dietz explains.

Difficult to tell if Andalusians have become Gitano, or Roma Andalusian

There is also an important symbolic aspect to consider, one that is quite significant: the art of Flamenco, one of the most recognisable symbols of Spanish culture, traces its origins to the Roma of Andalusia. It demonstrates to what extent the Rom culture has been assimilated, becoming an integral part of the dominant Spanish culture. This somewhat mitigates the devastating sense of isolation that other minorities often feel.

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia, president of the association of Roma in Spain, is the first Rom to have become a Member of the European Parliament (or MEP). As this native of Andalusia explained to the Spanish daily El País, "the model is Andalusia. From a cultural point of view (...) this could be a model of social coexistence for the Roma throughout the world. In this community, it is difficult to tell if the Andalusians have become part Gitano, or if the Roma have become part Andalusian".

Arraign Nicolas Sarkozy before the Court of Justice

Spain has many more ideas to offer. In a field as important as education, the system of special "complementary" (segregated) schools has been abandoned since the 1980's. Since then, Rom children attend school alongside their payo classmates. While absenteeism for younger Gitano children hovers around a disappointing 30%, what counts here is that 94% still manage to complete their education. Each child has the chance to advance, whereas in the Czech Republic, for example, Rom children were until recently still attending the kind of "special" schools that led to a academic dead end. Still, Spain is not the ultimate paradise for the Roma: some of the Gitanos' customs are not widely accepted, and instances of intolerance occasionally arise. But overall, great strides have evidently been made since the difficult moments of the transition period that followed Franco's death.

A crucial and defining moment for the Roma in Spain came during Ramírez Heredia's 1985 speech before the Spanish Parliament, where he was the first Rom member (from 1977 to 1986). Following his passionate discourse on the rights of the Roma, the first national plan addressing equal opportunity for the Gitanos was enacted, and since 1989, funding for this programme has been written into the national budget.

Ramírez Heredia now has a new project: he wants nothing less than to see French president Nicolas Sarkozy brought before the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. In his view, Sarkozy's closing of the Rom encampments has violated French law, European law, not to mention the "French tradition of defending human rights". He plans to file formal charges in early September. Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia is a lawyer with substantial experience in the complexities of the European system, and he seems to know very well what he is doing.

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