You can dance your flamenco but you have to wear our dress: Romani people in Spain

Photo: Flickr

Whilst Spain is thought of as a role-model for Roma inclusion, the practices embedded in the culture tell a different story.

Romero para ti, she says as she thrusts a twig towards me. “Rosemary for you.” The edge that is personal space has been tipped within an instant, and she is demanding my attention. I say “gracias” with a smile and try to walk away. I have been warned of the ‘gypsies’ who play these tricks outside the major tourist spots of Andalusia; the stereotypes of markets, flamenco and thievery deeply embedded into the Spanish perception of gitanos – Spain’s Roma people.  I am right next to the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, the symbol of Andalusia’s culturally mixed history, and the perfect destination for scamming tourists.

But Iñaki Vazquez Aranceno, a gitano himself and communicator for Khetane, a representative platform that works towards the unity and emancipation of Roma people in Spain, tells me that this representation is not true of the majority of gitanos. It is rather a representation of the ones who are noticed as being different, the ones who stand for the frustration of the Roma communities of Spain who are not seen as Spanish, but as a different kind. They are on the edge of identity, battling with balancing their own gitano identity with that which they also feel – as Spanish as the rest of the country.

But I fail to step across the border that the gypsy has skillfully drawn around me, as she grabs my hand and precedes to read my palm. In Spanish, she tells me that I will travel to Granada, then toSeville, and then to Cadiz, as she traces a map of Spain on my hand. She is wrong. I can see in her eyes that she is tired. “Un euro”, I am then pleaded of in return for her services. The lady is dark-skinned and speaks no English, and I manage to break away after handing her a coin.

How much of a role-model?

“Spain is commonly accepted as a role model when it comes to the Roma Inclusion within Europe,” reports The European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF) in their Fact Sheet on the Situation of Roma in Spain. “Yet, despite several projects, policies and actions undertaken by the government and mostly by non-governmental organisations, this common idea should be re-evaluated.”

The Roma community of Spain is disadvantaged economically, socially and politically, as can be seen in their education, employment, housing, health and access to public services, the report says. Furthermore, a survey found that 40 percent of native Spanish people would not tolerate a Roma as a neighbour.  So why is Spain thought of as integrating gypsies into society better than other European countries?

Since Spain joined the European Union, the Roma people have benefited from the economic progress. In Fundación Secretariado Gitano’s Report, Discrimination of Roma Communities Spain National Report, it is said that gitanos have seen significant social progress in the last 40 years, due to the establishment of democracy, economic growth, generalised access to social welfare systems and programs aimed at helping the disadvantaged.

Between 2007 and 2013, Spain used European Social Funds for a project known as Acceder, which supported access to employment for Roma people. In the first three years, 6,680 Roma obtained job contracts, nearly 2,500 of which were women.

“However, there is still a long way to go for there to be equality in the four fundamental areas for social inclusion,” the FSG report says.

The ERTF report states that 70 percent of Roma over the age of 16 are illiterate, and one in ten Roma between the age of 16-26 have never been to school. Spain’s reputation as a role model is often based on the high rates of primary school enrolments of Roma people. However, higher education is not so positive, with a percentage as low as 5 percent of students completing upper-secondary school. This could be due to racism, the report referencing a survey which reveals that one in four Spanish parents do not want their children in the same class as Roma students.

As there is a low qualification level of Roma, they have much higher unemployment levels than the average population, as well as lower-skilled jobs. The FSG reports that in 2012 the Roma population had a 40% unemployment rate, whilst the average population had an unemployment rate of 27%. This economic discrimination affects the Roma community and their access to health services, the infant mortality rate being three times higher than the average population. The report says there have been cases where health care centres have not accepted Roma children, although they are protected by law and have a right to health care.

In the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Article 14 states that “Spaniards are equal before the law and may not in any way be discriminated against on account of birth, race, sex, religion, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance.” This has been reinforced in legislation since, prohibiting violence, racism and xenophobia, and punishing those who incite discrimination based on ethnic differences.

In Fundación Secretariado Gitano’s, Discrimination of Roma Communities Spain National Report, they insist that the role of security forces is fundamental in ensuring that these rights to equality are implemented. However, the report says that there continues to be actions taken by the police that violate these rights rather than protect them.

The report uses the example of a Roma woman who, in Barcelona, was accused by two police officers of mistreating her child. A restraining order was then placed on the woman, disallowing her from seeing her child for three months. It was later told by witnesses that they had not seen any sign of the woman abusing her child. The FSG, who were involved in the case, believed that the false accusation by the police was due to the woman’s ethnic and social status.

Photo: Flickr

Flamenco: adoption with ignorance

In the hills behind the Alhambra, Andalusia’s historic Muslim fortress, sits Sacromonte, Granada’s gypsy quarter. Etched into the hillside are caves that come alive after dark with flamenco shows, the perfect tourist spot for a ‘true’ cultural experience. Whilst drinking sangria overlooking the famous historic icon that is the Alhambra, and surrounded by traditional music, tourists can feel the culture boasting from the white neighbourhood.

Rosamaria Cisneros-Kostic, author of Flamenco and its Gitanos, An Investigation of the Paradox of Andalusia: History, Politics and Dance Art’ says that Andalusia is the “birthplace of flamenco”. and “not only embodies, but represents the complex, multifaceted Andalusian identity.” The dance that is so iconic of Andalusia is originally a cultural expression of the Spanish gitano, and has come to be a part of Spanish identity.

But the flamenco is not Spanish, Iñaki insists.

“It is a Romani cultural expression, a way of expressing pain through dance,” he tells me.

“I would be perfectly happy if Spain said that flamenco is a Roma expression, and we are happy that it is part of our culture, but this does not happen.

“Spanish identity always takes that of the Roma, but never recognises our identity and history,” he says.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“We are Spanish, too.”

“We are Spanish!” Khetane communicator Iñaki insists. “I am like my neighbours, exactly the same. I have the same customs, I like similar music, I do the same sorts of jobs, I am no different. But when I say I am proud to be of Roma blood, people think I am dirty. Because this is in the heart of Spanish identity.”

He explains that the structure of Spanish politics, both in the economy and in social norms, has a dislike of gypsies embedded within it.

“This is the main reason we are discriminated against,” he says.

Iñaki himself does not suffer from direct discrimination, he says, as his skin is not too dark. But he says that his sister, whose skin is very dark, has security breathing down her neck whenever she enters a supermarket.

“It is evident that she is Roma because of her skin, and so they assume she might steal something,” he says. “This makes me so angry, because it is not true that we are thieves!”

Pilar Calón Parada from the Fundacion Secretariado Gitano (FSG) says: “For a long time, there has been rumours, stereotypes and prejudices about [the Roma community], which are socially transmitted.”

This has created a society that is inherently discriminatory against the gitanos, exacerbated further by the history of the government being intolerant to ethnic, cultural, religious and sexual diversity. Some people believe that the rigid traditions of gitanos prevent them from integrating, but Pilar says that it is, again, questionable that these traditions exist, as they are also based on stereotypes.

The FSG member explains that although Spain has done a better job than other European countries in socially including Roma people, the stereotypes and prejudices are still deeply rooted in much of society.

“People need to better know the Roma, live and co-exist with them. We also need an inter-cultural education based on rights and equality,” she says, adding that the mass media help to reinforce the negative stereotypes, making it more difficult for a social change to occur.

Gypsies in ‘ghettos’: forced isolation

Iñaki explains that there are “ghettos” that have been established for the Roma, which disallow the communities from mixing with the Spanish. These neighbourhoods make the issue of education worse, as the schools in the neighbourhoods are for Romani people only, isolating the communities further. He says that there are police are constantly patrolling the neighbourhoods, which only reinforces the stereotypes.

“It is like a social bomb,” he says.

Pilar from FSG says: “The segregation of Roma families in certain ghetto neighbourhoods is due to multiple factors that are not related with their customs or traditions. It is also something that the Roma families do not wish for.”

The FSG reports that one third of the Roma population in Spain is struggling with poverty and social exclusion, and families cannot afford adequate housing. 12 per cent of the Roma community live in the segregated neighbourhoods that Iñaki speaks of, which have indecent and low standards.

Where it all began

Sources: Ismael Cortes and Cayeteno Fernandez, and Minority Rights Group


At first, the Roma communities were welcomed to Spain, but were soon persecuted with the Reconquista. The forced assimilation and, at the same time, extreme exclusion continued throughout the Franco regime, until its fall in 1975, when the democratic government tried to make changes for discriminated groups. But the ostracism of gypsies has not been so easy to remove. Ismael Cortes and Cayateno Fernandez wrote in their paper Long, sad history of Roma in Spain, that Spain became a system of domination and discrimination, establishing a moral hierarchy which saw the Roma became a people perceived as the “enemies of Spanish values.”

500 years after their arrival, the Roma community still feel on the edge of society, and are the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Today, out of the nearly 12 million Roma citizens in the European Union, there are an estimated 600,000 to 970,000 in Spain, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

37.1 percent of the Spanish gitano live in Andalusia, the southern region of Spain, according to the 2007 Map on Housing and the Roma Community, document of the FSG. Andalusia is the region of Spain which is historically characterised by difference and mixing, with the region being ruled by the Moors for 800 years, a time in which Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed in relative harmony.

It is this, believes Iñaki, that drew the Roma people to Andalusia.

“In Castilla, they were conservative, they were white, they didn’t trust different groups, and so the Romani cultural expressions were very different to this area. But in the south, they could mix with the Muslims and the other cultures, as they were similar in the way that they were different. It made the Romani people feel as if they belonged,¨he says.

Emma Eastwood from the Minority Rights Group says that there are centuries of deep-seated anti-gypsyism in Spain, their difficulties accessing health care, education and the job market exacerbated by the rigid attitudes of society.

“The attitudes towards gitanos need to change, above all with the Spanish state leading the way, for a truly integrated and cohesive society,” she says.