Roma, an unknown culture

Very little is widely known of Roma, their history and their culture. What we do know does not get to us through them, but through the perspectives of other peoples. Such views are frequently tainted by ignorance, prejudice and negative stereotypes. Furthermore, historical sources offering data about Roma are not always accurate, not to mention scarce.
The history of Roma is not found in the general histories of Spain. The majority society and its powers-that-be have written a history that tolerates perusing them, persuading them, trying to assimilate or integrate them, always and in every situation. They are thus hidden and subjected to processes of exclusion and marginalisation imposed by the dominant social system.

We will say little at this time about their origin, which in accordance with the present consensus, is in India. We know that they travelled in small independent groups, that they spoke one common language and often claimed to be pilgrims. That is the way their first known entry to the Iberian Peninsula through the Pyrenees has been documented. We will focus on recent history, in the history of shared relations over the last 50 years [1].

After the Spanish Civil War, Roma began to make their way into major cities. That was the time when shanties were built and old homes and warehouses on the outskirts were occupied. As they had always done, these Roma arrived in small groups to avoid competition and conflict between families. When resources were abundant, they would send the news to other family members. During that period they combined factory and construction work as well as scrap and cardboard collection with other temporary work such as harvesting.

The situation began to change in the 1950s. Cities such as Barcelona and Madrid already had a number of foreign migrants who helped to fuel growth. When the supply of buildable land began to run out, a reclassification of rural and forest lands was carried out. Roma and non-Roma who had been occupying shacks started to get evicted. The supply of land was continually shrinking while density levels soared. This is how the “ghetto” districts that still exist today were created. At that time, social housing initiatives were launched. While many non-Roma began to move away from these areas, most Roma were subject to successive moves and ever-larger concentrations of shanty-towns.

For Roma, this process required an enormous effort of adaptation to establish links with their urban environment and create minimally-acceptable levels of coexistence amongst themselves (alliances between families, the expulsion of certain groups, weddings, etc.). And whenever this was achieved, new evictions and resettlements would occur. Institutional responsibilities were passed on from one entity to the next with little interest in or knowledge of what was needed to resolve problems associated with this system of resettlement.

The situation improved substantially in the 1960s. Arrival of job opportunities. New hopes were created, interethnic relations improved, clashes between Roma and non-Roma were less frequent, Roma began to take more interest in school, and as a result of this process interest in coexistence and rapprochement between Roma and non-Roma flourished.

However, this situation once again changed during the early years of the economic crisis: Roma were once again displaced. The 1970s and 1980s was a time of sadness for the Roma community. They lacked work and were beset by frustration in light of the hopes that had been raised. They were forced to once again rely on their own productive strategies, particularly street vending.

This quick overview of recent Romani history has provided us with an understanding of their history of inclusion and exclusion with respect to the majority society. These trends, whether related to the opportunities available to Roma or their exclusion from them, seem to be strictly utilitarian in nature; this utilitarianism can only be seen as a subsidiary aspect of the major economic and employment trends present in each circumstance. These structural factors combine with others that are clearly cultural and which may tip the balance towards either integration or social exclusion when conditions do not clearly favour any of the options available for them or one or the other alternatives. Thus, for example, Roma are often asked to integrate into non-Romani society, albeit with this integration being understood as assimilation. They would have to stop being Roma in order to have their rights to enter and civically integrate into the majority system recognised. Integration should not necessarily involve assimilation, “to stop being one thing to become something else that one is not”. It should, however, guarantee the same rights with regard to work, housing, health care and education. It should involve sharing citizenship status with the rest of the population in a way that includes these and other fundamental rights and that does not impose responsibilities without the simultaneous enjoyment of rights, because the former is a consequence of and a complement to the latter.

[1] Regarding this exhibition of the recent history of Roma in our country I refer to a more detailed exposition in T. San Román (1997), La diferencia inquietante. Viejas y nuevas estrategias culturales de los gitanos. Madrid: Siglo XXI.
Written by Carme Méndez.