Young Gypsies feel empowered, poised to break age-old stereotypes
Story by Amanda Hoover
MADRID – Taking shelter from the hot, empty, streets of his graffiti-scarred neighborhood, Cristian Motos Heredia sat in his living room, surrounded by family and photos of faraway places. The Eiffel Tower on a table cloth, the Brooklyn Bridge aglow against the Manhattan skyline on the wall, bright red double-decker buses in gray London streets behind him. He’s never been to any of these place, but he would love to see them all.
“I want to achieve something with my life, step by step. I want to have new experiences,” Motos Heredia, 16, said through a translator. “Usually, Gypsies are set to be venders. I want to be something beyond that.”
The teen lives with his parents, grandmother and three younger siblings in an apartment in Orcastias, a primarily Gypsy neighborhood in southern Madrid. In one of the poorest areas of the city, there are few opportunities to pursue an education or save money for travel, but Motos Heredia has found a way.
This October, he will participate in Miss Gypsy, a beauty competition for women and men that seeks to empower young Gypsies, known as Gitanos in Spain. Making up one of the most oppressed minority groups in the country, many Gitanos live in concentrated, lower-socioeconomic communities and have struggled for centuries to integrate themselves into mainstream Spanish culture. Discrimination and a history of exile has plagued many of these Spaniards who remain without a voice, misunderstood and encumbered by stereotypes.
“They tend to be of a very particular status. There’s no question that there is historical deprivation in access to education,” said Yaron Matras, author of the 2014 book, I Met Lucky People: The Story of the Romani Gypsies. “There’s a very distinct sense of identity. They don’t even use the term Roma to refer to themselves and there’s many issues of culture that have changed.”
While Spanish Gitanos share a cultural ancestry with other Romani people who originated from northern India, they have morphed into a distinct group despite their nomadic tradition. Specifically, they are descendants of populations that migrated to southern Europe from the Balkans. By the 1700s, they had lost contact with other Romani people, the Romani language and some traditions, said Matras, who teaches linguistics at the University of Manchester. Since then, Spain’s 800,000 Gypsies have existed between the two cultures.
“The life trajectories within the community are sometimes in terms of stages and kind of far from other groups in society,” said Martí Marfà Castán, a member of the European Academic Network on Romani Studies, a nonprofit research group. “Most Spanish Gitanos are not nomads, but they easily travel or easily move houses if it’s necessary for their livelihood. If there would be an integrated [curriculum] related to each child that could be shared by the whole schooling system and these kids could actually go on with the studies even if their parents changed address,” said Marfà Castán, who is from Catalonia, which is in northeast Spain. “The number of Gitanos who go to college is very, very low.”
For decades public schools have failed to meet the complex needs of Gitano communities. There have been attempts to further integrate the group into the culture. The Spanish Gypsy Development Program, enacted in 1988, is government-sponsored social services designed to support the population. And in 2001, additional measures were added with hopes of introducing Gitano cultural elements in the curriculum.
Still, though, few finish high school past the age of 16, said Marfà Castán, and even fewer pursue a college degree.
Now, many activist groups are working to change how the public sees the 8 million Romani people in Europe. Miss Gypsy organizers insist the competition will help at least some of these young people see other opportunities, and change the group’s public image.
“Through this, we’re encouraging the candidates to push themselves, to continue to go to school. We’re finding that through this experience, many doors are opened for the contestants,” Maria Jimenez, a director of the competition from the northern Basque region of Spain, said through a translator. For many, the pageant is a fresh start, free from discrimination.
Motos Heredia dropped out of high school to work with his father, helping him clean offices and buildings. He feels more comfortable there than at school where he felt mistreated because of his ethnicity.
“At school, we always got the blame for everything,” he said. Some mornings, Motos Heredia would walk to school only to be turned away by his own teachers, he said. Without an explanation, he would leave the classroom, feeling confused and ashamed. “I wasn’t feeling welcome at the school.”
Racism has led Gitanos to live in small, segregated communities, where they find safety in numbers and the familiar.
“We are marginalized,” Jesus Heredia Fernandez, 17, who works in his family’s ice cream shop in Orcasitas, said through a translator. “They see us as robbers, attackers – just as before. This [pageant] is a way to show we aren’t what they think we are.”
In recent years, the barriers between Gitanos and other Spaniards have weakened. Globalization, technology and marriages between Gitanos and non-Gitanos have all played a role in the process.
“Today, non-Gitanos are less afraid. When non-Gitanos and Gitanos know each other, they see we are similar,” said Angel Motos, 35, Motos Heredia’s father, through a translator. “But there will always be the kind of people who don’t want to mix.”
Both of Motos Heredia’s parents have always lived in Orcasitas, close to family, friends and traditions. For their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, there are other options.
“He has more opportunities. I didn’t have any at all at his age,” Sonia Heredia, 36, Motos Heredia’s mother, said through a translator. She married his father young, then focused on raising their four children. “Gitano mentality is changing.”
Traditionally, Gitanos have married between the ages of 15 and 19, leaving school to start families.
“It’s understandable that they want to create their own unit in order to be in their world and achieve a certain status within the community,” said Marfà Castán. “Until you have your own family, you are not an adult.”
But today, some young people are trading this right of passage into adulthood for more years of youth.
“You attach yourself to one person and it’s not the same,” said Cynthia Muñoz, 15, who attends high school in Orcasitas. She is another one of the 50 contestants who will compete in the three rounds of modeling in Miss Gypsy this fall. Contestant organizers have yet to disclose what the winners will receive, but the contestants are hoping for a cash prize.
She hopes to become a hairdresser and to keep participating in pageants – something that would be impossible if she had responsibilities to a husband and children. “For a Gypsy, it is very rare to see a competition like this.”
Walking through his neighborhood, Motos Heredia pointed out familiar sites with his burning cigarette – an uncle and aunt’s apartment there, some cousins gathered outside a convenience store here. In the 1980s, Orcasitas used to be dangerous, ruled by drugs and crime. Now, it’s much quieter and safe. He walked past an empty basketball court and an abandoned playground, talking about his parents, his church and how he styles his hair every day to stand out. He walked past stores that have shut down, graffiti sprayed on metal awnings. He knows the story behind each. Nearly every street and face is familiar to him. He fits in. He’s comfortable here.
“I wouldn’t know people if I left,” he said. “It would be difficult.”
Integration with the outside community has always posed problems for Gypsies. It was easier to stay close to home with family, but everything could change for this younger generation.
“Before, they didn’t treat us as people. We were something different. Something strange,” said Motos Heredia. “With the contest, people are going to think about us as normal people.”