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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.”

Inside Motos Heredia's apartment, he spends a lot of time with his close-knit family. Here, he sits with his father, mother and grandmother. Photo by Amanda Hoover.

Inside his apartment, Cristian Motos Heredia spends a lot of time with his close-knit family. Here, he sits with his father, mother and grandmother. Photo by Amanda Hoover.

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.”

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