Emerging Romani Voices from Latin America

Druzhemira Tchileva1

This is an effort to have your attention on the Roma presence in Latin America. I want to achieve something more than simply adding a very welcome intercontinental flavor to Romani issues, as some have interpreted the participation of the Romani delegation from Latin America at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The Conference itself has been important for the Roma from this part of the world in their attempt to emerge from invisibility. In March 2001, in Quito, Ecuador, there was a preparatory meeting for the Conference in Durban at which Roma from Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Canada and the USA worked on the Quito Declaration entitled "The Other Son of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth): Declaration of the Roma People of the Americas".2

The Roma in Latin America have a presence in most of the states in this part of the world. When the cultural and ethnic diversity of the American continent is discussed, however, the existence of Roma as an ethnic group is systematically ignored. The Romani groups present in the Americas have been arriving from Europe since the beginning of the colonisation as well as with the migration processes, continuing up to the present. The biggest wave of Romani immigrants came at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. As Rena Gropper says in her book Gypsies in the City: Culture Patterns and Survival, written in 1975, the Roma "made themselves at home in the new territories they moved to".

Romani settlement in Latin America took place along with the settlement of huge masses of European immigrants. Like the Roma who came with their cultural heritage, language, traditions, the European immigrants also "transported" their prejudices and stereotypes for Roma, absorbed from the European societies. Nowadays, Roma in Latin America are faced with the effects of the ridiculous and biased tales of child kidnapping, stealing, cheating, sorcery and witchcraft. While Roma have preserved their distinct culture, however, little is known in society about them. The vast majority of the non-Roma are not aware of our origins, group diversity, migration processes, as well as of the persecution of Roma during and after the Nazi regime. While the Romani presence in Europe is often mentioned in public discourse, the existence of Roma in Argentina is covered by silence. Official information about Roma in this hemisphere does not exist. They are not included in any census as Roma. Usually, Roma hide their Romani background if they have to get a decent job, better qualification, or better living conditions. Saying "I am Romani" diminishes the chances for integration within the non-Romani society. The situation of Roma in the Americas is summarised by Ian Hancock as follows: "Housing is not a problem in the Americas, but health is; anti-Gypsy-ism is less rampant in South America, but education remains a serious issue. Roma everywhere share the concern that the children will not know enough of their own language and culture tomorrow".3

The Roma-related problems on these territories have to be seen in the context of each particular state. To date only Brazil and Colombia have recognised Roma officially as minorities. A representative of the Brasilian government stated at the Working Group on Minorities of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Geneva, in 2003, that there are about 600,000 Roma in Brazil. In reality, however, their number in Brasil is higher.

The hidden discrimination against Roma is escalating in real anti-Romani actions in some places. Here I have to mention the marginalisation of the Brasilian Calo Nomads (Roma of Portugese origin in Brasil), who have also been subjected to attacks in their encampments by the "fazendeiros" (landowners).4 Moreover, 29 families of Romanian Roma were deported from Brasil in 2001. In Colombia, as a result of the operation of armed groups (groups operating in opposition to the official government) for many decades, Roma live in permanent insecurity. In Chile, within some of the Xoraxane groups the drug addiction problems are rooted in the group marginalisation both by Roma and non-Roma.

In Argentina, as in the majority of the countries in Latin America, as early as school age, Roma start to experience the effects of the cruel stigma of being "Gypsies" and the attitudes, which associate Roma with genetic criminality. "Gypsy crime" was the focus of the TV series "Soy Gitano" on the Argentine channel 13 in the TV prime-time for almost 10 months until January 2004. On behalf of the Romani community in Argentina, AICRA denounced the soap opera as anti-Romani, and complained before the National Institute to Combat Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) - an institution created in 1988 with the task to implement the Argentinean anti-discrimination law. In their response to our complaint, INADI claimed that it was not the purpose of the TV series to present documentary facts about Roma but rather it was a fiction that had nothing to do with reality. INADI then advised the TV to avoid using sentences like: "Never believe Romani women".

Argentina is a country with a strong presence of Jewish, Armenian and Arabic communities. Those communities have been an example of preserving their cultural identity. And in that sense the Romani community is not an exception. Awareness of their own Romani background and cultural heritage determines their self-esteem as Roma. By unofficial estimates there are approximately 300,000 Roma in Argentina, who belong to the following Romani groups: Greek, Moldavian and Russian Kalderash, some Lovari families and some Chilean Xoraxane families (all these groups speak Romanes); there are also Argentinean and Spanish Kalé and Boyash Roma (descendents of Roma from Serbia and Romania). Only about 5% of the Argentinean Roma have a semi-nomadic life. As a matter of fact, in the 1950s the nomadic life was forbidden by law by General Perón and Roma in Argentina were forced to settle. Since then, Roma in Argentina live mainly in the big cities, all over the country, in mixed middle class neighborhoods. Despite the anti-discrimination law in Argentina, discrimination against Roma can be observed in everyday life. A 2000 Gallup poll revealed high levels of prejudice against Roma, commensurate only with the levels of prejudice against the Mestizos (people of mixed European and Amerindian descent).

The first Romani organisation that appeared in Latin America was established by a Brazilian-born violinist, of Serbian Romani descent - Mio Vasite in 1987, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the meantime, other organisations focusing on Roma, created by non-Roma were also established in Brasil, such as the Center for Gypsy Studies (CEC) Minas Gerais and CEC - Sao Paulo. In 2002, a Colombian Romani organisation, Prorom, was established, modelled on Spanish Romani organisations suchas the Union Romani. From this, two more organisations were born - one is called ASOROM in Ecuador and the other - Union Romani de Colombia. All of these took shape under the authority of the Romani Kris and the umpanias.5 The first two organisations PROROM and ASOROM played an important role as mediators, making possible for many Roma, including myself, to participate in the conference against Racism and Xenophobia in Quito. This contributed to the first step of creating SKOKRA (a federation of the Roma NGOs of the Americas). Meanwhile, in Chile Xoraxane Roma are making steps to establish their own organisations.

The idea of the mobilisation of Roma was brought to Argentina in 1989. Argentinean Roma informally set up a Romani organisation Narodo Romano. This organisation, however, was not registered as a legal entity and at a later stage, its work has been taken up by the Association of the Cultural Identity of Roma in Argentina (AICRA), established in 2000. AICRA is the initiator of the first Roma radio programme in the American continent called "Amaro Glaso" (Our Voice). The programme started in March 2002 with the goal of promoting the Romani ethnic identity, language and culture. There are blocks of news about Romani events taking place in the different European and American states, blocks with Romani music from all over the world, and fairy tales in Romani language with a translation in Spanish. We use this radio programme as a tribune for raising awareness among the different Romani groups as well as a tool for educating the non-Roma about our Romani values.6

The Quito Declaration proclaims the Romani unity beyond the group cohesion between the distinct Romani Kumpanias in the Americas. The emerging partnership is a delicate equilibrium, which will require flexibility and imagination at all levels to maintain. The development community will have to revise its mindset and think not just in terms of "focusing services on a target population", but of creating space and opportunities for representation. Roma from the Americas are looking forward to learning of new options, making decisions, exercising leadership, resolving differences and making their voices heard. There are apples of distinct colours - green, red, yellow; of different tastes - acid and sweet; the apples come from distinct soil, and have a different price. They differ in many things but they are all apples. For one thing, our best tutor has always been nature.

Endnotes:

  1. Druzhemira Tchileva is a Bulgarian-born Romani woman, who has lived in Argentina since 1997. She works for the non-governmental organisation Association for the Cultural Identity of Roma in Argentina (AICRA) – a member of the Federation of Romani Organisations of the Americas SKOKRA.
  2. The Declaration is available at: http://www.philology.ru/liloro/romanes/declaration_eng.htm.
  3. See The Romani Movement: What Shape, What Direction? In Roma Rights 4/2001, p. 24.
  4. See Cristina de Costa Pereira. “The Social Situation of the Gypsies in Brazil” and Virginia R.S. Bueno “Regional and Local Policies Toward The Gypsies in Brazil”, papers presented at the International Study Conference, Rome 20-26 September 1991, organised by the Italy-based Centro Studi Zingari. See also Pavee Point. Roma, Gypsies, Travelers, East/West: Regional and Local Policies. Dublin, Ireland, 1997.
  5. Kumpania is a Romani language word meaning a group of Roma who have economic relations and are organised on a residential basis; a grouping together of families not necessarily united by kinship ties, but all belonging to the same group and the same subgroup, or to related subgroups.
  6.  The programme is aired on the local “Radio del Pueblo” every Friday between 8–9 PM, and since November 2003, it has also been on the Internet, at: www.750am.com.ar. The program has received financial support from Minority Rights Group, as well as from some Romani community members.

 

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