Between branches and books

photo: Drawing by Claire Szeszycki

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“HERE, HANDSOME, TAKE IT. IT’S A GIFT,” she said as she aggressively tried to place a branch of rosemary in my hand. I politely declined and walked past the cathedral, away from this heavy-set woman in tight spandex and a head full of frizzy hair. Without missing a beat, she moved on to the next tourist who crossed her path, offering the same branch. Three other women in close proximity were also offering rosemary, reading palms, and giving blessings to tourists in exchange for a few Euros. This lady and her companions were Gypsies.

BEFORE ARRIVING IN SEVILLE, I had no idea what a Gypsy was. I thought it was someone who moved from place to place on a whim. Even a few Sevillians had that same idea. “Gypsies are people who live in caravans and move around, right?” says Mario Hernández, 25. Furthermore, the only image I had of a Gypsy was that of Esmeralda from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Based on that, Gypsies had a sort of mysticism about them in my mind–as if they lived free lives and had transcendent spirits.

MY IDEAS OF GYPSIES were far from the average Sevillian’s perception of a Gypsy. They have a completely different and definite view of their lifestyle. “I think it’s a strange life that they live,” says María Reina, a 19-year-old student. She believes that Gypsy women are oppressed under the patriarchal control of their husbands and forced to stay home and care for their children. Rafael Zaldivar Muñoz, a 24-year-old college student, says, “I just don’t like them. I’ve been robbed by gangs of Gypsies three times.”

ROCÍO (HER INVENTED NAME), a 26-year-old Gypsy woman with eight years of experience handing rosemary around the cathedral, knows this kind of prejudice well. “I’m not going to rob. I’d rather be out here instead of stealing,” she says. For her and the many women who make a living selling rosemary branches, it’s better than the alternative life of crime that some Gypsies resort to. “I’ve been called a free loader, weirdo, a thief ! Whenever I walk by, people grab their bags closer to them as if I were going to steal from them,” she says as her voice breaks.

ACCORDING TO A RECENT SURVEY of Spanish citizens, Gypsies are the most discriminated against people in Spain, even more than immigrants, despite having resided in Spain for centuries.

GYPSIES ARRIVED IN SPAIN between 1415 and 1425 from the northern part of India. They were called Egiptano (meaning Egyptian), but that soon changed to Gitano (meaning Gypsy). They were treated honorably and respectfully when they first arrived, but the reign of the Catholic Kings at the end of the 15th century began the maltreatment and persecution that continues today, which prevents many Gypsies from getting decent jobs, finding housing, and even receiving proper education.

ASUNCIÓN GARCÍA ACOSTA, the president of the Andalusian Association for Human Rights of Minors, deals with children from low-income backgrounds, like in El Vacie, a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Seville. She recalls how more than 200 children were not being properly educated in 1997 due to a lack of access to public schooling. The children suffered discrimination because they were Gypsies. Thanks to their protests at that time, now most of the children in El Vacie attend classes regularly and are accepted.

MARÍA(HER INVENTED NAME), a Gypsy who has been handing out rosemary in front of the cathedral for more than four years, wants for her son what any other mother would want. “My dream is that my child gets a good education and a good job,” she says. There are women like Beatriz Carrillo de los Reyes, who are trying to make it easier for women like María’s dream to come true. Beatriz is the president and founder of Fakali, a Gypsy women’s association, whose members are mostly university students or graduates, aimed at supporting, educating and furthering human rights. Fakali aims to fix the negative stereotypes and connotations surrounding the Gypsy community. The association is now 3,000 members strong since its start in 2003.

IN ORDER FOR THEM TO MAKE PROGRESS, Beatriz, a Gypsy herself, says that “the Gypsies have to mobilize and be self-critical,” meaning that they must strive to become educated, while also educating the Spanish community about the struggles , rich values, and traditions of the Gypsy people. Women like Sandra Heredia Fernández, 28, and Tamara Amador Martín, 31, both university educated members of Fakali, are doing just that. They are working to overcome stereotypes by bettering themselves and pre- senting a realistic and positive image of Gypsy women.

SANDRA HAS HAD A LONG, but rewarding educa- tional journey to be where she is now. Originally from Cordoba, she studied both tourism and business in university. She then came to Seville to work as a job counselor. Living on her own and with no children to raise, she is focusing on social work that she finds to be paramount. “I kept studying and did a post-grad degree in political science and I’m beginning to use my degree right now.” Her job as a counselor is a resistance to all adversities in the midst of the Spanish crisis.

AS SOMEONE WHO HAS DEDICATED countless hours studying political science, Sandra sees the battle for social rights for Gypsies being similar to that of the African-American community in the United States. “We’re both Evangelists, we share the Gospel–a more active form of worship. We’ve both faced struggles and have to rise up over them,” she says. “Just like the Black Pan- thers, right now, we have to fight for our rights to be like any other citizen.”

ALTHOUGH THESE ACCOMPLISHED GYPSY WOMEN feel like any other Spanish citizen, they still feel dis- criminated against. “I have faced racism–there’s always that moment when people say, ‘No, you can’t be a Gypsy. You speak well and dress well.’ There is an assumption about what a Gypsy is–that we speak poorly, dress poorly, everything associated with the marginalized,” Tamara ex- plains. This preconceived notion of what makes someone a Gypsy is a common occurrence for people like her.

SEEMINGLY, the struggle for the acceptance of Gypsies in Spain is a double-edged sword, riddled with the pressure to assimilate, but with a desire to maintain their traditions and values. Many Spanish citizens would argue that in order for Gypsies to be accepted, they must leave behind their customs. “They have these tradi- tions that are outdated. They need to start acting like Spanish citizens for people to treat them well,” says Guadalupe Rodríguez, a 60-year-old mother. Her sentiment is fairly common throughout Andalusia.

TAMARA ARGUES that assimilation is not the answer for acceptance. “People say that Gypsies don’t want to integrate into society. But that’s the thing, we don’t need to integrate. We live in a society full of different types of people and we need to live in harmony, not integrate into a larger society,” she says.

POVERTY AND LOW EDUCATION LEVELS are obstacles that lead to the creation of stereotypes about Gypsies. Although it was fairly easy for the women of Fakali to attend university, not all Gypsy youth are as fortunate. “I’ve been lucky to be able to study and go to a university. It
was easy for me, but it could be hard for other Gypsies, especially when it’s not the norm,” says Tamara. Education, she insists, is the only way out of poverty and involvement in the Spanish community is the key to beating stereotypes. “I’m the first one in my family to go to universi- ty. If we didn’t think we could get to a university, imagine a kid who believes it’s impossible. That’s what we fight for, to show that it is possible.”