An Emerging Population of Educated Women

Members of FAKALI during the demonstration in Seville to commemorate International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2018. Sandra Heredia Fernández is at the center.

A LITTLE GIRL WITH STRAIGHT BROWN HAIR stares into the video camera and declares, “I will be Doctor Samara Hernández.” She then quickly smiles, forming small wrinkles around her eyes. “I love children. My mother has 11 sisters and all of them have 2, 3, or 4 kids. And I will be the one to treat them.” At first, this video seems normal; just another girl who dreams of being a doctor. However, in Spain, she does not meet the archetypical definition of “normal” because she is a gypsy. Samara’s testimony is one amongst many gypsy children shown in a campaign by the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) intended to help youngsters of the Roma community succeed in Spain’s compulsory education system.

Gypsies arrived in Spain during the 15th century and have endured the Spanish Inquisition, fascist Europe, and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Thus, gypsies have continually been socially marginalized and oppressed by the majority. As a result of lingering discrimination and past disadvantage, the gypsy community suffers a lower rate of educational achievement. It was as recent as 1978 when the Spanish Constitution eliminated its last anti-gypsy law. Then, in 1990, the Spanish government established a general education law, making the completion of secondary school mandatory for all residents. In other words, all children are required to stay in school until age sixteen. Children of the Roma community have a high rate of school abandonment. Only 24% of its children continue studying after primary school compared to the 64% of the rest of the Spanish population, even though it is mandated by law. Further, only 1 out of every 100 gypsies attends university (statistics from 2016). Of the lucky 1%, 80% are gypsy women. Despite this, a higher percentage of gypsy girls abandon school earlier than gypsy boys. So, what makes gypsies so different from the rest of the population? Why is there such a disparity between genders in obtaining higher education? There are many factors.

Boys and girls playing / ANTONIO PEREZ

On a sunny day, Julia Casanovas Salas reflects on her twelve years of teaching and serving as a Vice Principal of the Ramon Carande High School in Seville’s Polígono Sur neighborhood. Many of her students came to the center as part of a remedial program (also known as “bridge classroom”) to enhance their language skills up to the required level. Many of them have slid through the school system without properly learning. “Many gypsy students have a negative attitude towards education; they only see it in terms of obligation… Some are very daring and challenging. They talk to you…with an arrogance.” Their parents are likely to be illiterate. Some students’ fathers are even in jail, some mothers may be dealing with an addiction. Many of these kids have no authority figures except those of social services. Julia remarks, “They do not come with a special interest in learning because, for them, adult life starts very early, about 14 or 15 years old. They are already coupled. The girls most of all. So, they don’t have any need to study or progress.” Gypsy society is incredibly patriarchal with traditional gender roles where the man works, while the woman is expected to marry, have children, and stay at home. They also do not believe in premarital sexual relations nor using contraception.

These conservative values are reflected in the words of Ana Vargas, a 65-year old gypsy, who grew up in the neighborhood of Las Tres Mil Viviendas. She started working in the fields alongside her mother when she was nine years old, while also helping raise her other eight siblings. When she got married at age 23—an old age for marriage in the Roma community—she stayed at home and raised the children. However, Ana considers herself “lucky” because, unlike her mother who never had time to rest, she had the fortune of not having to work again. However, Ana was never educated and to this day the only word Ana knows how to write is her name “so that I could sign the marriage document,” she says. Julia notes that gypsy women are also “machistas” because they defend this model, this culture. They do not criticize it, only pass it on to their children.

However, Julia also recognizes that there were some students who were motivated to learn and did not fulfill the stereotypes. She talks of a student who was a “survivor” and eventually obtained her secondary school degree, left her family, and is working and supporting herself in Madrid. She basically raised herself since her father was an alcoholic who abused her mother, and her mother did not care for her either. The former educator believes that gypsy “women are now becoming conscious that education gives freedom and will allow them to be their own selves…not subjected.”

Another educated gypsy woman is Sandra Heredia Fernández, who’s currently completing post-doctorates in Political Science, Gender Studies, and Sociology while working full-time at The Federation of Associations of Gypsy Women (FAKALI). Unlike most gypsy families, Sandra was lucky to have a father who supported education and encouraged her to continue studying. She represents the upcoming generation of college-educated gypsy women who are helping their population fight to assert their unique identity. “Our fight is not the same as the Catalans because we have never fought for a territory or to establish our own state, but we have fought to obtain our equal rights.”