Roma Civil Rights movement

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Jorge Bernal

Development of Roma Civil Rights Movements in Argentina and Latin America

Romani People in the Americas

The first Roma may have arrived to America with the third voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1498.1 Since then, there have been different waves of Roma migration originating from Europe. As a result, the Roma population in countries of North and South America is very diverse in of its sub-group and nationality. There is little reliable data regarding the size of Roma populations – only in few countries (Colombia, Brazil and Canada and the USA), does the national census allow Roma ethnicity to be declared. It is estimated that there are between 1,500,000 – 4,000,000 Roma in the Americas.2 Roma remain a largely invisible, often assimilated minority throughout the continent. It is not widely known that Juscelino Kubitschek, the President of Brazil (1956-1961), was raised by his Czech, Romani, immigrant mother Julia, a teacher3, although Roma activists recall his inviting their people to his palace during his presidency. Today, however, emerging processes of political activism and mobilization aiming at seeking recognition in some countries has led to a growing public and political presence. Nowadays we find in Roma NGOs a group of individuals of all kinds of professions, including lawyers, doctors, psychologists, anthropologists, musicians, actors and other professions.

The arrival of the first Roma in the Americas in the 16th Century Common Era (CE) was often the result persecution in Europe, or deportation as indentured labour.4 By the end of the 16th Century CE, there were numerous cases of deportations of Rom (Kalon) from Portugal to Brazil. Spain similarly, tried to rid itself of its Romani population. When assimilation was resisted they were sent to Africa or to America.5

The Example of Romani People in Argentina

Approximately 300,000 Roma live in Argentina. The first to arrive were Spanish Kalé who came from Spain at different times and speak only Spanish dialects rather than Romani. Grammatical Romani is spoken by Greek, Moldavian and Russian Kalderash, some Lovari families, and some Chilean Xoraxane Roma. They began to arrive in Argentina from Europe, around 1880-1890. At a similar time, more Kalé came from Spain, Ludari and other groups came from Serbia and Romania, who speak Romanian dialects, rather than Romani, amongst themselves and have spread throughout the Americas.6 In the second decade of the 20th Century CE some Kalderash from Russia settled and later on in the 1960’s, another new wave of Spanish Kalé from Spain. From the 1990’s until today, Romanian, Brazilian and Colombian Rom have also been arriving in Argentina.7 These groups are spread throughout the cities and many of the small towns of the country.

The main religions now are Pentecostalism and Catholicism. Different groups tend to specialize in differing professions such as, car trading (including new and second-hand cars), metalworking, the repairing of hydraulic machinery, the construction industry as small contractors mostly. One can also find taxi and bus drivers, truckers, photographers, mechanics, bulk sellers, people who sell textile products and others. On their side, Romani women are often involved in trading or fortunetelling8, but some are housewives. Unemployment is low, although it does exist and despite the fact that formal education is rejected by the majority of the groups, Romani groups are not at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy and are not as poor as the local and migrant Native-American, indigenous people and mestizo slum-dwellers (who are more than 12% of the population).

In the last two decades Romani individuals from Argentina have moved to the USA, Spain or France, where many have relatives. The crisis of the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa (before his resignation in 2001), brought about fear of a return of military dictatorship. However, nowadays, many Roma have been returning, while still in contact with family and friends in the countries that they chose to emigrate to earlier.9

How did the Romani Organisations in Latin America start?

The first Romani organization in the Americas was launched in the 1920s, in the United States, where a kind of Romani cooperative called E Tsoxa e Lolí grew. This organization was incorporated in New York under the title “The Red Dress Gypsy Association” was created, to protect the professional metalworking Roma were doing in New York City.10 Amongst the Vlach Romani community throughout the Americas, there was a certain amount of controversy when Steve Kaslov bought up yards of red silk at bargain prices in San Francisco and used this to dress the women of the group, of which he was baro, in long red skirts. This caused an uproar amongst American Vlach-Roma, who saw this as scandalous. It is thought that in defiant retaliation, Kaslov gave this name to his NGO when it was founded, and in consequence Roma in South America think of this organization as “The Red Skirt ...[Dress] Association”.

This demonstrates that Roma in South America had thought about the possibility of political organization. But it wasn’t until the 1980s however, that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a Romani violinist of Serbian origin called Mio Vasite, together with others, Roma and non-Roma, created the first Romani cultural association called CEC (Centro de Estudos Ciganos), of which Mio Vasite was president.11 This was similar to such Romani organizations in Europe, although with more of a cultural character and working within the Romani traditions and kris (law) rather than independent of them. All these kinds of organizations were seen at beginning as strange to Romani culture.

After the creation of that organization in 1987 in Brazil, the idea was brought to Argentina in 1989, where the CEC presented the Romani culture and music at the Centro Cultural San Martín, one of the most important venues in Argentina, to a vast and joyful non-Roma audience, amongst whom a few members of our community were present. This impacted positively on the Argentinian Roma, who later informally set up Narodo Rromano, which, though never legally registered, advised local TV while it produced three consecutive TV programs about our culture, during that period.12 After that Narodo Rromano’s activities ceased, and for the following eight years, no such activity took place until the creation of Identidad Cultural Romaní (AICRA), in 2000. However, other Romani organizations such as CEC Minas Gerais and CEC São Paulo, had appeared in Brazil, but none with much success. Today the inheritor of CEC is the Uniao Cigana do Brasil (Romani Union of Brazil), of which Mio Vasite is still president.

During the year 1998, PRORROM, a Colombian Romani organization, appeared in that country. Subsequently two other organizations emerged; ASOROM, in Ecuador (established in 2000), and the Unión Romaní de Colombia (also in 2000).13 All of these took shape under the authority of the Romani Kris and the Kumpanias (reflecting the leading role of Kalderash, who are present in every country and other Vlach Romani groups). The first two organizations played an important role as mediators, making it possible for many Romani NGOs to participate at the United Nations’ “Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia”, in Durban (2001). Prior to the conference, a group of Roma activists from USA, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Argentina met in Quito, Ecuador in 2001. This was the first step to creating SKOKRA - a federation of the Roma NGOs of the Americas. During the meeting in Quito, the participants elaborated a joint declaration, entitled “The Other Sons of Pacha Mama: Declaration of the Roma People of the Americas”.14

At the same time an interesting event took place in Chile, when a group of Romani musicians had the opportunity to advise Chilean TV in their realization of a Romani soap opera Romané, which had great success across the whole continent, and even in the U.S.A. Later, another Romani organization was born in Chile, Unión Romaní de Chile, promoted by PROROM and later by AICRA.15

In the last 15 years the links between the Romani organizations in the Americas, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, have emerged and strengthened every day, In 2005, the first Congress of Roma People in the Americas was organized in Mexico. In recent years the UN promoted some workshops, to which were invited representatives of the Romani people from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Canada, and Mexico, under the umbrella of SKOKRA (the federation of the Roma NGOs in the Americas). These took place in 2015 (Brasilia), and 2017 (Buenos Aires). Important leaders, in addition to Mio Vacite in Brazil include Ana Dalila Gómez for Colombia Titino Nicolich, and nowadays Spiro Nicolich in Chile, Oscar Juanito Montes in Peru, and Alfredo Yancovich who plays a leading role in both Ecuador and Mexico.

Although, Romani NGOs are hardly a mass movement amongst the skeptical Romani populations in the Americas, little-by-little acceptance has grown. The problems that face them today, include lack of finance, being ignored by local governments, and pressures from both the traditional structures of the Kris system, which remains strong in the Americas, and of the Romani evangelical churches. This movement, born in France in 1951, and reaching the Kalderash there in 1960, has spread throughout the entire American continent.16 In Argentina alone, there are more than fifteen such churches, and in the United States, three times as many. This evangelical movement has been as large an external influence on Romani culture, as has formal education.

SKOKRA and other Romani NGOs identify as some of the main objectives vis-à-vis the outside world as to promote Romani culture, and its uniqueness, to stop racism, to support other minorities in danger or which suffer discrimination, such as the Native American People and to follow the worldwide Romani movement and its international struggle. Within the Romani communities, the NGOs seek to preserve our Romani culture, language, kumpanias, kris and values, to appraise the contribution of formal education to our culture, to generate the promotion of our people, whilst keeping within our traditional values and to resolve legal problems (by organizing legal support).

An Example from Argentina – The Case of AICRA

Argentina in the 60’s was considered a large middle-class country with a good future at a global level, but political events that followed worsened life in the country over the years, and these brought with them impoverishment, insecurity, increase in the crime rate and discrimination, mainly against the poor. The four years of crisis at the end of the 90’s affected the lives of the majority of the country’s inhabitants. During this crisis, the first legally formed Romani organization – Identidad Cultural Romani de Argentina (AICRA), started in September 2000. This organization, was seen at first as something strange by the Roma here, despite the fact that there had been another Romani organization twelve years previously, Narodo Rromano (Romani People), which, in spite of its informal structure, embarked upon many activities in its short life and paved the way for this new-born entity.

Identidad Cultural Romaní (“Romani Cultural Identity” from Argentina) is an open organization and its main tasks are oriented in three directions:

1) The development of programs of direct intervention, trying to answer all the needs of the Romani population, and those of communities which would wish to collaborate in our project.

2) The offering of information services, advice and orientation coming from the diverse disciplines, managed not only by the professionals who work in the organization, but also by all the others that form it.

3) Acting directly upon the more structural causes which generate discrimination against minorities.

It defines its objectives as:

1) To develop and integrate whatever might help to keep and promote the Cultural Identity of the Romani people, and of all the communities that would be interested in this project.

2) To support the accomplishment by all means of Argentina’s anti-discrimination law, to develop appreciation for cultural diversity, tolerance and education among the people, and to ask politicians and social leaders to take firm action to balance those situations which might otherwise generate xenophobic feelings or other worse evils.

The Future Development of Roma Civil Rights and Status in South America

The key to the achievement of full civil rights and status of Roma in South America, and their contribution to that of Roma in the world, is the mastering of the benefits of the formal educations system without being subjugated by it.

The current educational situation of Romani children is quite atypical in the continent even though in almost all the countries primary education is compulsory. There has been a tendency for Roma to try to avoid this duty, because of the fact that the elders of the community considered that school could destroy the equilibrium of the group through the influence of an alien group (the gadjé) in the Romani culture. For many traditional Romani People, only reading, writing, and mathematics have been considered important. Family training in music, metalwork and other skills has often seemed superior to those of schools training people to be obedient employees. Roma often say, “The boys must stay at school while they learn how to read and write and mathematics, and not after that, besides if they don’t leave school they are going to become gadjé.” This is where Romani NGOs have before them a titanic balancing task, educating the schools to avoid a bad impact on the Romani community. In the Americas, according to SKOKRA, Romani culture, represented by 4,000,000 individuals throughout the whole continent, has often been kept closed and traditional, in its confrontation with outsiders. Due this great fear of losing our own culture, things which come from the non-Roma are very often rejected, and marginalization of the community accepted, which itself, may be destructive of traditional life. Wealthy, non-formally educated businessmen may prevent their own children from going to school or becoming doctors, because this is against the Romani tradition and culture. This is the dilemma which honourable Romani NGOs face, to develop within the community a critical, but respectful, valuing of those institutions which come from the non-Romani world and which could contribute to the future development of our people.

Romani NGOs, with the necessary external support, could demonstrate the possibility of developing from the limited tools the achievement of their goals, the goals of the Romani People, a place in this world, without either cultural marginalization or the loss of our culture, thus contributing to a better life for the Romani people and the preservation of their traditions in the Americas, as well as building towards the formation of a true worldwide Romani nation or community which could help to improve the existence of the whole of humanity.