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Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka

A History of the Roma Associative Movement in Spain

Historical Background

The history of Roma in Spain dates back almost 600 years but is marked by centuries of persecution. Roma were granted letters of safe conduct upon their arrival;1 however, by the turn of the fifteenth century, the Roma had become subject to the exclusionary policies of the Catholic Monarchies.2 On 4th March 1499, the first Pragmática (the Pragmatic Sanction of Medina del Campo) was passed, ordering all Roma to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, acquire a trade and serve a local lord. Until 1783, more than two-hundred and fifty anti-Roma decrees were issued, aimed at the dissolution of the Roma as a distinct ethnic group. During this period, Roma were also interned en masse, in what is generally known as “The Great Gypsy Round-Up” (La Gran Redada) of 1749 and forcibly expelled, whilst the use of their language (Rromani-chib), traditional clothing or occupations (such as fortune-telling) were officially forbidden.3 The last Pragmática (1783) of Carlos III, King of Spain and the Spanish Indies (1759-1788), granted the Roma citizenship4, but aimed at their complete assimilation by forbidding them to maintain their distinct culture and traditions. As specified in other decrees, using the term Gitano was forbidden in any context. This legislation remained in force throughout the 19th century.

The fate of the Roma during the Spanish Civil War period remains largely under-researched; nonetheless, individual Roma were involved on both sides of the conflict. Helios Gómez, a poet, painter, revolutionary and an anarchist-communist, fought against Franco. Ceferino Giménez Malla (also known as El Pelé), was a Roman Catholic catechist and martyr, killed by Republican militias in 1936; he was beatified on the 4th May 1997, by Pope John Paul II. During the period of General Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), repressive policies towards Roma continued; amongst other measures, the use of the Caló language was strictly forbidden. From 1943, the Guardia Civil was given strict orders to control and monitor Romani communities.

The Democratic Transition and the Birth of the Roma Associative Movement

For Roma, the turning point for political mobilization was the period of democratic transition after 1975. Following the death of dictator Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Roma faced the unprecedented opportunities to become active political subjects, discovering the potential of ethno-politics during the process of gradual democratization. Democracy gave the Roma full and equal legal status as Spanish citizens and granted “the right of citizens to associate”.5

The birth of a genuine Romani associative movement in Spain is directly related to the philanthropic work of the Catholic Church and the establishment of the Evangelical Church. It is significant that pro-Roma, church-sponsored organizations preceded the formation of the Romani associative movement.6

The first genuinely Roma, independent and secular associations can be traced back to late 1960s; in Madrid, the Asociación de Desarrollo Gitana was created in 1968 (though only formally registered in 1972). During the 1970s, diverse Romani organizations emerged, including a number of organizations with a national scope of activity, such as la Asociación Nacional Presencia Gitana, established in 1972 (and formally registered in 1979), in the context of a general social awakening related to the weakening of Franco’s regime. Local Roma organizations, such as the Centro Cultural Gitano de la Mina, the first Roma organization in Catalonia (founded in 1978) began to appear.

unknown | Press conference of Unión de Centro Democratico political party, 1977 | photograph | Spain | 1977 | rom_10117 Licensed by: Uníon Romaní - Uníon del Pueblo Gitano | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Uníon Romaní / Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia

Following the transition to democracy, the welfare of Romani citizens was recognized to be a government responsibility. The role of Roma intellectuals, artists and politicians was paramount in raising awareness about the situation of Roma and mobilizing institutional responses. A good example is Camelamos Naquerar, a theatre performance written by José Heredia Maya with choreography by Mario Maya, which premiered in Granada in 1976.7 That same year, El Lebrijano (Juan Peña Fernández), published Persecución, a musical masterpiece with words by poet Felix Grande, narrating the history of Spanish Roma.

The democratic transition also represented the opportunity for Roma to become involved in formal politics. During the first democratic elections in post-Franco Spain (1977), Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia became the first Roma elected to the Spanish Parliament, as a candidate of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). Juan de Dios eloquently and passionately represented the plight of Roma communities during his famous speech on 7th June 1978. It is significant for Spanish Roma that the Constitution also bears his signature, which was drafted and ratified in 1978.

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Speech of Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia in the Spanish parliament in 1978 (part 1) | Spoken word | Spain | June 7, 1978 | rom_10004
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Speech of Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia in the Spanish parliament in 1978 (part 2) | Spoken word | Spain | June 7, 1978 | rom_10005

The 1980s: The Emergence of Roma Policies and the ‘Juan de Dios factor’

The increasingly difficult socio-economic situation of Romani communities in Spain during this time required a coordinated governmental response. In 1979, a special Inter-Ministerial Commission was created to study problems affecting Roma. The National Plan for Roma Development was approved in 1985. A special line of credit was included in the State budget to finance Roma measures for the first time, following an impassioned speech by Ramírez-Heredia, in 1986. In 1989, the Roma Development Plan, with a separate budget, was implemented.

The presence of Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia in the Parliament raised the visibility of Roma issues in the public discourse and contributed to the emergence of Roma-specific policies. Ramírez-Heredia also participated in the development of the Roma associative movement. Juan de Dios encouraged setting up local Roma organizations, and was a delegate to the First World Romani Congress in London (8th April 1971) and a founding member of International Romani Union (IRU). In 1986, he created the Unión Romaní Española (UR) as the first national umbrella organization and published the only Roma twice monthly newspaper, Nevipens Romani.

That same year, Juan de Dios became the first Roma, Member of the European Parliament (MEP). Between 1986 and 1999, Juan de Dios represented the plight of Roma in the European Union, advocating for Roma rights in his role as MEP and organized two historic international events in Spain; in 1994, the First Romani Congress of the European Union (in Seville), and in 1997, the First European Congress of Roma Youth in Barcelona.

unknown | Gelem gelem memorabilia dedicated to Juan De Dios and signed by Jarko Jovanovic | memorabilia | unknown | 1978 | rom_10116 Licensed by: Uníon Romaní - Uníon del Pueblo Gitano | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Uníon Romaní / Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia

The 1990s and 2000s: ‘The associative boom’ and the Internal Consolidation Process

During the 1990s, with the gradual development of Roma-related policies, increasing investment and a growing consciousness of the benefits of activism amongst Roma, the Romani associative movement rapidly expanded. Between 1997 and 2004, the approximate number of associations grew from 200 organisations, to around 400.8

This rapid growth required a parallel process of internal consolidation. The choice of forming regional, rather than national federations, made geographical and political sense; Spain is a highly-decentralized country, in which seventeen Autonomous Communities enjoy varying degrees of self-government. Romani organizations, encouraged by the regional administration, merged into federations, claiming greater representativeness and monopolizing communication channels with public administration bodes.

The first regional federation was set up in Andalucia, the Federation of the Roma Andalusian Association (FARA), founded in 1988; Centro Sociocultural Gitano, in Granada and the Federation of Roma Associations in Valencia Autonomous Community (FAGA), were established the following year. In 1991, the Federation of Roma Associations in Catalonia (FAGIC) was established by seventeen Roma associations; today FAGIC consists of over ninety associations and is considered the most powerful Roma organization in the regio.9

A major step in consolidating Roma organizations at the national level was made with governmental support. Initially, the so-called Foro was set up, hosted by Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs; diverse actors – Roma, pro-Roma, regional and national organizations – were able to interact and accord budgetary lines and their distribution.10 The Foro later transformed on the 22th July 2005, into the State Council for Romani People in Spain, 11 following a Royal Decree (891/2005).

Another effort at consolidating Romani actors at the national level was the creation of platforms around specific claims and objectives, such as the Platform for the Statute of Romani People, Romipen in 2000. The Platform delivered a number of manifestos and public announcements, most notably the ‘Toledo Manifesto’, aimed at establishing a ‘Statute of Romani People in Spain’, as a state framework. However, this initiative was not sustainable and didn’t succeed in generating such a framework.

The growth of Roma civil society in Spain did result in numerous accomplishments, through lobbying and advocacy by Roma themselves and increasing political will and public support. On the one hand, regional governments were encouraged to set up their own strategies and create local consultative bodies to ensure a dialogue opened with Roma, through the late 1990s and especially during the next decade; these proliferated across the country. The first such initiatives were set up in Andalucia where most Roma resided; a Municipal Council for Roma was created in 1984, in Seville and the first Andalusian Plan for Roma Community was approved in 1987. Catalonia was second in setting up the Municipal Council in Barcelona (1998) and approved its regional plan in 2001.12

Although formally the Roma have not yet been granted official status as a national minority, Roma organizations have succeeded in securing institutional and symbolic acts of recognition of Roma. The Andalusian Parliament established 22nd November as ‘the Day of Andalusian Roma’, in 1996,. The Catalan Parliament passed a resolution recognizing Roma identity and its value in 2001; Article 42.7 was added to the Statute of Catalonia in 2006, which urged the government to safeguard the culture of Romani people. On the national level, Congress approved a proposition stating that the government has to promote Romani culture, history identity and language in 2005; the Institute of Romani Culture was established in Madrid in 2007. In 2002, International Romani Day13, was celebrated for the first time in Spain and is increasingly being marked by public institutions.

The Roma Associative Movement vs. Electoral Politics

In Spain, ethno-political parties are not seen as a viable strategy to represent the political interests of minority groups. Under current legislation, the likelihood of electoral success for a Roma political party is very low. Despite this, past experiences have seen Roma forming ethnically-based, political parties. Partido Nacionalista Caló (PNCA) was founded by Maríano Fernández in 1999, as a political party of national scope. The PNCA participated in the national general elections of 2000 and in 2004, and in the municipal elections of 2007 and 2011, but without success. Another Roma political party was established in 2004, by Agustín Vega in Badajoz, Partido Alianza Romani (ARO), as a national political party.

A different strategy for political representation of Romani interests is through mainstream political parties, or more specifically, through politicians of Romani background who join these. However, the participation of Roma in mainstream political parties has also been limited. According to some data, between 1978 and 2003, a total of forty Romani representatives14 were candidates in political elections throughout Spain, of which two candidates were in regional elections, one in national elections, and the remaining candidates in municipal elections; however, only a handful were successfully elected in smaller municipalities.

Silvia Heredia Martín entered the Congress of Deputies from the People’s Party or PP (Partido Popular) in 2011, (and again elected in 2016), becoming the second person of Roma origin in the Spanish National Parliament. Only two other Romani candidates were elected to regional Congresses; Manuel Bustamante in Valencia (1999; 2003; 2007; 2013) as a candidate of PP and Francisco Saavedra in Extremadura (2003; 2007), for PSOE. Currently, only Heredia Martin remains in office, there are no other Romani deputies in regional or national parliaments. In the context of municipal elections, Roma candidates have greater chances of succeeding in the elections.

Change in the political makeup of the country over the past few years has opened up a window of opportunities to Romani candidates, particularly parties such as Podemos, or small municipal alliances that challenge the dominant, political bi-partisanship in Spain. During the 2015 municipal elections, at least sixty-one Roma were presented as potential deputies, twenty-six of them as candidates of recently created parties. Of these, ten candidates were successfully elected, six from the electoral lists of parties of popular unity.

The Romani Women ́s Movement

In Spain, similar to the rest of Europe, feminist agendas have not included the perspective of Romani women specifically; male-dominated Romani associations haven’t provided the necessary space for dialogue, involvement and collaboration amongst Romani women.

For this reason, Romani women themselves have begun to gradually forge a movement of their own, in order to attend to the specific needs of Romani women and create a safe space for empowerment and self-organization. Although there were individual Romani women involved in Romani associations, or in other spheres of civic and political life from the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1989 that the first Romani women’s association in Spain was established in Granada, with María Dolores Fernández Fernández as its president.

From 1991, Asociación de Mujeres Gitanas Romi, began to organize annual Romani women’s seminars in Granada, which gathered large numbers of Romani men and women to collectively discuss working towards the empowerment of Romani women. These meetings resulted in the creation of other Romani women’s organisations in different localities across Spain. From the 1990s, the Romani women’s movement has quickened and proliferated across the country; currently there are Romani women’s organisations in every Autonomous Community, with numerous federations and networks.

The emergence and dynamic development of Romani women’s organisations in Spain was a novelty at the time. The first Romani women’s organisations were also pioneers at the European level; Kamira, founded in 1999, was the first national federation of Romani women’s organisations in Spain, one of the first such organisations in Europe.

Indeed, the activism of Romani women in Spain was a source of inspiration for emerging Romani women’s activism abroad. For example, during the First Romani Congress of the European Union (Seville, 1994), a group of twenty-nine Romani women from seven countries, issued a joint conclusion regarding the specific problems of Romani women and their possible solutions under leadership of Jovhana Bourguignon, Mary Moriarty and Carmen Carrillo.

Romani and pro-Romani women’s organisations, also hosted a number of important events in Spain that provided spaces for Romani women from across Europe to share their experiences and work together. Drom Kotar Mestipen organized the First International Congress of Romani Women in Barcelona, which brought together over 300 Romani women in 2010. The Third International Roma Women’s Conference/ First World Congress of Roma Women took place in Granada, 2011.

In terms of visibilty, Romani women are conquering important political spaces in the representation of Roma in Spain. For example, Beatriz Carrillo de los Reyes, then president of Romani women’s federation FAKALI, was elected as the vice-president of the State Council for the Roma, in 2017. This was the first time that a Romani woman has been elected to this position. In the Municipal Council of Roma in Barcelona, the last two presidencies were occupied by Juana Fernández Cortés, and Maria Rubio, respectively.

“El Culto”: the Importance of the Romani Evangelical Church

It is impossible to describe the process of the emergence of the Romani associative movement in Spain, without acknowledging the important role of the evangelical churches (predominantly the Philadelphia Pentecostal Church), which emerged around the same time. The first Roma Evangelical Church was founded in 1968, in Balaguer, Catalonia. Over time, evangelical churches have expanded rapidly throughout the country.15

One of the main figures that has had a significant influence on this process was Emiliano Jímenez Escudero, who converted in France and began preaching in Spain in 1966. Today there are over 1,300 Roma evangelical churches with over 6,500 Roma evangelical pastors, throughout the country.16 These churches have emerged from communities, especially in marginalized Roma neighbourhoods and combine evangelisation with community services, playing an essential role in the process of the re-vitalization of Roma communities across Spain.

Over time, local religious associations were set up to represent Roma communities, access public funding for their social and cultural activities, and provide input to government policy processes, both independent of and linked to Romani churches.

From 2001, in Andalucia, Catalonia and elsewhere, the Roma evangelical associative movement began to crystallize. The Federation of Cultural Christian Association in Andalucia (FACCA) and FACCAT (later called Agape) in Catalonia, became defined as the ‘pastoral arm’ of the evangelical churches. Over time, FACCA became an important stakeholder in Romani affairs and a member of the State Council and Platform for the Roma (Khetane). The proliferation of Roma evangelical churches, as well as their parallel associations, is also a result of the extensive, independent networks through which these churches operate, has facilitated the exchange of information, know-how and ideas.

The Roma Movement Today

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of Romani organisations today in Spain, as there are no reliable data, but undoubtedly the Romani associative movement has grown significantly over the past decades.17 The need to create a more representative and independent body, which would be able to consolidate regional structures on a national scale, has become increasingly evident. The Plataforma Khetane, founded in September 2012 by regional federations and associations, currently has fourteen members; it claims to represent 110 Roma associations (through federated structures), from across the country.

While trying to navigate the difficulties of political influence, state-dependency and limited internal capacities, the Roma associative movement is constantly developing and progressing. In the past, the vast majority of organisations were set up to be the “voice of the community” without clear agendas, or specific profiles, these aimed to represent their local communities, rather than attending to specific needs.

Recently, newer types of Romani organisations have begun to appear, specialised and with clearer objectives. Some are issue-based organisations, such as those protecting the rights of street peddlers. Otheres have new types of structures and are political organizations, for example POLITIRROM or Kale Amenge, and Roma LGBTQI initiatives, such as Ververipen.

Romani women’s organisations proliferate and diversify, now ranging from more conservative, more progressive to radical, such as the Feministas Gitanas por Diversidad. Roma youth in Spain, often those with university degrees, play increasingly active roles in the Roma associative movement.

The international ties of collaboration and mutual support between Spanish Roma organisations and those abroad, are stronger than ever.