Aritmética gitana

by Pedro Casermeiro


A couple of weeks ago I went to a meeting of young Roma in Tarragona organised by the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) and two youth organisations. Some very interesting presentations and talks were organised. In one of these talks, which attempted to encourage young people from Tarragona to study, I dared to say that it is true that “education de-Romafies”. I would not wish for anyone to misunderstand my comment. It was part of a much broader viewpoint which holds that what actually “de-Romafies” is lounging about at home watching the telly, and that inclusion in the workplace inevitably involved entering the world of education and training.

We could digress and talk about the ways in which the educational system “acculturates” Roma pupils, and about the appropriateness and relevance of this acculturation for our adaptation to a world which is increasingly globalised. I would someday like to cover this topic in another article, but today I wanted to offer a small example: how an ancient tradition can be lost by a single generation.

Romani arithmetic. I had never paid much attention to the way my grandmother or my father did arithmetic. Or at least, I had not given it the attention it really deserved until one day Carlos, a worthy travelling companion, mentioned it during a friendly chat amongst friends. It was then that I came to understand why “counting” was done very differently in my family compared to the way I had learnt it in school.

When we were still using the peseta currency, at my house we never used quantities expressed in pesetas, but in “duros” (five-peseta coins). There was no way my father would ever utter the sum “five hundred pesetas”, not even to refer to the note in that denomination. He would always say that “a hundred duros” or a “thousand duros” were much better. It was as if he’d felt an inexorable need to convert all amounts into “duros” and if the arithmetic did not add up, then into “reales” (pre-peseta coins). Amounts were never based on single pesetas but in increments of five (duros) or four (reales).

At first I thought it was because my parents, grandparents or uncles did not have the opportunity to go to school, but later I paid better attention to my memories and realised that they did not do calculations like me because they were illiterate but because they had a different tool for counting, a tool that was passed from generation to generation until my time. From the East to the West: an imaginary abacus.

In the case of my grandmother the situation is more significant, or exaggerated. When we talk about the price of anything, something that costs fifty euros for her will be five notes of ten euros, and something that costs a hundred euros will be two fifties. She understands perfectly what “100” and “50” mean, but she perceives these figures very differently than I do. She does not think in ordinal numbers like me, but in amounts. When she makes a calculation, she uses mental processes which are superior to mine. Her brain works more efficiently than mine does.

We Roma have retained this strategy for more than a thousand years. But it only takes a single generation for it to disappear. I am now aware of how lucky I was to have inherited my father’s hobby of doing calculations based on increments of five, which for him was not a preference but a necessity, since it was the only thing he had learnt. And the truth is that “Romani arithmetic” is much better than “Western arithmetic”. Have a look on the internet and explore the many scientific studies that show how using an abacus benefits the intellectual development of children.

The ignorance that exists about our culture, not only on the part of gadje, but on our own behalf as well, is what leads to the exclusion and undervaluation of an entire collective. Claiming back our culture must necessarily involve getting to know what our values are, what our cultural background is, and what we have been dragging around the world since we began our journey in the Far East. We should not remain anchored only in music, language or colourful traditions. There are more important things, such as our way of thinking, our philosophy, and more specific topics such as the one that I have tried to explain in this writing, our arithmetic.


La Década Roma y la arrogancia española

by Ramón Flores

Roma Decade

On 10 September 2015 the Steering Committee of the Decade of Roma Inclusion met in Sarajevo, Bosnia to close the 10-year period of the initiative’s implementation.

Led by the Open Society Foundations, from 2005-2015 initiative was implemented in 12 countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain. In each of these countries, the initiative’s local organisation implored its government to work to eliminate discrimination and unacceptable barriers between Roma and the rest of society by proposing its own Decade Action Plan. The commitment obtained by signatory countries was to “support the full involvement of national Roma communities to achieve the proposed objectives for the period and demonstrate progress by measuring the achievements obtained, and to review the experiences and the implementation of the Decade Action Plans”.

Today, 10 years on, that “Decade” has turned into a lost decade. This is especially true if we examine the role of the Spanish state during this period. Spain has spent these years claiming itself to be an “example of best practices in Roma integration”. The country has based this discourse on an ethnocentric gaché view where authorised paya voices claim that the four magical pillars of inclusion – education, housing, employment and health – would cure all the ills of Roma and their social maladjustment.

Perhaps the first mistake is to keep using the word integration, which connotes that the majority society will maintain its dominant position and integration will be carried out through juxtaposition until the dominated social groups (Roma) either become dominant or break away from their cultural characteristics and institutions because they are incompatible with their host society (non-Roma). The second option has been the prevailing one not only in this decade, but for five centuries.

During the years of the Decade, the Spanish state has played a passive role in terms of leading the action plans proposed by the Decade’s Steering Committee. This role has been one of delegating responsibilities to Roma and pro-Roma organisations in the country, a clear example of clientelism and handwashing.

This has led to even further distrust towards the so-called third sector, where NGOs have been seen as having an identifying and standard-bearing role for the Roma community. Governmental-type responsibilities have been shifted towards the associations, who it should be noted are not representative or authorised voices of the Roma community, but social actors with a clearly important role in civil society, but nothing beyond that.

This political game has led to a situation where the Decade of Roma Inclusion has gone completely unnoticed in Spain. The government has nonetheless displayed a remarkably swollen chest when talking about it as an example of best practices and endeavoured to “teach those new Eastern European members” how things are done with respect to Romani issues.

But even in this feigned role of superiority, Spain has once again failed, as usual. Not even during the Steering Committee meetings could the Spanish government be bothered to provide institutional representation on a more or less permanent basis, almost always citing scheduling incompatibility as the reason that prevented them from attending events and reporting and informing on the country’s progress with regards to inclusiveness. In fact, if you check out the official sources of the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality Minister of Spain, there is only one reference to the Decade – a link to the website of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Moreover, the Spanish government itself has not written a single one of the reports published for the Decade. It has passed this responsibility along to pro-Roma associations and to the Spanish representatives from the Decade.
This power and leadership vacuum has created a situation of one-way clientelism. On the one hand, the national government has completely ignored the role they assumed in 2009 when they joined the Decade. Through a statement issued in 2014, they said they regretted the loss of its status as an “observer” after the conclusion of the Decade, and that they preferred to focus their efforts on the processes within the EU (so they could go and play with the grown-ups).

On the other hand, this surreal game played by the Spanish government has similarly triggered a prioritisation of “needs” that are necessary measures for both the Roma community and for the rest of the Spanish population. They have been and still are patches disguised as key areas for social inclusion. That is, the previously mentioned magical pillars that fix everything. (Education, Employment, Housing and Health, seasoned with quantitative targets, which are specified as population percentages, to be achieved in 2020).

Most pro-Roma associations and Roma in the country have found themselves trapped in this net. They have completely forgotten about their role as social actors and have converted and adapted the needs of the Roma community to priorities set by the European Commission, and hence by the Spanish government. If the Spanish government and Europe say that it is necessary to work in those areas, they will adapt the needs to political priorities rather than the other way round.

Because we should not forget that Spain is still peculiar when it comes to Romani issues. While Roma citizens are officially full citizens (fortunately, Spain’s Roma community is not recognised as a minority) in theory, the reality is quite different.

Under this premise, the Spanish government does not cover the needs of a population of nearly one million Roma Spanish people and also practices institutional and social discrimination against them.

Priority status is given to certain aspects which, even with “titanic” efforts by the country’s political institutions, are still seen as lacking. If we examine the data we can see that only 5% of Roma students finish high school, and barely 1% reach college. Not to mention classes for students with special needs…

And different Spanish governments have blamed the Roma community for their own social failures, pointing to Gypsy customs as the core of the problem. Of course, how could policies drafted at the Ministry of Education bear any of the responsibility?

Looking at employment, 22.2% of the Spanish population is unemployed. However, there are data (unofficial) that point to an unemployment rate amongst the Roma community of 57% (data from the Roma Decade).

These figures are frightening and certainly indicate that there is work to do. But Spain forgets (as do the NGOs) that the country’s Romani “problem” goes far beyond what is shown by data and statistics.

Negative and stereotypical attitudes about the Roma community continue to prevail, with this group being the most despised by the nation as a whole. Anti-Gypsyism continues to enjoy free reign in Spain – disguised as humour, investigative journalism and reality shows.

Well into the 21st century, perceptions are even worse – if that is at all possible – than when the Decade initiative began. A vacuum still exists where Roma voices should be properly heard. Nonetheless, the State continues with its patchwork approach to the situation. A clear example of this are government bodies such as the State Council of the Romani People and the Roma Cultural Institute.

Both cases would indeed be examples of best practices if the utility and purpose of these organisations more clearly reflected the needs and aspirations of Spain’s Roma community, and were not just showpieces to demonstrate that we care about the Roma issue.

And once again, the Spanish government saddles the responsibility on the organisations that comprise these bodies. This would be a good example of co-management and governance were it not for the fact that non-governmental organisations are urged by Europe and Madrid to continue to align their strategies and action plans based on what they consider to be most appropriate and politically correct, in line with stipulations issued by offices in Brussels.

One wonders whether the Spanish government has really wanted to effectively tackle the issue of Roma inclusion.
Why doesn’t Spain assume direct responsibility for the million Spanish citizens who are Roma instead of leaving the matter in the hands of NGOs? In the metaphorical sense, it is a way of neglecting the issue and transferring it to the citizenry with messages such as “Sponsor a child”.

If no direct action has been taken, it is because we are more interested in maintaining a state of inequality and therefore the status quo. It is not a question of measuring inequality and discrimination against the Roma community in quantitative terms, but of reflecting on the origins and processes that lead to such high levels of inequality.

Inequality and the poor living conditions endured by thousands of Roma in Spain are not circumstances that people choose. Inequality and poverty degrade the human condition, despite the proclamations of some extremist and sick voices (and perhaps other more moderate ones as well) claiming that Roma have no desire to integrate.

Spanish governments have apparently not understood or don’t want to know what this is all about. Instead, Spain prefers to play with the grown-ups in Europe, while at the same time benefiting from the gold mine which enriches the accounts of its social policies. In other words, Roma integration is an excellent opportunity to maintain the status quo of inequality, discrimination and social differentiation. And another excuse to continue blaming Gypsies for their non-integration, and NGOs for their lack of effectiveness.

Some time ago I read an article in El País entitled “In regards to Roma integration, we must have done something right”, which lauded the excellency of the programmes (patches) to promote unskilled employment. The article did not mention the high secondary school dropout rates and presented the ethnocentric view that payo researchers like so much: the us and them dichotomy; asserting that Gypsies form part of “our” society. That hackneyed and thoroughly assimilated ethnocentric vision…

Spain has once again missed an opportunity to make far-reaching reforms and drive the transition to an egalitarian society. At the end of the day, the “Decade” has been a mere ripple in the ocean.

Other initiatives will come through either private investment or public funds, and Spain will once again claim that it must have done something right regarding Roma integration and hang the best practices medal around its own neck.

This can only be avoided if there is an awakening amongst Roma civil society – whether via Roma intellectuals, students or graduates – who raise their voices and use their talents to work from a completely different perspective. This should enable real experts to research and generate views in order to properly advise governments and institutions on what to do and how to do it to achieve a more equal society and break the cycle of discrimination and anti-Gypsyism.

Will Spain listen to reason, or will it offer only superficial showiness and words of wisdom?

The Decade should be a lesson learnt about how to leave aside speeches as well as ethnocentric and recalcitrant positions where, in order to exalt Spanish achievements in the field of Roma integration, Spain continues to speak about flamenco. And Olé.


The time for young Roma

by Ramón Flores

On 21 April, during the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the manual “Mirrors”, the first on human rights prepared by the Council of Europe in combating Romaphobia – racism and discrimination against Gypsies – was presented in Strasbourg in collaboration with the European Youth Forum Roma (FERYP) and other Gypsy organisations and professionals.

This has been a big step, because it is a manual prepared by young people for young people, where they share techniques and methods to combat Romaphobia from a different perspective. This perspective must be intercultural, since the fight against racism is not just a matter for “Romani activists” but for all people living in society.

In this regard it is worth questioning what role young Roma and youth organisations should play in combating the Romaphobia and anti-Romani feelings that are flourishing in Europe with increasing frequency. Often, and especially in Spain, we detect an “accommodation” of Roma civil society.

And when referring to this accommodation, we do so based on a comparison of Roma social movements from many parts of Europe. A new way of working, thinking and acting is needed to adapt to the new “wave of vandalism against Roma” taking place across Europe.

It is time to ask a simple question. What are the factors that explain the role of youth as advocates for change in Roma communities?

Despite being the clear leaders and visible faces of Roma movements, young people generally have less power than adults or the elderly in any political or social system, especially in Roma communities. Moreover, these movements arise through widespread, decentralised popular participation. While we may assume that “the Gypsy youth movement” represents a homogeneous group, not all young people are the same, and for today’s European Romani societies youth movements represent an array of different interests and goals. This puts Roma youth movements at a great disadvantage, as they compete against well-established institutions in regards to the future of their communities.

Unfortunately, yet predictably, this form of social intervention, where the voices of young Roma are prominent, does not have the same professional level compared to other Roma community movements that are older and more experienced. However the Roma youth movements have clearly emerged as a visible and meaningful way to involve those belonging to one of society’s least favoured groups.

Existing opportunities to develop comprehensive approaches originating not only from within communities but often externally are key components for the advancement of policies and projects for young Roma. They also help to emphasise the roles of young people in the social, cultural and economic development of Roma communities.

It is with respect to these areas that we should reflect on the best way to work and especially in which areas we need to define achievable and realistic goals. Beyond the exaggerated, unfounded and misplaced criticisms aimed at Roma social movements in Spain, we need to define strategies based not on welfarism but on participation. In other words, we should avoid flaunting poverty to our own benefit and advancement, opting instead to use students as young leaders to advance and enhance the visibility of the true reality of Roma communities.

When mainstream society thinks of the Roma community, they automatically think of poverty, exclusion and marginalisation. This is where the key to youth involvement in all spheres of civil society lies. We need to change the focus and avoid feeding and exploiting the “bad side” of Roma communities. Now is the time for us to stop promoting such images imposed from the outside which feed the vicious circle of Roma poverty that exists because of policies based on welfarism. Welfarism continues to exist because policies encourage it.

It is clear that we cannot deny reality. But reality also shows us that more and more young Roma have training and are ready to take decisive roles not only to “eliminate racism” but to normalise our inclusion and interaction within increasingly multicultural societies.

From this modest venue provided by the Virtual Museum, I would like to reach out to young Roma, students and workers and encourage them to take a step forward and lead the process of normalisation through the promotion of multiculturalism. They should not wait for “the associations” to take the lead and develop projects. Each and every one of us, from our respective positions and points of view, should raise our own voice and claim centre stage. We will never get a better chance than we have now. The time has come. That time is now.

Letter to my sisters, cousins and aunts

by Patricia Caro Maya

Sisters, cousins and aunts:

I am writing this letter because I have been watching us close up and from far away for a long time, listening to our pleas when we met in intimacy, sharing mixed conversations over coffee about our needs as people, women and as Roma. We are not concerned about age, marital status or family ancestry. Taking as a source of strength the gender, difficulties and community we share, gaps are narrowed and we find ourselves with a salve to soothe our problems.

Together, we support each other as we can against the anxiety we feel about the expulsion of any of us, the illness of someone close or the economic hardship that would keep us from providing our people with a decent life. Together, we clamour for our men to remain level-headed and strong in an unjust world that often leads them to take refuge in perverse illusions and endless mazes. (Will they do the same for us when they are not with us?)

I live with the anxiety of our young people, who can feel the suspicious gazes that fall upon them on their way to school, where they are obliged to spend years in an institution that only expects them to get married and have lots of babies without providing them any real opportunities for success, participation, or at least to feel represented. Girls, influenced by the FEAR of Roma and paya (non-Roma) adults, believe that the only way they can change their lives is to get married. A haphazard search for protection within this hostile forest only to be faced with the unlikely task of finding in their midst Roma men capable of valuing their treasures and personal growth without themselves feeling undervalued. In the end our young Romani females struggle to survive and leave their happiness up to the lottery or to spinsterhood.

Sisters, cousins and aunts: I do not want us to sink into pain and helplessness because of the reality we live in, because that is not our nature. That the idea that things cannot be changed is a false tale that is fed into our heads so that we will sit and cry with no complaints and endure visible and invisible injustices. We must rise up with dignity and renew ourselves. We face many challenges ahead, so let’s start with the first one:


This demon has many faces. It can disguise itself as a TV show that ridicules our most cherished intimacies, and that can also disguise itself as POVERTY. It wears the “NO, BECAUSE YOU ARE A GYPSY” costume. And it publicly undresses you by yelling “YOU DO NOT EXIST”. It takes the shape of SILENCE and sometimes transforms itself into a person WE KNOW and who lives with us.

Let’s show some consideration for ourselves, for our culture and for future generations. LET’S DREAM.

I want us to exist, to be visible, and for us to make a difference in ourselves, the law, schools, society and politics, because doing otherwise would be inhuman, unjust and an affront to fundamental rights (which are ours too, even though that’s not what we’re used to hearing). I want us to choose to be teachers, doctors, homemakers, mothers, entrepreneurs, professionals, sellers… I don’t want us to die 30 years younger than payas, because we’ve got so much work to do for so much longer. I want Romani women to be fighters, because it’s what we’ve always been. We do not believe the lie that calls us submissive. Old women! Tell us your experiences when you travelled the roads with horses selling Holland sheets!

I want us to be UNITED and sit down with our men and let them know that they should be struggling by our side, as we always do. Let’s face up to our common enemies: FEAR and DEGRADATION. We should recover from our historical memory the notion that respect and love within Roma communities is the greatest STRENGTH we can rely on to adapt and survive in the 21st century, and that without them, we will have lost our main virtue: the ability to face and overcome adversity together (JUNT@S), always relying on the experience of our ELDERLY population.

I want us to sit down with gadje Women (non-Romani women) and tell them that this is everyone’s responsibility. We must fight together with respect for our cultural values because eradicating violence against Romani women will be a fundamental victory against PATRIARCHY and its need to exert dominant power and make us believe the lie that we are weak and that we are alone.

Sisters, cousins, aunts: it is my dream that we will once again be free, strong and courageous Romani women. Women who love and fight for their communities and for themselves. I know it’s difficult and that we’re tired of having to be the ones who try the hardest, but as an elderly woman once told me about respect: “The person who has the most gives the most”. Let us be the ones to lay the first stone, let us raise awareness among men so that they will help us build, and we should also ask for the support of payas. At the end of the day, it’s about making the stones along our path smaller and ensuring that future generations do not have such enormous obstacles to overcome, so that they don’t have to be gold-medal winning Olympic athletes to survive. To accomplish this we need to get to work in several areas:

LET US EDUCATE EACH OTHER, because we need all of our INTELLIGENCE.
LET US GET ORGANISED, because we need the STRENGTH of everyone.