Romani reflections on October 12, the Spanish National Day

by Pedro Casermeiro


Upon trying to transmit my reflections on October 12 through my computer’s keyboard, I will be journeying into a garden that can be challenging to leave. Whatever the case, I will always have the option of trying to walk back my steps and delete everything I have written. I will nonetheless try not to let the latter happen and attempt to express, with a degree of order and clarity, a few ideas that have not ceased to trouble me for some time now.

October 12 is the Day of Spanish Culture (“Día de la Hispanidad”), a Spanish National Holiday that coincides with the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas, even though he thought he had made it to Japan. What we are really celebrating is not the arrival of Columbus to the Americas but the importance of this event for the creation of the Spanish State, the unification of a number of peninsular territories under the monarchy of the Catholic Kings and the projection of Spanish culture and language.

And although for most people the celebration of this anniversary seems reasonable, many critical voices can also be heard. In Catalonia and in the rest of Spain there has been much controversy about the decision of Badalona’s local authorities not to commemorate the day and to work as if it were any other day of the year, on the grounds that 12 October 1492 gave rise to a process of cultural and human genocide. The colonisation of the Americas by European nations had one common denominator: the imposition of the culture, language and religion of the colonising countries and the forced eradication of indigenous cultures, languages and religions.

For many, this discussion may seem trivial. That is, because more than 500 years have passed since that time, one could say that the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples is, obviously, not what is celebrated today. However, I think it is very positive and healthy from a democratic point of view for us to be able to debate such issues in our country. And why is it positive that we can argue about it? Very simple: because very deep open wounds remain in our own country. While today we can emphasise the cultural genocide carried out in the Americas, no one seems to remember the other cultural genocide, the one that began in the late 15th century on the Iberian Peninsula and for which other peoples were victims. In 1499, seven years after the discovery of the Americas, the Catholic Kings enacted the first pragmatic decree against Roma and their way of life. And that was the precise moment when the Romani culture and people began their predicament of having to choose between exclusion, marginalisation or assimilation. And 600 years later we find ourselves basically in the same dilemma, with the social consequences we all know about.

Understanding history is the first step towards understanding the present and charting a future with a certain degree of harmony. The downside of the controversy these days is the way it is played out. It seems that we operate in an extreme world of political back and forth, in which within a week this whole issue will have been all but forgotten until next year. I think we need to study history, reclaim everything that was taken from us and analyse the consequences of it all. What we need is a pedagogical approach, not just a week-long political huff-and-puff. We need to delve deeper in a way that respects everyone and refrains from running roughshod over people’s feelings. Although 12 October for some symbolises the beginning of a genocide, it is also a day for celebrating the culture, language and national identity of a people, and thus must be respected, irrespective of its scope. And I repeat: we are not celebrating the annihilation of anyone, or celebrating against anyone. Hence, any conscientious objection about the celebration of this date should come from an empathetic and respectful position towards those who do celebrate it, while at the same time maintaining an assertive and pedagogical tone.

Would it make sense to ask that the date of this celebration be changed to avoid hurting people’s feelings? If the answer is yes, then it would also make sense for Roma to ask for each and every monument erected in honour of any monarch who had enacted a pragmatic decree against our culture or language to be torn down. This would seem barbarous. Yet it has been done and continues to be done regarding everything that harks back to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, “El Caudillo”. Be that as it may, my answer to that question is a resounding no. The study of history should enrich us as a society and a democracy, and it must be done from the perspective of peace and neutrality that 600 years of shared history should have provided us with. We cannot judge what happened in the past based on our current values, as that would reflect a lack of perspective. We cannot pass judgement today on the Catholic Church for the Inquisition, nor can we now judge the monarchy or the Spanish state for a cultural genocide of Romani or indigenous peoples that occurred five centuries ago.

However, I insist that we do need to study and understand what happened and to promote restitution to the victims, in this case different peoples who, like Roma or Indigenous peoples, were forced to forget our language, our culture and our way of thinking . This issue is of vital importance to our people. After several decades of work in favour of the integration, inclusion or “whatever” of the Romani people, few have stopped to think that the first priority should be the full restoration of our people and our culture, with the focus on us as a people, a group, a nation and not as individuals seeking a better economic situation, which has been the focus of 99% of social policies targeted at Roma. As long as the prism has not changed and we are not seen as a people and treated as such, we will remain at our eternal crossroad: somewhere between marginalisation, exclusion and assimilation.

I hope these kinds of debates that are beginning to emerge do not slam the door shut, lead to entrenchment or become the kind of weapon that proponents of opposing political positions hurl at each other. I hope we can discuss and come to thoroughly understand the effects that current policies have on relations between peoples and cultures that are in constant contact with each other. I hope that someday it will come to be understood that the promotion of any culture should not entail offending or submitting another culture. And I hope it will also come to be understood that Roma are a people with their own culture and collective identity, and not a group of people with socioeconomic needs.

And on that point, I hope to be closer to finding my way out of the garden I had earlier decided to enter of my own free will.


Hunger walks

by Daniel Diaz Heredia


Just over a hundred years ago, through the now distant World War I, the world came to terms with the phenomenon of massive waves of refugees: people fleeing war and looking for refuge in a neighbouring country.

Today – in a Europe of the euro, a Europe of rights, a united Europe – a certain sense of shame exists with respect to the situation of Syrian refugees fleeing a conflict that has gone on for more than five years and decimated an entire country. How strange it is that they are called “refugees”, given they do not get the “refuge” they demand. In contrast to what is happening in the Europe of the euro, the Europe of rights is one that does not open its doors to those people trying to escape the horrors of war. What is even stranger is that when I see columns of refugees walking through a European Union which is void of solidarity, it makes me think of the Romani people, a people who are no longer nomadic yet who must settle for living as second-class citizens in most European countries. Perhaps we European Roma have paid and continue to pay for our “refugee” status in Europe with the currencies of marginalisation and segregation. And the unfortunate lack of solidarity towards refugees on the part of European states is nothing new if we look back to the way thousands died in the concentration camps that the French government set up for those fleeing the Spanish civil war, or how the UN behaved during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, an issue that has not been settled to this very day. The list of examples of European apathy is a long one.

But I also think that some European states would be richly nourished by these refugees, amongst them Spain. As a demonstration of servility towards its central government, Spain has the dubious distinction of being the country that has taken in the lowest number of refugees, while also and paradoxically being the country that needs them the most. Why? It turns out that Spain was once the country with the world’s lowest birth rate. In the 1980s, its women of childbearing age had the fewest children, and twenty-five years on we find ourselves with an enormous population of aging citizens. Syrian refugees would bring educated and qualified people to the table, as it had been a country where it was possible to study and get an education. They would also help us replenish the vitality that our country now sorely lacks. The arrival of educated people would make a timely albeit minimal contribution to our demographic index.

As ignorance and prejudice are the original sins of states, newcomers have always been seen as a problem. We should understand that human beings are naturally nomadic and ask ourselves why we subject ourselves to the fictional tales told by countries. Possibly out of self-interest. Hunger and need are what make us move. It is in our genes, in our nature. The human being is the mammal that expends the least energy when moving from one place to another. Roma arrived to Western Europe between the 13th and 14th centuries and, despite being initially well received by the kingdoms and duchies that granted them “refuge”, it only took them a few years to start creating laws against them. Roma represented an alternative way of living to that of feudal Europe, one where people lived in small communities and traded and exchanged goods with stable populations. In a Western world that would later give birth to absolutist monarchies, this was a provocation. We could talk about the example of what happened to the Travellers in Ireland.

In spite of the chronological distance between them, today’s Syrian refugees share many similarities with the Romani people. The first is that of having fled their country of origin. In the case of the Romani people, the reason for this is a mystery, but experts say it could have been because of a war or due to social or religious conflicts. Both peoples suffered from a wide range of calamities as they made their way through Europe, owing to the laws of its states (bearing in mind that Angela Merkel’s “united Europe” spent two billion euros to protect the borders of its economic community). And both peoples continue to suffer. We only have to recall the expulsions of Roma thrown out by Sarkozy in France or those that occurred a few years ago in Italy. Another case in point would be the recent expulsion of Roma of Kosovar origin from Germany. These are individuals who, in spite of having been born in Germany, were sent away to Kosovo, which made absolutely no sense at all.

As for the Syrian people, we only need to look at a newspaper to witness the continued expulsions and barriers they face on a daily basis. Both peoples have an ancient, rich and complex cultural background that has enriched the European cultural milieu. To illustrate this point, we only have to recall that when Roma arrived to Europe they knew how to measure the distance between Middle Eastern cities and the moon; they were able to calculate the diameter of the Earth; they introduced new forms of metallurgy to their newfound continent; they were able to use bellows and enriched popular European folklore. Let us hope that our states will allow us to enrich our own lives by letting in more Syrian refugees.


Affirmative actions with the Romani community at universities

by Ramón Flores


In the United States, the term “affirmative action” was coined in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order stipulating that positive steps should be taken in government hiring to ensure that job applicants would be judged without discrimination based on race, creed, colour or place of origin.

Today, both in the United States and in many other countries, positive discrimination is built into certain laws, policies and administrative practices in an attempt to end and remedy the effects of specific forms of discrimination. These initiatives afford special consideration to historically excluded groups and racial minorities in the fields of education and employment. The goal of positive discrimination is to remedy the effects of past racial discrimination in order to eradicate them in the present. Through these measures, it is intended that public institutions (for the most part) such as universities, hospitals and other public services will be more representative of the populations they serve.

The debate over positive discrimination to benefit Europe’s Romani community has not made its mark in philosophical terms, nor has its suitability been the subject of ongoing debate. However, it would be beneficial to place some questions on the table for discussion, for example: To what extent do systemic discrimination and prejudice persist? In regards to positive discrimination programmes, to what extent have they or could they now be an effective way to provide the Romani community with academic and employment opportunities?

In a hypothetical scenario of positive discrimination designed to help Spanish Roma at universities, a quota system would be used, as opposed to a system of specific grants. This system would be focused on giving Roma preferential admission to public universities by setting a percentage of Romani students who would be admitted in comparison with the total number of students competing for places.

The Romani community has been categorised as one which has been discriminated against throughout history. And since they do not participate in public policy questions, the suitability of such initiatives has never been the subject of discussion: What will it take for universities to – instead of being the epicentre for the transmission of a vision of a single, “true” culture – become spaces of intersection and dialogue between different ways of being, thinking and reacting?

Education and culture are inherent to each other’s existence, because in a contemporary society there can be no education without an interaction between cultural practices and ways of being, thinking and reacting. This relationship exists as a structural element, according to Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall’s view of the “centrality of culture” (1997).

We cannot ignore the fact that ethnic and cultural minorities are products of the hegemony of some forms of culture over others. Therefore, education and cultural recognition must be viewed not as independent concepts but as intertwined elements.

However, under the Spanish state’s current system, this would not be possible. To wit, Article 14 of the Spanish Constitution reads: “Spaniards are equal before the law and may not in any way be discriminated against on account of birth, race, sex, religion, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance”.

Under this premise, Spain’s Romani community cannot be recognised as an ethnic minority, given that Article 14 says that Spaniards are equal before the law (Roma born in Spain are, obviously, Spanish) and that racial discrimination cannot exist (although whether it does is debatable). The Spanish state does not currently have a national framework for the protection of the country’s minorities, in contrast to fellow European Union member states such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Sweden, where protection models have been adopted.

But if we take measures implemented by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) regarding equality between men and women as examples, some interesting facts emerge from which we can make some interesting comparisons.

In this regard, it is evident that measures involving positive discrimination are in line with the principle of equal opportunity adhered to by European institutions to ensure actual equality but not a particular tangible result. Thus, although the achievement of real equality may require the adoption of discriminatory measures, the ultimate aim of these measures is to combat discrimination. Therefore, the principle of equal opportunity on which positive discrimination actions are based is not only compatible with but also complementary to the general principle of non-discrimination.

Under this scenario, could a similar framework containing measures to favour the admission of members of the Romani community to university be possible, given that Spain does not offer any institutional recognition of minorities?

Such measures could run into social barriers that exacerbate the both the discrimination gap and negative perceptions about the Romani community. By way of example, one can examine cases in the United States, one of them being that of Marco DeFunis. This young man was rejected by the University of Washington’s School of Law (in the state of Washington), in spite of the fact that his marks were higher than those of other candidates who were black, Filipino, Hispanic and Native American, but who benefited from anti-discrimination measures which established racial/ethnic quotas. A similar situation later occurred in the Bakke case. The Medical School of the University of California at Davis had 100 places, of which 16 were reserved for minorities. Allan Bakke, a white candidate, was ranked 84 and not admitted. Had he been a member of a minority group, he would have been admitted based on his qualifications.

One could argue that, in view of Spain’s current social and economic situation, such positive discrimination measures could have a negative impact on society and that it would be preferable, instead of taking ethnic criteria into account, to consider economic criteria and establish quotas and ratios that would benefit low-income students.

However, research has shown that experiences of diversity can positively affect the civic and social growth of university students and promote their healthy participation in an increasingly globalised world. But even if higher education institutions took only family income into account, without considering ethnic factors as the main criterion for diversity, many structural challenges would remain. Today it can be clearly demonstrated that the number of Romani high school students from low-income families who were admitted is well below that of non-Romani students in similar conditions.

We can deduce that positive discrimination policies are intended to reduce distances between unequal groups by designating certain groups as the beneficiaries of the measures (Urteaga, 2009). These are preferential measures that differ in form, although they intervene in similar areas, and are controversial insofar as they beg the question of whether they are a means of social assistance or favouritism.

It is obvious that the case of Spain differs greatly from other countries such as Slovakia and Macedonia – where measures have been implemented to favour the inclusion of Romani students in higher education – because, as we have already said, Roma are not recognised as an ethnic minority in Spain. However, openly debating this issue would undoubtedly invite the possibility of finding out whether the establishment of such quotas would increase the percentage of Romani students in Spanish universities.

There is no doubt that we could insist on a debate in which some of the most common objections to positive discrimination initiatives are analysed while also stating the reasons given by those who advocate them and the criteria that would have to be met in their implementation in order to meet the demands of the social and cultural reality of Spain’s Romani community.

Therefore, and based both on the approaches that could be adapted to existing measures and principles which are locally-based and adapted to the country’s social reality, the roadmap should be very specific and include measures designed to ensure equality and equal treatment amongst all citizens, Romani and non-Romani alike.

Perhaps institutional leaders, members of the academic community and politicians should address these issues and problems in an effort to arrive at a paradigm which champions true diversity through this open debate. Going on with the same measures taken up to now (integration programmes, strategies and other meaningless documents) is nothing more than throwing money at the problem or playing the same scratched record over and over again. We could stop trodding the same paths and work towards bringing the cycle of failure, exclusion and deprivation to an end. What is clear is that sticking to the current model would mirror the classic definition of insanity: repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting a different result.


“El Lebrijano” has gone to heaven to teach the angels to sing

by Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia

El lebrijano


What a devastating blow. I just found out. Juan “El Lebrijano” Peña died this morning at his home in Seville at the age of 75. I did not see it coming. I knew he had taken ill but never thought his journey to eternity to fill the throne he deserves on the Mount Olympus of the Gods of Art, next to Don Antonio Mairena, Manolo Caracol, and a select small group of geniuses of song, dance and guitar, would occur so soon. Sometimes, even from the divinity of the chosen ones, things happen too quickly.

Heaven must be going through a serious crisis. We have always been told that supreme happiness is gained through the contemplation of God. But God, the pinnacle of wisdom, must have thought that having good people eternally contemplating him could become very boring. And so he turned to the most important of all his inventions: music, that breath of divinity which – in the allocation of science and the arts that God the Father carried out upon the creation of heaven and earth – was bestowed on Roma. Also divinely given to Roma was the Cherubim Choir – heavenly angels singing beautiful melodies and playing violins and guitars in time. In time with heaven, of course, which should not be very different from what Juan “El Lebrijano” Peña was doing when he sang in soleá or bulería rhythms.

But we suspect that the Cherubim Choir must have deteriorated, or that someone had gone to Our Lady of Sorrows to negotiate with her son, Jesus of Health – the Rom – so that he would find the best artist, the most complete one, the most brilliant performer, the most visceral one, whose guts churn when he sings (even though angels do not have guts, they get the message) and shake up the Cherubim choir members who had been a bit behind the times since they had been born 5,100,000,000 years ago. And yesterday in the early morning hours, God called Juan “El Lebrijano” Peña, who had recorded a record entitled “the word of God to a Rom” – in order to give singing lessons to those whom the crisis had jeopardised their universally recognised reputation of “singing like the angels”.

So much for my tribute – supposedly but unsuccessfully poetic – to the person who has shone the brightest as the best ambassador and the best performer of the “disembodied reason” that gives bodily existence and life to what Mairena’s teacher called “Romani-Andalusian art”.

Allow me to stop here today. My hands are shaking over the computer keyboard. And now I am unable to express in just a few words what Juan has meant to me personally. We have shared hours and hours of friendly conversation about our people and our contribution to flamenco! Many have been the times that I have presented on the stages of Barcelona the warmth of my “Crónica Flamenca”, a daily programme that I hosted on Radio Nacional de España for more than ten years! How much have I cried while listening to his record “Persecución”, that insurmountable monument to the inner being of the Romani people! And how many times did we laugh and have fun on that trip we made together to India to meet with Roma from around the world and share our hopes for the future with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Roma from around the world give their condolences in the following way: “Te avel lohki leski phuv!” (literally: “may your land treat you kindly” i.e. “rest in peace”); “Sasa baro Manuš” (“Among all the great figures”);

Latchó drom, Juan, phral. Ash devlesa. (“Bon voyage, Juan, my brother. Go with God”).


Johann Trollmann, unknown

by Daniel Diaz Heredia


Some time ago the anniversary of the great victory of Jessie Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics was commemorated. This resounding success of American power in the hands of an African-American shocked the Nazi regime, who were unable to deny the athletic superiority of their “Non-Aryan” opponent. One unusual thing is that despite the fact that Nazi Germany did not support the equality of people in a country such as the United States, which boasted of modernity and democracy, black citizens in that country were treated not even as second class, but as third-class citizens.

Imagine a young Jessie Owens who, after overcoming many difficulties and having an enormous will to win, became an international record holder, in spite of all the social barriers and economic difficulties involved in being an African-American of humble origins in the United States of the mid-1920s.

While Jessie Owens received worldwide recognition for his well-deserved triumphs, another athlete from another sport and another ethnic minority plunged into the greatest of anonymities… I am referring to the unknown Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann.

Johann Trollmann had the misfortune of being a Rom in Nazi Germany; the misfortune of being too radiant a figure for the dark Third Reich. Johann Trollmann, nicknamed “Rukeli”, grew up in the industrial area of Hannover, where it did not take him long to catch the attention of Erich Seelig, who would later be his coach. Seelig and Trollmann developed a boxing style characterised by harmonious leg movements that clashed with the crude stand-up boxing style of the early 20th century.

In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis to power, sports media began to criticise the successes of Trollmann by branding his style as “effeminate” or “unworthy of an Aryan fighter”. In June of that year Johann Trollmann fought for the national light-heavy weight title at the age of 25. Trollmann easily defeated the champion Adolf Witt on points, but the judges were unable to recognise his victory and nullified the fight. The crowd hailed Trollmann as the winner. Overcome with emotion, Trollmann cried in the ring.

It only took the German Sports Federation eight days to withdraw the national title and require a new fight to validate the title, asserting that crying in the ring was unworthy of a German athlete. In this second fight against Gustav Eder, the Federation did not allow him to use his footwork: i.e., he had to lose the fight or have his boxing license taken away.

On the day of the fight, and to make fun of the Nazi “Aryan warrior” policies, Trollmann climbed into the ring with his body caked in flour and his hair dyed blonde, mocking the Aryan warrior stereotype. During the fight he stood still and endured his opponent’s blows until the fifth round.

After this fight, Trollmann’s career never recovered. The Third Reich’s anti-Roma laws called for the boxer to be sterilised along with thousands of other Roma. A few years later, in 1939, the Wehrmacht sent him to the Eastern Front to perform “selfless service to the Third Reich”.

The ordeal of Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann had just begun: in 1942 Himmler signed the Auschwitz Decree, and Trollmann was imprisoned in the Neuengamme camp, where he eventually died. There are several versions of the circumstances of his death. The first account attributed his death to a gunshot wound, while another version leads us to believe that he died after a fraudulent boxing match against a Kapo (a prisoner who collaborated with prison guards), who after being knocked out by Rukeli bludgeoned Johann to death with the involvement of prison guards. He was thirty-five years old.

In 2003 Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann’s family posthumously received his title of German light-heavyweight champion. In Hamburg a monument stands in his memory.

In addition to all the abuse Trollmann suffered, his lack of recognition, to the extent possible, exacerbates his situation. While Jessie Owens took the gold medal in the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, overcoming barriers implicit in being a black citizen in the United States, Johann “Rukeli” Trollmann was sterilised and taken to a concentration camp after fighting for a state which led him from one punishment to the next, just for being a Rom. In an increasingly media-orientated society such as ours, the greatest damage that can be done to an ethnic group such as Roma is to be forgotten.