Barcelona, Spain – As a child, Susana Martinez Heredia wanted to invite friends home for her birthday. But she lived in Mina – one of Barcelona’s Roma neighbourhoods, and her classmates’ parents did not allow them to visit.
“I was studying in the areas surrounding La Mina. So, when you said to your classmates to come [visit your] home, they never wanted to come. I grew up between these two worlds,” she tells Al Jazeera.
La Mina is in the San Adria de Besos district, full of huge tower blocks built during Francoist Spain, and has a reputation as dangerous and hostile. To Susana, it’s just where she grew up.
“People believe that the neighbourhood generates inequalities and it must feel horrible to live there. For me, it’s home, I feel good there. I found that the barriers happened when I went outside the community, as a woman, a Gypsy from Mina. It’s my comfort zone but to the rest of the world, it’s a difficult place.”
Roma, many of whom call themselves “Gypsies”, were not recognised as equal citizens until the 1978 constitution restored democracy to Spain and autonomy to Catalonia. Before then, few Roma even went to school.
Susana’s parents did not learn to read and write until they were in their mid-60s. Her grandmother did not receive an education, but walked her children to the school gate every day to give them a better start.
Susana grew up taking her studies seriously.
At 26, she has an economics degree and is a leading advocate for Catalonia’s Roma community. Her brother has a degree in criminology.
But many young Roma still fall behind.
If you don't know what you're going to eat today, it's difficult to think about taking your child to school. I feel like young Gypsies are asking for the same things as our ancestors: equality with housing, education and healthcare.
In February, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance estimated only 45 percent of Roma children completed compulsory education, and called for Spain to improve their situation.
“In La Mina, children often don’t go to school and the families are blamed for that,” Susana said. “Society says they don’t appreciate education. But it’s a long-term investment you can only take care of when your basic needs are fulfilled.
“If you don’t know what you’re going to eat today, it’s difficult to think about taking your child to school. I feel like young Gypsies are asking for the same things as our ancestors: equality with housing, education and healthcare.”
Originally from northern India, Roma migrated to Europe between the 6th and 11th centuries.
In 1425, they are believed to have walked across the Pyrenees into Catalan territory posing as Christian pilgrims. From their appearance, people assumed they were from the Middle East.
The Spanish word for Gypsy, “Gitano”, is directly linked to the word “Egyptian”.
During the Spanish Inquisition, the Roma were targeted and threatened with expulsion, but they learned to speak perfect Catalan and developed into a fiercely proud community.
Centuries on, discrimination remains.
Most still live in the poorest areas of Catalonia’s cities.
National and local media play heavily on stereotypes of theft and drunkenness. Across Europe, racism towards Roma is on the rise.
Far-right governments in Hungary and Bulgaria are openly promoting anti-Roma propaganda.
We've lived in Catalonia for 603 years. We've given a lot to Catalonian culture just as it's given a lot to us, and the cohabitation is complete. There is a percentage of people who see the Gypsy community as total strangers.
Manel Carbonell, vice president of Catalonia’s most prominent Roma organisation, FAGIC (Federation of Associations of Gypsies in Catalonia), says one of the best ways to combat racism and discrimination to is to promote the reality of Roma culture.
“We’ve lived in Catalonia for 603 years. We’ve given a lot to Catalonian culture, just as it’s given a lot to us, and the cohabitation is complete. There is a percentage of people who see the Gypsy community as total strangers. But in order to have an opinion about a culture, you have to understand it. If you don’t know it, you have no right to give an opinion only based on a headline or racist slurs.”
The most striking part of Catalan Roma culture is music.
While “gitanos” in the south of Spain developed the country’s famous flamenco music, the community in Catalonia created another unique musical expression, “rumba Catalana”.
It’s a joyful and infectious fusion of Cuban music, rock n’ roll and flamenco and became popular in the 1950s and 60s.
Monuments to some of the great musical “Rumberos” can be found in Gracia and Raval, two of Barcelona’s most distinct Roma neighbourhoods.
Catalan rumba is a creation of Barcelona. Other Gypsies in other cities don't know how to play it and they'd admit it. We write about joy, about parties and love, and we chronicle the life of the neighbourhood.
Sicus Carbonell grew up with a guitar in his hand.
A self-taught musician, he plays with a well-known musical group, Sabor de Gracia (Flavour of Gracia).
He’s also from a long line of Roma activists; his grandfather Manel Giminez Valenti was a founder of FAGIC and recognised for his social work.
“Catalan rumba is a creation of Barcelona. Other Gypsies in other cities don’t know how to play it and they’d admit it. Our rhythm, our timing, our lyrics are different. We write about joy, about parties and love, and we chronicle the life of the neighbourhood.”
Catalan rumba has developed a global following. Sabor de Gracia has toured Europe, Latin America and the US.
But Carbonell says there is still “musical racism” at home. Rumberos are often not invited to major cultural events; they mostly play for companies or at Roma parties .
“The solution to this is understand us. Don’t criticise what you don’t understand. Don’t stereotype us, normalise us and embrace our music as your culture too. We’re excluded and we don’t have the same opportunities. Gypsies aren’t stupid. If we’re given opportunities we take them.”
FAGIC was created in 1991 and its 96 branches work with thousands of Roma around the province. It collaborates with other European Roma organisations and proudly displays the colourful, internationally recognised Roma flag inside its headquarters in San Adria de Besos. The group works in tandem with the Catalonian government to improve the living conditions of Roma across the state.
“In a year, the federation can deal with over 13,000 people directly, in housing, education, work integration, health,” Carbonell said. “We have another justice group that helps prisoners.”
As well providing social and justice support, activists are also eager to preserve linguistic heritage.
We want to recover the Roma language because the new generations don't know it. European Gypsies speak Romani and when we meet them, we don't know it. We want to recover it and also the culture with it.
Susana Martinez Heredia, the economics graduate who grew up in La Mina, hopes to revive the Roma language in Catalonia to connect her community with Roma around the world.
The language was forbidden for centuries in Spain and has disappeared entirely in Catalonia.
“We want to recover the Roma language because the new generations don’t know it. European Gypsies speak Romani and when we meet them, we don’t know it. We want to recover it and also the culture with it.
“Understanding history can stop the ignorance that makes us believe the stereotypes we see on television. If we know our history, we can be confident of who we are. If we are confident we can thrive.”