Porto, Portugal – Surrounded by baskets of oranges and tangerines, a bright green ceramic frog stands at the entrance of Helena Conceicao’s grocery shop.
“Everybody has frogs here,” she said. “It’s to scare away Gypsies because they are afraid of frogs.”
Similar ornaments have been placed at the entrance of shops, cafes and restaurants all over Portugal.
“No one likes to have Gypsies around,” said Conceicao.
She explained that she is aware that the Portuguese law forbids discrimination, “but I’m not forced to put up with people who steal and cause trouble”.
Ten shopkeepers in Porto admitted to using ceramic frogs to dissuade Roma from entering their shops. Only Conceicao agreed to go on record.
Others secretly recorded by Al Jazeera explained that the frogs were meant to show Roma people that “Gypsies are not welcome”, using language with deeply ingrained prejudice and racial slurs.
Roma communities arrived in Portugal in the 15th century but were only recognised as citizens in 1822.
It's so common in Portugal to insult Roma, that it is seen as something normal. What scares me the most is how normalised the prejudice is.
Persecuted for centuries and subjected to repressive laws, they remain one of the most discriminated-against minorities in the country.
A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in 2016 found that 71 percent of Portuguese Roma had suffered an episode of discrimination within the previous five years.
According to the study, Roma continue to face “intolerable levels of discrimination” and unequal access to services.
They are discriminated againstin employment, education and housing, even when entering a shop.
“It’s so common in Portugal to insult Roma, that it is seen as something normal. What scares me the most is how normalised the prejudice is,” Maria Gil, a Roma actress and activist, told Al Jazeera.
Gil tried to boycott shops displaying the “hideous” frogs, but there are so many in her neighbourhood that sometimes she is forced to buy things from them.
“I once counted 13 frogs in shops close to my home, including pharmacies and clinics,” she told Al Jazeera.
Roma communities in Portugal see frogs as symbols of evil and bad luck.
“Older generations still have a strong superstition about frogs and wouldn’t come close to any shop displaying them,” explained Gil. “But younger generations don’t care. They would refuse to enter shops with frogs because of the racist meaning behind it and not because of superstition.”
The frogs are there to tell Roma they are not welcome. But this form of discrimination is so subtle that shopkeepers can always deny if confronted.
“It is not explicit, so it is very hard for authorities to do anything about it. I don’t think the law will ever recognise it as a racist symbol,” adds Gil.
Leonor Teles, a Portuguese filmmaker whose father is Roma, expressed her outrage in a short film.
In Batrachian’s Ballad, which won the Golden Bear in 2016, she is filmed snatching the frogs from the shops, smashing them on the ground and being chased down the street by angry shopkeepers.
“Her film generated more awareness,” said Gil. “But some people who didn’t know about the frogs found out why they are used. Frog sales actually increased after the film was screened in Portugal.”
Also in 2016, Gil was one of 18 Roma from different parts of the country who participated in a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the discriminatory frogs.
Organised by photographer Rui Farinha in cooperation with the rights organisation SOS Racismo, the campaign targeted shops displaying frogs in six different cities.
A small group of activists questioned the shopkeepers and talked to them about anti-Roma discrimination.
“We decided to talk about the issue without confrontation. Some shopkeepers didn’t want to talk about it, but eventually, almost all of them admitted they had the frogs to keep Roma away,” said Farinha.
“We had a few bad experiences but, in the end, half of the shopkeepers decided to get rid of the frogs. In one of the restaurants we went to, the owner initially hesitated. But his clients told him he should give the frog away. When he did everyone clapped.”
Supported by the High Commission for Migration, a public institution, the campaign visited 44 shops and convinced half of the shopkeepers to replace the frogs with signs saying “open to everyone” and “closed to prejudice”.
Farinha believes the campaign’s less confrontational approach helped change the shopkeepers’ attitudes.
Teles’ film, he said, was “very provocative”, but also an important way to “tackle the subtle racism that is so prevalent in Portugal”.
Most Roma live below the poverty line and are not informed about their rights. There is also a lot of resignation; many Roma don't complain because they don't think complaining will change anything.
According to a report published in 2018 by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, hate speech and racism are present in public discourse in Portugal and aimed in particular at the Roma minority and black people.
Last December, an elected official of Porto’s municipality was ordered to pay a fine for racial discrimination after blaming “Romanian Gypsies” for theft and littering near his home, an accusation he posted to his Facebook page.
For Marta Pereira, an SOS Racismo member and veteran anti-racism activist, it was a landmark case of a public figure being fined for discrimination, but it was not enough.
“There are a lot of complaints of anti-Roma racism, but no independent organism that could investigate them, and there are rarely any consequences,” she said.
“Most Roma live below the poverty line and are not informed about their rights. There is also a lot of resignation; many Roma don’t complain because they don’t think complaining will change anything.”
In 2013, Portugal adopted a National Strategy for the Integration of Roma Communities, which included several measures to address exclusion and discrimination. But, according to Pereira, these measures have not been successfully implemented.
“Roma continue to lack access to housing and jobs. They have been discriminated for 500 years, and even though they are citizens, they are constantly denied their rights. The government’s plan is not enough to address the structural problems that Roma face.”
A survey conducted by the High Commission for Migration counted 37,000 Portuguese Roma, but the numbers are estimated to be higher because not all areas were included.
Like France, Portugal does not collect ethnic or racial data.
Pereira argued that the country’s “racial colour-blindness” makes it impossible to prove institutional racism.
But this might change in 2021 when the national census is expected to include questions on ethnicity and race.
“In Portugal, there is a perverse form of structural racism that is never acknowledged,” said Gil, the actor and activist.
The Roma activist argued that minorities are often blamed for their own marginalisation.
She said that some of her family members have hidden their Roma identity in order to keep their jobs.
“I’m also often told I should stop being so vocal about Roma rights because no one will hire me again,” she said. “But as activists, we won’t stop. We can’t stop.”