Fulbright U.S. Student Program: Teaching Assistant
Madrid, Spain, 2018-2019
Encuentro Estatal de Estudiantes Gitanos
The first weekend of October, I attended the fifth Encuentro Estatal de Estudiantes Gitanas (National Reunion of Gitano/a Students) in a rural town north of Madrid named El Escorial. Nearly 70 teenagers and 40 Fundacion educational support staff attended: in general two students and one instructor from each Spanish locale where the Fundacion hosts its hallmark high school academic support program Promociona. Between seminars on personal resilience and community involvement, group cultural presentations, team-building activities like human fooseball (HOW COOL IS THAT!?), and eating a lot of potatoes, the three-day event is a place where gitana youth can practice and celebrate their cultural identity without the eyes of the majority society peering down in disdain. It is a space where they can simply be who they are – a privilege hegemonic social groups enjoy every day. The annual Encuentros aim to support gitana adolescents aged 13-17 in building aptitudes for a university career. “It’s a challenge to find skilled gitana workers because so many are cut off from continuing education” an FSG director explained to me. “We want to empower our teens to keep going…despite the challenge they face carrying their identity every day in a society that is at times against them.”
“A dangerous culture”
Society is against them more often than not. Quite literally every person whom I have told about my work at the Fundacion has responded in the same way. “Gitanos?! [eyes widen here] Be very careful. Watch your things. Don’t be alone in their neighborhood, especially at night. Do your parents know you are doing this?” I have listened to apparently worldly, progressive people speak more poorly of gitano middle schoolers than the (adult) gang communities active north of the Fundacion. I have heard a devout Catholic proclaim that there is “no such thing as a criminal, only people struggling with social inequity” in the next breath gasp that the gitanos are “a different story entirely” and “a hopeless people” around whom I should exercise extreme, if not paranoid, caution. A third person told me, “there is nothing redeeming about them. It’s simply a dangerous culture.”
Our global history has seen this same dynamic again and again – a powerful, privileged group constructs and maintains a “dangerous Other” narrative that at once disenfranchises (in every way possible) a group admonished for holding a different identity while benefiting the social, political, and economic activities of their majority population. In Spain, the gitano community experiences disproportionate incarceration and poverty rates, the regrettable consequences of daily prejudice and discrimination, and even segregated schools. One of my 9 year-old students shared that one of his classes has more giantos than palos (non-Gitano) at a school where the gitano population is too small for such pairing to have happened organically. He was happy to be with his friends in class, but at his young age recognizes that it’s not a coincidence.
Under such conditions, a people cannot thrive. As with other marginalized populations, there exists within the community problematic responses to this incalculable cultural oppression and pressure. Drugs. Violence. Internalized stigma. Crime. These challenges are, of course, not unique to only marginalized peoples. But they are the daily realities for this community embraced by few, still not fully welcome in majority society.
The Gypsy Identity
And like so many other accounts of marginalized groups, this stigma has been internalized within the community. Another of my students, age 13, explained to me that within the gitano community there exists a divide between those gitanas who “want to better their situation” and those who “are bad people.” I asked if he really thought that the people in his community struggling with drugs, violence, the consequences of dropping out from school, and crime were intrinsically flawed, or whether they are simply people who need extra help and support from the gitano and Spanish communities. His response was firm – “No, they’re just bad. They don’t want to change. And they make a horrible name for the rest of us.”
The gypsy people have been in Spain for nearly 700 years, and nearly all gitanas here self-identify as Spanish. But it is important to note that the “gitano” identity is unique to Spain. Other gypsy communities, having settled all across Eurasia, take the name “Romani” where “gitano”/”gypsy” is a derogative term (like the United States) or where the community is more closely related to the Romanian culture. Further, the regard between Gitano and non-Spanish Romani gypsies is not positive. Many gitanos regard Romani gypsys as dangerous and violent – the very regard many Spaniards have for gitanos here. No wonder many gitanos do not self-identify as such during the Spanish census.
My experience of the gitano community has been unerringly positive. This is in part attributable to the fact that I am working at a center known to the community as a place of safety, personal advancement, assistance, and togetherness, and thus is a location where systemic inequity and negative responses to that inequity do not operate. I am also approaching the community with the fresh eyes of someone without previous stigma against them. Further, as an educator, I am actively looking for the strengths of my students so I can celebrate and support their development.
Our perceptions are self-fulfilling. If we look for what’s wrong with someone, we will find something wrong. If we look for what is excellent, we will find excellence. And why not look for the excellence in our brothers and sisters in the family of humanity?