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Romani political presence and the discourse of hate

Romani political presence and the discourse of hate

In Spain, 22 October 2020 not only saw the rejection in parliament of the motion of censure brought by the extreme right-wing party, VOX, against the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. That day also saw an event full of meaning: the standing ovation given to the Gitana MP, Beatriz Carrillo de los Reyes, led by her colleague and the government’s parliamentary spokeswoman, Adriana Lastra, who made a point of mentioning Beatriz Carrillo in her speech from the podium when responding to the motion, and dedicating an “Arise, Romani Women” to her in the Romani language. The rallying cry "Opre Roma" is a slogan common to Romani organisations throughout the world. It invokes the capacity for struggle and resistance of a historically persecuted European people, who have been subjected to a form of racial prejudice that has been particularly successful in achieving its desired result; the Nazi holocaust was the extrem, but not the only, nor the last manifestation of this racism.

Adriana Lastra’s action drew loud applause in Parliament, which Beatriz Carrillo de los Reyes acknowledged by rising from her seat. It was a historic gesture, one that symbolically recognised the importance of the presence of Romani people in public space in Spain, and more specifically, its political public space. The reason for this is to be found in something that occurred a few days earlier, when Beatriz Carrillo de los Reyes was acting as Chair of the Parliamentary Commission for Equality against gender violence. In this context, Macarena Olona, an MP of the extreme right-wing VOX party, expressed her disagreement with the performance of the Gitana representative on Twitter in an aggressive and insulting manner, precisely by mentioning the fact that she is a Gitana: "Beatriz Carrillo, what an embarrassing spectacle it is to see you besmirch the position of Chair. But what do you expect from someone willing to abandon the Gitano people for a cushy number in public office?

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 For a start, it is a significant irony that someone who holds a public office as important as that of Member of Parliament should refer to the same office in such general terms as a “cushy number”, something that would in itself merit analysis, particularly bearing in mind that parliamentary representation -even though its current discredit- was born in the historical context of processes of conflict in which the triumph of the principle of political participation of citizens through elections was achieved by means of revolutions. But what motivates this article is the idea that a Romani woman “abandons" her people because she is holding political office. I stress the word “woman” here because I wonder whether Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia, the first Gitano to become an MP in Spain, had to listen to similar sentiments when he took his seat in 1977. Along with the deterioration of the manners of the Spanish political class between then and now, I see the deep-seated machismo of VOX, embodied in its macho women, as also playing a role in this racist attack.

In any case, the tweet by the VOX representative places her firmly on the psychoanalyst’s couch provided by the discipline of history. It really seems to worry Macarena Olona that the Roma are escaping from the iron cage of stereotype and are not content with the places they have been allocated. In her opinion, a Gitana ceases to be a Gitana as soon as she leaves the place that supposedly the Roma people as a whole has always occupied and always will. According to this view, politics is not for them. If a Gitana woman occupies a public position, it becomes a “cushy number” and she becomes a “traitor”. Presumably, Macarena Olona would have no problem appreciating the presence of Roma people if they stuck to dancing flamenco in their shows and other places where she is able to picture them, and would even consider herself a friend of the Gitanos (any racist can feel antiracist provided that the sphere of competence of the “other” does not threaten what they regard as their own exclusive spaces, but is staged in more “exotic” places). Without in any way belittling the enormous value of artistic spaces closely associated with the Roma and their resistance within them, we cannot ignore either that the they maybe be places of subalternity constructed by mainstream society.

So why, according to this VOX MP, has a Gitana woman engaged in political life left behind her group identity, the one that belongs to her people? The explanation lies in the perceptions of Roma people held by both her and, it seems, the whole of her party (and, let's face it, a large part of society that does not consider itself racist). The Roma are seen as a primitive, archaic people in a cultural, economic, educational and political sense; given this point of view, they are regarded collectively as a “social problem”, to be dealt with in terms of the fight against illiteracy, poverty and, of course, crime. According to this same discourse, and in the most benevolent versions, they must be “helped” so that they can be integrated into mainstream society. In any case, what they are telling us is that people who are Gitanos are there to be directed and tutored in this process, not to do it themselves, let alone be allowed to direct others.

Hence, the capacity for political initiative of Roma people has been a problem for those who seek to prolong their status as “wards” (and their legal inequality), and not only now, but from the very moment when an international Romani movement began to organise and demand rights and equality after the Second World War. In a speech whose final intention was not too dissimilar to Olona’s, even though their intellectual differeces, a priest who had held public office with powers over French Roma in the time of De Gaulle, vociferously advocated banning a Romani association that had been a pioneer in the autonomous struggle for their rights. André Barthélemy, who was the Aumônier National des Gitanes for twenty years, was adamant at that time that the French Gitanes could not have a political presence of their own because their sociological characteristics contradicted the basic notions of modern politics: “their lack of culture, their spirit of independence, their nomadism, prevent them from creating a homeland or accepting the authority of a chief” (“leur inculture, leur esprit d’indépendance, leur nomadisme, les empêchent de se créer une patrie ou d'accepter l’autorité d'un chef", Le Figaro, 18-5-1971).

But the cage of the stereotype no longer works, at least not as effectively as it used to. It should not be forgotten that the collective attribution of character by virtue of being a Roma person or a Gitano is a weight that many have to carry around with them in their daily lives, limiting their opportunities and preventing them from exercising their rights. Romani presence in political institutions is fundamental in putting an end to this. That is why the reaction of Beatriz Carrillo de los Reyes should be highlighted, reminding us that there are now more Gitanos representing Spanish citizens. As she herself responded to the VOX MP in the social networks: “Well, get used to it, because we have already arrived, we’re walking tall and we’re not afraid of fascism. Without making scenes and kicking up a fuss you are nothing".

María Sierra
Full Professor of Contemporary History
Universidad de Sevilla




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