Hearing Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia speak for the first time is a surprising experience. His talents as an eloquent orator and seducer of minds, which are probably a result of his experience as a lawyer, journalist and schoolteacher, have made him a legend. When he speaks he never ceases to address his people, the Gypsy population, a people who need public figures to encourage them to claim their share of power and freedom within the society of which it is part. This is a need he is well aware of. He is the Spanish representative for the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and in 1996 founded the Union Romani, a federation of Spanish Gypsy associations, which he also chairs.
What are the main characteristics that define the culture and identity of Romany communities?
Being a Gypsy is feeling like a Gypsy, participating in a value system that pervades the whole body and that shapes the outsider’s perception of us on the basis of an ancient culture.
Are there any minorities within this minority?
I would say not, although I am aware that the Gypsy reality has changed overwhelmingly for those gypsies that we could call Western. The incorporation of ten Central and Eastern European countries into Europe has radically changed the gypsy landscape of the old European community. Today, the greatest gypsy influence can be found in the new member states.
Do gypsies in Europe still live side by side with rats, as you claimed in your legendary speech to the Spanish parliament in 1978?
Unfortunately yes. Poverty rates among our people are still alarming. Without exception, we are at the bottom of the scale in terms of collective standard of living. Illiteracy is a scourge that haunts not only us [Spanish Roma] but nearly all European gypsies. The regime collapse experienced by gypsies living in Eastern Europe has not triggered for them any kind of economic advantages to place them on a level with their fellow citizens. The presence on our [Spanish] streets of so many gypsies from the East, begging and cleaning window screens, is a symptom of this horrific poverty.
Education systems play an important role in social integration; in your opinion, are European education systems failing to take into account the specificity of Romany idiosyncrasies?
It is difficult to give a general response. I know that in some countries gypsy children receive a bilingual primary education. But the problem is double-sided. On the one hand, we have to be able to create educational channels by which Gypsy children and young people can receive an education that is, on a basic level, equal to that of other citizens, but which recognises the unique nature of our people’s culture. But at the same time, this intercultural education needs to be aimed at the Gajo, that is to say at the non-Gypsies. It is vital that non-Gypsy children also learn at school that there are other children out there, our Gypsy children, who have their own culture that must be respected and protected.
Do you think there have been advances in the integration of Gypsies in Spain during the past 25 years?
The situation has changed considerably. Despite this, there remain many challenges that we face daily: the effective schooling of Gypsy children; the individual and collective development of Gypsy women; the creation of a complete network of Gypsy organisations and of a group of people to act as a reference point for other Gypsies; the eradication of slums; and the recuperation and diffusion of our customs, traditions and language. At the same time we must establish strategies to efficiently tackle poverty, illiteracy and marginalisation. On the other hand, public authorities must not forget that we Gypsies have an exceptional culture that has enriched the common Spanish culture. In the past just as in the present, Gypsies have represented the vibrant, hedonistic image that foreigners have of Spain. And, sadly, the recognition of such is still to materialise, as is the payment of royalties for the manipulation we have experienced.
Do you believe that the same developments as seen in Spain can happen in the new member states of the European Union?
I hope so, and I put my complete trust in the abilities and efforts of the Gypsy leaders of these countries. At the end of the day, nobody gives anything for free. We must hope that the governments themselves, on their own initiative, decide to grant us the attention we deserve. Freedom, like the winning of rights, is not something that can be achieved without paying a price.
When considering the European condemnation of the racism that exists in places such as North America and the Ivory Coast of Zimbabwe, would you say that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
Definitely. And for me the most painful hypocrisy is that which is exhibited when we are promised improvements and in the end it all comes to nothing. We are rebelling against those parties that show us so much care and attention during the electoral campaign, only to forget about us later.
What kind of future do you envisage for the Romany communities of Europe?
If we are determined to survive and to be present where the political decisions are made, our future will be brighter. What makes no sense is that, considering their numbers, there are not even half a dozen Gypsy members of the European Parliament, and that in certain countries, such as mine – where we are more than 600,000 Gypsies – there is not a single Gypsy minister or senator. Without a doubt, the future of our people will depend, to a large extent, on the degree of pressure we are able to exert on the political decision-making process. Otherwise the only path open to us, that which we have followed throughout history, will be that of resistance, in order not to disappear. Because one thing is certain, and I cannot emphasise this enough: political leaders will come and go. Governments will come and go. But we are and always will be Gypsies.