Spain’s gyspy adults head back to school

Sitting at small green desks, Spanish Roma adults, or gitanos, listen attentively to a teacher as they attend class at their children's school in Spain, in a project that aims to cut the minority's high dropout rate.

Spain's gyspy adults head back to school
About four percent of all Spain's Roma, or Gitanos, still live in makeshift camps and their unemployment rate stood at 36 percent in 2011. File photo: Cesar Manso

"I left school when I was 14 to work and help out at home. Now I'm unemployed and I decided to get my high school diploma," said Jesus Gonzalez, 27, as he stood in the hallway of the school with his books under his arm after class.

He was waiting for two of his three children who attend separate classes at the Mediterrani school in Tarragona, northeastern Spain, in a former shantytown district that is now home to tower blocks of social housing.

"They are still getting over the fact I am here, they don't understand it." 

But the fact that I go to school with them seems to motivate them," added Gonzalez, whose tall frame stuck out above the kids running around him in the hall.

SEE ALSO: The Local's interview with Roma Secretariat Foundation.

"This is a second opportunity for me, to try to study. But especially for my children, so they can go to university and do what I was not able to do."

The school launched the programme a month ago, letting parents attend classes separately from their children in a bid to improve the education results of the big local Roma population.

About 20 adults, many of them unemployed, are completing their high school diplomas at the school — and, officials hope, motivating their children to finish their studies as well.

In some respects, Roma, or gitanos as the Spanish Roma are known, have melded into Spanish life, with the country's signature flamenco music and dance drawing heavily from their culture. But Spain's population of around 750,000 Roma still suffer social exclusion.

About four percent of all gitanos still live in makeshift camps and their unemployment rate stood at 36 percent in 2011, high above the national average, according to the Roma Secretariat Foundation, which works to improve their living conditions.

The record in education — an area that many experts believe is the key to pulling gitanos out of poverty — is especially poor.

Just over half of Spain's Roma have no formal education, and 8.6 percent are illiterate.

Families realizing education necessary

"There is a lack of family support. The majority of parents and grandparents have no education and have moved forward without it. For this reason they do not give it the importance that it deserves," said Monica Chamorro, the foundation's director for education programmes.

But with Spain struggling through a prolonged economic downturn since a property bubble burst in 2008, throwing millions out of work, this attitude appears to be slowly changing.

"Many families are realizing that education is necessary and it can improve the lives of their children," said Chamorro.

The school had a high absenteeism rate before, but not anymore, said 31-year-old teacher Teresa Castaneda.

"Children did not see why they should go to school and their families showed no interest. Now they think: 'I do not want to be like my father, I do not want to return to school when I am older,' and they are more motivated," she said.

The school also provides courses in English and computer skills, as well as Spanish classes for those who can't read. Those are popular with immigrants and illiterate Roma women like Josefa Amador.

At the age of nine, Amador left school at her father's urging. Now a 34-year-old housewife, she can barely read and write — so last year she signed up for literacy classes.

"At least now if my son has questions when he does his homework, I can help him a little bit. Before I could not even read his assignments," she said.

Don't miss stories about Spain, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


In pictures: Meet the American street photographer documenting Madrid’s invisible population

When Michael Damanti, a photographer from the United States, moved to Madrid five years ago with his Spanish wife and two children he expected to make a bunch of new friends in the new city.

In pictures: Meet the American street photographer documenting Madrid's invisible population
A Romani girl begging in central Madrid. All photos: Michael Damanti

But what he didn’t count on was that he would meet a group of people that would have such a profound influence on his everyday life and work.

The man behind the lens: Damanti taking a selfie with his new friends.

“In 2015 I was an outsider in this country, trying to learn the language and find work. A chance encounter soon changed that, forming the beginnings of a long-term photographic series about Romani population in Europe, he told The Local.

“Walking home one day from another disappointing day of cliche photos, I came across a Roma Girl sleeping on the ground holding an old change cup. Her name was Sibella. I knelt down to take her photograph and as I stood up I noticed another Roma-girl walking right towards me saying, “What are you doing? That is my sister!” That was the day I met the “Cobadin-Girls of Sol”.

“Over the next four years I met with them every day, carefully documenting their story and gradually becoming absorbed into their lives. We have been through births, deaths, arrests, fights and the day to day struggles we all endure.”

What he has produced is a remarkable set of photographs of a group of people who are at best invisible to society and at worst, the frequent targets of abuse.

At first, he approached them with handmade signs with witty slogans, such as 'freewifi' and '#Brexit: Keep calm and give me money' to replace the ineffectual ones they had written themselves.

“This was the way into their lives, I noticed their signs were incredibly long (5-6 lines) and 100 percent trite and boring.  No one was reading them. So I offerend alternatives, lighthearted signs with quick simple messages in English for the tourists. This began the friendship.”

But it soon developed into a deeper friendship, one in which they invited him to dine with the family group as they cooked up stews in cardboard shelters under the roadside bridges where they sleep at night.

He even introduced them to the concept of birthday parties, after realising that for the most part, they didn’t even know how old they were, let alone celebrate the occasion.

“I happened to ask one of the girls when her birthday was and she didn't know.  I couldn't believe it so I asked all of them….. one by one they each shook their heads and asked me why it mattered to know that,” he explained.  

“I read their ID's and realized one of the girl's birthdays was in a week.  So I bought a cupcake and a candle and introduced them to the concept of birthday parties.  They had no idea what to do. I lit the candle, sang happy birthday and then stood their as they all stared at me.  

“I had to tell the girls to blow out the candle. Little by little they embraced the birthday ritual and now they all want a party on their special day.”

What has consistently surprised him is the level of racism they endure on a daily basis.

“Some men make sexual advances on the girls. That's the worst. I've seen old women spit at them.  I've seen shop owners throw drinks in a pregnant girl's face just for begging near his shop. But the one that stands out most was the black eye on Sevda's face given to her by two drunk teenagers as she slept under a bridge while seven month's pregnant,” he recounts.  

“The nastiest comments always come from elderly people or football fans.”

But sometimes he has witnessed people showing them kindness too. “However, there are a fair share of delightful gestures and comments from others.  People bring them clothes and food or buy them ice cream.  That’s a breath of fresh air.”

As a result, Damanti has become an advocate for Romani rights, and will be talking about the issue at an event organised by Madrid For Refugees.

“Originally I got involved simply to take an interesting photograph but it has taken on a life of its own. I expected to photograph the people in Sol, but I did not expect to like them so much.   So I'd like to help them if I can… be that bringing awareness to their marginalized existance or just bringing them clothes. But most importantly, treating them as friends and giving them the same respect I would to you or anyone else.”

To see more of Michael Damanti's photographs visit his website and for tickets for the Madrid For Refugees event on Saturday February 22 click HERE.