Spain ‘Miss Gypsy’ contest aims to empower

Perched on high heels in tight, bright dresses, crowds of girls line up hoping to become Spain's first "Miss Gypsy" in a new pageant aimed at empowering a neglected minority.

Spain 'Miss Gypsy' contest aims to empower

With flowery shawls and crop-tops for the girls, black waistcoats and gelled hair for the boys, dozens of teenagers auditioned on Friday in the first round of the "Mister and Miss Gypsy" contest.

"I want to be a model. I love it," said Libertad Barrull, 17, her hair pinned up in an elaborate bun, as she waited excitedly to go before the judges.

Spain's gypsy traditions of flamenco singing and dancing may have a romantic image, but the ancient community of so-called "gitanos" here remains among the most underprivileged, figures show. Gypsies are also known as Roma.

The contest "gives them a helping hand to become something in life, like our generation couldn't be," said Libertad's mother Rosario, 56.

Flocking to a Madrid hotel for the audition, the young contestants posed for photographs and crowded round tables where the organisers noted their names, education, interests and ambitions.

The contest aims to help gypsy women "be a bit more independent", says Maria Jimenez of the Northern Flamenco Association, the organiser of the contest.

"For a gypsy woman, the aim is always just to get married very young, at 14 or 15, and have children," she said.

"I want the gypsy woman to study and become independent so she doesn't depend on her husband to give her 10 euros so she can eat."

The jury — five non-gypsies from fashion and show business — is therefore encouraged to judge not just the contestants' looks but their minds.

"It's not just about being pretty," said another of the organisers, Eva Jimenez. "It's about studying and being intelligent."

Half the gypsies in Spain leave school by the age of 16, according to the latest figures from Secretariado Gitano, a rights group, which date to 2011.

"Things have changed a lot" for the gypsies over time, said Rosario's friend, Sonia Heredia, 36.

"People have started to realise now that you can't get married so soon because you're tying yourself down to being a housewife when you're still a

The unemployment rate for the 725,000-strong minority is painfully high, however: 36 percent in 2011, according to the rights group. That was way above Spain's already high national rate of 26 percent.

For those hoping to make it to the final of Mister and Miss Gypsy on October 6th, the contest is a fun chance to show off — but these youngsters and their families see the serious side too.

One prospective Mister Gypsy, Jesus Heredia, came to audition dressed in a spotless white shirt and dark red scarf.

"I hope it can open some doors," said his mother, Esther, 45. "We will see what comes of it. It is a start, but it won't stop the kids getting married the way they do."

Jesus, who works in an ice cream parlour, came along to audition with his cousins.

"I want to be the best-looking," he said. "But I'm also in it to show that we gypsies are people, just like the rest."

The Roma, a traditionally nomadic people whose ancestors left India centuries ago, have long suffered from discrimination.

They were killed in their hundreds of thousands by the Nazis during World War II, alongside Jews and homosexuals.

Discrimination continues today as some countries blame Roma for a rise in petty crime.

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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.

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