Roma Gypsies: An Example of 1,500 Years of Resistance to “Integration”

In All, The Story by Teju Adisa-Farrar

My sister came to visit me in Madrid during Easter Break and I was happy to see some of Madrid’s “must-see” tourist sites. In addition to a couple of Royal Palace’s and almost every Botanical Garden in the city, for the first time I saw Roma women and families in major public spaces such as Sol and Plaza Mayor. In my three months being in Madrid I had yet to see any Roma until this past Easter Break. I mentioned it to my sister and she was also surprised to see them.

Roma, often referred to as Gypsy (which is understood by many theorists as a derogatory term), are commonly stereotyped as being nomadic beggars in European cities. Irish Travellers are regarded in the same way, though research suggest they are more likely to be descendants of those not resettled during the Irish famine (1845-1848) rather than ancestrally related to the Roma. Similarly to Irish Travellers, the majority of Roma are more or less settled despite popular ignorance regarding them as people without homes who “prefer to sleep under the stars,” I once heard someone say to explain why many Roma in European cities are without permanent or adequate housing.

Last week I read an article in the Guardian, “Gypsies arrived in Europe 1,500 years ago, genetic study says,” which inspired me to write this piece. Over the past twenty years, with demographic shifts in Europe, there has been many discussions and different definitions on integration. Many right-wing and nationalist politicians think of integration as the need for minority groups to give up their culture, language, and customs to assimilate to the dominant norms. When these groups do not assimilate or integrate in a way that dominant hegemonies agree with they often further stigmatize and marginalize them. The Roma are among the most disenfranchised, stigmatized, and marginalized ethnic minorities in Europe.

According to this Guardian article:

“The Roma arrived in Spain in the 15th century or earlier – with records of groups of up to a hundred Gypsies traveling together, often led by someone who termed himself a ‘count’ or ‘duke’ – and held on despite attempts to expel them or imprison those who refused to give up their language and culture.”

The article continues stating that the Roma:

“are found across all of Europe and make up the continent’s largest ethnic minority. There are about 11 million of Gypsies in Europe. Centuries of discrimination, including systematic extermination by some 20th-century fascist regimes, have helped keep many of them marginalised.”

The Roma face all types of discrimination: institutionally, interpersonally, as well as transnationally with regards to not being able to move around the continent of Europe with the same mobility and freedom as other Europeans. Although they have been in Europe for 1,500 years they are still not considered European or considered a group that “belongs” in Europe. For more than 1,000 years they have maintained their language, their cultural customs, music all while attempting to adapt their way of life to the European countries where they live, despite experiencing racism and prejudice. By force, and maybe somewhat by choice, they have resisted European “integration” for more than 1,000 years. For this they continually pay through immense discrimination and oppression. Still, one must admit the type of steadfastness and pride it takes to resist nationalist ideologies imposed by governments on minority populations like the Roma.

Despite having mixed extensively with Europeans, speaking European national languages, and in many cases being settled in European cities, the Roma’s culture still proves to be such a threat to many European countries that they are constantly treated like things to be discarded rather than people who have been here for over 1,000 years. Regardless of this, they are still seen as not having fully “integrated” into European societies. The Roma’s resistance to dangerous notions of integration, now resurfacing in Western nations’ politics, shows how many still see difference as a threat (no matter how long they have been here). If the Roma are praised for any aspect of their culture it is often their music and dancing. It is very common for the music and dance culture of minority populations to be praised and appropriated by the national dominant culture, simultaneously as these populations are inferiorized and devalued. Still the Roma continue to exist despite numerous attempts to wipe them out, get rid of them, or expel them completely. Take that integration!