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Brazil’s Roma say ‘We are here’

Brazil is home to hundreds of thousands of Roma. Like many European Roma they have spent centuries on the margins of society. Now Brazil's government is taking steps to stop their culture dying out.

"Our days are hard. People run away from us. They are scared," says Elizete de Cardoso, wife of the head of the encampment at Itaquaquecetuba, on the outskirts of São Paulo.

Inside the orange tents, women in long, colourful dresses squat on the dirt floors drinking coffee. They meld with the patchwork of shiny pans, bunk beds, high-tech TVs and sound systems. They have just returned from their daily journey to the city centre where they read palms, earning the equivalent of US$10-12 a day.

The camp lacks electricity and running water, although the families have lived there for over 20 years. There are no toilets: all 100 residents use a corner hidden behind an abandoned building.

Only a handful of local administrations provide land for the Roma. In many places, as in Itaquaquecetuba, they live on private land and risk ejection at any time. But change is coming.

In 2006 a National Roma Day was declared. Last year the Culture Ministry established annual prizes for initiatives that preserve and disseminate Roma culture.

A guide to Roma rights has been released. Its author, a Roma lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, Mirian Stanescon, says: "It's the first time a government has listened to the Roma."

Back at the camp, girls in colourful dresses scamper about. Few have ever attended school. The government estimates that 90 per cent of Roma living in camps are illiterate. Leatherworker Claudinei Pereira recalls his struggle to get his oldest child into school: "When I told schools I was a gypsy, they said there were no vacancies."

Many Roma speak their own language in the camps. Many do not have a birth certificate. Arranged marriages of 13 to 15-year-olds are common.

Jobs have changed, however. Instead of the traditional horse-trading, the main goods are used cars, often unlicenced. "We sell and exchange cars, used goods, and equipment from Paraguay," says Euclides Ferreira, the camp's chief.

The Deputy Secretary for Human Rights Promotion, Perly Cipriano, says his department is trying to persuade local administrations to help the Roma. The main problem, he says, is lack of information. There is no authoritative documentation of Roma culture and needs.

Problems are not new to the Roma. The first to arrive in Brazil were deported from Portugal between the 16th and 18th centuries. Once here, their language was forbidden, they were persecuted by local governments, and sent from town to town. In the 1700s some towns in the state of Minas Gerais requested other citizens to detain Roma and seize their goods.

Other Roma arrived with East European immigrants in the 20th century. They were officially barred but many lied about their identities.

This history of discrimination continues to have consequences today, according to Yáskara Guelpa, Roma representative on the National Commission of Traditional Communities. "There is huge prejudice in health and education. For instance, if a gypsy girl goes to school with a long skirt, the teacher does not understand and asks her to wear trousers – and that is against our culture."

There has never been a national survey of Roma, though the government says the next census will include a Roma category. Independent estimates put their number at between 250,000 and one million.

In many cases, the only state presence in the camps is the police. Father Rocha, a priest with the Catholic organisation Pastoral of the Nomads, has witnessed repeated scenes of police abuse.

"The police do not recognise that the Roma tent is their home and therefore is inviolable according to the constitution. They enter the camps aggressively, kicking the pans on the fire and shouting at people," he says. 

"I wish I had studied law to stop police extortion. When they find an undocumented car, for instance, they ask for US$10,000 and the men have to find a way to get it. Once, in a camp in Espírito Santo, I protested and was handcuffed," he recalls.

Not all Brazilian Roma are travellers or poor. Many of those who came with the European immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century are now wealthy and integrated into society. Yáskara Guelpa is a journalist who lives in an expensive house in a well-off neighbourhood of São Paulo. But like many other upper class and middle-class Roma, she says, "I don't go around speaking out about this. The prejudice is still too strong."

Adriana Sbano also feels forced to hide her background. "I work in upper-class schools and simply keep quiet, because you don't know what the reaction will be. I can't risk losing my job", she explains.

Only recently have some upper-class Roma come into the open. Jucelho Dantas da Cruz, biology professor at the State University of Feira de Santana, is one of the few who has never lied about his identity: "Even though some students find it strange, I am a Roma, heart and soul. It would be a crime to deny my origin." Dantas da Cruz travelled around with his mother and father, a horse trader in Bahia. Only at age 15, when his family moved to a city, was he able to study.

Remarkably, Brazil is one of the few countries to have had a president of Roma lineage, Juscelino Kubitchek, who founded the capital, Brasilia, in 1963. But he has never admitted his origins. It was Roma historian Rodrigo Correa Teixeira who found documents proving Kubitchek's grandfather was one of the first Roma from Eastern Europe in Brazil. Nevertheless, Deputy Secretary Perly Cipriano believes policies are moving forward, slowly.

Yáskara Guelpa agrees: "With all the problems and mistakes, we must admit that this government has opened the doors for Roma people to say 'We exist'.

This article first appeared in Guardian Weekly

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04/06/2010

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