Jorge M. Fernandez Bernal
THE IMPACT OF THE ROMANI NGO’S IN ARGENTINA AND THE AMERICAS
The current national political situation
Argentina in the sixties was considered a large middle class country with a good future, but political events that followed worsened life in the country over the years. These brought with them; impoverishment, insecurity, an increase in the crime rate and discrimination, mainly against the poor. The last 4 years of crisis have affected the lives of the majority of the country’s inhabitants, during this crisis, the first legally formed Romani organization -Identidad Cultural Romani- was born. Opened in September 2000, this organization has mostly been seen as something strange by the Roma here. This is despite there having been another Romani Organization 12 years previously: Narodo Romano (Romani People), which, despite its informal role, realized many activities in its short life, and paved the way for this new-born entity.
The Romani Organizations in the Americas
The first Romani organization in this part of the world was launched in the 1920s in the United States, where a kind of Romani cooperative called E Tsoxa e Lolí(the red skirt) was created, to protect the profession of the Rom who were doing metalwork in New York city. It wasn’t until the 1980s however, that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a Romani violinist of Serbian origin called Mio Vasite, together with others -Rom and non-Rom- created the first Romani Cultural association called CEC (Centro de Estudos Ciganos) which Mio Vasite also presided. This was in accordance with the previously existing Romani organizations in Europe, though with more of a cultural character, and working within the Romani traditions and “kris” rather than independent of them. All these kinds of organizations were seen from the very beginning as strange to the Romani culture.
After the creation of that Organization in 1987 in Brazil, the idea was brought to Argentina in 1989 where the CEC presented Romani culture and music at the Centro Cultural San Martín, one of the most important venues in Argentina, to a vast and joyful non-Roma audience, amongst whom a few members of our community were present.
This impacted positively on the Argentinean Rom, who later informally set up a Romani Organization; Narodo Rromano which, though never legally registered, advised local TV while it produced three consecutive TV programs about our culture during that period. After that Narodo Rromano’s activities ceased, and for the following 8 years no such activity took place until the creation of Identidad Cultural Romaní. However, in the meantime other Romani Organizations such as CEC Minas Gerais and CEC São Paulo had appeared in Brazil, but none with much success.
During the year 2000, Prorom, a Colombian Romani organization, appeared in that country, modeled on Spanish Romani organizations (mainly the Unión Romaní). From this one, two more were born; one was Asorom, in Ecuador, and the other Unión Romaní de Colombia. All of these took shape under the authority of the Romani Kris and the Kumpanias (the vast majority of the Romani groups in the Americas belong to the Kalderash). The first two organizations played an important role as mediators, making it possible for many Romani NGOs to participate in the Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia in Quito, Ecuador, in March 2001. This contributed the first steps to creating SKOKRA (a federation of the Roma NGOs of the Americas).
At the same time an interesting event took place in Chile, when a group of Romani musicians had the opportunity to advise Chilean TV in their realization of a Romani soap opera, “Romané”, which had a great success in the whole continent, even in the U.S.A.. Nevertheless, Romani NGOs are generally not so well accepted by the Romani population in the Americas which doesn’t believe in them and rejects them.
Besides this, other problems affect them, such as the lack of a budget, which I shall refer to later, and being ignored by the local governments, but most of all they are under pressure of the “kris” (Romani internal body with controls the Romani kumpanias and is extraordinarily alive and strong in these lands), and of the Romani Evangelist church. This movement, born in France in 1961, has spread out through the entire American continent. In Argentina alone there are more than 15 such churches and in the United States three times as many. This has been the first and only outside institution to have been accepted; apart from some acceptance of school.
We identify the following as some of the main tasks currently facing Romani NGO’s in the Americas:
1) To promote the Romani culture, and its uniqueness.
2) To stop racism.
3) To support other minorities in danger or which suffer discrimination, such as the indigenous American people or others.
4) To follow the worldwide Romani movement and its international reclaims.
1) To preserve our Romani culture, language, kumpanias, kris and values
2) To appraise the contribution of formal education to our culture.
3) To generate the promotion of our people, whilst keeping within our traditional values.
4) To resolve legal problems (legal support).
For example Identidad Cultural Romaní (“Romani Cultural Identity” from Argentina) is an open Organization and its main tasks are oriented in three directions:
1) The development of programs of direct intervention, trying to answer all the needs of the Romani population, and those of communities which would wish to collaborate in our project.
2) The offering of information services, advice and orientation coming from the diverse disciplines, managed not only by the professionals who work in the organization, but also by all the others that form it.
3) Acting directly upon the more structural causes which generate discrimination against minorities.
1) To develop and integrate whatever might help to keep and promote the Cultural Identity of the Romani people, and of all the communities that would be interested in this project.
2) To support the accomplishment by all means of Argentina’s anti-discrimination law, to develop appreciation for cultural diversity, tolerance and education among the people, and to ask politicians and social leaders to take firm action to balance those situations which might otherwise generate xenophobic feelings or other worse evils.
Who take part in it?
A group of individuals of all kinds of professions, amongst whom we can find Lawyers, Doctors, psychologists, Anthropologists, Musicians, Actors and people coming from the more diverse professions.
1) March 2001, Quito-Ecuador: we participated in the Forum of the Americas against Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia. This conference was a preparatory one for the worldwide conference to be celebrated that same year in Durban-South-Africa, organized by the UN and diverse NGOs.
2) August-September 2001, Durban, South Africa: the above-mentioned conference.
3) We have published articles in diverse magazines and publications about the Romani Language and Culture.
4) We are currently continuing to work on projects in tandem with other organizations worldwide, to achieve the promotion and recognition of the Romani People, to recognize the positive values of this community and to fight against racism and stereotypes.
5) In March 2002, two members of our board of directors started a radio-program about Romani culture and music, which is broadcast once a week, every Friday at night in the city of Buenos Aires.
What is important to point out is the fact that almost no Romani NGO working in South and North America receives any kind of support from external organizations. This is in contrast to Europe, where it is a source of support for the development of most Romani NGO activities. This is due to the fact that most of these third sector organizations ignore the very existence of Romani people on the continent. And aside from this, their help is directed only to American indigenous people or Afro-Americans considered to be in danger, and living in an extremely marginalized state. What is being missed here is the fact that many Romani groups in this continent suffer the same kind of marginalization. While this may not impact on them as much economically, it nevertheless affects them through discrimination, lack of education and so on, and through this the future erosion destruction of Romani culture.
On the main problem in the Americas for future development of Roma
The current educational situation of Romani children is quite atypical in the continent even though as it was already mentioned in almost all the country primary education is an obligation. However from the very beginning, Rom tried to avoid this duty, because of the fact that the elders of the community considered that school could destroy the equilibrium of the group through the influence of an alien group (the Gadjé) in the Romany culture. For Rom only reading writing, and mathematics have been considered important.
“The boys must stay at school while they learn how to read and write and mathematics, and not after that, besides if they don’t leave school they are going to become Gadjé” (General Romani statement regarding school).”
This happens in almost all the countries in the Americas from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, and here also is where Romani NGOs have before them a titanic task, whilst avoiding creating a bad impact on the Romani community.
In the Americas, Romani culture, represented by 4.000.000 individuals in the whole continent, has kept closed and traditional in its confrontation with outsiders. Due mainly to the great fear of loosing our own culture, things which come from the non-Rom are very often rejected, and this, as mentioned above, brings marginalization to the community, which is set to destroy our traditional life. Almost everything from outside is rejected; a good example being a wealthy, non-formally educated businessman who forces his own son not to go to school or to become a doctor, because this is against the Romani tradition and culture. This is the task which true Romani NGOs have to develop within the community: to reinforce the valuing of those institutions which come from the non-Romani world and which could contribute to the future development of our people.
The impact of Romani NGOs on the Romani community in some particular Areas
Colombia is an area which has been affected by political instability for almost 40 years, the guerrillas destroyed the whole country. There exists a Romani Kalderash community (the only one) with almost 8.000 members. They have not escaped the entire process of impoverishment that most of Colombian society has suffered, including loss of trades, jobs or business contacts. Many Rom have not been able to continue developing their traditional occupations, such as selling horses (which was a profitable business there), metalworking or selling cars. Those who were able to, had left the country, but the others who remained did not want to change their professions for fear of loosing their own culture. Finally, one of the two Romani organizations, together with some elders, was able to renew the traditional trades by introducing new kinds of business such as selling shoes door-to-door or in fairs, occupation which now is accepted as part of the Kalderash Romani tradition, and which has developed some self-confidence in its members once again.
Romani NGOs, with the necessary external support, could further contribute to a better life for the Romani people and the preservation of their traditions in the Americas, as well as building towards the formation of a true worldwide Romani Nation which could help to better the existence of the whole of humanity. We think it is necessary to encourage the non-profit Romani NGOs to develop from the limited tools they have to achieve their goals, the goals of the Romani Nation, a place in this world, and neither cultural marginalization or the loss of our culture.
Prepared by: Orfej Haliti