Written by:

Prepared by:

Jorge M. Fernandez Bernal

Orfej Haliti


From where have the Colombian Rom come?

The decisions of the majority are not always fair ones: The Rom had arrived in Colombia by the turn of the XIXth century, but when American societies were created, external examples were many times used as a model, so that many times the ideals of new American societies inherited trends and prejudices from European cultures. In this context, to be different wasn’t tolerated at all.

Even though it wasn’t forcefully forbidden here to speak the Romani language or to have our own cultural traits and to act according to them; our people, our activities and present social status, suppress the Romani capacity of development.

To subsist, Rom must sometimes go as far as abandoning their cultural patterns. For these reasons our people have historically assumed conducts of resistance from our traditional nomadism to the resource of invisibility. This ethnic invisibility, though effective in the past, is today the cause of the critical situation in which the Rom in Colombia live. It doesn’t mean that for common Colombians Romani people don’t exist; on the contrary, in the memory of every person older than forty, the memory of encampments in the outskirts of the big cities, and the curiosity these mysterious people instilled in them is still present.

Many Rom insist that they are Colombians, of Colombian descent, when in reality they are Colombian Rom (a form of protection against the extreme nationalism of some parts of the country). Some people also point to the origin of the Rom as being depicted in the Holy Bible, the Rom here being one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the lost one (this is heard throughout the Americas and Europe), and because of this they will be favored by God.

There are not so many written sources to be consulted about the arrival of the Rom in Colombia. For this reason, Romani oral tradition is the original source from where one can extract the necessary information to reconstruct this historical moment, (this is also valid everywhere in the Americas).

In Colombia, most of the Rom belong to families with more than three or four generations of presence in the country, according to our sources, and due to the origin of the Rom in the majority of the countries in the Americas (mainly Vlax groups here, since Colombia doesn’t have Spanish Kalé or other groups) we can fix the time of arrival by the turn of the XIXth century, approximately between1880 and the 1920s. From then until now, -with the exception of the Second World War, when some families came- the country hasn’t undergone significant extra or continental flows.

The recent conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia generated a displacement of people. Many of the Rom who escaped the conflicts came to the Americas, arriving in Colombia or Ecuador, some three or four families then from there moved to Argentina, but the vast majority of the Yugoslavian Rom who were looking for refuge traveled from Europe directly to the USA or Canada.

The Bolochog and the Mihais; two of the existing clans in Colombia, date their arrivals around the 1920s, the former from France and the latter from Russia, but both groups are considered Russian Rom by other Rom. The first to arrived here were the Grekos, who mostly came directly from Serbia around 1880. These until recently were nomads, and many of these groups moved to Ecuador.

Several kumpanyas (family groups which establish alliances to share a common community life) can be identified in Colombia, and which are located in almost all the country’s cities: Bogota, D.C., many neighborhoods, in Girón (Santander), in Cúcuta, in Cali, in Medellín, Itagüí and Envigado among others.

Of these kumpanyas, the most important in terms of numbers are those of Bogotá, Girón and Cúcuta. Some years back, one of the most important kumpanyas was that of Itagüí, but because of drug dealers and their associated violence, most of the families moved to other cities in search of a better life.

The incessant violence which fell upon Colombia in the last decades has lately been creating an important phenomenon of displacement of Romani families to the frontiers of the country. Particularly numerous is the group of Romani families who migrated to Venezuela. It is also important to mention the fact that many Romani families move to other places like Argentina, Brazil and USA, in that order. The lack of opportunities in the country due to insecurity, made the traditional Romani professions like metalworking, horse dealing and the sale of leather goods, all needful of constant travelling, the cause of many families’ leaving the territory. We can safely speak of more than 200 families having moved to Venezuela, and some 60 or 70 more to Argentina. Many Rom in Colombia have suffered persecution by drug dealers, guerillas and paramilitaries, the latter permanently racketeering the Romani families

What’s the meaning of being a Rom?

Romani people today, despite some undesired cultural transformations which threaten to finish off some aspects of our culture, features of our identity are kept alive, and among them we could mention the following:

1) The idea of a common origin and a shared history.

2) Social Organization based upon the related groups and the preservation of the traditional norms.

3) A strong internal cohesion within the group and a good interaction with outsiders.

4) A long nomadic tradition and the adaptation to new forms of itinerancy.

5) A language in common, Romanés.

6) A permanent valuing in the group of age and gender as organizing principle of social status.

7) Articulation of an internal welfare system based upon the existence of a patriarchal lineage.

Reflections on the education of Romani people in Colombia

Romani People’s shift away from formal education and institutions is mostly due to circumstances under which Romani people have had to live, and due mainly to nomadism, the rejection and prejudices of others, and distrust towards a school system which is seen as an institution which wants to change the individuals from minorities by trying to destroy their cultural systems and values. This rejection even today causes 80 % of the Rom in Colombia not to have acquired a formal education out of fear of their own values being changed for those of the others to gain acceptance.

Traditional education

The Romani child grows up in a very distinct environment in comparison with gadjo kids. The Romani kid is taught to survive and not to be prominent, her/his competition with the world is restricted to her/his own community, where the finish line can be reached by way of parameters very specific to their own culture. To have saved a certain amount of money in order to be able to marry, for instance. This can be achieved through the necessary knowledge of traditional economical activities like metalworking, coppersmithing and dealing with horses. On top of this, Rom value this kind of traditional form of education for being that which has kept our people spiritually free and alive for more than one thousand years, despite the forced itinerancy and the persecution suffered throughout the five continents.

The Romani child is kept under his/her mother’s care during the first five years of life, almost exclusively, because fathers don’t intervene so much in this period. In this time he or she develops freely, and learns the basic rules of life within the community, the mother tongue, respect for elders and love of freedom. This is also the moment when the child learns to distrust and fear the majority society, and this can be noticed in common sentences like: “the Gadjó is bad” “the Gadjé never are going to accept us”. This is the consequence of a real situation but to a large extent a distant one, because even though there exists some kind of persecution and discrimination today, they are not the direct causes of the reproduction of these stereotypes, because Romani culture being an oral one, it is very difficult to break the chain of legends which behind these responses.

The Romani mentality has somehow succeeded at eluding these barriers of fear, and Romani children today access primary school. Depending on their sex, the child can reach a given degree of formal education. The boy reaches IVth or even Vth grade of basic primary education, and in exceptional cases one or two grades of secondary school. Girls who go further than the IVth primary school grade are generally a statistical exception. For instance, in the present generation in their thirties or older, it is really strange to know someone who has set foot in a school.

Romani kid start to go to school at seven, and the generalized opinion of the adults is that kids need only learn mathematics and to read and write, because of the importance of such for business. Beyond that, school is not considered necessary and there still lurks the fear that they will become Gadjé.

Adult Rom often cannot distinguish the reality of the present world and the necessity of competition; seeing the acculturation their kids suffer because of school. Childhood being when one learns most behavioural rules, and being faced with two different cultures, Romani kids suffer too much confusion because schools in many countries don’t accept differing culture and language.

The facts may speak more of the Romani people’s capacity for adaptation than null access to school. However, current invasive and absorbent educational systems will end up harming many members of the Romani people, above all the young.

In Colombia as in other parts of the Americas the Romani population on average is young. Because of this, and due to the pressure of a growing acculturation many young people between 12 to 16 approximately find themselves in the middle between their own culture and that of the Gadjé, where in the past Romani boys stayed with their fathers and learnt traditional group occupations.

The latter is currently prevented by several circumstances:

a) Present economic activities don’t allow itinerancy of the whole family because they are not as profitable as they were in the past due to political problems in the country, e.g.: trade of leather goods (shoes) and selling horses.

b) Due to low profits of the activities, the father cannot be acompanied by the older sons if necessary. To this we must add the problems the Rom are suffering in this country with the paramilitaries, guerillas and the constant threats and racketeering practiced by these people against the Rom.

Because of this, boys of this age group (12-16) remain home or hang around on the streets with the gadjo kids, lacking dialogue with their elders. These events are creating problems within their own families and community and don’t allow them to be ready to face the future and to learn either the traditional or the gadjo ways.

For Romani girls, the situation is even worse because they don’t even have the same opportunities the men currently do; very often their education is more limited due to fear they could become gadja (non- Romani women), marriage takes place at an early age, if they are asked for by their parents in marriage, since nowadays many boys prefer to marry non-Romani girls, allowing them to have much more contact with the majority society (this happens in many countries in the region). Women’s traditional occupations selling goods once made by the men of the community, and fortune-telling, have decreased because of the fear of losing Romani culture which further restricted women’s contact with the outside world. Besides, fortune-telling is forbidden by the Romani Pentecostal Church, which is really extended all over the world among all Romani groups.

The young Rom who in Colombia had have access to traditional Gadjo education have diverse opinions, they think that formal education is really necessary, but it has to pay much more attention to the realities of the different communities and should respect their languages and traditions.Those who attended university also see the need to preserve Romani culture as the main goal.

More and more families have started to send their kids to school, but also want to fight for their rights, the respect of the others, access to a medical service and the right to education which respects the traditional values of the Romani People. Because of that it is necessary to implement an educational system -and this is valid for the whole region- where people may acquire the necessary tools to improve their life, and their own very best social and economic development while taking into account Romani culture and values which give the Rom their identity

Prepared by: Orfej Haliti

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