Roma identity, anticapitalism and feminism are the main themes around which attorney Pastora Filigrana (born in Seville, 1981) has based her writing El pueblo gitano contra el sistema-mundo (The Roma community against the world order) (Akal, 2020), a political essay that surveys strategies of cultural resistance among Roma communities and identifies “tips” on how to create a more just socio-economic alternative. In this book, she addresses “people who believe in a world order that accommodates all lives,” she says. Filigrana, organiser and radical activist for the Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT), explains that in order to understand the reach and depth of anti-Roma racism today, we must realise that the Roma community has always been framed as “Europe’s Otherness par excellence”. They are viewed as Others and kept on a lower rung of humanity by mainstream society, she explains. Filigrana openly identifies as a mixed-race Gitana in activist and professional spaces (gitana, or gitano, is the Spanish word typically used to refer members of the Roma community). She denounces the fact that the Roma community, Spain’s and Europe’s largest minority, is constantly confronted with racism in all aspects of life, from the judicial system to activist movements. The attorney and activist warns that being a leftist does not automatically make you exempt from having supremacist views.
Do you think that we need to take on Roma characteristics in order to create more just socio-economic alternatives? Do you think we need to learn from and embody the values of the Roma people?
What I value most is cooperation in large tight-knit groups – an economy based on cooperation and on achieving the highest levels of self-management. These are starting points for beginning to build a model of emancipation. A large part of the persecution against the Roma community comes from the fact that we have ways of life that dare to challenge the idea that you have to work for someone else. We question the way that people access basic goods by having a salary. In my book, I try to teach strategies of cultural resistance that the Roma have used throughout their centuries-long history of persecution, a history that I believe is largely unknown. It doesn’t appear in Spanish history textbooks in school. Gitanos simply have no visibility here in Spain. I would like to show that nothing happens in a vacuum – to understand the current situation of Gitano exclusion and marginalisation, we have to look at the historical context.
You maintain that the Gitano community experiences persecution for its identity and lifestyle. Is this still true today?
Nowadays there is no legal persecution. Since 1978, we have had a constitution in Spain that establishes equal treatment for all. Up until that point, though, you could be persecuted just for being Gitano. Not for any crime or infraction you might have committed, but for the simple fact that you existed. You were persecuted for your customs, your refusal to adapt to the patterns of market economy or the regularisation of labour. What we have today is structural anti-Roma racism. The Roma community contains pockets of poverty. We continue to suffer from limited access to basic vital resources, such as housing. To understand this, we must keep in mind that Roma ways of life have been historically criminalised – the fact that the Roma did not want to work as peasants and preferred certain levels of precarity in exchange for their continued economic autonomy. And this still occurs today. We are excluded in such a way that it is difficult to know whether having sources of income other than a salary is a choice or an imposition. The Roma community has more difficulty accessing jobs. Many professions that were traditionally developed by the Roma, many related to artisanal trades, have been dying out under neoliberalism, causing the community to become even more marginalised. Capitalism has advanced so much that it is more and more difficult to find alternative forms of economy. Neoliberalism leaves only a tiny margin for self-management, and that is what results in clandestine delinquency and total exclusion from mainstream society.
Is there any truth to the general narrative in mainstream society that “the Roma don’t want to integrate”?
They don’t want to lose their cultural ways of life and their way of measuring success and failure, good and bad. The Roma don’t want to stop being Roma. They didn’t want to in 1499 and they don’t want to now. What is cruel is that they are being forced to stop being who they are in order to supposedly have their rights recognised by the state.
Should we be talking about assimilationist policies?
In order to be legitimate in the eyes of the law, you are required to assimilate to Western culture, both in the Roma and migrant communities. We see very concrete examples of this. For example, how truancy is dealt with in a ghetto inhabited by a marginalised Roma population. Often children are required by law to go to school without taking into account the reality of their communities or families. There are exceptions and there are educational communities that have tried to do things differently, with some schools providing mediation with Roma communities. But the conversation is always about integration, not universal rights. The anti-Roma bias is clearly visible in the criminal justice system as well.
Widespread poverty, low levels of education and in many cases a reliance on informal sources of income lead many to think that the Roma community leads an underdeveloped existence inside countries that are considered developed. Does the Roma community need to work on its own development?
What the Roma community needs is for the majority of its members, who do not have access to basic vital resources, to gain access to them under the same conditions as everyone else. They cannot be expected to conform to another pattern of normality as a prerequisite for making this happen. They should not be held to an externally imposed standard of what is correct and incorrect, ethical and unethical, beautiful and ugly. This subjectivity, in which everything European, Western, is considered superior, puts that woman wearing a hijab on a lower rung of the hierarchy than a woman who does not wear one and she is considered less developed, more primitive…. These things are important for understanding racism, and specifically anti-Roma racism
How do you explain that centuries of anti-Roma racism, with repeated attempts at genocide, both physical and cultural, have not resulted in the complete disappearance of the Roma minority?
This is due to different types of community life, to the fact that we have managed to maintain a basic sense of interdependence, i.e. large groups that support each other, that have mirrored each other and have counted on an alternative economy in order to not have to depend on the dominant economy.
And from this Roma economy of resistance, would street vending be the one remaining stronghold?
Street vending is an example of how the Roma community has tried to escape the salaried life. This form of selling persists as a part of family economies. It’s not just a matter of one individual getting involved – it’s the whole family that does it. It is one of the only entrepreneurial possibilities left for Roma families.
The film “Carmen & Lola” by Arantxa Echeverría follows two families of street vendors. It tells the story of two young Gitana women who fall in love. The film was heavily criticised from a Roma-feminist perspective. Do you think that the societal control presented in the film – specifically control over women’s bodies – is a misrepresentation of reality?
I wouldn’t say that it’s an outright lie. That does happen, of course. But it is biased to present it as emblematic of the lives Gitana women lead. What really bothered us were the statements in which the director said that if a non-Roma woman hadn’t made this film, Gitanas wouldn’t have had a voice, overlooking decades of community activism by women in the Gitano community and the fact that there is a Gitano LGBTI collective (Ververipen). Homosexuality in Roma families is received in different ways, just like in non-Roma families, depending on how religious or conservative the family is and how much this may result in more homphobic attitudes. The director’s big mistake was her use of a reductive lens to look at the realities of Roma life. This point of view is full of stereotypes.
Does anti-Roma racism have any particularities as compared to the racism that racialised people from the global South may experience?
I think that racism always operates in the same way, because ultimately what it does is place people on a lower rung of humanity because of their origins or identity and denies the universality of human rights. But the motives of racism against migrants and racism against Gitanos are different. With Gitanos, you can’t use arguments like “go back to your own country”, so it might be an even more “biological” and gruesome kind of racism. Anti-Roma racism is based on ideas of what the Roma people are like and that they will always stay that way. And then there’s the thing that happens where they refuse to accept that you’re Gitano if you don’t fit their image of a Gitano because you’re educated, because they can have a conversation with you, because they tell you you’re normal.
You maintain that anti-Roma racism is instrumental to the capitalist system. What contributes to that view?
Anti-Roma racism is fantastic for the capitalist socio-economic system because it needs large pockets of poverty in order to function. There will always be marginalised people because the economic order is designed to never provide enough employment. What better argument to justify these pockets of poverty than to say that they’re poor because they want to be that way? Because that’s just how they are. That’s just how they want to be. Anti-Roma racism is actually very useful for justifying that capitalism works. I mean, it leaves the system intact. It’s not that the system couldn’t eradicate poverty, it’s not that there isn’t enough work for everyone; it’s just that the poor are poor because they want to be.
In your essay you suggest the need for different social movements to unite and take action to advance transformational ideas that would allow everyone to lead lives of dignity. How do we get there?
The first step is for the white left to become aware of the fact that their perspective starts from a place of privilege, because just using “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. What I mean is that we’re questioning the capitalist economic system, but we’re not questioning the systemic hierarchy of human value that capitalism imposes. Capitalism dictates what is modern, acceptable and developed or not. When we speak out against capitalism, we talk about economy, but we don’t talk about things being modern, appropriate or developed. We also have to question what’s considered better or worse. If we don’t, we’re no different from capitalism. Capitalism says that you have to be competitive, scientific, and follow a certain lifestyle and aesthetic; and those who don’t are at an inferior stage of development.
Would there need to be more Roma involvement in different activist movements in order to help bring about this kind of questioning?
What we need is dialogue, not telling them “come and do what I’m doing” or convincing them to “develop themselves”. It’s the Western left that determines what emancipatory practices are. They then tell groups that don’t follow suit that the first thing they have to do is free themselves of their cultural identities in order to be revolutionary. This is a mistake. The white left have to become aware that there can be many different approaches to resistance. Trying to universalise the Western experience of resistance and apply it to the whole world is white supremacy, even if it comes from the left. I think the most important thing is to listen – on a level playing field – to everything that Roma organisations have to say, instead of looking at Roma communities and waiting for them to realise what the “real path of resistance” is, i.e. to follow the example of some predomninatly white trade union or feminist space.
And in order to help this transformation along, you don’t see getting Roma people into institutional politics as a priority either?
I see Roma representation in institutions as something merely symbolic, though it would still be very welcome. Giving the Roma more visibility to distance us from the mainstream image of delinquency and folklore is important. Making a different Roma identity visible is important because this other identity exists, because it’s real. And that’s just how invisible we are – that any tiny bit of visibility is crucial, because showing Roma diversity shows that we’re human.