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Roma gypsy sisters, São Paulo, Brazil.

At the camp Roma gypsy sisters live in a close-knit community, São Paulo, Brazil. Image: Paulo Pepe

In many cases, the only State presence in the camps is though police intervention. Father Rocha, a priest of the catholic organization Pastoral of the Nomads, has lived in many Roma camps and has witnessed repeated scenes of police abuse.

“The police do not recognize that the Roma tent is their home and therefore is inviolable according to the Constitution. They descend into the camps aggressively, kicking the pans that are on the fire, shouting at people”, he says.

He claims to have stepped forward countless times to avoid arbitrary detentions and police extortion. “I wish I had studied law to stop police extortion. When they find an undocumented car for instance, they ask for 10 thousand dollars and the men have to find a way to get it. Once in a camp in Espírito Santo I protested and was handcuffed”, he says.

But not all the Brazilian Roma are nomads or poor. Many of those who came with the European immigrants in the beginning of the 20th century are now wealthy and integrated into society. Yáskara Guelpa for instance is a successful journalist who lives in an expensive house in a middle-class neighbourhood in São Paulo. But like many other upper and middle-class Roma, she prefers to hide her identity. “I don’t go around speaking out about this. The prejudice is still too strong”.

Circus teacher Adriana Sbano, who belongs to a traditional circus family, also feels forced to hide her culture. “I work at upper-class schools in São Paulo and simply keep quiet, because one can not know what the reaction will be. I can’t risk loosing my job”, she says. Brazil’s circus history can be traced to the Roma, and even today many are run by them. But according to Adriana, many prefer to deny their origin for fear of prejudice.

Only recently have some upper-class Roma come out of hiding. The musician Wagner Tiso and the popular comedian Dedé Santana admitted their lineage in public. The Biology professor in the State University of Feira de Santana Jucelho Dantas da Cruz is one of the few who have never lied about his identity. “Even though some students find it strange, I am a Roma in heart and soul. It would be a crime to deny my origin”.

Government initiatives in the last couple of years have also helped shed light on the issue.

In 2006, a presidential decree established May 24 as National Roma Day, recognizing this ethnic group as an important element to the Brazilian identity. After all, Brazil is one of the few countries that has ever had a president of Roma lineage, Juscelino Kubitchek, who founded the capital Brasilia in 1963. But he has never admitted to be so.

In 2008, the Ministry of Culture established an annual prize for initiatives that preserve, recover and disseminate the Roma culture.

At the same time a guide to the rights of this minority was released. Written by a Roma lawyer, Mirian Stanescon, it tells the history of this minority in Brazil and details their rights. Since then it has been distributed at meetings in various communities. It is a way to show Roma they are not alone anymore, according to Mirian Stanescon.

Still, many activists complain that there is no public policy that can actually change the situation of the impoverished Roma. To Yáskara Guelpa, many of their demands are still to be met. “The main issues are access to education and permanence in the schools, access to health, and social inclusion. And we want all cities where there are Roma camps to provide land with water and electricity. That’s all.”

To sub-secretary Perly Cipriano, addressing Roma’s issues is still a huge challenge. But he believes the policies are moving forward, even if slowly, since no government has never done anything for this minority.

Ms 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.’”.


Despite being Europe’s largest and fastest growing minority, the Roma (pejoratively known as Gypsies) have been and continue to be misrepresented, mythologized, scapegoated and persecuted across the continent, and around the world. The Roma Rights Network wants to bring attention to plight of the Roma and spread the truth about these peaceful, culturally rich, and loving people.This 1:41 min, July 2010 video is a Roma Rights Network production.

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Investigative journalist Natalia Viana lives in São Paulo, Brazil. As a freelance journalist her work has been awarded two national prizes for journalism in Brazil. She has also published her first book, “Planted in the Earth, about political crime against social leaders in Brazil” and is now working on a second book highlighting a resistance movement newspaper during the military regime in Brazil. Working with top investigative journalists such as Amnesty International Award winner, Stephen Grey, and Pulitzer-prize winner, Lowell Bergman, Viana’s work has spanned the globe via BBC – British Broadcasting Corporation, CBC – Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CA), PBS – Public Broadcasting Service (US), and Sunday Times and Independent (UK). This story has been brought to you from Natalia Viana via The Frontline Club, an international network of journalists, photographers, diplomats and aid workers.

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