BRAZIL: Roma women and families say ‘We exist!’

Natalia Viana – WNN Feautures

Roma woman

(WNN) São Paulo, BRAZIL: On the outskirts of São Paulo, it’s easy to miss the orange tents amid the tufts of grass in Itaquaquecetuba from the whirl of the freeway. But with a closer look, a Gypsy camp shows its colours: a dozen or so tents with embroidered pieces of fabric hung on improvised walls.

Inside the tents, women wearing long, lively dresses squat on the dirt floors to drink their coffee. They meld with the patchwork of shiny pans, bunk beds, high-tech TVs and sound systems. They just arrived from the city centre, where they go everyday to read people’s palms.

“Our days are hard. People run away from us, they are scared. Sometimes we get 10, 12 dollars a day”, says Elizete de Cardoso, the camp chief’s wife.

Like thousands of gypsy, or Roma camps – as they prefer to be called – in Brazil, they have no electricity or water, even though the families have been living there for over 20 years. There are no toilets or sanitation: all 100 people use a corner hidden behind an abandoned building.

The living conditions are basic. Yet, they preserve the same lively lifestyle that was passed on over generations. According to expert Frans Moonen, the majority of the Brazilian Roma do not lead nomad lives anymore, but other traditions remain intact.

The Romani language, for instance, is still spoken amongst them. Kids still engage in arranged marriages when they are 13 to 15 years old.

To the recently married couple Luana Ferreira, 14-years-old, and Djavan Pereira, 15-years-old, life is “ok” in their brand new tent. “Married life is good”, she says blushing.

One of the few men to keep a traditional occupation is a weathered looking Roma wearing a baseball cap.  Claudinei Pereira still does leatherwork. “I design horse saddles and carriage reigns. People come from all around to buy from me. My grandpa used to work with this”.

But unlike old-times, when the men used to trade horses, nowadays the main goods are used cars, often unlicensed. “We sell and exchange cars, used goods, and equipment from Paraguay”, says Euclides Ferreira, the camp’s chief, revealing a glimmer of gold through his smile.

They decided to stick with this campsite because better ones are growing scarcer. “We are not welcome in many places. When you put up your tent, city council officers come to throw you out”, explains Claudinei Pereira. Only a few local administrations in Brazilian cities provide land for the Roma. In many places, like here in Itaquaquecetuba, they live on private land, and risk being thrown off at anytime.

While we speak, little girls in colorful dresses run to and fro. Very few of them have ever been to school. The government estimates that 90% of the Roma living in camps are illiterate. Mr. Pereira had to put up a fight to get his eldest kid into school. “When I went to schools and told them I was a gypsy, nobody wanted to help me, they said there were no vacancies”.

Problems aren’t new to the Roma. The first of them to arrive in Brazil were deported from Portugal between the 16th and 18th centuries. Once in Brazil, their language was forbidden; they were persecuted by local governments; and were expelled from town to town. In the 1700s, some towns in the state of Minas Gerais even requested their citizens to detain any Roma and keep whatever goods they were carrying.

That’s why many still carry the mark of marginalization. Several do not even have a birth certificate. That means they do not have proof of identification. To the State, they do not exist.

This history of negligence still has consequences today, according to Yáskara Guelpa, a Roma representative in the National Commission of Traditional Communities. “The health and education professionals must learn about us because there is huge prejudice. For instance, if a gypsy girl goes to school with a long skirt, the teacher does not understand and asks her to use pants – and that is against our culture”.

On the other hand, the State admittedly lacks crucial information about this minority. There has never been a national survey on how many Roma there are in Brazil, or how they live. Independent estimates vary from 250 thousand to one million.

“It’s a big problem”, admits the national Sub-secretary of Human Rights Promotion, Perly Cipriano. “No state or council knows how many gypsies live within their limits”. According to him, the government has requested the National Institute of Geography and Statistics to include the Roma in the next census.

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