The Roma Gypsies of Colombia

Hazel Marsh celebrates the community that is conspicuously ignored by Latin American history books and modern day media.
by: 
Hazel Marsh

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez’s literary recreation of a period of Colombian history, includes the presence of the memorable character Melquíades. A wise and honourable Rom, Melquíades regularly visits Macondo, bringing with him the latest scientific inventions acquired from his travels to demonstrate to the astonished and intrigued inhabitants of the town.

 

Most South American history books, however, exclude the presence of the Roma (mistakenly believed at one time to have originated from Egypt, hence the misnomer ‘Gypsies’); it is as if they never existed in the region. Yet today it is estimated that about 1 million Roma live in Brazil, 300,000 in Argentina, between 15-20,000 in Chile, 5,000 each in Ecuador and Uruguay, and 8,000 in Colombia (where in 2005, for the first time, Roma were included in the census). Most of these Roma peoples have arrived in South America for the same reasons their ancestors were forced to leave Northern India some thousand years ago and to adopt a life of frequent nomadism in Europe (hence becoming ‘outsiders’ wherever they stopped); namely, for reasons of racist harassment and systematic persecution.

 

Adhering to their own customs and belief systems and speaking their own language (all of which have their origins in Indian cultural and linguistic traditions), the Roma have been seen as ‘foreigners’ wherever they arrived and have been feared, subjugated, ordered to give up their language, dress and customs, and exploited by Gadje (non-Roma) populations. In the 16th century, Spain and Portugal sought to reduce their Roma populations via banishment to the newly conquered territories of the Americas; on his third voyage to the Americas in 1498, Columbus took with him four ‘Egyptians’ whose punishment, imposed by Spanish authorities for the ‘crime’ of being Roma and wishing to maintain their customs and Romani shib (Romani language), was commuted to hard labour in the galleys.

 

This period of ‘legal’ immigration was soon to end; in 1582, Spanish authorities passed a decree forbidding the entry of Roma to their American colonies and ordering that all Roma in the so-called ‘New World’ be expelled immediately. Many Roma were deported from the Americas, but many others formed rochelas, alternative societies which existed at the margins of colonial legislation and where the Roma lived in invisibility alongside escaped African slaves, indigenous peoples, and other white and mixed-race fugitives and deserters.

 

For five hundred years, beginning in the 13th century and continuing until 1864, the Roma were enslaved in Eastern Europe. Following independence from Spain, a law was passed in 1821 in the newly-liberated territory of New Granada (present-day Colombia). This new law prohibited the importation of slaves to the region, and stipulated that any slaves from other nations who did arrive would immediately be granted their freedom. As a result of this law, many Roma sought to escape European slavery by fleeing to Colombia, and the waves of migration from Europe to the Americas have continued throughout the 20th century and up to the present day; Roma have fled the Porajmos (‘the great devouring’, or the Holocaust, during which – officially - half a million Roma were murdered), the rise of extreme-right ‘white power’ groups, and increasing incidences of racially-motivated murder of Roma in the former Soviet Bloc.

In recent years, Latin American Roma have begun to seek to emerge from ‘invisibility’ and to link their struggles against impoverishment and marginalisation with the struggles of indigenous and African-descended groups in the region. In 1997, Colombian Roma formed the Proceso Organizativo del Pueblo Rom [Gitano] de Colombia (PROROM), an organisation which works to highlight the positive cultural and economic contributions Roma have made and can continue to make to the dominant societies in which they live, and to demand recognition of their rights to speak their own language and to retain their own cultural identity in a multicultural society. Ana Dalila Gómez Baos, a Colombian Rom candidate of the Partido Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA) leftist opposition party, points out that in Colombia violence and violations of human rights are part of a strategy which impacts predominantly upon marginalised and impoverished sectors of society, namely, the indigenous, the African-descended, and the Roma. According to Gómez Baos, it is ‘time to show that the Gypsy people can contribute different ways of doing politics in support of an ethnically and culturally diverse society’. It may indeed be worth listening to a people who have succeeded in maintaining their own culture and internal cohesion in spite of one thousand years of systematic persecution.

Hazel Marsh, University of East Anglia.hazel.marsh@uea.ac.uk