Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

Gypsies, or How to Be Invisible in Mexico

MEXICO CITY, Oct 12 2010 (IPS) - In the story “Gente bella” (Beautiful People), the Mexican dictator of the day sends a mission to Europe to import 300 families and thus “whiten the race, to put an end to laziness.” Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria cheats him and sends, for the price of gold, gypsies.

This social critique by leftist Mexican politician and writer Eraclio Zepeda, who was born in 1937, is a veiled reference to President Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915), and depicts the persistent negative stereotype of gypsies that partly explains their invisibility, even today, despite their deep roots in the country.

Ysmed Nebarak, who lives in Acapulco on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast, knows about that invisibility. Her grandfather, a Hungarian who came to Mexico around 1920, kept mum about the story of his first wife, who was a gypsy.

“I honestly don’t know about his ancestors, because he never wanted to tell us about them,” she told IPS.

This Latin American country of 107 million people is home to 15,850 gypsies — or Roma as they prefer to be called — according to the 2000 census by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. However, the figure is considered an underestimate due to the narrow criteria used to classify members of the ethnic group, and researchers put the total much higher.

The main activities of the Roma community in Mexico are buying and selling fabric, clothing, cars, trucks and jewelry, as well as performing and teaching singing and dancing.

“Gypsies have been ‘de-historified’; they do not appear in the history of Mexico,” David Lagunas, of the National School of Anthropology and History, told IPS. “We know very little about them, which gives rise to stereotypes and negative images. Mexico is a mix of groups with different histories and pasts.”

The Spanish-born anthropologist said the fact that Roma people administer their time, work and money in a non-traditional manner makes mainstream society wary and suspicious. Lagunas knows all about this, because he spent 10 years living with gypsies in Andalusia in southern Spain and Catalonia in the northeast, living in their caravans and selling clothing at their market stalls, while writing his thesis.

The first wave of Roma arrived in Mexico in the 1890s, when they came to the Americas from Hungary, Poland and Russia and mainly settled in the United States and Brazil, but also in this country, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela.

And in the period between World War I and World War II, many more Roma left Hungary for Mexico, Venezuela and other nations.

But in 1931, when there was already a large community of Roma in Mexico, the immigration laws were reformed to ban them from settling in this country, after growing accusations of criminal activities.

The last major influx of Roma occurred in 1969. They came from Spain and mainly settled in the central Mexico City neighbourhood of Juárez, where they are chiefly dedicated to selling textiles and leather garments.

Today there are Roma communities in the capital and in the cities of Veracruz on Mexico’s eastern coast, Puebla in the south, Guadalajara in the west and Monterrey in the northeast. But the best-known Roma communities are in San Luís Potosí in central Mexico.

One of the biggest proponents of gypsy culture, the leader of the Roma community Pablo Luvinoff, was killed Sept. 24 in a hospital in the Mexican capital, even though a police guard had been posted outside his room.

Luvinoff had survived three attempts on his life since 2004, blamed on a dispute for control of the Roma community in the capital. Since his murder, the authorities have arrested several suspects, all of them Roma.

Although the Roma in Mexico, as in other countries, are known to suffer from discrimination, few complaints have been filed. In 2006, the National Commission to Prevent Discrimination, a government body, investigated the case of a member of the Roma community in the northern state of Baja California, but in the end the complaint was dismissed.

In recent years, several authors and photographers have sought to break down the ignorance about the Roma community in Mexico, and the silence surrounding them. In 2001, researcher Ricardo Pérez Romero published “La lumea de noi. Memoria de los ludar de México”. Lumea de noi means “our people” in Romanian, and the book is about the history and day-to-day life of the Ludar people, who are gypsies from Romania.

“Piel de carpa; Los gitanos de México”, a book with a similar focus, by Mexican photographer and researcher Ruth Campos Cabello and Spanish artist and photographer Antonio García, was published in 2007.

“Gypsies are like indigenous people: there are many different groups, and they are not all the same,” Lorenzo Armendariz, a Mexican photographer who is well-known for his portraits of different ethnic groups, told the magazine Artes Visuales. “The nomads among them still travel with their family tents, and their groups include clowns, magicians and dancers, although the main attraction is mass hypnosis.”

In 1994, when the famed photographer was 33, he discovered that his grandfather, who had been known simply as “el húngaro” (the Hungarian), was a gypsy. After the discovery, Armendariz began to get involved in the world of the Roma in Mexico, living with them for long periods and putting together photo exhibits.

He even got married under Roma rites, and in order to do so he was first adopted by a gypsy family.

“I would love to know everything having to do with their history and their customs,” said Nebarak, whose grandfather raised roosters.

Like in the book “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Colombian Nobel literature prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, some groups of Roma in Mexico travel around with battery-powered film projectors in the back of their trucks, bringing movies to villages and towns.

In fact, Luvinoff’s father used to drive around in a truck with a 35mm projector and a collection of old Mexican films.

“We haven’t seen progress made in terms of public policies, like in other countries,” said Lagunas, a graduate of the public University of Barcelona, in northeastern Spain. “Our political associations have not really taken shape, and our issues are not on the political agenda; there is no recognition of the rights of the Roma.”

Where the captivating world of the Roma has not gone unnoticed is in the soap operas of different Latin American countries, including Mexico.

Televisa, Mexico’s largest television network, broadcast “Yesenia”, about a young gyspy woman, in 1970, and produced a remake in 1987.

A series called “Gitanas” (Gypsy Women), a co-production by TV Azteca, Mexico’s second-largest network, and the U.S.-based Spanish-language network Telemundo, is currently airing here.

Luvinoff, the late patriarch of the Roma community, served as a screenplay consultant on both Gitanas and the remake of Yesenia.

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