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Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia, Spanish Roma MEP


interview

Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia, Spanish Roma MEP

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia has seen much change in Spain, and along with the Spanish the Roma people have changed, too. Himself an atypical Roma, he has succeeded where many of his community has not. He is a Spanish MP, and now an MEP, with two university diplomas in law and journalism. In 1978 he helped write Spain’s constitution and in 2008 he became the first-ever Roma holder of the title Doctor Honoris Causa from Cadiz university. He leads the non-governmental organisation the Romaní Union.

Luis Carballo, euronews: Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia, what do you think of the expulsions of Roms from France, especially as we now know that the Interior Minister issued a memo targeting them?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
I find it undignified behaviour from a democratic government, especially a great nation like France. But what can we do? Even the best of leaders can lose their heads…

euronews:
The European Commission has suggested sanctioning France. Will the Romaní Union also take legal action, and if so, what sort?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
The Romaní Union would like to take France to the EU’s Court of Justice because, if the European Commission manages to get its case heard, and that I doubt, then we’ll be there to support it. If, however, the Justice Commissioner’s case is unfortunately for whatever reason not heard, at least we’ll be there to defend our legitimate interests.

euronews:
Do you think these expulsions could have consequences in Spain?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
Let me tell you one thing that can dispel any fear that the French Roma could be arriving in Spain soon. First of all it’s materially impossibe; Sarkozy takes them, puts them on buses, takes them to the airport and puts them on a plane. He’s not pushing them towards the Pyrenees. Now, I’d like to tell you a widely-known secret. The other day in Paris I asked my colleagues if they had any news from the first Roma expelled by Sarkozy, and they told me many were already back in France.

euronews:
Now, how is Spain’s Roma community doing? It is a community you know very well. If we compare Spanish Roma to those who come from Romania, it seems as if the new arrivals have a lifestyle like Spain’s Roma of 30 or 40 years ago. Does this mean Spain’s integration programmes work?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
They work, but it’s not as easy as that, just like in the proverb ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Five or six hundred years of violent state persecution don’t disappear overnight. The Roma are still held back by massive illiteracy. Programmes to tackle all their problems are starting to pay off, but there aren’t any miracle cures.

euronews:
There are now very few Roma slums left in Spain. What are the main things holding them back today?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
It’s true that there are far fewer Roma slums, demolition and building programmes have borne fruit but education remains a huge problem. When the Roma people are equipped to defend their cultural identity and traditions on the same level as the rest of society, then living together in harmony will be a lot easier.

euronews:
Is there still racism and anti-Roma discrimination in Spain?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
I would never dare say that Spain is a racist country. First of all, I don’t like it that people say all the Roma are lazy, lying thieves. You can see that among the Roma there are as many idle, lying thieves as in any group. Moreover, the Eurobarometer statisticians regularly cite Spain as being one of the least racist countries in Europe.

euronews:
Can we say that positive discrimination exists as well?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
I’m not against positive discrimination, on the contrary. I defend the idea because thanks to positive discrimination we can get a better balance so that, in what I hope is a not-too-distant future, everyone can start with the same chances.
Right now that’s absurd, equality of opportunities doesn’t exist, and that’s why positive discrimination has to be generously applied.

euronews:
The nomadic lifestyle of the Roma has always been stressed as the main problem preventing integration. Spain’s Roma are nearly all settled now, but the problems persist. For example, neighbours are still complaining when Roma families are settled in their districts, and parents complain when Roma children are given places in schools. So what’s the problem?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
That is the eternal cloud under which we live. ‘All the Roma are lazy, lying thieves…’ Today you can still hear an average Spanish mother, a Spaniard who’s not racist however, say to her children, ‘ eat your dinner or the gypsies will come and get you’, or ‘that child is filthier than a gypsy’. The stereotypes still exist. Changing attitudes is a complex thing, but we’re making progress.

euronews:
You have said more than once that the rest us should become a little more like the Roma from time to time. What would that change?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
Ordinary people, the “payos”, don’t live, they live to work, and that’s not healthy. The Roma have another very special philosophy of life. The idea of living to work is unthinkable. We only work enough to be able to live well. This idea alone implies a totally different concept of humanity and society.

euronews:
Could you give us a snapshot of what it means to be a Roma in today’s Spain?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
The only thing I can think of is that being a Roma equals having a special lifestyle. In 50 years time the Roma won’t be those claiming Rom parents or grandparents, but those living Roma lifestyles, with a Roma way of looking at things.

euronews:
You are proof that Roma can also succeed without having to become bullfighters or flamenco singers. Do you see yourself as just an example, or a statistical anomaly?

Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia:
I was lucky. I don’t want to be a leader but, yes, for a while I was the exception. No longer. It’s all thanks to my mother. She was an illiterate Roma who didn’t know how to read or write. No-one in my family did. But this woman wanted me to go to school. It changed everything. Racists don’t want to hear what I have to say to you now, but the Spanish constitution carries my signature, the signature of a Roma. They hate to be reminded of it, but I repeat it whenever I can because I have to defend myself by whatever means necessary.

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