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Why a Roma woman is standing for Spain's far-right Vox party

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By Heather Galloway
A Roma settlement
A Roma settlement

Far-right Spanish Vox party members welcomed Isabel Nieto Fajardo into their ranks in the southern Spanish port of Algeciras in January with the following line on social media: “Chauvinists and racists in Algeciras present a gypsy woman as one of their team.”

The tone was obviously ironic but the statement was close enough to the bone for the irony to get lost; Vox’s electoral platform for the May 2019 local, regional and national elections includes radical measures against illegal immigration and the repeal of the Law on Gender Violence, revised in 2018.

Isabel Nieto Fajardo

Still, Nieto believes that Vox is the party that will best allow her to represent the Roma community in the port of Algeciras, the birthplace of flamenco virtuoso Paco de Lucía.

“Racism still exists towards gypsies and Vox is the party that will do most to protect my community,” she says.

“People say Vox is racist and fascist, but it’s not. I am a gypsy and I am with Vox. I have been welcomed into the party as an equal, as just another member of the team. I am not a politician but when my son was born, I started to look around and see that thing were really bad for young people in the community and I don’t want my son to end up hanging out on the street. I want him to have opportunities.”

Voting for the first time at the age of 32, Isabel says she was one of many Roma in Algeciras to thrust the populist party centre stage in Andalusia’s regional elections in December when they shook the nation by winning 11% of the vote and 12 of the 109 seats in the Andalusian Parliament. Congratulations where promptly tweeted by Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally, and the Ku Klux Klan’s David Duke.

If Vox triumphs in May in Algeciras where a significant slice of its December vote was won, Nieto is keen to implement measures that will help the Roma into work and turn the school dropout figures around and she insists that Vox has promised to help her do so. “I want things to change,” she says.

“I have been turned away from jobs with one woman saying, ‘Not you! You’re a gypsy!’ I want that to change. Vox is a party of change. The cuts that Vox wants to make to government [getting rid of the autonomous regions] means they will have more money for social issues.”

Numbering around 750,000 in Spain, the Roma community joins the Muslim community in suffering more discrimination than any other ethnic minority in Europe, according to the latest Eurobarometer, with 55% of Europeans admitting they would feel uncomfortable with their child having a relationship with a member of the Roma people. However, Roma lawyer and Spain’s representative for the European Committee Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), Sara Giménez, explains that Spain is achieving better rates of inclusion than a number of other countries in the EU.

Integration, in theory at least, began in 1978 when Spain’s Roma were afforded citizenship and access to healthcare and education. At that time, the illiteracy rate was 55% and substandard housing on the fringes of cities applied across the board.

Most of the progress made has been in the last 10 to 15 years. “There have been good inclusion policies in Spain,” says Gímenez while Belén Sánchez-Rubio, director of the Department of the International Gypsy Secretariat that manages the Director of International Programmes for the Fundación Secretariado Gitano (EURoma), says Spain has succeeded to an extent by prioritizing access to education, health and employment over formal recognition.

Still, three out of four Roma in Spain are living in social exclusion – 54% in extreme circumstances, more than 63% of school children fail to graduate from compulsory education and only 37% of the working population are in paid employment. And while housing has improved dramatically in the last 10 years, there are still 9,000 families living in precarious conditions with no running water or electricity, according to data from the Fundación Secretariado Gitana.

“There have been advances,” says Giménez. “And we don’t have the violent incidents of anti-gypsy racism that happen elsewhere, but there is still a great deal of discrimination when it comes to renting or buying a property, applying for a job, or when young people try to enter a club or gypsy women go to the supermarket and are systematically expected to open their bag for the security guard.”

So will Vox, the terror of liberal Spain, be the party to tackle such discrimination?

“The reason I like Vox so much is, above all, because I feel very Spanish,” says Nieto. “I love Spain and because I love Spain, I love Vox. I want to change people’s attitudes towards my community and Vox has offered me their support.”

The discrimination against the Roma on the Iberian Peninsula dates back hundreds of years to the Catholic Kings in the 15th century who cut off the ears of those who refused to either live as serfs or leave the country. The persecution was relentless and still established practice in 1977 when the Spanish Civil Guard was under orders from the extreme-right dictatorship of General Francisco Franco to keep the Roma community under strict surveillance.

This institutionalised racism was a hangover from the Vagrancy Act that was first passed under the Republican government in 1933 and reinforced by Franco who declared the Roma community to be “ a contagious risk to everyone”, and packed them off to Vagrancy Reformatories along with anyone found to be homosexual.

The persecution of the Roma is addressed by the 2007 Historical Memory Law, another piece of legislation Vox would like to dispense with, arguing that it digs up the past only to create division and resentment. “It’s a reinterpretation of history,” says Antonio Gallardo who coordinates Vox Algeciras and claims Nieto is an electoral asset. “How many more centuries have to pass before we put history in its rightful place?”

Rectifying what Giménez terms “the great unknown” – the ignorance at the root of the deeply entrenched discrimination against the Roma – is not on Nieto’s agenda. As far as Nieto and her party are concerned, it’s not the past but the future we have to consider and what is unknown about the illegal immigrants coming into Spain: “We don’t know who they are,” she says. “I am afraid to walk the streets of Algeciras at night.”

Nieto is also keen to correct what she considers to be the unfair priority given to immigrants in education. “If there are 20 places in a school, 15 are allocated to immigrant children and just five are left for the Spanish,” she says. “There are gypsy children who need extra help in school and, because of all the immigrants, they can’t get that help.”

According to the Observatorio Permanente Andaluz de las Migraciones, there were 84,879 immigrant children in Andalusia in 2016/17 accounting for 4.93% of students. They have not published more recent figures but do the record shows that the immigrant population as a whole jumped by 11% in 2018.

According to José Eugenio Abajo Alcalde, a member of the nationwide Gypsies Teachers Association who worked for more than 40 years in providing educational support for the community, one reason Vox could be so successful in courting the Roma vote, apart from promising to lower taxes and rid the country of undocumented immigrants who stand accused ‘steal’ school places and jobs, is religion.

“The charismatic evangelical Pentecostal gypsy religion has rigid lifestyle rules such as no drinking and no smoking and it also demonises homosexuality as anti-biblical,” he says. “This [religious zeal] stopped the excesses of the previous decades that led to a lot of gypsy youngsters falling into addiction. But it goes hand in hand with traditionalism, with a very literal interpretation of the bible and with absurd homophobia. I think these factors could go some way to explaining it.”

With regard to the elections in May, Abajo points out that by putting a Roma candidate on the party’s electoral list, the community itself is led to believe they have something to gain by voting for them.

Nieto herself is clearly proud to be a party candidate but says she is being unfairly judged by people both outside and within her community for aligning herself with Vox.

“There are people in the community who vote PSOE [socialist] and they say Vox is Francoist,” says Nieto. “And I have a cousin who is married to a Muslim, who says, "You and your nonsense!" But if people only listened to what Vox said, then they would know who we are.”