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Interview with Amara Montoya & Irene de la Vega Garcia - Asociacion Romo Serseni ​(Spain)

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

About Ms. Amara Montoya

Director of Social Centers of the Community of Madrid. She is studying Social Education at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Coordinator of several areas of the Institute of Gypsy Culture, Public Foundation of the Ministry of Culture.

About Ms. Irene de la Vega Garcia

Graduated in social work and Master's student in "Human Rights and Vulnerable Population". She has experience in intervention with women and families in social exclusion from a gender perspective.

Gender Equality Statistics:

Gender Development Index: 0.986

Gender Inequality Index: 0.057

Classification: Spain is 0.896 in contrast with 0.909 for males, resulting in a GDI value of 0.986, placing it into Group 1


Interview With Ms. Amara Montoya and Ms. Irene de la Vega Garcia

Rachel Patton

When and how were you first exposed to the struggles Romani women face?

Amara Montoya

I belong to a Roma family. We are six sisters. So ever since we started to study and work, we realized that we and other women like us were facing challenges with education, not having the opportunities that other people have. So, when I finished high school, I started collaborating with other local groups on finding ways to work with Romani women, to help them, since when they finish high school they don't have the full educational background they need to succeed. So, at that point I started to collaborate with neighborhood associations and local groups to try to figure out how to support those women. This is how in 1991, Romi Serseni begins.

The organization was formed by a group of women who did have college education and try to help others to find jobs. Our goal was to work hard to achieve gender equality. To help others to feel that they do have a space, and especially to emphasize that for them it's never too late to go back and get that education, even if they're married, even if they have families, there's always a moment to start to get more education.

Jackson Philbrook

How do you think the anti-Roma sentiment started? And how do you feel that your work has been a catalyst to kind of change that whole sense of it?

Amara Montoya

So, this goes back centuries. The Roma came from the Northwest India, the Punjab region. This goes back to the sixth or seventh century, when they were driven out of that region, and since then they've been wanderers. They have not had their own place. So, they are, by definition, immigrants wherever they are. As they came to settle in cities, regardless of the political regime or the government in place, wherever they went, there's always that reaction against people who were perceived as newcomers and different.

Given that history, we've always been expelled from different areas, and we have not been able to express ourselves freely. One example of this is the case of our language (Romano), derived from Sanskrit, but perceived as foreign and prohibited. In many cases, there was actually death penalty for speaking this language. So, in some parts of that community, it has disappeared. Roma people have always had to adjust.

We cannot forget that Roma people have been persecuted for centuries, and during that long period of time, Roma have been perceived as individuals who were not part of any particular community. And this was important at the highest level of the administration, governments, which rejected our ancestors and set institutional limits that affected obviously ordinary people. As a consequence of that, Roma faced rejection in schools and in the job market.

Even now, talking about my generation. We were born in Spain. I consider myself Spanish, but also gitana, I am part of the largest cultural minority in Spain. But that kind of official rejection provokes the reaction of ordinary people when they identify us (accent or last name). So, government’s policies give way to that kind of interpersonal kind of rejection.

Audrey Klinefelter

How have stereotypes about Romani women influenced discrimination against them?

Amara Montoya

Among the most common stereotypes we should include that Roma are unproductive, only knowing how to sing and dance. We are identified with certain physical appearances: dark-skinned, dark-eyed, and black hair. And especially those stereotypes that everybody associates with people who travel: not really having roots, not being very trustworthy, but also hand reading and witchcraft. No doubt, these prejudices are the origin of that negative reaction I mentioned previously.

Actually, Roma women are people who have lots of skills, especially languages, because they move around so much. And the best way to earn a living in a circumstance like that is to at least pretend to read palms and tell everyone good fortunes.

Avery Jett

I was wondering how mass media has influenced the public perception of Romani people? And how has your organization used media to promote change or alter this perception?

Amara Montoya

Media in any of these cases can have positive or negative effects. There have been lots of TV shows that whenever they talk about Romani they emphasize poverty and marginalization, although not always that identification exists. There are poor people everywhere in the world, and they're not all Romani. There are positive descriptions too. In this case emphasizing Roma’s cultural and linguistic contributions. There are lots of elements of the Spanish culture that should be identified with Roma culture. That is what the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca did in the 1930s. So, the negative connotations, the rejection really comes from a lack of understanding and knowledge. And so, our organization is trying to promote the positive angles of Romani culture to break those negative associations.

Autumn Rae Henry

When it is said that discrimination of Romani women defending their rights in Spain is three folded, how would you explain that in your words, accompanied with your efforts of advocating?

Amara Montoya

If the case affects the whole community, like schools that refuse to accept Roma children, we usually organize demonstrations to denounce and make public our rejection. As for individual cases, we work with legal experts to address specific racist behaviors, to use the law in ways that we will defend them.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Talking about discrimination and rejection... Is it worse in the case of Roma women or Roma men, or is it the same?

Amara Montoya

Romani women do face more discrimination. It is just that combination of being women and Romani, part of a cultural/ethnic minority. So, Romani women have that extra layer of ethnic cultural discrimination on top of gender

Irene de la Vega García

I agree with Amara. Ethnic and gender prejudice are very dangerous combination in this case. Romani women have to deal with situations that white woman cannot even imagine.

Sahil Prakash

If you were to educate the public about discrimination that Roma women face, what’s something you would emphasize the most?

Amara Montoya

Above all to put an end to Roma women stereotypes. There are differences, big differences among Roma women. Other than that, what we want is to have the opportunity to decide about our own life, to have the same opportunities to achieve our own goals.

Catherine Begun

I had read an article that says that Spanish Roma women have overall poor health and a worse lifestyle than non-Roma women. So, I was wondering what is the main cause of that poor health, and are there ways to improve that lifestyle and make it healthier for them?

Irene de la Vega García

Gender and ethnic discrimination are no doubt the origin of this situation. Depending on the particular context, it makes people most vulnerable. In part, it is provoked by the lack of access to healthy diets and it’s always woven with economic questions: poverty makes it more difficult to get healthy food. If you have to pay electric bills, you can't invest as much in groceries, so the answer is basically related to economic problems, and our goal is to work with these women, to get them access to better resources.

Carolina Jiménez Blanco

It's the lack of education which leads to poverty, which in turn leads to poor health. What Romi Serseni is trying to do is to offer women a little bit more information about how to access the public health care system, and how to access the resources that might be available to them.

Sam Larsen

In Spain is there public support to deal with the inequalities that Roma women have to face? And what about in Europe as a whole?

Amara Montoya

There are lots of local organizations that are working, developing projects to promote cultural and economic development among Roma. Some of them are funded with public money. Nevertheless, it is not enough. We have not been able to solve all the Roma issues yet.

Worse than that, there is not an official policy defined and implemented by the Spanish government to promote ethnic equality and improve the situation of Roma people. Spain is organized as a federal state, with different political/cultural unities called Comunidades Autónomas. I believe that Roma ought to be a cultural state/entity in a similar way to what we find politically (Comunidades Autónomas). It would help to defend Roma’s culture and to promote ethnic equality. I believe that there are lots of people who would be ready to recognize that kind of statute of cultural autonomy for the Roma.

Again, it is important to recognize that it is very difficult to imagine modern Spain without Roma, but it is also very important to admit that there is no Roma community without Spain. They both need to be connected, they need to be integrated. To achieve that goal Spain must accept the differences (the Roma cultural values).

One of the best examples of those Roma cultural values, no doubt, is the relevance of family for Roma people, especially how important for them is to take care of elders. For them there is a tradition of family connections and support. During the pandemic, the role played by the Spanish daycare centers for seniors was essential. It is important here to say that there were no Roma seniors in those centers. Roma families took care of their own. The death rate among Roma elders was lower because their families were extra careful to protect and isolate them. This is evidence of those differences I mentioned previously.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Imagine that tomorrow you wake up, and the people around you are addressing you as Prime Minister. What would you do with the power of Prime Minister?

Amara Montoya

I would give power to those who deserve to be ruling our country. It would be a very small group and with limited power. The most important political problem is ambition.

Irene de la Vega García

I would try to do my best to offer equal opportunities to everybody, regardless their cultural, ethnic group or gender. I would like everybody to be able to do what they want, and to reach whatever level they want to reach without glass ceilings, without limitations, without those expectations that limit people.

Carolina Jiménez Blanco

I would try to improve education as well as immigration laws.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

We have to thank all of them: Dr. Campbell, Irene, Amara, and Carolina. In the case of Irene, Amara, and Carolina not only because they are with us today, but also because they are doing something very important to change the world. So thank you very much. Everybody. Thank you.

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