Madrid, Spain
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Julian Borja Hernandez studied hard to avoid the struggle his father faced, making ends meet as a market trader. Now he tends the same stall and says his career prospects were stymied as a member of Spain's marginalised Roma minority.

He blames entrenched racial discrimination for his failed job hunts - a stigma he sees as embedded in centuries of persecution and popular prejudice that a new wave of Roma campaigners is determined to stamp out.

Spain Madrid Roma

Julian Borja Hernandez, who has suffered discrimination because of his Roma ethnicity, looks out over a part in the Villa de Vallecas neighbourhood where he lives in Madrid, Spain, on 27th January. PICTURE: Laura Mannering/Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A proposal aimed at tackling the deep-rooted inequality suffered by Spain's Roma people, known locally as gitanos, won cross-party parliamentary backing at the end of last year. It provided a ray of optimism for a community that has lived in Spain for generations and is at least a million strong, according to some estimates, but still experiences high unemployment, poverty and inadequate housing.

The new proposal seeks a state pact to combat discrimination and puts forward a raft of measures, including improved access to education, an end to shanty towns and for 'antigitanismo' to be named in the country's criminal code.

"There is a feeling that times are changing. More people from the gitano community are daring to step into politics and talk about things they wouldn't have wanted to before.

Julian Borja Hernandez

Although the framework is not legally binding, government must respond within six months, says Ismael Cortes, one of three Roma representatives in parliament - the highest ever number.

The 35-year-old presented the proposal and hopes a commission on discrimination and inclusion might be approved as early as March.

"There is a feeling that times are changing," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "More people from the gitano community are daring to step into politics and talk about things they wouldn't have wanted to before.

"Five or six years ago we talked a lot about poverty. Now people are speaking more about discrimination, representation and antigitanismo."

Cortes believes systemic racism against Spain's Roma people is rooted in centuries of punishing legislation, including limits on where they could live and travel, and mass arrests.

It was only in 1978, when Spain transitioned to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, that legal discrimination against the community ended.

Until then, police were still duty-bound to keep a "scrupulous eye" on the Roma community.

However, Cortes says successive administrations have since "closed their eyes" to enduring prejudice.

"Gitanos are systematically treated as if they are a second-rate population," he said.

For Borja Hernandez, discrimination can mean security guards routinely trailing him in the supermarket or frequent police checks. But it is the continual rejection by employers that has left the deepest scar.

The 38-year-old father of two, who was born in Madrid and whose family has lived in Spain for generations, now works on the clothes stall once managed by his father, earning €650 to €800 - in a good month.

He resigned himself to life as a market trader after trying to find other jobs, be it in shops or bars, without success.

"I was once offered a job over the phone as a van driver collecting takings from slot machines. From the sound of my voice they couldn't tell I was gitano," he said.

"The next week I went to the employer's office and as soon as they saw me, they started saying they'd had to make cuts and the job was no longer available.

"They didn't directly say it was because I was gitano, but it was clear from the look of surprise on their faces that was the reason."

The incident in his early 20s triggered depression.

"It really drove home to me that my place was on the outside," he said.

Inaki Vazquez Arencon, director of Plataforma Khetane, a federation of more than 20 grassroots gitano organisations, said while the community had historically opted for jobs that "preserved their autonomy", they were also influenced by the reception they met if they diverged from tradition.

"When a gitano person does seek a so-called 'normal' job, they very frequently encounter the barrier of antigitanismo," he said.

Spain Madrid

Madrid, the capital of Spain. PICTURE: Jorge Fernández Salas/Unsplash

In 2019, a report by the Iseak Foundation for Spanish NGO Fundacion Secretariado Gitano found that more than half the gitano population was unemployed – at least three times the national rate.

Of those who did work, about half were self-employed, often running market stalls.

Lack of quality education plays its part.

While Borja Hernandez managed to complete compulsory schooling, less than a fifth of gitano students do, according to the Iseak report.

Many are alienated by a segregated system in which Roma children are often relegated to what Vazquez Arencon described as "ghetto schools".

COVID-19 has exacerbated that inequality as Roma students have struggled to access online learning. Borja Hernandez said his children did all their work on a mobile phone when schools were shut as the family lacks a computer.

The Council of Europe, which fights for human rights across the continent, has flagged education and employment as key areas of persistent discrimination against Spain's Roma people and has called for specific anti-discrimination legislation to be introduced to protect the community.

A United Nations report in 2020 said a "crisis-level response" was needed as "entire parts of the population have been relegated to third class status".

Meanwhile, Borja Hernandez is turning his mind to job-hunting again, fearful the pandemic may spell the end of street-stall culture.

He is emblematic of younger gitanos finding their voice.

His 'Tendencias Gitanas' pages on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, on which he posts music videos and jokes as well as commentary about the gitano community, have thousands of followers who share their opinions and experiences.

"I want to speak to my community," he told TRF. "I want to stop people feeling alone."