When María José Jiménez was campaigning for a seat in Spain’s congress of deputies on behalf of the leftist party Podemos in last December’s general election, she knew she faced a challenge. Not only was the seat she was fighting for in the deeply conservative province of Salamanca, but she was attempting to become the first gypsy woman to reach Spain’s parliament.
“There were people who insulted me,” she remembers of the campaign. “They’d say: ‘What are you doing here, you stupid gypsy?’. There were people who’d rip up the pamphlet I was handing out and throw it in my face. Or they’d laugh at me, throw the pamphlet on the ground and spit on it.”
Jiménez fell just under 4,000 votes short of victory, a small margin separating her from what would have been a historic achievement. Despite this, Podemos was the sensation of the election, coming third and confirming the beginning of a new era of Spanish politics, led by a generation of younger politicians who represented a broad array of causes, including equality. Among them was Rita Bosaho, Spain's first-ever black member of congress. And yet, no members of the country's 750,000-strong Roma community were represented in the 350-seat chamber.
“There has been a big political, social push in favour of the LGBT community, the disabled community, for causes like equality and feminism, but we haven’t managed to ensure the gypsy cause gets the attention and importance it needs,” says Jiménez, a social worker.
“We’re not a cause that sells well, politically speaking . . . The gypsy cause has never interested either the left or the right.”
Podemos and the other three main political parties failed to agree on the formation of a new government and so, on Sunday, Spaniards will vote again in an attempt to break the stalemate.
Jiménez will again be a candidate for congress, but this time she has decided to run in her home city of Madrid. She is lower down on the electoral list, meaning she is unlikely to make history by getting elected. The only other gypsy candidate for congress is Silvia Heredia, of the Popular Party.
Lack of political representation is one of many obstacles gypsies have faced since arriving in Spain some six centuries ago. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they were the target of discriminatory legislation banning them from practising their customs, speaking their own caló language and even getting married. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, in the mid-20th century, the Roma community was again heavily discriminated against, suffering the consequences of anti-vagrancy laws and the brutality of a police state.
But the arrival of democracy in the late 1970s and the subsequent creation of a modern welfare state improved the living conditions of many gypsies. In 1977, Juan de Dios Ramírez Heredia became the first – and so far only – gypsy member of congress, representing the Socialist Party there until 1986, when he took up a seat in the European Parliament.
A lack of gypsies in politics is a problem that also exists at the local level, says Ramírez Heredia.
"It's incredible that in Andalusia, where half of Spain's gypsies live, there is not a single gypsy in the regional parliament," he says. "I prefer not to think that it's institutional racism, but there is a serious lack of courage on the part of those who represent us," he adds.
“There are gypsy party activists, but the parties have a responsibility to give them visibility and give them prominent positions on the electoral lists, and not just put them low down, knowing they won’t get elected.”
Away from the political arena, Spain's democratic era has not managed to eliminate other types of discrimination. A recent report by the Gypsy Secretariat Foundation (FSG) detailed dozens of cases of apparent racism across Spain last year, from job applicants being turned down due to their race to a security guard strip searching a woman in a shop after erroneously accusing her of stealing an item of clothing.
Studies show gypsies are more likely to suffer social exclusion than other Spaniards, and the jobless rate among the Roma community is usually at least 10 points higher than average.
While this Sunday’s election may not make her Spain’s second-ever gypsy member of parliament, Jiménez believes the Unidos Podemos coalition, which has been polling in a strong second place, is in a position to put the gypsy question at the centre of national politics.
“Now’s the time and it needs to happen with this political change,” she says, before issuing a warning to her own colleagues.
“Podemos and the United Left and all the other political forces on the left which regard themselves as progressive have the obligation and should be committed to converting the gypsy cause into a political issue. And if they don’t, there’ll be consequences.”