Everyday life in crisis Spain: are we all Roma now?

As the hardships of life touch more and more sectors of Spanish society, so new forms of resistance are spreading too

Owen Parker
Owen Parker

At the height of the Spanish property boom in the early 2000s, relatively poor (mainly Pakistani) immigrants in the municipalities of Badalona and Santa Coloma de Gramanet near Barcelona became landlords.  They were Spain’s very own ‘sub-prime’ mortgage borrowers, taking advantage of cheap and easily accessible credit to buy properties which they rented to other immigrant communities. Among these were groups of newly arrived Romanian Roma, who had come to Spain as a consequence of, among other factors, difficult living conditions at home, a booming Spanish construction industry and large informal labour market.

As the property bubble began to deflate rapidly from 2007 onwards, these ‘sub-prime’ borrowers began to struggle to make repayments. In many instances they passed on increased costs to their struggling tenants, including the vulnerable Romanian Roma, and overcrowding became a serious issue in these neighbourhoods. The local authorities began to use this as a pretext for refusing to register individuals from this group in the municipal census. Registration serves as the gateway to accessing social and economic rights and, consequently, increasing numbers of these vulnerable individuals were denied access to social assistance and even health care. Reinforcing this strategy, local politicians and media proclaimed the overcrowding as evidence of the ‘delinquency’ of Barcelona’s ‘filthy’ Romanian Roma.

In some cases the attempt to register residence in an overcrowded property would result not only in refusal but also lead to police eviction.  One Romanian Roma family was displaced and forced to resettle on twelve occasions in a six month period in 2007-8 and ten of these displacements were caused by police interventions with little or no involvement from social services.  During this period the family lived either in overcrowded flats, makeshift improvised camps or abandoned buildings, moving from one municipality to the next often in an almost circular fashion.

This story was conveyed to me by an anthropologist friend, Oscar Lopez Catalan, who works with the Romanian Roma community in Barcelona, both in an academic and activist capacity. It is a story which vividly highlights the impact of the structural political-economic ‘crisis’ on the everyday lives of a vulnerable group in society that was among the first to feel its effects.  It is also a story whose basic outline is now becoming a reality for ever broader sections of Spanish and, indeed, European society.  Immigrants, benefits recipients, the growing ranks of unemployed, the repossessed, various other categories – all are subject to impoverishment which amidst austerity and cuts is both caused by, and then legitimates, the denial of access to welfare and social services.  In many instances too the process is supported by a neoliberal narrative of culpability.

There is, however, an important flipside to this sad story. Groups like the Romanian Roma are not just passive objects battered by larger structural forces.  They resist them in a whole variety of ways, sometimes through an appeal to their ‘rights’. The Romanian Roma in the locality described have, for instance, invoked their right to register and access health care, education and welfare, often making their case with the support of social NGOs.

Sometimes, though, resistance has involved bypassing these legal and governmental logics altogether. This is what James C Scott, with an apparent nod to Michel Foucault, has provocatively termed, ‘the art of not being governed’. For instance, as ‘sub-prime’ properties were repossessed, Romanian Roma families in these municipalities continued to live as squatters in these newly bank-owned properties, now without the burden of high rents.  As municipal registration was denied, some Roma actively chose to disengage with social services, rendering themselves ‘illegible’ to the local authorities and thereby less susceptible to the threat of eviction or the reach of ‘child protection’ services.  More generally, as Roma failed to find work in formal sectors, they pursued longstanding economic activities in the informal sector: collecting scrap metal, begging, searching in bins, all of these activities often then being designated as ‘delinquent’ by broader society.

The resistance side of this local story also has parallels in broader emerging practices in Spanish and European society in the context of crisis.  In Spain it has involved protest directed at the state, manifest most famously in the Indignados movement, which led to the occupation of public squares throughout the country in 2011 and a broader soul searching about the state of Spanish politics and democracy. Building on such movements, the Citizens’ Tide (Marea Ciudadana) has mobilised hundreds of thousands against privatisation and austerity under the slogan ‘we don’t owe, we won’t pay’.  And the Mortgage Victims Platform (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) has actively organised protests against repossessions and inverted the language of criminality through its exposure of the mis-selling of mortgages by banks (and their cosiness with government) and proclamation of the human right to housing.

Other resistance and survival strategies have sought to bypass the state-formal economy nexus.  Rather depressingly, ever broader (‘respectable’) sections of Spanish society can these days be seen begging on trains or surreptitiously searching in municipal bins.  More hopefully, the crisis has led to the emergence of farm and food co-operatives; barter markets; novel local housing organisations; movements to occupy Spain’s abundant, empty, bank-owned property; credit unions; and even the establishment of local currencies, as documented by, among others, Manuell Castells in his ‘Aftermath’ project. The small southern Spanish town of Marinaleda, run by the charismatic leftist mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, is often cited as a microcosm and exemplar for those pursuing such practices.

The Spanish, and Europeans more generally, are clearly not ‘all Roma now’.  But the everyday hardships of this long suffering heterodox European minority have in certain respects become realities for ever greater numbers throughout the course of the crisis.  Similarly, forms of resistance long practised by many Roma or Romani – particularly the ‘art of not being governed’ – are also more widespread than ever.  The continued generalisation of such strategies is something that European governments will ignore at their peril.