I'm standing on a peaceful Perpignan street with 14 other North American journalism students when a group of women and children in brightly colored clothes with dark hair and worn faces make their way past us.
"Gypsies," says our guide, distrust glimmering in her often friendly eyes. She explains that thievery and begging are the main industries in the gypsy community—she even recounts a day when a boy urinated on her as an accomplice tugged the sunglasses from her head.
We inch as one mass organism to the opposite (gypsy-free) side of the street, clutching our belongings tightly and glancing around anxiously. The seeds of discrimination and distrust are officially planted.
When I first heard of Perpignan's gypsy population, I could only think of Esmeralda, heroine of Disney's 1996 animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Such pop-culture images are a hazard of an American nineties childhood. But upon arriving in Perpignan, I realized how serious the gypsy situation is, as they face discrimination on all sides. The locals skirt their neighborhoods and scoot around them skittishly on the streets, and a race riot between the gypsies and the local North African population erupted in 2005.
Even local politician Marie-Thérèse Sanchez-Schmid, the European deputy representing the Languedoc-Roussillon region (home of Perpignan), stated unabashedly that the gypsies are a problem, not a part of the Perpignan community.
Coming from the United States, where discrimination against any group of people is (generally) taboo, this outright dislike toward the gypsy community shocked me. The gypsies arrived in the Perpignan area five centuries ago, long before the city and the surrounding region fell under French leadership.
The entire affair reminded me strongly of the horrific treatment of the Native Americans in the United States—much like the American Indians, the gypsies face severe discrimination. This is an incredibly touchy subject in the States, and I couldn't believe the casual attitude in Perpignan.
By the end of my first weekend in Perpignan, I was beginning to wonder if locals felt anything but blatant dislike toward the gypsies, but Vincent Dumas, co-founder of Catalan web magazine La Clau, stood up for the gypsies as members of the Catalan community. Dumas said that the gypsies are not the problem—rather, the French community is a problem for them, as they have tried to take away gypsy land and destroy their traditions. I found his opinion refreshing.
Although the gypsies' sticky fingers do present a problem in Perpignan, maybe they would find legal ways to preserve their culture if the French welcomed them into the community. A little tolerance goes a long way.
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