A pan-ethnic identity is developing among Roma people, often with the help of evangelical and especially Pentecostal churches.
Our recent study of a Spanish neighborhood with a high percentage of native Spanish Gitanos and Roma immigrants from Eastern Europe found how everyday interactions and involvement in Pentecostal churches give rise to a common identity. Previous research has identified a common identity in the case of Roma political leaders and activists in Europe, while emphasizing existing differences among Roma ethnic subgroups. In recent years, Western Europe has been transformed by its reception of migrants from Eastern Europe, who included a significant proportion of Roma people.
In our fieldwork, we observed that people from both subgroups not only shared a common identification as Roma, which is promoted by the mainstream society and media, but they also shared narratives through their involvement in Pentacostal congregations, such as the Philadelphia Church and the Church of the Open Bible. Both churches located in the barrio adapted rituals to the needs of Gitanos, while building ties with Roma immigrants as soon as they arrived, serving both groups within the same buildings.
The new Roma immigrants also sought help from the churches’ pastors and other members of the community in renting a place to live and tackling bureaucratic formalities; these churches thus provide services that other mainstream institutions and churches do not offer. Roma Pentecostalism emerged in Spain during the 1960s through the influence of French Roma pastors. Although initially it faced difficulties due to the Franco dictatorship, Pentecostalism grew during the 1980s and 1990s because it successfully adapted Roma cultural traits and music. By 2004 there were an estimated 150,000 Roma Pentecostals, comprising 10–15 percent of Roma people in the country, according to the Spanish Federation of Evangelical Churches.
Even those Gitano and Roma immigrants in the neighborhood not participating in political organizations tend to adopt this common Roma identity. They are influenced not only by media and images from mainstream society that encourage them to be part of the same group, but also by their daily interactions with evangelical churches and with pastors who through their services offer support to all Roma people. Thus, a common identity is being constructed for converts and non-converts through their interactions in churches and in the neighborhood.
— By Òscar Prieto-Flores, a sociologist at the Universitat de Girona, and Teresa Sordé Martí, a sociologist at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. A different and longer version of this article appeared in the journal Ethnicities.