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Roma vie for the title of 'Miss Gypsy' in Spain

Non-gypsy judges are encouraged to evaluate contestants on their minds, not their looks.

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A family of gypsies who work at the Quema river pose during the annual El Rocio pilgrimage on May 24, 2012 in Villamanrique, near Sevilla. (CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)

Perched on high heels in tight, bright dresses, crowds of girls line up hoping to become Spain's first "Miss Gypsy" in a new pageant aimed at empowering a neglected minority.

With flowery shawls and crop-tops for the girls, black waistcoats and gelled hair for the boys, dozens of teenagers auditioned on Friday in the first round of the "Mister and Miss Gypsy" contest.

"I want to be a model. I love it," said Libertad Barrull, 17, her hair pinned up in an elaborate bun, as she waited excitedly to go before the judges.

Spain's gypsy traditions of flamenco singing and dancing may have a romantic image, but the ancient community of so-called "gitanos" here remains among the most underprivileged, figures show. Gypsies are also known as Roma.

The contest "gives them a helping hand to become something in life, like our generation couldn't be," said Libertad's mother Rosario, 56.

Flocking to a Madrid hotel for the audition, the young contestants posed for photographs and crowded round tables where the organizers noted their names, education, interests and ambitions.

The contest aims to help gypsy women "be a bit more independent", says Maria Jimenez of the Northern Flamenco Association, the organizer of the contest.

"For a gypsy woman, the aim is always just to get married very young, at 14 or 15, and have children," she said.

"I want the gypsy woman to study and become independent so she doesn't depend on her husband to give her 10 euros so she can eat."

Not just pretty faces

The jury — five non-gypsies from fashion and show business — is therefore encouraged to judge not just the contestants' looks but their minds.

"It's not just about being pretty," said another of the organisers, Eva Jimenez. "It's about studying and being intelligent."

Half the gypsies in Spain leave school by the age of 16, according to the latest figures from Secretariado Gitano, a rights group, which date to 2011.

"Things have changed a lot" for the gypsies over time, said Rosario's friend, Sonia Heredia, 36.

"People have started to realize now that you can't get married so soon because you're tying yourself down to being a housewife when you're still a child."

The unemployment rate for the 725,000-strong minority is painfully high, however: 36 percent in 2011, according to the rights group. That was way above Spain's already high national rate of 26 percent.

For those hoping to make it to the final of Mister and Miss Gypsy on Oct. 6, the contest is a fun chance to show off — but these youngsters and their families see the serious side too.

One prospective Mister Gypsy, Jesus Heredia, came to audition dressed in a spotless white shirt and dark red scarf.

"I hope it can open some doors," said his mother, Esther, 45. "We will see what comes of it. It is a start, but it won't stop the kids getting married the way they do."

Jesus, who works in an ice cream parlor, came along to audition with his cousins.

"I want to be the best-looking," he said. "But I'm also in it to show that we gypsies are people, just like the rest."

The Roma, a traditionally nomadic people whose ancestors left India centuries ago, have long suffered from discrimination.

They were killed in their hundreds of thousands by the Nazis during World War II, alongside Jews and homosexuals.

Discrimination continues today as some countries blame Roma for a rise in petty crime.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/spain/140511/roma-miss-gypsy-spanish