Spotlight

Meet the young Roma fashion designer using her brand to fight for Roma rights

3 September 2021

Estefanía is the proud owner of Mil Duquelas, an anti-racist clothing brand for tops and jewellery designed by her, which she set up during lockdown. Here, she tells her own story.

My name is Estefanía Ruiz Molina. I’m 26 years old and I’ve been living in Madrid for five years, although I’m actually from Cartagena.

I come from a modest, working-class family that has always taught me to be proud of who I am and where I come from. Ever since I was little, I’ve learnt how to overcome the hurdles that life has thrown in my path, so that I can achieve everything I put my mind to.

When people ask me who I look up to, I have to mention my mother and my aunts, three strong, brave women who grew up in the deprived Pan Bendito neighbourhood of Carabanchel, and who have always had to fight against antigitanismo (negative and discriminatory sentiments and actions towards the gitano community) as well as sexism and classism. But, despite this, throughout their lives they have been able to reach every single one of their goals.

It’s thanks to my family and those values that they’ve instilled in me since I’ve been able to think for myself that, even at my young age, I’ve been able to work on social justice, study psychology, work as a designer, and I’ve founded my own business, Mil Duquelas.

One of Estefanía’s designs worn at a protest.

Mil Duquelas was a project that began during lockdown.

While I was first working as a fashion designer, I realised that I’d designed and sold hundreds of T-shirts that took a stand on important issues, but not one of them related to challenges the gitano community faced or inspirational people fighting for the community. So, I decided to act, and I designed my own clothes.

It was when I saw my first designs come to life that I understood how important this project was. I imagined what it would have been like had I had a brand that reflected my identity from a young age. I thought that I would have felt less misunderstood. I imagined little girls going to school with Papusza on their T-shirts, not at all afraid of what people might say and understood that, if I’d seen this kind of representation when I was younger, I wouldn’t have felt the cruel loneliness quite so soon.

That’s how Mil Duquelas came about, through this thought that kept growing and growing in my mind until, during lockdown, I decided that it was time to act. Despite knowing that it was risky, I invested the little savings I had and my spare time in starting this journey and creating this brand.

What does ‘Mil Duquelas’ mean?

Duquelas in Calo (the language of Spanish gitanxs) means sorrows and weariness. As such, the name Mil Duquelas Puro Arte reflects all of our history and ability to resist, and even transform each of these duquelas into art. This brand has come about with a view to remembering, showing and dressing in the eternal struggle of the gitanxs with pride. It’s a story filled with people who, thanks to their strength and courage, were, and still are, able to, overcome any kind of adversity. Mil Duquelas was born in honour of every single one of them.

This t-shirt design also appears as street art on a facade on Plaza de Cascorro.
Plaza de Cascorro

Fashion is a platform for justice.

I think that fashion is able to transmit a lot. At the end of the day, we all have to get dressed, we show off our clothes wherever we go and, of course, this shows the meaning of our garments. It’s a way of showing the world what’s on the inside. So the idea was, and is, to get people to become aware of our story and to break down those stereotypes that oppress us, through clothes, jewellery and accessories.

Personally, this project means a lot to me in that it enables me to do my bit in the fight against antigitanismo, giving people the opportunity to wear clothes that reflect that we are proud to be gitanxs.

There are no barriers when it comes to our designs; the project is there for non-gitanxs as well, for them to understand our history and be able to share the pride we feel towards our identity.

The brand also has a view to finally ending the silence that surrounds our people and raising awareness of inspirational people. For instance, José Heredia Maya, a real inspiration in terms of what he was like as a person, an intellect and artist. Or Sofía Kovalevskaya, the first woman to get a doctorate in mathematics and become a university professor in Europe. Or Alfreda Noncia, who was a war heroine. The importance of their stories belongs to our people, which is why we want people to learn more about them.

A Mil Duqelas t-shirt of 16 historic Gitanxs

With all this in mind, Mil duquelas wants everyone who wears our designs to feel proud to wear something that reflects a people who are so resilient and have so much history behind them, a history filled with people who were able to transform their pain into art and diversity. Being able to wear a T-shirt with an iconic gitanx on it when society is constantly saying that we don’t exist is motivational, it gives you hope, you want to be strong and fight. And it’s just a T-shirt.

Teachers are wearing my T-shirts and jewellery as a symbol of the fight against antigitanismo, or to pay tribute to the gitano community. In schools, my interviews are currently being shown where antigitanismo has never been spoken about. All of this is a small step which, little by little, is turning into a big change.

The Gitano fight is everyone’s fight.

Both gitano and non-gitano people buy from the shop and write to me, thanking me for creating the brand, for talking about our history, about what the gitano community have gone through, what schools don’t teach us, what the news doesn’t show us. I also think that people are extremely welcoming of the artistic actions that I’ve been doing in the street and it’s honestly something that gives me hope and inspires me to keep fighting for Mil Duquelas to keep on growing.

I get really excited about non-gitanxs informing themselves on our history, breaking down the stereotypes that society has taught them, leaving antigitanismo behind, fighting against it. I think that this fight shouldn’t only be ours, everyone should want to live in a better society.

A ring reads ‘Opre Roma’, which means ‘Roma Rising’

Let’s talk about cultural appropriation.

In terms of cultural appropriation, I think that’s something very different from dressing in something from Mil duquelas. An example of cultural appropriation is when flamenco singers in interviews say that flamenco “isn’t from the gitano people” and “it’s time that we stopped appropriating it”. Non-gitano singers who sing flamenco and use Calo words say this. It’s a really strong statement and, in that case, there is definitely cultural appropriation.

If they really love flamenco and can use Calo words, they should find out where it all comes from. Flamenco has always been a way for us to show our history to the world and let out our duquelas in the form of art. Calo is our language, as well, and it was even banned at one point, that’s the kind of situation we were in. Our tongues would get cut off if we spoke Calo.

Stomping all over our history, our suffering, not recognising it and then making a living out of it in spite of this is something people should really think about and not just let go. And I’m not trying to say that they should stop singing flamenco, I’m saying that they should be more humble, they should get more information and show some respect towards what they make money out of, something that actually started in a really difficult way.

Paco de Lucia, for example, wasn’t gitano, but he’s always going to be a flamenco icon and he was always respectful of its origin, its history and its meaning.

Estefanía’s designs are in multiple languages, including English, Spanish and Romani.

My grandparents suffered greatly.

My eyes water whenever I think about how much my grandparents suffered because they were gitanxs. My grandfather was imprisoned and my grandmother was brutally beaten up by the authorities. Their lives were just about surviving. The authorities didn’t even let their children go to school. Some families were lucky enough to make it to a point where the children could go, but they weren’t allowed to be with the other children and they received degrading treatment.

These are just a few examples of the things that made my grandparents’ lives so difficult. If they could see the world today, they’d be excited to see that things have changed, although not as much as they’d have liked. It’s 2021 and there’s still discrimination in schools, it’s still difficult for us to be able to rent a house if they know that you’re gitanx. It’s also hard to get a job, and we sometimes get worse medical assistance – that is, if they even want to see to us.

Nowadays, in the observations section of forms, they still put “gitano”. I’ve had to experience how they refuse to see to gitano families or how they sometimes throw my dark skinned family out of the waiting room while leaving those with fairer complexions. Because if you look like a gitano, you can’t be there.

My grandparents would be sad to see these situations, to see these antigitano murders, how recently a gitana girl was raped and how, in the rapist’s defence, I heard them say that, in the gitano culture, they become sexually active super early, so it won’t be that psychologically damaging for her.

This became public and society didn’t see it as a scandal; the Ministry for Equality didn’t say anything either, which contrasts with how they do often say things about other topics. This is proof that society is advancing, but only a part of this advancement reaches the gitano community. Until the spotlight is placed on antigitanismo and people start fighting to eradicate it, there will never be equality.

T-shirt translates ‘Roma Rising, health and freedom’

What’s going on in the Cañada Real is inhumane.

I’ll say it again: INHUMANE. The way that residents are being treated is unconstitutional and goes against human rights. Going 11 months without electricity, children going cold, ending up in hospital due to hypothermia or even dying whilst the people who should be responsible don’t lift a finger – I can’t believe it’s 2021 and this is actually happening.

I’ve spoken to the city council on a number of occasions, about their antigitanismo. It’s a complete embarrassment and they think they’re above caring about human rights, not to mention the constant unfair and degrading treatment from the authorities and public administration. Antigitanismo is, unfortunately, completely accepted, normalised and respected.

Justice for Eleazar and Manuel Fernández.

Just thinking about Eleazar or Manuel Fernández’s situation makes me shake with rage, pain, sorrow, fear. I don’t care how many times I’m told that antigitanismo doesn’t exist, or how many times I’m told that I’m exaggerating, that racism no longer exists, that the authorities and justice system treat us all the same, that “all lives matter” – life has shown me that this is all just a lie.

Being a gitanx means living in fear, just because you’re gitanx and for no other reason: fear of existing, fear that you’ll be identified as gitanx and you’ll be attacked by fifteen people even though you have a severe disability, just like Eleazar. Fear that hatred towards the gitano community could go as far as your stealing a bucket of beans from a landowner meaning you get a bullet in the back in front of your child. And then they justify the murder on the television. Fear that, at only twelve or thirteen years old, you have to run to find the police because three boys have taken some bottles and have started to say that they’re going to come after all the gitanxs, because they see a couple of children just walk in front of them. When this happened to me, the police said: “It doesn’t matter, this is what children do.”

I could give you infinite examples showing you how dangerous our life is just because we’re gitanxs. Like the authorities, the justice system and the media justifying or belittling everything that happens to us. Like society not coming together to fight like they did when Samuel was murdered.

I’m sorry, but no. In this world, not all lives seem to matter in the same way. Justice just isn’t the same for everyone.

A Mil Duquelas hoodie reading ‘Roma Lives Matter’.

The future of the Mil Duquelas anti-racist brand.

The brand completely relies on me financially. I’ve never had any help or financing, so I’m pretty limited in terms of resources. Despite this, I fight for Mil Duquelas to stay alive every day and I hope to one day have physical shops.

In terms of designs, I already have a lot that I’ve made. Clothes, accessories, jewellery, even social causes. When I have more resources, I’ll make it happen.

INFO

Article translated from Spanish by Molly Timmons.

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