Spanish Gypsy, past and present

What do we, the foreign visitor or resident know about the Spanish Gypsy? We all have our own assumptions, I’m sure, about their lives, their traditions, and their culture, but do we know them?

The Spanish Gitano belong to the Iberian Kale group, which also includes an extended family in Portugal, Morocco, and France. In Spain alone there are an estimated 700.000 Gitanos, who are now in this twenty first century, living in mostly small shanty towns on the outskirts of major cities. I would like to come back to where and how they live in today’s Spanish society but first here is what I know about them from my long experience and most influential years in Spain; my childhood.

In the north Costa Blanca the gitanos were well integrated into coastal areas. They did not fit the criteria of the normal Spaniard who went to school, worked and raised a family in a homely environment. They, in my childhood, were more visible and could be seen at the fairground or in the beach bars, and small alleyway nightclubs. Spanish Romanies are linked to Flamenco and have contributed a great deal to this Andalusian musical art.

In the late sixties and up to the beginning of the 1980’s, Gypsies entertained the small but growing tourist industry with song, coplas, flamenco, and amazing guitar playing. Their children were put to work from birth, breast fed in the street whilst the mother stretched out her spare hand for money. When they were able to walk, they paraded up and down streets with mud caked faces and knowledge of their craft, which was astoundingly professional. Beggars and entertainers, culturally steeped in tradition, and totally fascinating, were my first impressions of this dark, Moorish race.

They were and still are on the outskirts, both geographically and culturally in a country, which has been home to them for almost six hundred years. However as time goes by we can see a marked change in how and where they live.

During the Spanish Civil War, they were, for the most part ignored by both fighting forces. If they got in the way they were shot, like anyone else, but that was actually a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were neutral and managed to keep out of the war altogether; cast aside as being insignificant to the Republican or Nationalist cause.

Under Franco, Gitanos were often harassed or simply ignored, although their children were educated, sometimes forcibly, much as all Spaniards are nowadays. However, the country’s industrialization negatively affected gitanos as the migration of rural Spaniards to major cities led to the growth of shanty towns around urban areas with a consequent explosion in birth rates and a drastic fall in the quality of living and an abandonment of traditional professions.

In the post-Franco era, Spanish government policy has been much more sympathetic, especially in the area of social welfare and social services. In 1977, the last anti-Romani laws were repealed, an action promoted by Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia, the first Romani deputy.

Since 1983, the government has operated a special program of compensatory Education to promote educational rights for the disadvantaged, including those in Romani communities. During the heroin epidemic that afflicted Spain in the 80s and 90s, Gitano shanty towns became central to the drug trade, a problem which afflicts Spain to this day. The other day I came face to face with a Gitano at the petrol station. He bought a half litre of petrol in the bottle he provided. I know who he is. He is one of the biggest drug lords in Denia and its surrounding areas.

Spain’s Gypsies are more invisible than ever today but although the size of shanty towns has been vastly reduced in Madrid, they remain significant in other major cities such as Seville, Huelva and Almería.  We can talk about ‘invisible gypsies’ but apart from the negative drug cartels, after three to four decades of integration many of Spain’s up to 700,000 Gitanos study, and work and live a ‘normal life’.

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 says that all Spaniards are equal before the law (section 14), and this has marked integration. Gitanos have had access to social housing and employment, and there has been a substantial change in living conditions. But the rejection of the majority of the population continues because of the link with drugs and crime. On top of that, the higher poverty rate in Spain has made gypsies even more invisible.  Their needs are larger but now they are even harder to see. It is also a question of social discrimination: gitanos are seen as a ‘social burden’ and now their image is even worse.

The important thing is that human rights, social rights and cultural rights are respected. Gitano children are now attending school. But the next step is to make sure they finish compulsory education and don’t drop out. There are still a number of gypsy camps in Spain, especially on the edges of big cities.

It is also interesting to note that many Spanish Romanies have been converted to Evangelical Christianity, US-funded religious organizations. However, the bulk of gitanos in Andalusia remain strongly faithful to the region’s religious traditions such as the cult of the Virgin of the Rocío. In Spain, gitanos were traditionally Roman Catholic who participated in four of the church’s sacraments (baptism, marriage, confirmation, and study. They are not regular churchgoers. They rarely go to folk healers, and they participate fully in Spain’s state-supported medical system. Gitanos have a special involvement with recently dead kin and visit their graves frequently. They spend more money than non-Gitanos of equivalent status.

This is today’s Spanish gypsy. We should not ignore them, degrade them, insult them, or marginalise them. They are an integral part of Spain, its policies, and economic structure, but unfortunately their cultural musical tradition has been tarnished forever by the growing Drug lords amongst their 21st century ranks

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