Spanish Gypsies

spanish-gypsyLegends of gypsies, bandits and bullfighters make Spanish folklore what it is…. exciting, mysterious and intriguing.

Gypsies (Gitanos) are an important part of this Spanish folklore. Spain is one of the few countries where gypsies (gitanos) have settled and actually integrated (to a certain degree) into a foreign culture.

Gitanos have greatly enriched Spanish culture with their contribution of Flamenco and finely handcrafted wares.

The Gitanos are from an ethnic group which calls itself Roma (also Rom). It is believed that gypsies migrated out of India and Pakistan (from Rajasthan and Punjab) into all parts of Europe around the eleventh century. The name Gitano comes from Egiptiano (Egyptian) in Spanish, because for many centuries it was thought their origins were in Egypt.

The Rom people speak the language of Romani (of Sanscrit origin) but after many centuries of nomadic living and assimilation into foreign countries the language is virtually non-existent today.

After losing their original Romani language, the Gitanos used Caló, a jargon with Spanish grammar and Romani vocabulary. Today, the majority of Gitanos use Spanish (Castillian and Andalus) as their primary language.

The Gitanos secretive and isolated existence (by choice) has always left them on the outside. They were severely persecuted and punished for wanting to sustain their customs and language as it has existed for thousands of years. For more than 300 years Gitanos had been forced to integrate with Spanish culture and completely abandon their culture and lifestyle.

Gitanos were required to marry non-gypsies, and they were denied their language and rituals, and were forbidden from traveling in groups of more than two. Gypsy dress, music and clothing were also banned. Thus gypsies were driven into a permanently submerged underclass from which they are still emerging today.

Within the Gitano community there is a very high level of illiteracy, ranging from children to adults and elders. Folklore, music and genealogy are passed down through the generations verbally in the form of spoken stories and songs (flamenco) within the tightly knit family units.

But as family members move away from the core family in search of earning a decent living. Many groups of Gitanos have also been forced into resettlements and others have abandoned the countryside for big cities. Since then they have experienced an increasing encroachment on their lifestyle by the non-Gypsies. This has led to the demise of gypsy traditions, language and customary ways of earning a living.

The Gitano population in Spain is around 500,000 with the largest concentration in Southern Spain. Gitano communities are abundant in parts of Seville, Granada, Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz and Ronda, just to name a few.

As with all cultures, there is diversity within the culture. Many groups of gitanos still lead a very nomadic and isolated life from the rest of the Spaniards while others have settled and become prosperous shop owners of antiques and Spanish goods. Historically, they were excellent blacksmiths, coppersmiths, basket makers, horse traders and the like.

So, it is a logical step that they came to be owners of shops selling authentic Spanish goods. Many poorer Gitanos have given in to lives of crime and drugs in the big cities.

It is a shame that the general reputation of gitanos is that of thieves and beggars. The Gitanos in Spain are wonderfully friendly, talented, passionate and dedicated to family. Almost all Gitano communities (rich or poor) have one thing in common….they are an extremely tight group and really do not let to many outsiders in.

Holidays, parties, weddings, baptisms are usually only attended by other gitanos, family members from all parts of Spain. This way their customs really do stay within their world. The worst part about this is that this is what all outsiders really want to get a glimpse of…the foot stomping, joyous alegria of flamenco at its purest form….gypsy style!

It is impossible to write about gitanos without addressing Flamenco. Flamenco refers to a style of music and dance and is the expression of one culture, gitano. More than simply a type of folk music, flamenco embodies a complex musical and cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years.

Gypsies are believed to originally come from a caste of entertainers and musicians, and therefore, it seems inevitable that the gypsy communities of Andalucia became the custodians of a musical art form as rich, deep, and vigorous as flamenco. It is also likely that it grew out of the unique relationship of native Spanish, Moorish, and Gypsy cultures that existed in
Andalucia at the time.

Flamenco music and dance is dramatic and aggressive yet at the same time it is graceful and touching. Flamenco was driven by some of the same social forces that created American Blues music, those of cultural oppression. Flamenco, like the blues, has not always been eagerly accepted by the more conservative elements of society, perhaps because of its lyrics that often speak of oppression, persecution, incarceration and loneliness as well as passion and family.

Originally, flamenco consisted of just one person singing. Later, the musical style evolved and developed and integrated guitar, rhythmic hand clapping, finger snapping, percussion instruments (castenets and cajon) and dance. The dancer’s feet are considered an important percussion instrument too and the sound of the dancer’s feet, called soniquete are often amplified and used as part of the song. Flamenco is improvised to a certain degree but its strength rests in a continued existence of “flamenco puro”, performing in a style that has changed little in the last two hundred years. Flamenco and Gypsy culture is surprisingly conservative and unchanged with time.

Many Spanish artists perform flamenco intent on interpreting flamenco as they learned it, but the Gitanos reign supreme. No one can match their style and natural ability, this comes directly from the manner in which they live their lives, their culture…..they are born into flamenco. Flamenco is actually a way of living, it is a “forma de vivir”.

Gitanos in Spain have reached legendary status and many myths hold true and many do not. Their presence is everywhere in Spain, whether you see it or not. Theirs is a rich and proud culture that deserves to be respected and understood. They have contributed more to Spanish society that they have been credit for. Gitanos are in danger of slowly loosing some of their customs but I am sure that their culture will remain strong and prosper for centuries to come.

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