The Gypsies

The Gypsies

The term "Gypsies" is used by outsiders to label an ethnic group the members of which refer to themselves as Rom and speak a language known as Romany. No one knows exactly how many Gypsies there are, either in general or in Spain in particular. Estimates of the Spanish Gypsy population range as low as 50,000 and as high as 450,000, and other estimates place the world Gypsy population at between 3 and 6 million. Correct estimates are made difficult by the nomadic life-style followed by a portion of the group, by their cultural isolation, by the sense of mystery surrounding them and their origins, and by the division of the population into a number of distinctive subgroups.

It is generally accepted that Gypsies migrated out of India into Europe as early as the eleventh century. There are records of their having arrived in Spain as early as 1425 and in Barcelona, in particular, by 1447. At first they were well received and were even accorded official protection by many local authorities. In 1492, however, when official persecution began against Moors and Jews to cleanse the peninsula of non-Christian groups, the Gypsies were included in the list of peoples to be assimilated or driven out. For about 300 years, Gypsies were subject to a number of laws and policies designed to eliminate them from Spain as an identifiable group: Gypsy settlements were broken up and the residents dispersed; Gypsies were required to marry non-Gypsies; they were denied their language and rituals as well as well being excluded from public office and from guild membership. By the time this period had drawn to a close, Gypsies had been driven into a permanently submerged underclass from which they had not escaped in the late 1980s.

Spanish Gypsies are usually divided into two main groups: gitanos and hungaros (for Hungarians). The former, in turn, are divided into subgroups classified by both social class and cultural differences. In the late 1980s, the gitanos lived predominantly in southern and central Spain. Many of them took up a sedentary form of life, working as street vendors or entertainers. Although poor and largely illiterate, they were usually well integrated into Spanish society. The hungaros, however, are Kalderash, one of the divisions of the group from Central Europe (hence the name). They were much poorer than the gitanos and lived an entirely nomadic lifestyle, usually in tents or shacks around the larger cities. They made their living by begging or stealing, and they were much more of a problem for Spanish authorities. Many gitanos denied the hungaros the status of being in their same ethnic group, but outsiders tend to regard them all as basically Gypsies. In any case, whatever common ethnic consciousness they possessed was not sufficient to make them a significant political force.

Under Franco, Gypsies were persecuted and harassed, as indeed they were throughout the areas of Europe controlled by Nazi Germany. In the post-Franco era, however, Spanish government policy has been much more sympathetic toward them, especially in the area of social welfare and social services. Since 1983, for example, the government has operated a special program of compensatory education to promote educational rights for the disadvantaged, including those in Gypsy communities. The challenge will be to devise programs that bring the Gypsy population into the mainstream of the country's economic and political life without eroding the group's distinctive cultural and linguistic heritage.

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