historical notes on spanish gypsies

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Gypsy origin



















The term gypsy refers to an ethnic group which calls itself the Rom and speaks a language known as Romany. It is unknown how many gypsies there are either in general or in Spain. The Spanish gypsy population might be as high as 500,000. An estimate of the world gypsy population ranges between three and six million. The calculation is made difficult by the nomadic life-style of some gypsies even today, as well as their cultural isolation and sense of mystery surrounding their origins.

It is generally known that gypsies migrated out of India into Europe around the eleventh century. Records exist of their arrival in Spain as early as 1425 in Zaragoza, capital of Aragon. The majority entered via Barcelona (in Catalonia) in 1447.

When the official persecution began against moors and jews in 1492 as an attempt to cleanse the Iberian peninsula of non-christian groups, the gypsies were included in the list of peoples to be assimilated or driven out. For some 300 years, gypsies were subject to laws and prejudice designed to eliminate them from Spain. Settlements were broken up, gypsies were required to marry non-gypsies, and they were denied their language and rituals as well as well being excluded from public office and from craft membership. For example, in 1560 Spanish legislation forbade gitanos from travelling in groups of more than two. Gypsy dress and clothing was banned.

Thus gypsies were driven into a permanently submerged underclass from which they are still emerging today. Nevertheless such hardship was reflected in and positively nutured the flamenco song of today.

During this century in Spain, General Franco continued the persecution as did the nazis throughout the areas of Europe controlled by nazi Germany. Since 1975 (when Franco died), the Spanish government's policy has been much more sympathetic toward them, especially in social welfare and social services. Since 1983, it has operated a special program of compensatory education to promote educational rights for the disadvantaged, including gypsy communities.

Gitanos and hungaros (Hungarians emanating from central Europe) make up the two major groups of Spanish gypsies who now live predominantly in southern Spain. Many of them have integrated into the social structure despite being generally poor and largely illiterate. Traditionally they worked as blacksmiths, horse traders, musicians, dancers and fortunetellers.

Others still had to beg and steal, especially the hungaros who were poorer than the gitanos and lived an exclusively nomadic lifestyle, usually in tents or shacks (casitas) on the outskirts of the larger cities. 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 the authorities and outsiders still tend to regard them all collectively as gypsies.

Gypsies have a distinctive cultural and linguistic heritage, so the challenge is to see how preservation and integration can succeed without persecution.










The Andalusians are not an ethnically distinct people but they do constitute a culturally distinct region of about 7 million people. They populate Spain's eight southernmost provinces: Sevilla, Malaga, Almeria, Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, Huelva and Jaen.

The region has suffered depopulation in recent times caused by rural poverty and landlessness as well as a rigid class structure and emigration to industrial cities and to other parts of Europe.

Some andalusian gypsies settled in Triana on the Guadalquivir river in Sevilla, which has made it an important flamenco centre today. Others went further south to contribute to the so-called cradle of the song (la cuna del cante) in Jerez de la Frontera (Cadiz province). The more rhythmical flamenco forms from this area evidence the predominance of gypsies in the cante flamenco (flamenco song) or more precisely the cante hondo (deep song) - these are the more difficult styles to interpret in flamenco today, and styles in which the gypsies reign supreme.


Significant periods
in Spanish history





35,000 - 5,000BC The Iberians. Original stone age inhabitants.
5,000 - 1,000BC Various immigrants including Jews and Celts
1,100BC Phoenicians founded the city of Gadir (Cadiz)
550BC Greek occupation
219BC - 202BC Carthaginian occupation and the Punic wars with the Romans
200BC - 400AD Roman occupation
468 - 537 Visigoths ally with Romans against the barbarian hordes from the north
537 - 711 Visigoth occupation
711 - 1492 Moorish occupation (Arabs and North African Berbers)
1492 Christian occupation begun by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella



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Content Historical Notes
© Simon Zolan 2000

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