Romani people in Spain

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Romani people in Spain
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Estimated at 650,000[1]
1.62% of the Spanish population
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Evangelicalism , Roman Catholicism
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The Romani people in Spain are generally known as gitanos (Spanish pronunciation: [xiˈtanos]). Spanish Romanies belong to the Iberian Kale group, with smaller populations in Portugal (known as ciganos), in southern France. They tend to speak Caló, which basically encompasses a range of regional dialects of Spanish with numerous Romani loan words and mannerisms. Nevertheless, to varying degrees, they identify with Andalusian culture and music due to the large gitano population present in that region. Data on ethnicity is not collected in Spain, although the Government's statistical agency CIS estimated in 2007 that the number of Gitanos present in Spain is probably around one million.[2]


The term "gitano" comes from "egipcio", a Spanish term for "Egyptian"[3] as the English word "Gypsy" comes from "Egyptian". Both terms are due to a medieval belief that the Romani people came from Egypt.


Gitano identity is particularly complex in Spain for a variety of reasons which are examined below. Nevertheless, it can be safely said that both from the perspective of gitano and non-gitano (payo) Spaniards, individuals generally considered to belong to this ethnicity are those of full or near-full gitano descent and who also self-identify as such.

A confusing element is the thorough hybridization of Andalusian and Roma culture (and some would say identity) at a popular level. This has occurred to the point where Spaniards from other regions of Spain can commonly mistake elements of one for the other. The clearest example of this is Flamenco music and Sevillanas, art forms which are Andalusian rather than gitano in origin but, having been strongly marked by gitanos in interpretative style, is now commonly associated to this ethnicity by many Spaniards. The largest population of gitanos being concentrated in Southern Spain has even led to a confusion between gitano accents and those typical of Southern Spain, even though many Kale populations in the northern half of Spain (e.g. Galicia) do not speak Andalusian Spanish.

Indeed, the boundaries among gitano and non-gitano ethnicities are so blurred by intermarriage and common cultural traits in the south of the country, that self-identification is on occasion the only real marker for ethnicity. Few Spaniards are aware, for example, that Andalusian singer and gitano popular icon Lola Flores was, in fact, not of gitano ethnicity and did not consider herself as such.[4] The mistake can be commonly attributed to her being a Flamenco singer of humble origin, with vaguely South Asian physical traits and a strong Andalusian accent, as well as to her having married into a Gitano family.

The term "gitano" has also acquired among many a negative socio-economic connotation (much as the term quinqui) referring to the lowest strata of society, sometimes linking it to crime and marginality and even being used as a term of abuse. In this, one can be Gitano "by degree" according to how much one fits into pre-conceived stereotypes or social stigmas.

On the other hand, the exaltation of Roma culture and heritage is a large element of wider Andalusian folklore. Gitanos, rather than being considered a "foreign" or "alien" minority within the country are perceived as "deep" or "real Spain", as is expressed by the term "España Cañí" which interestingly means both "Gypsy Spain" and "Traditional" or "Folkloric Spain".

Evidently this results in a strong distinction between gitanos and Rom immigrants from Eastern Europe, who are commonly identified by the wider population according to their country of origin (Romanians, Bulgarians, etc.) rather than by their actual Rom ethnicity.

The Erromintxela of the Basque Country are also Romani. Their number is small but they identify as distinctly separate from the Caló-speaking Romani in Spain.[5]


Romani migrations.

The gitanos emigrated from Northern India, presumably from the Rajasthan region, possibly as early as 600 A.D. The music and culture of the gitanos highly influenced the cultures they had reached in Al-Andalus through North Africa. Flamenco, the heart of gitano culture, is a mixture of the various European and Asian influences which have resulted from the history of Andalusia, with the later Indian influence infused by the Romani adoption of this art form.

Many sources attribute the difference between Romani culture and music in Spain to other parts of Europe to an alleged arrival of this community from North Africa. Nevertheless, historical records show that Spanish Gitanos arrived in Spain through Europe concentrating in Andalusia and adopting the region's unique hybrid culture as their own. Gitanos were recorded in Barcelona and Zaragoza by 1447. At first they were well received and were even accorded official protection by many local authorities.[citation needed] By 1492, a time of increased persecution of minorities, the first anti-Romani law was passed in Spain.[citation needed] Spanish Romanies are linked to Flamenco and have contributed a great deal to this Andalusian musical art.

Gitanos have a prominent role in Andalusian nationalism and identity, which is strongly based on a belief in the oriental basis of Andalusi heritage acted as a bridge between Gitano and non-Gitano Andalusian populations at a popular level. The father of such a movement, Blas Infante, in his book Orígenes de lo flamenco y secreto del cante jondo, etymologically, went as far as alleging that the word flamenco derives from Andalusian Arabic fellah mengu, supposedly meaning "escapee peasant". Infante believed that numerous Muslim Andalusians became Moriscos, who were obliged to convert, dispersed and eventually ordered to leave Spain stayed and mixed with the Romani newcomers instead of abandoning their land.

Spanish Romani people. Yevgraf Sorokin, 1853.
A Gypsy dance in the gardens of the Alcázar of Seville.

For about 300 years, Romanies were subject to a number of laws and policies designed to eliminate them from Spain as an identifiable group: Romani settlements were broken up and the residents dispersed; sometimes, Romanies were required to marry non-Roma; they were prohibited from using their language and rituals, and were excluded from public office and from guild membership.[citation needed] In 1749 A major effort to get rid of the gypsy population in Spain was carried out through a raid organized by the government. It arrested all gypsies (Romani) in the realm, and imprisoned them in labor camps.

During the Spanish Civil War, gitanos were not persecuted for their ethnicity by either side. Under Franco, Gitanos were often harassed or simply ignored, although their children were educated, sometimes forcibly, much as all Spaniards are nowadays. On the other hand, Andalusian and gitano culture was instrumentalized in the country's tourist promotion strategy which focused on the south to exalt the uniqueness of Spanish culture. 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. Traditional Gitano neighbourhoods such as Triana in Seville became gentrified and gitanos were slowly pushed out to the periphery and these new shanty towns.

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 Ramírez 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. 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. Nevertheless, Spain is still considered a model for integration of gitano communities when compared to other countries with Rom populations in Eastern Europe.

Many Spanish Romanies have been converted to Evangelical Christianity by 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 Catholics who participated in four of the church's sacraments (baptism, marriage, confirmation, and extreme unction). 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 economic classes in adorning grave sites.[citation needed]

The Spanish Evangelical Federation (mostly composed by members of the Assemblies of God and Pentecostal) claims that 150,000 Gitanos have joined their faith in Spain.[6][citation needed] The Romani Evangelical Assembly is the only religious institution entirely led and composed by Roma.


The traditional Spanish Romani place a high value on the extended family. Virginity is essential in unmarried women. Both men and women often marry young.

A traditional gitano wedding requires a pedimiento (similar to an engagement party) followed by the casamiento (wedding ceremony), where el yeli must be sung to the bride for giving her honor to her husband (proven by the ritual of the pañuelo). In the pañuelo ritual, a group consisting of an ajuntaora (an elder woman who is well respected in the family), along with the older aunts and elder woman of the family, take the bride into a separate room during the wedding and examine her to ascertain that she is a virgin. The "ajuntaora" is the one who practices the ritual on the bride, as the other women watch to be witnesses that the bride is virgin.

The cloth (pañuelo) must have three rose petals on it. When finished with the exam, the women come out of the room and sing el yeli to the couple. During this, the men at the wedding rip their shirts and lift the wife onto their shoulders and do the same with the husband, as they sing "el yeli" to them. Weddings can last very long; up to three days is usual in the Gitano culture. At weddings, "gitanos" invite everyone and anyone that they know of (especially other gitanos). On some occasions, payos (gadjos) may attend as well, although this is not common. Through the night, many bulerías are danced and especially sung. Today, rumba gitana or rumba flamenca are a usual party music fixture.

Crime issues[edit]

According to the website of Fundación Secretariado Gitano ("Gitano Secretariat Foundation"), in the Spanish prison system the Spanish Romani women respresent the 25% of the incarcerated feminine population, while Spanish Romani people represent the 1.4% of the total Spanish population. 64% of the detentions of gitano people are drug trafficking-related. 93.2% of women inmates for drug trafficking are gitanas. 13.2% of the total drug trafficking-related inmates are of gitano ethnicity.[7]

In literature[edit]

The Gitanos in Spanish society have inspired several authors:

The Roma is the most basic, most profound, the most aristocratic of my country, as representative of their way and whoever keeps the flame, blood, and the alphabet of the universal Andalusian truth.

—Federico García Lorca
  • Rocio Eva Granada, the escort in the novel Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Notable gitanos[edit]

The ballet dancer Carlotta Grisi as the Romani Paquita (1844).

Following are notable Spanish people of gypsy (gitano) ethnicity or descent:

Gitano surnames[edit]

Due to endogamy, several Spanish surnames are more frequent among the Gitanos,[8] though they are not exclusive to them:

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Diccionario de la lengua española - Vigésima segunda edición". Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  4. ^ "Lola Flores Obituary". El Tiempo. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  5. ^ Vizarraga, Óscar "Erromintxela: notas para una investigación sociolingüística", in I Tchatchipen, Vol 33, Instituto Romanó, Barcelona (2001)
  6. ^ "Evangelics fish faithful in catholic crisis"; FEREDE, October 2008 (Spanish)
  7. ^ "Informe sobre el Sistema de Información "Red Sastipen"". Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  8. ^ Diccionario de apellidos españoles, Roberto Faure, María Asunción Ribes, Antonio García, Editorial Espasa, Madrid 2001. ISBN 84-239-2289-8. Section III.3.8 page XXXIX.

External links[edit]