Romani people in Spain

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Romani people in Spain
Total population
(Estimated 720,000-1,500,000[1][2][3][4])
Regions with significant populations
Caló · Spanish · Catalan · Basque (Erromintxela· Galician · Asturian · Aragonese · Roma
Evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism
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Other Romani people

The Romani people in Spain, generally known as gitanos (Spanish pronunciation: [xiˈtanos]), belong to the Iberian Kale group, with smaller populations in Portugal (known as ciganos) and 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 and culturally significant 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.[1]


The term "gitano" evolved from the word "egiptano"[5] ("Egyptian"), the Old Spanish demonym for someone from "Egipto" (Egypt). "Egiptano" was the regular adjectival form for someone from Egypt, however, in Middle and Modern Spanish the irregular adjectival form "egipcio" suplanted "egiptano" to mean Egyptian, while "gitano" went on to refer specifically to Romanis in Spain.

The etymological meaning of the term "gitano", therefore, was originally "Egyptian".[6]

The use of the Spanish word "gitano" to refer to Romanis in Spain evolved from "egiptano" in the same way that the English word "Gypsy" evolved from the term "Egyptian" to refer to Romanis. Both terms are due to some Romanis, upon their first arrivals to Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, claiming to be Egyptians for a more favourable treatment by local Europeans, or being mistaken as Egyptians by local Europeans.

While it is now known that Romanis are ultimately of northwestern Hindustani origin (an area today shared between India and Pakistan), many did enter Europe via a generations-long migration which included Egypt as one of their last stops before their arrival into Europe.

It is for this same reason that in the Albanian language variations of the Albanian term for "Egyptian" are still used to refer to a people which in English are known as Balkan Egyptians. This group of Romanis in Albania are likewise of northwestern Hindustani origin, and are not related to Egyptians proper.


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. 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 that 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 fact that the largest population of gitanos is 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 (such as 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.[7] 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 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 and Spanish identity. 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". This is largely the result of the period of romantic nationalism which followed the Spanish war of independence, during which the values of the Enlightenment arriving from Western Europe were rejected and Gypsies became the symbol of Spanish traditionalism, independence and racial consciousness.

Evidently, all 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 (normally Romanians or Bulgarians) rather than by their actual Rom ethnicity.



The Romani people originate from northwestern Hindustan,[8][9][10][11][12][13] presumably from the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan[12][13] and the Punjab region shared between India and Pakistan.[12]

The linguistic evidence has indisputably shown that roots of Romani language lie in the Indian subcontinent: the language has grammatical characteristics of Indic languages and shares with them a big part of the basic lexicon, for example, body parts, daily routines[14] and numerals.

More exactly, Romani shares the basic lexicon with Hindi and Punjabi. It shares many phonetic features with Marwari, while its grammar is closest to Bengali.[15] Linguistic evaluation carried out in the nineteenth century by Pott (1845) and Miklosich (1882–1888) showed that the Romani language is to be classed as a New Indo-Aryan language (NIA), not a Middle Indo-Aryan (MIA), establishing that the ancestors of the Romani could not have left the Indian subcontinent significantly earlier than AD 1000, then finally reaching Europe several hundred years later.

Genetic findings in 2012 suggest the Romani originated in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent and migrated as a group.[9][10][16] According to a genetic study in 2012, the ancestors of present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northern India, traditionally referred to collectively as the "Ḍoma", are the likely ancestral populations of modern "Roma" in Europe.[17]

Migration to Spain[edit]

The gitanos emigrated from Northern India 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, including Egypt. Flamenco, much appreciated by "gitanos" and taken as their own, is a mixture of the various ancient European and Middle East and North Africa influences which have resulted from the history of Andalusia, without Indian cultural influence infused by the Romani when they adoption of this art form; something that African and American black culture did but concealed by its slave origin.

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]

Gitanos have a low and little politically committed role, with some particular exceptions, in Andalusian nationalism and identity, which is strongly based on a belief in the oriental basis of Andalusi heritage acted as a bridge between occidental-western and oriental-eastern Andalusian culture 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 jails, eventually releasing them due to the widespread discontent that the measure caused.

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 Catholic 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.[citation needed] They rarely go to folk healers[citation needed], 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.[18][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 represent 25% of the incarcerated feminine population, while Spanish Romani people represent 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.[19]

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

Notable gitanos[edit]

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

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

Gitano surnames[edit]

Due to endogamy, several Spanish surnames are more frequent among the Gitanos,[20] though they are not exclusive to them:

See also[edit]

  • Triana, Seville, a neighbourhood traditionally linked to Gitano history.
  • Sacromonte, the traditional Gitano quarter of Granada.
  • George Borrow, an English missionary and traveller who studied the Gypsies of Spain and other parts of Europe.
  • Quinqui, a nomad community of Spain with a similar lifestyle, but of unrelated origin.




  1. ^ a b "Diagnóstico social de la comunidad gitana en España" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-05-21. 
  2. ^ "Estimations" (JPG). Retrieved 2016-05-21. 
  3. ^ "The Situation of Roma in Spain" (PDF). Open Society Institute. 2002. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 December 2007. Retrieved 15 September 2010. The Spanish government estimates the number of Gitanos at a maximum of 650,000. 
  4. ^ Recent Migration of Roma in Europe, A study by Mr. Claude Cahn and Professor Elspeth Guild, page 87-8 (09.2010 figures)
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Diccionario de la lengua española - Vigésima segunda edición". Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  7. ^ "Lola Flores Obituary". El Tiempo. Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  8. ^ Hancock 2002, p. xx: ‘While a nine century removal from India has diluted Indian biological connection to the extent that for some Romanian groups, it may be hardly representative today, Sarren (1976:72) concluded that we still remain together, genetically, Asian rather than European’
  9. ^ a b Mendizabal, Isabel (6 December 2012). "Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data". Current Biology. 22: 2342–2349. PMID 23219723. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.10.039. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Sindya N. Bhanoo (11 December 2012). "Genomic Study Traces Roma to Northern India". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ Current Biology.
  12. ^ a b c K. Meira Goldberg; Ninotchka Devorah Bennahum; Michelle Heffner Hayes. "Flamenco on the Global Stage: Historical, Critical and Theoretical Perspectives". p. 50. Retrieved 2016-05-21. 
  13. ^ a b Simon Broughton; Mark Ellingham; Richard Trillo. "World Music: Africa, Europe and the Middle East". p. 147. Retrieved 2016-05-21. 
  14. ^ Šebková, Hana; Žlnayová, Edita (1998), Nástin mluvnice slovenské romštiny (pro pedagogické účely) (PDF), Ústí nad Labem: Pedagogická fakulta Univerzity J. E. Purkyně v Ústí nad Labem, p. 4, ISBN 80-7044-205-0 
  15. ^ Hübschmannová, Milena (1995). "Romaňi čhib – romština: Několik základních informací o romském jazyku". Bulletin Muzea romské kultury. Brno: Muzeum romské kultury (4/1995). Zatímco romská lexika je bližší hindštině, marvárštině, pandžábštině atd., v gramatické sféře nacházíme mnoho shod s východoindickým jazykem, s bengálštinou. 
  16. ^ "5 Intriguing Facts About the Roma". Live Science. 
  17. ^ Rai, N; Chaubey, G; Tamang, R; Pathak, AK; Singh, VK (2012), "The Phylogeography of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup H1a1a-M82 Reveals the Likely Indian Origin of the European Romani Populations", PLoS ONE, 7 (11): e48477, PMC 3509117Freely accessible, PMID 23209554, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048477 
  18. ^ "Evangelics fish faithful in catholic crisis"; FEREDE, October 2008 (in Spanish)
  19. ^ "Informe sobre el Sistema de Información "Red Sastipen"". Retrieved 2013-08-15. 
  20. ^ 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.

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