Gypsies in Spain

by Agustín Vega Cortés

(This text was published by the Association “Jóvenes contra la intolerancia” (young people against intolerance).

Agustín Vega Cortés Upon their initial arrival to the Iberian Peninsula, gypsies were welcomed. They lived in freedom and not only were they accepted but the country people and villages sympathised with them and traded with them. Their skilled craftsmanship and abilities to entertain were appreciated.

The society which the gypsies encountered upon their first arrival is very different to that which evolved following the end of the Reconquista in Spain and the subsequent unification of the Castile and Aragon autonomous regions. The supremacy of Christianity more or less ended with the peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions (Jewish, Arabic and Christianity) which is replaced by intolerance and repression.

There is no place anymore for intolerance or not accepting those who think, speak, look or behave differently. In this way, in the name of faith, the Catholic Monarchs and the Church used their political policy also known as the Inquisition to stand up for those who were until recently the ideological pillars of the ruling classes in Spain. It was “one unique and absolute political power, one religion, one language, one culture and as a result one way of being and feeling”.

In this case, the gypsies were seen as dangerous people who were difficult to tame and control. Their free way of life and attachment to their own customs and traditions not only didn’t fit in with the strict and homogenous society implemented by the Catholic Monarchs and their subsequent successors, but it was also a poor example for the country people and villages who were servants. These servants had more or less resigned themselves to serving the Cross and the Sword and were identified as being single things.

From that moment on, the political repression against our people began and has lasted up til now.

Limitless repression

According to the historian George Borrow, “Maybe there is no country which has made laws designed to suppress and eradicate the name, the race and way of life of gypsies like Spain has”.

In 1499, the Catholic Monarchs established a set of laws, provisions and decrees in the town of Medina del Campo which stated, “In our court on this day a law has been enforced on all Egyptians (including women and children) who roam around our kingdoms and in the houses, places and cities whereby they have 60 days to have their own known profession, or be bound to places which agree to settle in the houses of those they serve and give them what they would need. They need not roam around our kingdoms together anymore like they used to, or else 60 days after the initial 60 day period, they must leave and never return to our kingdoms, Failing which if they are discovered without a profession or employer after the aforementioned timeframe, these are the possible consequences. Firstly, they will be whipped 100 times and banished forever from those kingdoms. Secondly, their ears will be cut off and they will be held in chains for 60 days, after which they will be banished. Thirdly, they will remain captive for the rest of their lives.”

(Isabel and Fernando, Medina del Campo, 1499, NOVÍSIMA RECOPILACIÓN DE LAS LEYES DE ESPAÑA (latest editions of the Spanish laws), Book XII, Title XVI).

This law and the others which followed it gave legal coverage of the limitless repression the gypsies had been suffering from for more than five centuries.

To such an extent that even during the Second World War, the Nazis used so called sterilisation techniques identified by the Courts of Castilla in 1594 on eastern and central European gypsies from already indicated by the Courts of Castilla in 1594, with a legal provision to separate the “gypsies in order to wipe out the race”.

In the history of humanity there has never been such a persecution against a population which has lasted and remained so unpunished. We were, and still are a species for which there is no ban.

The “collective memory”

Despite the repression, the gypsies made a clear adjustment in the first half of the 19th century and began and era which constitutes the basis of the “collective memory” of the Spanish gypsies.

As explained earlier, the families settled in the cities, more by obligation rather than choice, started to fill an economic space in the agriculture and cattle industries – livestock traders. The gypsies developed on their own merit livestock suppliers such as landowners and owners of small farms. In fact, in just 100 years between 1850 and 1950, it could be argued that gypsies were essential for the agricultural economy and as a result, for the first time, they were respected and recognised by society. Not exempt from a similar repression which may have calmed down but still existed.

In his essay “Gitanos Extremeños” (Extremaduran Gypsies), Francisco Suárez Montaño refers to this age as, “coming together in a way that means that agricultural production has considered the imminent demand for supplying livestock resources in order to develop. Quickly, the gypsies who had been cheap and poorly organised up until now took this step by offering reduced costs and creating comprehensive regional market infrastructure networks. For all of Extremadura, gypsy families unfolded. As a result of the integration of their population, they lost their nomadic character that defined them and the chance in their social behaviour became permanent. With these settlements began an economic social and cultural exchange of profound importance for the gypsy community”.

One could say that this change occurred across the entire peninsula, however mainly in Andalusia and Extremadura, where a significant of the current Spanish gypsy population live.

Not only did the gypsies establish themselves as livestock dealers during this critical era, but many of them were accomplished blacksmiths and so played a fundamental role in the artistic ironwork of Andalusia and other regions in Spain. Others dedicated themselves to the repair and maintenance of boilers and farming tools etc.

Up to this point, everything that has been mentioned is from an economic point of view. When they arrived in the 15th century, they refused to work as servants to feudal lords just like they demanded for realistic sanctions and drove them to the same social and political reality of years of persecution, prison and execution. However, antiquated feudal farming gave way to new more efficient holdings and as a result, the development of towns and cities since the majority of gypsies occupied roles in the production system. There were roles in which they could have their own way because they didn’t report to anyone and they controlled their own freedom of movement. Yet at the same time, they were allowed to live with dignity and keep the deepest part of their cultural roots, the unity of the family.

Since there was no other way, the gypsy culture ended up influencing the general Spanish culture (particularly in Andalusia and Extremadura) by adapting to their new environment and becoming rich.

This was the time when the gypsies formed what is recognised nowadays as the “Leyes Gitanas” (Gypsy Laws).

Exposed to discrimination

In the 1950s, history repeated itself, but this time in the opposite direction. In this era, a true agricultural transformation took place and once again, the industry put the gypsies out of the game. Suddenly, they found themselves out of the production system once more because their skills and abilities were no longer required. The incorporation of machinery into farming forced them to either change or be excluded, but they were not ready to face this fact or maybe they just didn’t want to.

The point is, the progress of others meant the collapse of the upper class gypsies was only just beginning. These upper class gypsies did not stop this cunng-edge intellectual and technological progress from arising which is necessary for minorities to exist alongside a majority population that does not rule.

The gypsies were dragged along by the industrialisation and modernisation of production structures thus, resulting in new social behaviours.

They began competing for job positions to the extent that this new situation meant that the gypsies had to live with non-gypsies in neighbourhoods and apartment blocks, etc. They were rejected by a society who refused to accept them, whose frustrations were relentless and looked down on the gypsies so much so the gypsies sought after a way to escape.

In spite of it all, and the only legacy of this golden age for the gypsies in Spain, today many of the descendants from these families have a university education, some are professionals in different sectors and the majority who fight every day to live their lives in the most dignified way possible are subject to suspicion, prejudices and discrimination in every aspect of their lives. A large number of these people are involved in flea markets who make up for a large quota of domestic trade every day.

This is one side of reality for Spanish gypsies while on other hand is misery, living in shacks and complete and utter discrimination which also exists however as a direct result of the economic and social system who live together in luxury but yet in absolute misery. This is a system that makes monumental works for large museums and conference centres but allows people to sleep in the slums along with the rats. Finally, a system that has condemned millions of people to live in poverty without any hope of improving their living conditions. Many gypsies account for the millions who live in poverty and it is a sheer miracle that we are not all that we seem, otherwise we would all be sentenced to live like that.

Gypsy laws

As explained previously, the gypsy population has established their own rules to manage our coexistence and provide the basis for our collective identity and pledge to remain united as a people.

These rules make up a real legislative body which although it has never been written, but is no less complete or useful. It is a set of rules that benefit from genuine support and acceptance from the entire gypsy population. This legislative body has allowed for the peaceful coexistence between members of communities and was able to mediate the fundamental social and economic aspects of life between the members whenever social or economic reaction effect other gypsies.

By giving us these rules we did not have to behave in a certain way or like they do in other regions. These are communities which are more or less high in number and which, within a certain territory, are reigned by a set of rules and laws of mandatory compliance. Its foundation is based on the concept of good and evil which respond to, and are consequently dependent on, culture and time. What seems to the westerners logical and unarguable, for oriental people it is absurd or negative, and vice versa. But what’s common is the obligation of the members of the community to respect and follow the laws. The abidance of said laws has its final assurance in the violence that the state can execute against the member; a violence that will always be more or less proportionate to the gravity of the offense committed against those laws.

Thus the state creates a legislation, the judges who are responsible for interpreting it, and the police, as a last resort that the laws will be abided.

Since the gypsy community has their own set of rules which regulate the cohabitation of their members, act as a population that is conscious that such rules are necessary to maintain the nature of their being. However, what is so peculiar and different about them is that they are not considered a state proper and so lack the coercive means that a state has to be able to compel laws. Indeed, it lacks the means, but it counts with one which has proven to be more efficient, and it’s none other than the consensus of the community in relation to those laws: the conformity of the members with the Gypsy Laws. To a certain point those rules/laws enjoy a backing-up and acceptance, which the social pressure imposed by the community which rejects them then becomes its greatest security.

One is a gypsy in the way they accept and abide the said gypsy laws because those laws have proved to be good and positive for the collective union of the people. There are laws that have helped us live in the midst of a hostile society, maintaining our group’s cohesion.

Anything that signifies the disrespect or the damage of and to our community are not in the gypsy laws, and those which might provoke it are automatically excluded.

Because the gypsy community suffers from defamation, loss of prestige and slandering from most of the society in the most extreme manner, it’s no surprise that our laws suffer from the same. These habits are seen as barbaric, violent and vengeful. However, not only is this a lie but the truth turns out to be the complete opposite.

Gypsy laws have their reasons to exist, to make any conflict resolutions within any groups possible via a peaceful way. When we do see violence between gypsies it is either because the law had not intervened or if it did it was unable to impose itself on the matter. Violence is not part of the gypsy heritage, as it isn’t in any specific group whatsoever, but a heritage part of the human species. And so, when we do see confrontations between gypsies it is not correlated to the laws but inability of said laws to resolve a specific conflict.

Gypsy Culture

Cultures are the most authentic expression for the cohesion of groups of people, or a community.

There might be groups that do not possess a proper territory or land and do not even wish to, but by maintaining their culture and holding on to their “populace sentiment” they can persist for centuries. The world is full of examples that prove to us how true this statement is; we, the Gypsies, are one of those groups of people; we are neither more nor less in the world.

Our own history has been changing the characteristics of our culture. One aspect that stands out is our lack of literature or literary work which is properly of gypsy nature; in the sense that one can speak of Spanish or French literature, but not gypsy literature.

Hence, ours consists of a culture that lacks literacy, it is oral, and as a consequence, it is passed on from one generation to another. Possibly considered to be the most lively and representative of the whole of the populace, as opposed to other cultures whose maxim of creative expression stems from intellectuals of the avant-garde.

In this sense, what conforms culture for the gypsies is language, the laws and the compendium of traditions, customs and rituals, as well as artistic expressions which gypsies as a whole recognize and accept as their own, in so far that they have become expressions of their everyday life.

But culture is something that’s alive and dynamic which nurtures from the surroundings in which it is developed. That is why gypsy culture is influenced in part by the rest of Spanish culture and vice versa, although the latter is recognized as such by the expressions used and are more universally known this fact is not often recognized by Spaniards per se.

Actually, some signs and tells of gypsy culture have been accepted as traditional Spanish ones until not too long ago, but thankfully, societal development and homogeneity of western civilization has been in charge of pushing that error aside.

The subjects and fallacies spoken about gypsies which have been supported by most of society for centuries as a cover-up for the persecutions and racism have created a true “black legend” about our people. So much so, that even when speaking about gypsies outside of Spain there seems to be an insistence on those same topics, attributing exotic rites and barbarisms which are nothing but lies.

This “black legend” was not only created by ignorance and the prejudices of ordinary people, but are part of pseudo intellectuals who consider themselves “gypsiologists” and have written and still write every day unending pack of lies, linking us to bizarre customs and behaviors which only exists in their racist and hot-headed minds. Even those who supposedly defend us most of time tend to treat us with an outdated patronizing attitude which puts us in the position of the inept, ignorant, and quasi-savage individual.

While today’s society uses the word “gypsy” as a synonym for thief, laziness and conflicting, for us being a gypsy conveys some respect to a set of values and ethical behaviors which are universally accepted as a sign of civility and maturity, and which are, among others, the following:

  • Recognition and respect of the family as the supreme institution in the gypsy clan.
  • The care of children and the elderly who admire the respect and maximum consideration.
  • Hospitality is an obligation that should be manifested with joy and the utmost attention.
  • To have honor, meaning to follow and obey one’s given word and loyalty to the Gypsy Laws .
  • Freedom as a natural human condition.
  • Solidarity towards and assistance for the members of the same ethnic group is mandatory.
  • Fulfilling the decisions made by the elders when they, in turn, make said decisions in compliance with the Gypsy Laws .

Do we have flaws? Of course, we do, anyone does. As isolated individuals, each one of us can have any flaws other people might have, and similarly we can also have any qualities; and surely as a group we do have some flaws, but that is spoken of and written about enough for me to repeat it. In this occasion, we shall take the liberty to be somewhat bias in a good sense for a change.

The language of the Gypsies: Romani

As with anything related to gypsies, our language also is a victim of defamation and falsehood. For ordinary folk, the gypsy language is nothing else but a thug’s jargon made up of barbarism which are more or less known.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The gypsy language, Romani, is one of the ancient languages of the world, stemming from sanskrit which is spoken by more than fifteen million people around the world. It’s true that Spanish gypsies, along with the Portuguese, are the ones that know less of this language than other diasporas, since it had been disappearing as we became more of a sedentary group and we lacked the means to teach it to our children and develop it further. Nevertheless, millions of gypsies from all over Europe speak amongst themselves very fluently through that common language which, for historical reasons, has been able to persevere through the years.

It is for this particular reason the language gypsies all around the world have in common has been the subject of investigation used to determine the geographical origins of our people.

Some day, when we achieve the respect and consideration as our right as a people, we can raise some more ambitious goals for ourselves, one of which should be reviving our language and teaching said language to gypsy children in schools.

The enforcement of the Constitution

The 1978 Constitution of Spain established a democratic political régime which nowadays counts with the consent and support of the majority of its citizens.

Democracy successfully dealt with the secular conflict resolution of Spaniards that during our most recent history have been reasons of confrontation, and which also seemed unsolvable. These conflicts were, amongst others, the relation of church and state, etc.

The gypsy community, at least the ones that were more committed and aware, saw that for the first time in a long time possibilities would turn out to settle some of the great issues that were due , such as the normalization of the gypsy minority’s presence in the heart of Spanish society.

For us the gypsies, normalization meant to compatibilize the maintaining of our own differed identify with the de facto recognition and in the practice of our condition as Spanish citizens with everything that it entails. We believed that democratic institutions and the new spirit of tolerance, which seemed to impregnate Spanish society, would work as allies to change the course of our own history, which until this day has not been but a mere fight for survival.

Now, after fifteen years of democracy, the balance we can make is not only distressing but we are overwhelmed with the feeling of losing an opportunity which might not show up for many years to come.

The discourse given by Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia in the Congress of Deputies in 1985 could given today with no minor changes necessary. All the injustice and offenses he presented in that discourse can still be applied today, possibly with new issues and elements of injustice.

It so happens that the governors of our country have not fully comprehended that the matter of the gypsies are not a request for charity or social aid; while it is true that part of the population lives in poverty, they do not live as such solely because of their status as gypsies, but because of their conditions as poor citizens, and the resolution of their needs must be sought within a general frame of social justice directed to the whole of the population in need in conditions of equality and of social integration and not segregation.

The denial of the reality of Gypsies

In practice, the politics of integration of the socially marginated have turned into politics of racial segregation aimed at the gypsies, since not only did the ghettos and marginalization not end but in certain ways they have perpetuated to create conditions of minimal subsistence which condemn the gypsies to a pessimist conformism and low self-esteem.

But the ghettos, as a space of isolation both physically and socially, not only have they not disappeared but on the contrary they have been perpetuated through the construction of public housing, which apart from gathering the minimum needs to live in, the people living there are condemned to a life of marginalization.

It so happens, that the policies developed through all the angles of administration tends to globalise the gypsy people as a marginal group, whose collective identity is based more on their living conditions and material needs than their actual cultural identity. In practice, the fact that most gypsies in Spain do not live in segregated neighborhoods, nor are they in need of charity, but more to the point, they have a life in normal conditions based on their hard work and jobs, is often denied.

In Spain, there are many gypsies who contribute their efforts to the economic and professional frame; such as, medical professionals, lawyers, teachers, business men/women, artists, etc. However, the stereotype that is being projected on media platforms is that of the illiterate and derelict, if not the delinquent.

Thus we find that the presence of gypsies who do not respond to stereotypes or whom do not fit the image is crucial for common society. In contrast, the gravity of the pejorative image is the first obstacle for any gypsy to pass to be able to cope with our day to day lives. Society forces us to prove that which to others is a mere supposition, these being: honesty, hard-work, professional qualifications and societal qualifications. And the worst part is that we are seldom given the chance to prove ourselves.

Ineffective programmes

Any plans labeled “insertion”, “integration”, “promotion”, and the likes have become ineffective since they all have a common denominator: agreeing that gypsies are objects subjected to change from an outside source, with no consideration of the most elemental human right to maintain their cultural identity and their human dignity. In these last couple years there has been an emergence of a new professional class that can be situated between pseudo missionaries and rural teachers (said with utmost respect), community organizer, street educators, family counselors, etc. which have been installed as the task to “reform” us to point of converting us into “integrated” parts within the models of society.

But all these efforts, starting from the administration that subsidizes them which are done in good faith, are not and will not by any means be valid to reach the target conditions that make impossible a positive solution for the gypsy matter.

This appears to be so because anything, with some exceptions that are sure to exist, concerning “integration” have the fallacy to consider that the social changes that will indeed make possible said integration will need to be made unilaterally in the heart of the gypsy community. And this occurs basically from the notion that what created the lack of integrity with the rest of society are the customs and ways of being a gypsy.

An opposite approach is made to the one used for the common social policy in regards to the rights of social minorities or disadvantaged groups, women, youth and miscellaneous. Meanwhile, in relation to this, what is sought is a change in social behaviours of the groups in power, or the majority; in the case of the gypsies responsibility isn’t shared with said majority but rather it is carried on the shoulders of the gypsy community alone.

The System’s Inability

This concept is such that in some areas, like the workforce, there is an insistence and need for the inclusion of gypsies but, contradictory to that, nothing is done about the fact that employers are reluctant to hire the gypsy youth, regardless of their aptness for the job.

In the area of failure and absenteeism in school regarding the gypsy children all the fault is attributed to the family dynamic and the indolence of the parents, but the system forgives the educational system and the curriculum which are unable to integrate into the general education cultural elements which differ gypsy kids from others and to which they can bring a lot to the table, culturally speaking. More to the point, the system does not even prevent the bullying or isolation suffered by the gypsy students from the rest of the student body. In any case, the system’s inability to enforce the mandatory nature of school education is masked, which should dispose of appropriate and pertinent mechanisms for that legal precept to be accomplished, just like others are accomplished, often of minor importance.

In the recent years, there’s much evidence up to what point gypsies suffer from discrimination, which is none other than indifference. It turns out in Spain there has been serious cases revolving racism against gypsies with an intent of lynching, assaulting and blazing homes; nevertheless, is seems as though before the arrival of immigrants in the country racism was not an issue in Spain. In fact, it was not until the murder of a Dominican woman named Lucrecia Perez that political parties even mentioned racial agressions, which is a normalized occurance day in, day out towards the gypsies.

All these elements make up a dark panorama from all viewpoints for the resolution of the true issues generally suffered by our people.

Society needs to be aware that other than the gravity of the issues revolving immigrants of poorer countries, proper racism is suffered by millions of Spaniards who appear to be living as exiles in their own country, and while that reality still persists, the solidarity given to an outside can slowly develop into an exercise in social hypocrisy which will merely be a fading trend.

A New Social Policy

That change of attitude towards gypsies goes through concrete approaches and legal means nowadays which should be accepted by the movement of solidarity citizens and the democratic political parties. First of all, these approaches must go through the developing stages of a new social policy which is to have an ensemble of useful actions, for both its specific consequences and the shifting of views of the position gypsies are submitted to currently.

I would like to present thus a proposal which nowadays are accepted by most of gypsy organizations and which are no more than implementations of the Spanish Constitution. Actions, which tend to eliminate the obstacles preventing the equality of the gypsy community, are the following:

  • To have the attorney general’s office recognize
  • crimes against racial minorities, with the specific mission to act, whether it’s by office or as a request from an interested party, towards all cases in which the basic human rights of individuals or minority groups are being threatened.
  • To create a Defense Office for Ethnic Minorities, adjunct to the Spanish Ombudsman, a.k.a. Defender of the People.
  • To include in all levels of educational texts and school books the insertion of historical and social elements that provide the students with an objective and serious knowledge of the presence of the gypsy community in Spanish society.
  • To design a plan to eradicate slums, or chabolas , in a maximum two year spam, and creating a new housing policy for the “marginal” groups which should be much different from the policies held to this day.

Naturally, the dreadful results attained by the rehousing policies not only did not work to break off the marginal conditions, but even created open conflict between the communal neighbours and the groups chosen to be rehoused.

The granting of worthy housing to groups in special need must have as a goal to be used as a means of social integration and of normalization and not as a device for segregation. For this, it is necessary to put an end to such housing plans aimed at marginal groups and, alternatively, put in place, other forms of actions that will facilitate the acquisition of housing for these families, being them who choose the area of residence.

It would then entail a set of conditions in order to acquire said housings based on:

  • The thoroughly lost subsidies of an important part of the housing price; a minimum of 50% in charge of the different administrations that now are financing social housings.
  • Guaranteed credit lines with a large repayment period and low interest rate.
  • The inclusion of representation from the gypsy associations in the Economic and Social Council.
  • To promote within the Government the promise of all media and news outlets to not mention the ethnic or racial background in a pejorative tone whilst speaking of specific groups. Said promise should be put into action immediately when concerning state led television and radio channels like Radio Nacional de España (RNE) , and Televisión Española (TVE).
  • To create a program -on TVE- regarding ethnic minorities, with the goal of eliminating any prejudgments and stereotypes, which will be of great use for the cohabitation of all citizens.
  • To elaborate and put in action a public campaign of citizen awareness which should portray a worthy and dignified image of the gypsy community as citizens of Spain.

These are, in my judgement, an understanding of the means and actions that will be of interest to the gypsy community in its totality, whom, as Spanish citizens, would see that finally the Government is taking the necessary actions.


These pages which you have just read about gypsies and their community might have a certain bias to them. This was not written with a neutral point of view or from any “outsider’s gaze”.

On the contrary, they have been written from the inside, from a vital and personal commitment towards the topic. They are, first and foremost, a public defense for our dignity and our rights, and like any defense, such as the accusation, it is not unbiased.

Barcelona, 13 kotar februàra kotar 1997 bersh
Barcelona, February 13th, 1997



This English translation has been possible thanks to the PerMondo project: Free translation of website and documents for non-profit organisations. A project managed by Mondo Agit. Translators: Lucy Miller and Angella Keushgerian.