Crime and poverty is inextricably linked to gypsy culture, but women such as fashion designer Juana Martin Manzano are spearheading the new generation
A recent exhibition in Vera (Almería) to mark Andaluz gypsy day served as an opportunity to shed light on a much-maligned ethnic group. Richard Torné attempts to separate fact from fiction, and asks what the future holds for one of Spain’s most fascinating and enigmatic people.
“The gypsy community is ‘the great unknown’, that’s why I was keen to bring the exhibition to Vera. Children who have been coming to the exhibition are automatically frightened of gypsies – the stereotype is that they’re rude and dirty,” councillor Yolanda Torres says.
To illustrate the point that clichés can pop up in the unlikeliest of places (the exhibition was conceived by Spain’s main gypsy association to promote the group and dispel stereotypes), she shows me the cover of the exhibition’s promotional leaflet, depicting a group of flamenco dancers foot-stomping their way on a ‘tablao’ dance floor. “Not the most original idea,” she muses.
Initially thought to originate from Egypt – hence the name – it is now generally accepted that gypsies migrated from India some 1,000 years ago. In Spain they number about 650,000, but despite having been an integral part of Spanish culture for hundreds of years, they are still viewed with suspicion by many, if not most, ‘payos’ (the word gypsies use to describe non-gypsies).
In response, gypsies have traditionally turned their backs on mainstream society, “probably as a self-defence mechanism,” suggests Ms Torres.
If society has historically shunned gypsies – so goes the received wisdom – there must be a reason. Controversial practices such as manually checking to see if a woman is a virgin before she is given away in marriage (known as the ‘pañuelo’ test) have done little to dispel the view that it is still a predominantly sexist society.
Ms Torres admits to as much, and being a gypsy herself, you suspect she may be speaking from experience. But this was not the case for her, she clarifies. Married to a non-gypsy and with a university degree under her belt, she reveals she fought against the more conservative members of the gypsy community to achieve her ambitions – but not from her immediate family, who gave her all the encouragement and support she needed. “If you don’t have the support of close members of your own family, you can’t get by,” she admits.
The patriarchal structure so prevalent in fictional tales is not as widely extended as was once thought. The figure of the elder male, presiding over the group and deciding over the nature of the punishment to be meted out to transgressors, is no longer practiced in many towns in Almería, although the respect shown by gypsies towards their elders is something they are openly proud about.
“There’s no patriarch in Vera and we don’t all follow the same rules, but it is a different world,” she concedes. This includes keeping alive other old-fashioned practices. “We still have the ‘pedimento’, where the boyfriend goes to his girlfriend’s family to formally ask for her hand. By eloping (‘La Fuga’) the couple are automatically married. It’s like a honeymoon before the wedding ceremony.”
As in any society, it’s often the antics of the criminal element that get the most publicity. Ask any Spaniard and they’ll happily recall the not-so apocryphal story of the out-of-work gypsies who move into a council estate, only to strip it bare of furnishings and fittings within days. They’ll probably mention finding a donkey in the lift, too.
Unsurprisingly, it’s an image which irks Ms Torres. “The problem is that a gypsy with an education does not sell, but someone who’s a drug-taking criminal does.”
Skirting round the controversial issue of gypsy-based delinquency is nonetheless a reality. As a matter of policy, police forces in Spain do not reveal if a suspected criminal is a gypsy – a rule which does not apply, for instance, to Moroccan nationals.
But when the violence is extreme, as was the case on Christmas Day in Roquetas de Mar, when the fatal stabbing of an African immigrant – reportedly by a gypsy – led to a riot in the coastal town, it becomes impossible to suppress.
In Almería, the sometimes strained relationship between ‘gitanos’ and ‘payos’ was most notably put to the test in July 2011 when three members of a gypsy family (a married couple and their son) were shot dead in the gypsy quarter of Palomares by a ‘payo’.
At his trial, the accused claimed that he and his family had been repeatedly threatened by the family, and after suffering a beating just two days before the shootings at a nearby petrol station, he decided to take the law into his own hands.
When the accused was cleared of the crimes in a polemical trial in 2013 it confirmed gypsies’ worst fears that there was one law for payos and another one for them. His subsequent retrial for the death of one of the victims (the woman) partly redressed that sense of injustice, even if the seven-year jail term handed to him seemed lenient.
A Spanish reporter and I interviewed the relatives of the deceased shortly after the shootings, and the mood was understandably ugly. Surrounded by an angry crowd, we were told the law would not defend them because they were just gypsies – and the life of a gypsy “was worth nothing”.
Regardless of whether today’s ingrained sense of injustice is justified, gypsies have periodically been the subject of out-and-out persecution throughout history. Life in Spain was not unduly hard for them until the Pragmática law of 1499, which ended gypsies’ rights in one fell swoop. Ferdinand VI went one step further in 1749 when he decided to imprison the lot in the Gran Redada, or Great Gypsy Round-Up. According to some estimates, up to 12,000 were locked up before being granted a pardon some 16 years later.
Before the end of the Civil War in Burgos, Franco banned marriages between gypsies and payos, probably to ingratiate himself with the Nazis. The law was repealed within a few years, but the repression remained.
At the end of the conflict in 1939, Turre’s gypsies were turfed out of their homes naked and their bedding burned following an outbreak of epidemic typhus. Camped out in an olive field, they weren’t allowed to return to their homes until more than six months later.
It was not uncommon, either, to hear stories of gypsies being forced to fight each other by the local civil guard as part of a grotesque and humiliating show. One gypsy who refused to take part in a bout, Antonio el Cagarrache, was scarred for life when they plucked the hairs of his moustache out with a pair of pliers.
It was not until Franco’s death and the move to democracy that gypsies’ rights were once again re-instated, enshrined in the 1978 constitution.
Today, few would argue that gypsy culture is inextricably linked to Andalucía and the rest of Spain, especially in the arts. At the vanguard is undoubtedly flamenco, probably the most technically complex and, perhaps, the most popular ethnic music in the world.
And to prove the group’s cultural ascendancy is not solely dominated by males – or flamenco – Juana Martin Manzano has climbed to the top of the fashion world as a clothes designer, one of 50 females who appear in a publication titled ‘50 gypsy women in Spanish society’, alongside a lawyer, several businesswomen and well known artists.
Despite this, a recent poll concluded that the gypsy community was still the most discriminated group in Spanish society.
Local historian and teacher Juan Grima believes greater integration is the answer, but says much more still needs to be done to unlock people’s potential. “There is still a problem with education.
Historically gypsies have been extremely poor, living on the margins of society, and that has inevitably had a bearing on their culture.”
He believes mixed relationships are the answer to overcoming prejudice on both sides, and one only need look at Ms Torres’ case to surmise that the cross joining of cultures can help open up what is still a traditionally closed society. This has already happened in music with flamenco developing its own jazz and rock offshoots. If nothing else, it has provided some relief from the foot-stomping dancers.