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Identification. "Gitanos," the term that almost all Gypsies of Spain use to identify themselves, is also the word that non-Gypsy Spaniards use. Gitanos are monolingual Spanish speakers, and although some claim that an identifiable physical type exists, Gitanos are in fact phenotypically indistinguishable from other Spaniards. They are overwhelmingly sedentary, not nomadic. They derive their name (as do Gypsies, Gitans, Tsiganes, and Zigeuners) from the misnomer "Egyptian." The term originated with the erroneous notion, dating back to western Europe's early modern period, that "Gypsies" originally came from Egypt. Gitanos probably account for well over 99 percent of the Gypsy populations in Spain. They should be distinguished from Spain's tiny minority of Indic-speaking people, who are also glossed in English as "Gypsies." (The latter, whom both Gitanos and non-Gitano Spaniards call "Húngaros," or "Gitano-Húngaros," call themselves "Rom.") Gitanos rarely intermarry with Spain's Romany-speaking Gypsies even when they live in the same quarter, and they have many more social and economic relations with non-Gypsy Spaniards than they do with the Rom.

Demography. No reliable censuses of Gitanos in Spain exist today, although estimates vary from 100,00 to 300,000 persons. Earlier censuses are referred to in the historical Record, but only one approximation to a census, a national prison roster, has actually been found. This roster, which is considered to have comprised almost all the Gypsies in Spain, is a 1749 listing of some 9,000 Gypsy prisoners who were rounded up and incarcerated for three months under Philip VI: if correct, it would show that Gitanos in the mideighteenth century constituted about 0.2 percent of the Spanish population. While the relative proportion of Gitanos to non-Gitanos has doubled and perhaps quintupled since the mid-eighteenth century, the present Gitano incidence is still estimated as ranging from at most about 0.5 to 1 percent of the total Spanish population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Gitanos in Spain, like Gypsies in many other countries, are monolingual speakers of the Language of their own countryin this case, Spanish. In the past Gitanos spoke Caló, a speech form characterized by Spanish grammar but containing words of Indic origin. It is not known when Caló emerged, but its lexical items show it to have been derived from a language akin to Romany (Romanes), the Language of the present-day Rom. Caló was entirely distinct from Germania, or "thieves' slang," of Spain, and although it penetrated Germania, the reverse did not occur to any great extent. By the mid-nineteenth century, the different local variants of Caló together constituted some 2,000 lexical items, and Gitanos could still communicate without being understood by outsiders. Today, Caló is no longer a living speech code, although isolated lexical items may be wide-spread in the speech of some Gitanos. One interesting aspect of Caló has been the attention given to it by non-Gypsy aficionados of Gypsy culture. In the nineteenth century as well as today, non-Gypsies have taught themselves to speak, and even compose poetry, in Caló. In the present climate of Gitano consciousness-raising, both Gitanos and non-Gitanos engaged in Gypsy politics have learned to speak a form of Caló (largely from written sources), have organized classes to teach Gitanos Caló, and have composed political verse in it. Caló has contributed words to spoken Iberian Spanish, and it has found a small place in the Spanish dictionaries.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest records of people who are believed to have been the first Gypsies to enter Spain are several scattered documents of safe conduct, or "passports," from the early fifteenth century. These documents refer to the "Princes and Counts of Little Egypt," and place these people in the north and northeast of Spain, where they had probably arrived after crossing the Pyrenees from France. (There is no evidence to support a popular notion that they entered Spain from North Africa.)

From the first national law about Gypsies in 1499 to the last in 1783, all Spanish decrees about Gitanos had the single goal of assimilation (only the very early laws decreed banishment for the unassimilated). To achieve this end, the laws ordered the dispersal of Gitano barrios in the cities, the separation of children from parents and their simultaneous enrollment in schools (even when schools hardly existed), with other coercive measures. Beyond everything, however, were the continuing directives attempting to compel Gitanos to participate in wage labor. These laws, which failed repeatedly, were also repeatedly reissued over three centuries. In 1783, in the last national law that was directed at Gitanos, Charles Ill's government abrogated all previous laws about Gypsies, decreed "benevolently" that Gitanos could now enter many professions (but not those of innkeepers or livestock traders), and once again ordered that they become wage laborers. The law also successfully enacted directives that had previously failed, and it forbade the use of the word "Gitano" or the then-common euphemism "Nuevos Castellanos" (New Castillans). The principal result was that Gitanos effectively disappeared from national law. This gap in the data remained until the mid-twentieth century, when Spaniards in the social services began to form associations to address the Gypsy situation.

From the 1960s on, the Catholic church and lay socialservice organizations began to concern themselves with what they called the problemática gitana, "the Gypsy question," a trenchant expression more powerful than el problema gitano, "the Gypsy problem." Today, government agencies and voluntary associations still attempt to assimilate Gitanos by bringing them into wage labor. Gitanos are no longer depicted as being noxious and dangerous to the state but Instead as being disadvantaged by centuries of prejudice, a people who need help to promocionarse, to "modernize." Brutal laws to coerce wage labor have now become social work programs for job training and other kinds of "development." A change may finally occur, even though Gitanos continue to control their own work. In the last ten years almost all Gitano children for the first time have been registered in schools. This powerful acculturating institution may eventually lead to the kind of assimilation that authorities have aimed at since the late fifteenth century. (See under "Economy.")

Although Gitanos have never constituted more than 1 percent of the total Spanish population, they have regularly come to represent part of the romantic image of Spain. Even today, travel posters and airline advertisements still portray Spain as a mosaic of bullfights, castles, and Gypsies. While romanticizing Gitanos as exotic "Others" began in the early seventeenth century with Cervantes's La Gitanitta, it was George Borrow's adventurous travel books of the mid-nineteenth century that popularized Gitanos for the European and American public. Gitanos became the subject of nineteenth-century novels and operas (by Mérimée and Bizet); of travel accounts (by Hans Christian Andersen, George Henry Borrow, Théophile Gautier); of an entire genre of nineteenth-century costumbrismo plays about the Spanish lower classes; and of numerous paintings. Like Gypsies elsewhere, Gitanos have historically been the object of elite and artistic interest in subordinate minorities. Often depicted as idealized noble savages and sometimes as depraved beings, Gitanos have embodied the fantasies of both non-Gypsy critics and champions of Spain.


Virtually all Gitanos are now sedentary, and some proportion were sedentary at least as early as the first third of the seventeenth century. We know this because of the many laws and regulations extending from 1633 through 1783 that attempted to force Gitanos to leave the Gypsy quarters, or gitanerías, and disperse themselves among the general Population. We also know about early sedentarization from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century documents that variously describe Gitanos as nomadic, seminomadic, and entirely sedentary. We do not know, however, what proportion of Gitanos were sedentary or nomadic in any period before the late twentieth century, why or how sedentarization began Earlier among Gypsies in Spain than among Gypsies elsewhere in western Europe, nor why the process was so extensive in Spain. In the past Gitanos earned their living in cities or in metropolitan centers of the countryside, such as livestock fairs. Today almost all Gitanos are urban residents, and those few who live in villages are engaged in trades (and are mostly self-employed) rather than agriculture.


Gitanos belong to a great range of economic classes and engage in many kinds of work. One of the most distinctive features of the ways they have earned a living, both historically and now, has been their avoidance of proletarianizationthat is, their resistance to losing control over the organization, schedules, and products of their own work.

Data about Gitanos' work in the past is derived principally from laws and official correspondence dating from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. These laws were repressive attempts to assimilate Gitanos by turning them into wage laborers. Authorities assumed, almost Certainly correctly, that if Gitanos became wage laborers dependent upon their employers, they would, like other Spaniards, be easier to control and supervise. Despite innumerable repressive laws and regulations directed specifically at Gitanos, however, they continued to avoid proletarianization. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, they worked in the livestock trade (an occupation that continued into the early 1940s), as traveling livestock shearers, as traveling entertainers, and as operators of inns, some of which appear to have been way stations along smuggling routes. Although the data are sparse for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it appears that Gitanos continued to remain self-employed throughout this period.

Today Gitanos still generally control the way they earn a living. Women and men work; so do children except when they are in school. Time analyses show that Gitanos work fewer hours than their non-Gitano neighbors to maintain the household. Gitanos work in the scrap trade; in the discountclothing and household-goods trades, where they sell on different days in different open-air municipal markets; in well-paid, short-term harvesting (which, although salaried, is similar to self-employment in that they control their own work schedules); as self-employed painters and whitewashers; and in a medley of other occupations. Their work organization is still characterized by the same features that characterized their work historically: a minimal overhead and a mobile place of business (such as selling in a variety of municipal markets rather than owning a shop); quick turnover of stock; income derived from multiple sources; a changing clientele; exchanges carried out in cash (including, today, transactions that involve more than $5,000); work that is labor-intensive, not capital-intensive; and revenues unencumbered by taxes. Gitanos have been highly successful, in other words, in exploiting the informal economyan economy that in Spain is not hidden or "underground" but has been calculated as constituting as much as one-third of the present gross domestic product.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. There is little evidence of organized kinship Beyond the nuclear family, and Gitano kinship terms are the same as those of other Spaniards. Some clusters, or adhesions, exist of grandparents and one or two of their married children and young grandchildren who work together and pool certain resources. These family clusters, however, are largely divided into separate, nuclear-family households, and they are not very different from non-Gypsy extended families in urban Spain. Close kin visit one another regularly, and friendship is almost always embedded in kinship.

Marriage. Marriages are still arranged for adult children if the bride can be found to be a virgin, if the parents of the potential spouses are on speaking terms, and if the marrying partners agree. Other Gitanos elope, especially if the bride cannot pass a virginity test, one of the few distinctly Gitano practices. Eloping couples return to their kin after about a month. Newly married couples tend to live for the first year with the groom's parents. Close kin, including first cousins, marry. After disputes, arranging marriages is one of the few important events that convene Gitanos beyond the level of elementary families. Links between brothers and other male kin related through either mother or father (links, that is, Between the fathers of the marrying couple) are likely to erode, and arranging marriages builds alliances between such males.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. As it is difficult to find a group or the group among Gitanos, so it is difficult to find neat patterns of elaborate social organization, ideas, or traditions. Because Gitanos do very few things together, because they avoid continuity and instead celebrate impermanence, they conserve few customs. They do have a tradition within flamenco (concentrated among Andalusians), a sometimes-practiced Virginity test for brides, and a special involvement with recently dead kin. Apart from these practices, however, their well-known, distinctive exuberance and dash is invested in Personal interaction, especially with other Gitanos, not in material objects or in "tradition." Gitanos, in fact, may be characterized as anticonservative. The way they treat custom is the way they treat material goods. As they discard and change "custom," so they consume and repurchase costly and ordinary possessions much more rapidly than their non-Gitano neighbors. Their lavish dispensation of their material inventory is not profligate (no more than, say, a Kwakiutl Potlatch) but instead is part of a larger pattern of avoiding permanence and structure. Against the background of few ongoing economic groups or religious systems (or even a cuisine) , of politics based on avoiding mobilization, and of a fluctuating interchange of allies and foes, what remains predictable is the unpredictable. The systematic configuration or pattern among Gitanos is one of avoiding patternsbut with ebullience and verve. Their resistance to continuity and Structure is a living example that demonstrates how the range of variation in human societies extends from the maximally to the minimally organized. The fact that social groups can successfully exist without intricate internal organization is an important contribution that the study of Gitanos makes to Social research in general.

Political Organization. The most characteristic feature of Gitano political organization is the absence of proper groups. Gitanos rarely act together to achieve a common end; they rarely mobilize around issues of "Gypsyness" or to gain access to resources or power. For this reason, Gitanos are best described as a cultural minority rather than as an ethnic group. Gitanos are egalitarian, and there are no statuses or offices endowing anyone with authority. There are some instances of powerful individuals who can exercise control in neighborhood disagreements and Whose occasional authority originates in their personal qualities, not in office. These men organize themselves in fluctuating bilateral kindreds with a heavy sprinkling of their own male kin. Such kindreds have sometimes been mistakenly called lineages and clans by the popular press. The data from anthropologists who have studied Gypsies, however, show an undisputed absence of unilineal corporate descent groups among Gitanos, as well as a kinship profile typical of Spain and western Europe.

In contrast to the low level of political mobilization among Gitanos themselves, many non-Gitanos in Spain organize themselves around issues concerning Gitanos. Every medium-size and large city in Spain has at least one, and often several, such organizations. This is not a new phenomenon. Since the sixteenth century, elites in Spain have organized and reproduced themselves around the tasks of regulating marginal peoples, including Gitanos. Today, Government and social-work agencies have established more than 200 offices to carry out aid-to-Gypsies programs. While these associations provide social services, they also attempt to change the Gitanos' low commitment to the institutions and values of the dominant society. In addition, a few organizations provide legal aid to defend Gitanos against local authorities. These authorities, responding to shop owners threatened by competition in an inflationary economy, prohibit Gitano street selling in areas outside public markets.

Conflict and Social Control. While Gitanos rarely work together beyond the level of a few closely related nuclear families, rarely act in concert for political ends, and rarely even congregate except for life-cycle events, there is one activity that does convene people. These are disputes. Disputes, which occur over large and small issues, do not divide people; rather, they routinely bring together kin and nonkin. There are no feuds, for although the same types of fights are reenacted recurrently, participants fluctuate and rotate as friends and enemies change places. Feuds in the Gitano context would be impossible: structuring fights into allies and foes would grind their society to a halt. (There are exceptions, of course; extreme physical force, which is unusual, can lead to permanent separations.) Disputes also delimit the moral community (Gitanos do not fight with non-Gitanos). Thus, by serving first as a locus of assemblage beyond the small Family, and second as a definer of the group boundary, quarrels produce and reproduce the connections and activities of local Gitano societies.

Quarrels and fights are also a mode of communication. More than just a locus of assemblage, they conjoin people in intimate, face-to-face relations unregulated by hierarchy, age, or gender. Among Gitanos, however, these intensely intimate interactions are not fleeting escapes from the ordinary constraints of daily social life, nor are they restricted to special events, such as rituals, pilgrimages, rebellions, and other passionate social dramas. They are, instead, secular and quotidian. This ordinary secularity is merely to be expected since sociopolitical organization is so loosely structured and egalitarian. Nevertheless, although disputes are a daily event, they remain a principal focus of the Gitano culture and a topic of steadfast, enthusiastic interest.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. Gitanos are Roman Catholics who participate in four of the church's sacraments (baptism, marriage, First Communion, and extreme unction), but they are not assiduous 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, visit their graves frequently, and spend a great deal more money than non-Gitanos of equivalent economic classes in adorning grave sites.

Arts. Flamenco is a cluster of related music and dance forms that originated in Andalusia, southern Spain. In the popular imagination, it is strongly associated with Gitanos, though there are both Gitano and non-Gitano traditions, and as yet no one is sure of flamenco's origins. In the musical tradition, the oldest Gitano songs appear to be a group of unaccompanied verses relating to prison life and other privations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Gitano flamenco artists have remained among the most well-known of Spanish performers.


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Gómez Alfaro, Antonio (1990). Notas sobre el expediente de 1749 de Carlos III. Ph.D. dissertation, Faculty of Law, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Kaprow, Miriam Lee (1982). "Resisting Respectability: Gypsies in Saragossa." Urban Anthropology 11:399-431.

Quintana, Bertha B., and Lois G. Floyd (1976). Qué Gitano: Gypsies of Southern Spain, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Reprint. 1986. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland.

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Volland, Anita (1990). "Carceleras: Gitano Prison Songs in the 18th Century." In 100 Years of Gypsy Studies, edited by Matt T. Salo, 251-266. Cheverly, Md.: Gypsy Lore Society.


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