Essays - My Friends, the Gypsies

My town, Montefrio, has a large gypsy community, and over the years the local gitanos have, I believe, come to think of me as their friend. I have always been fascinated by gypsies, and even thought of myself as one at heart, having lived in a footloose way. The history of their travels is, as you will see, even more fantastic than that of the Jews, although being unwritten, much more obscure.

We now know that the gypsies originated in the Punjab in northwestern India, fleeing from the region during the clashes between invading Arab and Mongolian warriors, a thousand years ago. On their long odyssey, they travelled through, and settled in, the countries of the Middle East, including Persia and Egypt. Those who moved on from Egypt cultivated the legend that they were descendants of the Pharaohs, a belief to which many of their songs still refer. They also settled in Turkey, then known as Egypt Minor, and it was either their association with Egypt itself or this "other" Egypt that they became known as Gypcians. In old Spanish, in any case, gitano was simply a way of saying Egyptian... Those who had been in Greece were, in like manner, called Graecians. But in fact, because they had no writing, they had forgotten where they really came from.

They reached Spain in the early 15th century and quickly spread all over the country. Although they were not expelled along with the Moors and Jews during the 16th century, partly because they represented no threat to the supremacy of reunified, Christian Spain, and partly because it was simply too difficult to physically get hold of them all, they were eventually forced to give up their Romaní language (now identified by linguists as a simplified version of Sanskrit), as well as their nomadic ways. Today's Spanish gypsies speak to one another in Castilian Spanish and live in wheel-less homes.

They made their living as tinkers (smithies or pot-makers), re-weaving the backs and seats of old chairs, as wandering musicians, fortune-tellers and, of course, begging and stealing. This earned them a bad reputation which, sadly, has not disappeared over the course of time, even though most modern gypsies - at least, most of the ones I know in Montefrio - are essentially honest, hard-working people. In fact, the gypsies were so feared that until the end of the 18th century they were forced to live several miles from the nearest town. In Montefrio, the place where they once built their huts is still known as "The Cliffs of the Gypsies" - although Las Peñas de los Gitanos, whose forbidding canyons I can see from the porch of my farmhouse, is better known for the remains of the prehistoric and ancient civilizations with which it is littered...

Although the gypsies of Montefrio are no longer forced to live in huts 2 miles from the town, almost all of them today have their modest homes in the high, less accessible barrios. Relations with the payos or non-gypsies are peaceful but very reserved. As in the United States before Little Rock, the gypsies stay in their places, and the others just try to forget they exist.

Although the obvious comparison with Faulkner-style racism seems justified when one hears the frightful things that the locals have to say about them, the similarity between the two situations ends there - that is, with the non-gypsies' rejection of the gypsies. For one thing, unlike Afro-Americans, there are very few gypsies in Spain - about half a million, or 1% of the population - which means that they have very little political clout and virtually no economic importance. For another, they were not deliberately imported to perform an indispensable and status-giving economic activity as were the slaves - rather, they wandered in from France or sailed over from North Africa, mixed up with Berber tribesmen, and simply got lost in the great ethnic shuffle of medieval Spain, becoming an uninvited and unwanted lumpen. As Franco put it, España es grande - there tends to be room for everyone.

This is why, until today, the gypsies have never taken part in the mainstream of Spanish life, literally living in a world of their own. In Montefrio, for example, no known gypsy has ever held a steady job. One highly presentable young man I know, who after working as a barman in Mallorca decided to come home to live in his own town, was unable to find work in any of our 40-odd taverns, because none of the tavern-keepers would have - or would risk the discredit of having - a gypsy serving in his place. He went back to Mallorca - but the Balearics, of course, are not really Spain.

However, I am the last person to accuse Spaniards of being run-of-the-mill racists, by any means. When I brought my black Brazilian wife to live here, the villagers - after recovering from the initial shock - took her into their hearts; and our café con leche coloured daughter Nina is today one of the most popular children in town. But there's no way around it - they don't like the gitanos.

Why? The usual clichés about being dirty and thieving hardly hold water, since all of our gypsies have, and use, toilets and baths like everyone else, and the town is virtually crime-free. Neither is it the colour of their skin, as proven by Paula and Nina's prestige in these parts. Rather, it is that the gypsies have kept their own customs, their own way of living, their own - as the payos see it - retrograde values. They live by their own law, only seeking the approval of their own fellows, oblivious to what the others (the payos) are doing or thinking. In fact, by 20th century bourgeois standards, they are not fully civilised.

The payos sneer with contempt, for example, at their sexual customs. While the word "virgin" today in an Andalusian village can only be safely applied to early adolescents and the Madre de Dios whose effigy is paraded through the streets in Holy Week, the gypsies still consider the innocence of their girls to be a sine qua non for marriage, and they make a public ritual of certifying it, in their legendary bodas - some of which still end in sangre, just as in Lorca's famous drama. Not long ago, a fight broke out in a wedding near Granada, because the two families did not agree on the result of the ritual examination of the bride's hymen. As is customary, the bride was angrily rejected by the groom and enjoined to take her case to "he who did the damage" (the set phrase for such occasions - ¡Que lo pague quien lo hizo!). Thereupon, the negative verdict of the supposedly impartial female judge was contested by the bride's family, long curved knives were flicked open, there were several stabbings and, in the general stampede to get out of the sala de bodas, one woman was run over by a passing truck.

But the gypsy wedding I attended was all rejoicing and beauty - albeit of a rather uncivilised kind, which made it all the more exciting. The lovely 17 year old bride, our neighbour Paqui, walked down from El Coro (our gypsy neigbourhood) in a cloud of white chiffon on the arm of her father, Conejo (Rabbit, as he is known), between two rows of admiring neighbours - even the payos came out to gape. In the great round church, the mothers of bride and groom stood by the altar until the priest had finished his standard sermon and then, with great feeling, sang lamenco marriage chants into the microphone, one of which, I remember, spoke of the union of "gitano con gitana". As they left the church, a white dove was released into the air, a symbol of the bride's purity, soon to fly away.

But the most romantic thing of all was the place in which the reception was held. Most of the village's salas de bodas (banquet halls) refuse to cater to the gypsies, saying that the raucous singing and dancing goes on too long, and the owner of the one restaurant that usually does, on the outskirts of town, refused too because his wife was in poor health and didn't feel up to it. So the gypsies went to the mayor, who gave them the key to our monumental 16th century church (disused) on the cliff overlooking the town.

There must have been 500 people there, of whom we (with the de rigeur exception of the village photographer, immortalizing it all on video) were the only non-gypsies (for some strange reason, I am unable to think of an Anglo-Saxon and two Afro-Brazilians as being payos). As we ate the usual wedding fare of cold prawns, mayonnaise, jamón serrano and what-not, a long line formed before the bride and groom who sat in state at the front of the church, receiving their gifts. I took my place and contributed the standard amount one is supposed to give. As I did so, I leaned over towards the groom to say, "How lucky you are!". For an instant he snapped out of his solemn pose and with a huge grin exclaimed, "¡A que sí!" which means, approximately, "Isn't it so!".

Paqui was then taken away by the two mothers and an old gypsy woman with a great mane of white hair, who, it was explained to me, was a virginity examiner (the actual expression for what she does is sacar la honra, or "display the honour"), who had been brought especially all the way from Cadiz, at great expense: 100,000 pesetas for the night's work, which is more than the minimum monthly wage. The reason why the sacaora, as she is known, has to come from so far away is, they said, to ensure her impartiality...

An hour later the three women and Paqui (who looked sheepishly proud, as if she had just been awarded her high school diploma) were back: the "judge" entered the church screaming and holding up a large white handkerchief embroidered in each corner with three red roses (this is because, generations ago, three corners of the handkerchief were twisted together to form a lancet which actually deflowered the girl, and came out stained in blood). I drew closer and could observe that there was a yellowish stain in the middle of the handkerchief, which showed signs of having been creased. The current, more "civilised" procedure is for the judge to wrap the handkerchief around her finger and introduce it in the vagina to feel, rather than break the hymen.

The people were beside themselves with joy, and they lifted the fathers of the bride and groom on their shoulders and carried them about the nave of the church triumphantly, as both of them (and this is also a ritual gesture) threw off their jackets and proceeded to tear their shirts into shreds. Soon they were totally bare from the waist up, waving their arms and yelling - all this in near-freezing temperature, since it was a particularly cold month of December.

Then a large circle was formed, with the guitarist and several singers to one side, in which each of the women, one by one, went into the lists to dance. I have never before or after seen such jubilant, exultant flamenco dancing; each of them, in that impossible "kitschy" finery which the gitanas favour, with dresses which look like tassled velvet curtains and outlandish hair-dos and jewellery to match, was literally putting her best foot forward to celebrate the occasion.

Recently, a village friend asked me scornfully why I was so fond of the gypsies. I answered, flippantly, but quite sincerely, "Because they help me to have fun!".

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