The history of Spanish Gypsies is more complicated than one of traveling beggars—they were an essential part of the development of modern Spanish culture. Here is their story.
When I was in Madrid in the late 1970s, we lived in the north of the city on Plaza de Castilla. Just beyond the square there was a large squatter village of Gypsies. We saw women with small children begging on many street corners, and sometimes a violinist played in the square. One of my Spanish friends told me to give them a coin or they would curse me with the “evil eye.” I dutifully kept coins in my pocket for charity, and sometimes crossed the street if I didn’t have any change. I wondered who these Gypsies were who seemed both a central part of Spanish society while also being on the fringes.
This is a transcript from the video series The History of Spain: Land on a Crossroad. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Who are the Roma People?
I should start with a note on terminology. Today, it is customary to refer to Gypsies as the “Rom” or “Roma” people. This term refers to recent (100 years or so ago) immigration of Gypsies from Eastern Europe, and groups who had been in Spain longer called themselves other names.
Who are the Gitanos?
Older immigrants were known by many different names. The term “Gypsy” – Gitano – was used in Spain, and it is derived from the word “Egypt,” since the first arrivals claimed they were from the Nile region. The Gitanos spoke caló, a dialect derived from Latin but with various other languages mixed in. Some Spanish sources refer to these travelers as calé, “black,” a caló word referring to their darker skin.
Gitanos are close-knit groups, who define themselves in contrast with outsiders. In most places Gypsies speak Romani, and in this language the common word for non-Gypsies is gadzé [Gadz], but in caló Spanish, non-Gypsies are called payo. Throughout their history, this has been the significant characteristic of Gypsy groups: they are separate from the surrounding society, wherever they are. So, where did they come from?
Travelers from India
Linguistic analysis of Gypsy dialects shows that all the Gypsy peoples originated in India. Small groups left the subcontinent sometime between 300 BC and AD 600. This huge date range shows only that we don’t have the sources to tell for sure.
A charming tale from medieval Persia (today’s Iran) tells of the arrival of Gypsies from India: The story goes that the Persian king wanted his people to work only half a day and spend the rest of their time eating and drinking to the sound of music. His people claimed they didn’t know how to make music. The king then sent for 10,000 male and female musicians to come from India.
The king gave them food and supplies and sent them to the countryside to work the land and play music. The Indian travelers recklessly ate everything without working. The king was angered and told them they should load their donkeys and travel the country never settling down. They were to earn their living by singing. Once they began this itinerant life, they began to be called Gypsies.
The Gypsies agreed to leave, and as the text relates the people “now wander the world, seeking employment, associating with dogs and wolves, and thieving on the road by day and by night.”
This founding myth followed the Gypsy bands as they slowly wandered through Iran and into Eastern Europe by the early fourteenth century. By the time they appeared in Europe, they had come up with a new origin story that would give them entrance to Christendom.
Learn more about the origins of human settlement on the Iberian Peninsula
Their Origin Story
They claimed that they were from Egypt, and when the Holy Family fled there, the Gypsies refused to give them shelter. Because of this, they were assigned a penance of seven years of wandering. This story was often accompanied by documents of support – some clearly false – as from the pope, but along the way they persuaded other leaders to give them documents allowing them entry into lands and cities.
A second Christian story claimed that the Gypsies made four nails to crucify Christ, but they stole one to save Christ some suffering. Some Gypsies claimed that this holy deed gave them license to steal from non-Gypsies even as they were sentenced to wander for making the first three nails. This was not a founding myth that endeared them to others, but both stories claimed they were told to stay on the move, and they did.
It seems strange that Gypsies would come up with a story that would not make them look good to Christians, but medieval people (like many today) loved redemption stories. Christians were frequently doing pilgrimages to expiate their own sins, and the most legitimate explanation for traveling was to fulfill a vow or to pray at shrines. Furthermore, people who gave charity to such pilgrims felt they gained spiritual merit. Gypsies fit right in and gates were opened.
At first, the great oak gates of walled cities opened for them and citizens welcomed the strangers into their towns. People gazed in wonder at the flowing costumes and talented dancers as they dropped coins into bowls as Gypsies played music. Fortune-tellers acquired even more coins by promising love and prosperity to the longing.
Then some people noticed their purses had been lifted and that food and goods had disappeared from their windows. As you can imagine, the Gypsies’ welcome wore thin, and they moved on.
Theirs was a life of movement and social cohesiveness. Everything depended on family ties and loyalty to kin. This was so pronounced that Gypsies arranged marriage, frequently between cousins (though first cousins were considered too close). Sometimes clans would expand by marriage with a neighboring group, but family ties mattered more than anything else.
When Did the Gypsies Arrive in Spain?
As the tight-knit family groups wandered, they came to Spain. Like all the travelers before, some came across the Pyrenees and others across the Mediterranean. The earliest known document relating to Gypsies in Europe dates from January 12, 1425. Alfonso V of Aragon issued a safe-conduct through his kingdom, which extended from the Pyrenees south to Valencia, encompassing northeastern Spain.
The safe-conduct was issued to “Sir John from Little Egypt,” though of course, he wasn’t from Egypt at all. The pass included his band, and it was good for three months. But they weren’t the last band to be welcomed into Spain. For the next several decades, records show that various bands of Gitanos were welcomed into Spain and received safe-conduct. By the 1470s, new waves came from the Mediterranean. These groups called themselves Greeks and claimed they were fleeing from the Muslim Turks, seeking sanctuary in Christian Spain.