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Spanish Gypsies

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Imagine yourself pleasantly ambling through picturesque El Retiro Park in the heart of Madrid, Spain. You haven't a care in the world, and you greatly enjoy soaking up the serene atmosphere around you. All of a sudden a raspy voice breaks your concentration and asks, '¿Quieres que yo te leo tu fortuna?' - 'Do you want your fortune read?'. You try to flee, but your persecutor is relentless, chasing you, offering to tell you who the love of your life will be and claiming to know what fate and destiny have in store for you. You respond with an emphatic 'No', and even giggle a bit at what seems to be a preposterous offer...

Abruptly, she stops and stomps with fury. You figure she's only a harmless old gypsy cliché, not to be taken too seriously, but as you walk away, she screeches what you've been secretly dreading since the initial encounter... '¡Eh, la ruina de tu vida!' - 'May your life be ruined!'.

No doubt about it, you've just been cursed.

Certainly not all gypsy encounters are unpleasant like this real life example, but in order to avoid such an experience, one must understand the history and culture of the gypsy people.


Sources of information on gypsy history vary greatly, and some sources even contradict each other, as their oral history has become distorted over time and was not recorded for many centuries. According to some sources, the gypsies originally lived in the Punjab region of India, but they fled their homeland for safety during the wars between the Mongols and the Arabs about 1000 years ago. Because many settled in Egypt for a considerable length of time, they began to identify closely with that region. Again, because their history was not written or recorded in any way, many in subsequent generations forgot their roots. Consequently, the gypsies (who call themselves Rom) were dubbed 'Gypcians' in English, which was later shortened to 'gypsies'. Today, in Spanish, they are known as gitanos, but in Old Spanish this word referred to Egyptians.

Much of what is known about gypsy history today is based on linguistic research. Because gypsies are a nomadic people, they live all over the world, not just in Spain. However, their language, Romani Chib, while varied in different regions, still shows evidence of a common origin, as it contains elements of Punjabi, Hindi, and Dardic languages. The European gypsies have also borrowed from the Armenian and Iranian languages, as they would have passed through areas where those languages are spoken on their way to Europe. The gypsies of Spain, in the far west of Europe, even show linguistic evidence of having sojourned in Greece before arriving in Spain.

In Spain, the first record of the gypsies' arrival was in Zaragoza in 1425, but most are believed to have arrived via Barcelona in 1447. From there, the gypsies moved to various regions throughout the country. When they arrived, many gypsies were forced to steal and beg for money. This earned them a bad reputation which still thrives to a certain extent today.

While the gypsies were not persecuted to the same extent as the Moors and Jews in the 16th Century, (because they were a small, scattered population and not a political threat), some were nonetheless persecuted during that time due to their non-Christian beliefs. Some Christian marriages were forced, and mainstream society deliberately excluded the gypsy people by banning them from mainstream events and denying their language and rituals. Even in the 18th Century, the gypsies were still feared and forced to live a certain distance outside of Spanish cities.

Today, while the gypsies have more rights than they did previously, they still live nomadic lives outside the status quo. Unfortunately, this means many negative stereotypes still prevail today, as well. At least in Spain's bigger cities, beggars and pickpockets are common, but these may or may not be real gypsies. Contrary to their reputation, many gypsies are hardworking people.

As you probably already have guessed, while some gypsies do work that is readily accepted by mainstream society, such as flamenco dancing or tatting lace1, others earn their livelihood by less accepted practices. The gypsy mentioned in the anecdote above, for example, was practising fortune telling. While many Spanish gypsies have adopted the Catholic beliefs of the people around them, they have not given up their Romaniya beliefs. These include such practices as fortune telling, (predicting the future), which they do for profit, but not among themselves; another type of fortune telling which they do practise among themselves, called 'advising', which is a kind of healing ritual; and last but not least, curses.

Rules of Etiquette in Gypsy Territory

If you wish to avoid a gypsy curse like the one in the anecdote above, you must first remember that the gypsies really do believe in things that mainstream society might deem superstitious. Therefore, it is probably a bad idea to giggle or scoff, even if an approaching fortune teller claims to know your destiny and who your true love shall be.

Sometimes gypsies can be seen performing on the street. The gypsies are well known for their beautiful flamenco dancing, and in such places as Las Ramblas in Barcelona, you can often catch a lively performance. As with any street performance though, you should always throw a coin if you decide to take a picture of the dancer. Otherwise, you ought not be surprised if the gypsy dancer chases you down and forces you to pay.

Finally, gypsies who are skilled in crafts often sell them on the street. For example, outside the cathedral in Segovia, Spain, several gypsy women regularly sell exquisite handmade lace tablecloths. As with any street merchant, they can be somewhat aggressive, so if uninterested, you might choose to avoid them altogether. However, travellers need not be afraid to buy something. You need only to take out the money discreetly before approaching them, as with any street merchant. Then after a bit of bartering, you can walk away with a gorgeous handmade souvenir.

In Conclusion...

While the gypsies may seem frightening to some, they do add components of mystery and even beauty to Spanish culture. See? Now if only you'd been just a bit more knowledgeable of gypsy culture (or more open minded to fortune telling) before you went ambling through El Retiro Park that fateful summer afternoon, you wouldn't have suddenly found yourself lost for 45 minutes in a torrential electrical storm, up to your ankles in standing water, in a region where it hardly ever rains...

... after being cursed by an angry gypsy.

Further Reading

For those interested in a more detailed study of Romani linguistics, visit The Patrin Web Journal - The Language of the Roma (Gypsies)

For those interested in a more detailed study of Romani beliefs, visit The Patrin Web Journal - Romani (Gypsy) Beliefs

1A process of creating lace by repeatedly looping and knotting (by hand) a strand of linen in various ways, on a small tool called a shuttle. This site has many examples of lace produced in this way.

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