In last Sunday's El País a Gypsy was featured on both the front page of the newspaper and the cover of the Sunday magazine, in two unrelated stories of people who had become accidental spokespersons, one in Spain and the other in Italy. One was Juan José Cortés (in center of photo at left, with his father and one of his brothers), a clothing merchant and Pentecostal minister in Huelva, Spain, who has become a prominent critic of the Spanish justice system, since his little daughter Mari Luz was murdered by a pervert who should have been in prison (but the judge, overworked or just distracted, had neglected to effect the sentence).
The other was 12-year old Rebecca Covaciu, originally from Rumania, who with her family had been chased from one end of Italy to the other, from Milan to Naples and finally to a secluded and secret rural area near Naples, provided by an anonymous Italian family who had read or seen on TV the family's tribulations.
The very articulate and determined Cortés was profiled and interviewed in the Sunday magazine, refused to make an issue of his ethnicity. He had never felt discriminated as a Gypsy, he said, though he thought that perhaps the Gypsies had "marginalized" themselves (by not participating fully in Spanish civil society). He himself has joined the Partido Socialista (an unusual step for a Gypsy), though he has no intention of running for office.
Rebecca's story is much sadder. She and her little brother were beaten by thugs simply for being foreign Gypsies, and when her father went to denounce the beating, he was beaten by the police -- who, it turned out, were the very same men who, in civilian clothes, had beaten the children.
Gypsies in Spain don't suffer anything like the official discrimination encouraged by the Berlusconi government in Italy, which wants to fingerprint them all and herd them into ghettos. But Gypsies, here known as gitanos, are viewed with a mix of suspicion and admiration. The common view is that they are mostly petty thieves, unreliable and disinclined to steady work -- although every Spanish payo (the Gypsy word for non-Gypsies) I know recognizes that there are exceptions.
The negative stereotype is no doubt exaggerated, but there are real problems. In Andalucía, where more than half of Spanish Gypsies live, seven out of ten children drop out before completing primary school, which makes it harder when they reach adulthood to find steady work. Almost half of those who do work (48%) are self-employed, far fewer than Spanish payos. (Actualidad Étnica) Why do the kids drop out? My guess is that in many cases they feel unwelcome in school, and have few role models in their community to encourage them to continue. And similar factors -- negative attitudes of employers, inadequate preparation and low expectations of job-seekers -- certainly account for the poor employment levels. But if anyone doubts gitano capacities to acquire the needed skills and make good, check out the impressive video of Acceder, an "affirmative action program" that has had great success in preparing gitanos in interview as well as work skills and getting tens of thousands placed in good, skilled jobs throughout Spain.
The admiration is for their lively, rebellious spirit, whose greatest expression is in their music, especially flamenco dance, guitar and percussion of palmas or cajón.
I've been puzzled by this strong Spanish ambivalence toward people that I have a hard time distinguishing from everybody else. Payos insist that they can recognize a gitano when they see one. I don't know. Most of them look like other Spaniards to me (check out the BBC's photos of European Gypsies in Testimonios : Los gitanos "europeos", to see if you can identify them). They are believed to have originated in Northwest India, and yes, there are some Spanish Gypsies who look to me more like Pakistanis or Indians. The flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala", for example. But in the many generations since they first appeared in Spain in the early 15th century, they have mixed their genes with the local population so that in most cases (at least for me) its hard to tell, and except when performing, they dress like everybody else. Foreign Gypsies, mostly from Rumania or ex-Yugoslavia, are more identifiable -- they often don't speak good Spanish, travel in bunches and dress very colorfully. These foreigners, especially the conspicuous beggars, can be an embarrassment to the more assimilated Spanish Gypsies.
Anyway, the question comes up because there are several gitano families here in Carboneras, whom I'm learning to identify as I get to know them. They are clustered in particular sections of town, and those I recognize are either manual laborers or unemployed -- I suppose there must be some with white-collar and even executive positions, but then they cease to be visible as Gypsies. And the other reason for my interest is the stirring flamenco music --where many (though by no means all) of the outstanding performers are, or pretend to be, Gypsies. And I'm one of a little group of guys who get together to try to perform it and improve our playing, every Saturday at midday. Some of the guys I practice with may really be Gypsies. The others, like Federico García Lorca in his Romancero gitano, are admirers or wannabes.