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A separate sun new photo
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A separate sun 2
Photo by Beatriz Schulze
Sitting in Gràcia’s Plaça Raspall, observing the gypsies moving with that casual, relaxed air as if every day were Sunday, one might not imagine that the local community of Gràcia gypsies has been installed in the city as far back as the French Revolution and may well predate the plaça itself.
Two-hundred years ago, four families of Gypsies arrived in Gràcia. They moved there from La Cera in the Raval. Today, there are 120 gypsy families living in Gràcia, approximately 400 individuals. All are direct descendents of the original four families. Many share the same surname, those of the first four: Segalés, Valentí, Bastida and Amaya. The famous Catalan gypsy, Uncle Manel, who was awarded the Cross of Sant Jordi, had Valentí as his second surname.
But according to Catalan gypsies today, they don’t belong to that original class of thin and dishevelled nomads that arrived two centuries ago. No, this is an elegant, honourable and handsome group; and the majority are well set-up, owning the houses where they live.
What hasn’t changed from their predecessors is their reluctance to discuss their business with curious paios, that is, with anyone non-gypsy. They don’t like it. They’re not curious about our books or our writers. They don’t appreciate hard questions. Their laws and traditions aren’t written down and they’re not concerned with having them documented. The spoken word is everything. They’ll talk about music, yes, their own music, making certain to point out that the festa gitana is a very serious business. They’ve always followed their own laws, lived in a world of their own making that revolved around a separate sun.
Bart McDowell was a writer and senior editor at National Geographic magazine. He also authored the book, Gypsies: Wanderers of the World, which serves as a reference to understand gypsy culture. Writing in 1978, McDowell said, “They are fascinating devils and their mystery remains intact.” One of the Gypsies interviewed for McDowell’s book gave him a piece of advice that still has value, “Be careful with unfavourable things you find written or are told. Only write what you perceive with your own eyes.”
Well, the first thing one notices are the differences. Gypsies don’t have occidental features; they are clearly eastern. They think in terms of images; they don’t run with the clock; they express themselves in metaphors and place personal liberty above all else. They live distinctly, perhaps, more artistically.
One explanation for these differences may be their ethnic background. According to historians, absolutely all of the world’s gypsies migrated from the north-eastern section of the sub-Indian continent; originating from the same group of emigrés who left the Punjab a thousand years ago.
Another noticeable difference—though perhaps less noticeably so—is their peculiar way of relating with others, in particular with outsiders. Gypsies take what is useful for them and adapt all things to their own needs or tastes. This becomes evident when considering the way they view education, practice religion, express themselves musically and utilise language.
Take, for example, education. Attendance for gypsy children at the two public primary schools in Gràcia tends to be irregular. Most of the parents of these children claim to believe in the importance of education for their children, but avoid involvement in the school or its programmes, as they see the system as a contradiction. They want their children to learn to read and write, but they choose not to integrate into a culture that is clearly not their own, though this is something that they do not admit publicly.
Sociologist Carme Garriga explains that failure at the secondary school level amongst gypsy students is across the board. Gypsy children don’t graduate. They leave school at the age of 13 or 14; the boys drop out by choice and the girls end their studies to prepare for marriage. However, trends are changing and an important source of conflict has arisen as young gypsies begin to defy tradition, particularly the young women, who don’t want to be denied the chance of going to university and the opportunities they can have if they complete their studies.
Language is an interesting issue. The Gràcia gypsies have adopted Catalan as their primary language, just as the gypsies in Lleida and Perpinyà have done. This last group say (are in fact convinced!) that they speak “gypsy”—to fool the French—and when they come south are surprised at how many people speak “gypsy” here too.
Yet, all gypsies are becoming sadly aware of the loss of their native tongue, Caló Romaní. Today, very few are able to speak it. There have been some books written to document the language but, as already mentioned, within the community there is very little interest in the written word, and it seems Caló is destined to die out with the last of its speakers.
Religion is a particularly fascinating subject when it comes to Gràcia’s gypsies. The typical cold and distant Catholic mass seems unable to satisfy their need for participation. Instead, the majority of followers choose Evangelism, converting the mass into an authentic Eucharistic musical in sync with their spiritual extrovertism. But participation in the religion has a deeper social function. Church-going gypsies gather together each day to find solutions to real problems. For example, some years back, during a time when heroin addiction was rife, the religious community provided an effective support system to families, becoming a “spiritual methadone” responsible for saving many young gypsies from certain death.
The gypsy mass is a pure festival, and one cannot comprehend the gypsy soul without understanding their music. In the same way that jazz and Caribbean music are fusions inspired by the rhythms of the heart, rumba and flamenco are core to purifying pain and eliminating sorrow. The value of music born of the under class is implicit in its simple, visceral and above all else, human quality.
Barcelona’s Barrio Chino today is missing the undeniably delinquent, squalid quality of its past and for many years has not been a place where the gypsy’s presence is felt in the midst of each gathering. The community of gitanos has changed and it continues to change.
“It is no longer a problem these days to be a gypsy,” a butcher in his shop on the Plaça Raspall explains. “The problem is not having any money. There are many wealthy gypsies that people would never imagine were gypsies.” Then he compiles a list: Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton, Ron Wood, and he doesn’t forget to throw l’Emir Kusturica—who isn’t gypsy—into the mix!.But no one contradicts him.
Finally, it’s important not to forget what really counts, that those who lose their origin also lose their identity. Or as the gypsies say, authentic coins made of fake silver are worth more than fake coins made of real silver.
McDowel, Bart (1978): Los gitanos, Bcn,
Garriga, Carme (2000): Els gitanos de Barcelona: una aproximació sociològica. Ban, Ed. de la Diputació de Barcelona
San Román, Teresa (1994): La diferència inquietant. Bcn, Ed Alta Fulla.
Bagué, Gerard (14/02/2008): El cor de Perpinyà parla català. Article from El País.