The Spanish Gypsy
The History of a European Obsession
The Spanish Gypsy
The History of a European Obsession
“To my knowledge, this is the only work to date that retraces both the historical and anthropological studies concerning the Spanish Gypsies in concert with the numerous literary texts and visual representations that they have elicited throughout the ages. I would not be surprised if it became the standard reference work in the field.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Charnon-Deutsch starts her story in the Middle Ages and proceeds to show how Europeans came to revere but also fear Gypsies because of their nomadic way of life and the freedoms it seemed to allow. Much of Charnon-Deutsch's information is drawn from historical and sociological studies, but she also proposes new readings of literature, starting with Cervantes's "Precious Jewel of Love" and moving on to the vogue for Gypsy subjects that arose in the Romantic era.
This fascinating book reaches its culmination in the chapters devoted to Spain's embrace of Gypsy myth and lore. Here the range of materials broadens to include music, dance, and the visual arts. Although the primary audience for Charnon-Deutsch's study will be students of Spanish social and cultural history, it will also be essential reading for all those interested in a group of people who remain the least understood ethnic minority in Europe.
“To my knowledge, this is the only work to date that retraces both the historical and anthropological studies concerning the Spanish Gypsies in concert with the numerous literary texts and visual representations that they have elicited throughout the ages. I would not be surprised if it became the standard reference work in the field.”
“Richly illustrated, breezily and beautifully written, well researched and theorized, this book is now obligatory reading for all who would attempt to rethink the enduring and complicated myth of the gypsies in Spain.”
“It unquestionably represents an indispensable contribution and a reference tool in the fields of Romani Studies and Spanish Cultural Studies.”
“The examination of sources is exhaustive, leaving no stone unturned, and the gathering of materials offers much valuable information for the researcher. [C]harnon-Deutsch has laid the ground and marked the territory for future scholars.”
Lou Charnon-Deutsch is Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literature at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She is the author of Narratives of Desire: Nineteenth-Century Spanish Fiction by Women (1994) and Fictions of the Feminine in the Nineteenth-Century Spanish Press (1999), both published by Penn State Press.
List of Illustrations
1. Cervantes, Precious Jewel of Love
2. The Discovery of the Romantic Spanish Gypsy
3. Spreading the Good Word
4. The Legacy of the Romany Rye
Sources that speak about Gypsies are never very trustworthy.
-Teresa de San Román, La diferencia inquietante, xvii
Miracle in Seville
When asked to picture in their mind the Gypsies, many people, especially those with little or no contact with real Romany people, conjure up images of flamenco dancers, colorful wagons, dark-eyed fortune-tellers, horse traders, tinkers, a panoply of picturesque figures that invoke the stereotypes of the Romantic era. Shortly before his death in 1997, the prolific novelist James Michener succumbed to the temptation to revisit some of the most hackneyed of Gypsy stereotypes he had earlier mostly avoided in Iberia (1968), as a backdrop to a book that showcased his status as serious aficionado of the bullfight. In Miracle in Seville (1995), a bizarre novella that Michener called a fantasy, an American journalist tells the story of two powerful women who battle it out during Holy Week festivities in Seville: a luminous and compassionate Virgin Mary and an evil Gypsy fortune-teller Magdalena López. The battle between heaven’s benevolent powers and Gypsy black magic and animal cleverness, in other words, between good and evil, is as old as the stones in the bridge that separate the real Spain of the Triana Gypsy district from the glittering streets of Seville on the opposite side of the Guadalquivir River.
Thinking back on their supernatural powers, the narrator muses that women possess an arcane power to influence men, making them see visions and influencing them to perform acts they would not normally commit. The Virgin intercedes on behalf of the proprietor of a famous bull ranch who hopes to stage a comeback for his bulls. The Gypsy applies her dark magic to protect her cowardly brother from the horns of a fierce bull and the crowd’s anger at his cowardice. Michener’s scraggly bullfighter Lázaro López incarnates many of the worst commonplaces of the male Gypsy stereotype. The narrator, an American journalist, derides him as an unlikely bearer of the proud tradition of matador. His style is full of flare and daring in the early stages of the bullfight, but when in the end the bull charges and the matador must plant his feet for the kill, his bravery deserts him and he resorts to shameless tricks to exit the bullring. Immune to the jeers of the spectators, he beats a hasty retreat, dodging the cushions and bottles thrown at him from the stands. In the taverns of Triana, however, López is a boastful and pompous ass, a hero to the Gypsies who pathetically gather around him and revere him as someone who has made it.
While the Gypsy bullfighter symbolizes all that is wrong with the Spanish male Gypsy, his sister Magdalena, pictured in Figure 1, is a much more complex figure who evokes the mystery and lure of the unknown. The purpose of my book is to trace and analyze the many influences that have cast their shadow over such figures as Michener’s mysterious fortune-teller Magdalena. I focus especially on what many writers before Michener imagined as the arcane power of Gypsy women to influence men to perform acts they would not normally commit. Chief among these is the Carmen myth that is perennially reborn in European and American culture. Michener’s fantasy is one of hundreds of musical, artistic, and literary works set not far from that famous cigarette factory where Carmen with the rose between her teeth bewitched the Spanish captain sent to guard her. In the battle between the Virgin and the Gypsy in Michener’s novella, the Gypsy woman triumphs, possibly because hers is the power of the sexual predator and her visage is that of the kind of woman men do not forget, with flashing eyes that seemed to throw sparks. In reality of course, Magdalena is unforgettable because she is a product of a collective memory, a fatally attractive woman who flashes her eyes across four centuries in all forms of art, joining the ranks of the Virgin Mary as one of the most ubiquitous icons of Western culture.
Magdalena’s people are imagined as belonging to another world, often associated with Egypt as here in Michener’s version, insinuating themselves into European societies through trickery and monumental scams. In Michener’s version, the Gypsies had crossed into Spain 500 years earlier and had bamboozled the king of Spain into believing that they were collecting money to rescue an isolated group of Christians from Muslim tyranny somewhere in Egypt. As will be clear in the following chapters, there are hundreds of stories of how this foreign import came to occupy such an important symbolic space in the Western imaginary. This book, then, is not about the real Romany, even though it is dedicated to those very real victims who lost their lives in the Holocaust, but about the idealized and sometimes demonized figure of the Spanish Gypsy, conceived throughout hundreds of years as a foreign and exotic presence who stealthfully imported something of the East into the West that hundreds of years have been unable to eradicate.
Myths of Gypsy Origin and Being
One of the reasons that Gypsies hold such fascination is that they play an important role in the evolution of Western myths of origin and being. Who am I? and Where do I come from? are among the oldest questions implicit in the complex genealogies of every European culture. At some point in its evolution, every self-proclaimed nation provides itself with a spontaneous anthropology to answer these questions in the most gratifying way. What concerns me in this introduction to the imaginary Gypsy are two related questions that underpin myths of origin: Who are they? and Where do they come from? To understand Europe’s centuries-old investment in the Gypsy as a quintessential other residing problematically on home ground requires a discussion not of sameness but of otherness and othering, and ultimately of racism in the modern, anthropological configurations it came to have in the nineteenth century.
The story begins much earlier, however, with medieval myths of origin that eventually gave rise to racialized thinking in the regions of premodern Europe where groups of people either called or calling themselves Egyptians first migrated eastward into modern-day Germany. The task of tracing their myths of origin and migrations is complicated for two reasons, first because, as historians and anthropologists have so meticulously documented, myths of origin differ substantially from region to region even among groups considered consanguineous; and, second, myths are susceptible to striking reversals depending on the ruling classes to which their spokespersons owe allegiance. Thus, at various moments in French history the Franks were champions of liberty and independence or, as Voltaire considered them, ferocious beasts in search of pasture, of shelter, and of some protection against the snow. Their predecessors the Gauls were either inferior barbarians easily conquered by the Romans and later the Franks, as portrayed by some Enlightenment writers, or noble serfs of a proud Celtic heritage, as the children of the French Revolution chose to understand them. Little wonder, then, that myths of origin assigned by dominant groups to marginalized groups who have never risen to positions of great political or economic power should seem so unremarkable or even ignominious, for how else could the pedigree of the dominant peoples who fashioned them be contrasted with that of subjugated groups?
For this reason the earliest European myths regarding the origins and migrations of the Roma/Romany peoples are singularly unheroic. Their arrival in Persia is one of the more fanciful accounts of their migration out of India. In the historian Hamza of Esfahan’s version (c. 950), Bahram Gor, a Sasanian Perisan king, persuaded the king of India to send 12,000 Zott musicians, the Romany ancestors, to entertain his troops in 400 C.E. The appearance of Egyptians, as they were often called in the Balkans and later in Eastern Europe, is usually associated with the great struggles among warring empires in which the Roma played only a minor service role, according to later historians. Most of the accounts describing their appearance in the Balkans coincide with advances or declines of the Byzantine Empire. For example, in some accounts the Byzantines brought the Zotts to Constantinople as slaves from their raids on Syria in 855. In other accounts the Seljuk Turks drove them into the Western Byzantine Empire beginning in the mid-eleventh century during their raids into Armenia. Some hold them to be remnants of the Ottoman Turks attached to the invading armies who lingered in Eastern Europe after a defeat of the Byzantine empire in 1071, and many early Europeans simply identified them with heathen Saracens.
In the Middle Ages, the myths and legends that grew up around the Egyptians often reflected the protoracism inherent in Christian biblical genealogies: They were descendants of Ham, forever marked by the sins of Cain; they had denied succor to the Holy Family as it fled into Egypt and so were cursed to wander the world to atone for their refusal; they were the Egyptians of the old Testament, who, Ezekiel prophesized, would be dispersed among the nations; they had denied their Christian faith and were being punished by forced pilgrimage for five years, or ten, or forever; they were survivors of the Pharaoh’s armies that had driven the Hebrews out of Egypt; or, finally, they were a people forever cursed after they participated in the death of the Christ by making the nails with which he was crucified.
By comparing early Romany history and early European preracism, we see also that the arrival of Romany groups in Central Europe coincided with the earliest versions of the myth of pre-Adamic peoples or, as it was commonly called, polygeny, which Kenan Malik has shown was crucial in the formation of the modern meaning of race. Already in the fourteenth century, European philosophers were beginning to challenge biblical genealogies that traced all human origins to one man, speculating that Adam may have been preceded by other groups of people perhaps originating in India rather than the Middle East. The discovery of new continents with indigenous peoples lacking all knowledge of either classical or biblical genealogies widened speculation about race and fueled debates about a universal descent from Adam. Religious genealogies were gradually replaced or fused with new discourses on race that came to be used more and more as a measure of sameness and difference and ultimately as justification for further marginalizing minorities or subjugating conquered peoples. Peoples were still forced into slavery based on whether they were thought to be sons of Adam. For example, American Indians won this lottery to the detriment of Africans imported to South America as slaves. But decisions affecting whole populations increasingly relied on the degree of perceived whiteness and other physiological or atavistic characteristics, thus giving rise to the complex racial classifications that would become so important to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers.
This shift in myths became especially pronounced during the Enlightenment with the rise of the new sciences of man, notably physical anthropology and linguistics. The establishment of the family tree of Indo-European languages dates at least as far back as William Jones’s 1788 essay on Sanskrit. Sanskrit studies fueled the complex theories that fused biblical and anthropological accounts of human descent. In the late 1700s Immanuel Kant sought, as others did, to find modern validation for the Great Flood. Reasoning that Tibet was the cradle of civilization since it had the highest mountains, Kant speculated that Noah’s ark must have landed there. This turned out to be a useful argument for German nationalists seeking to valorize German’s Aryan derivation. If Noah’s ark had landed in India and not in the Middle East, then the Indo-Germanic race would be able to claim the most direct, least contaminated link with human origins. Many of the earliest arguments about the racial purity of the German race were linked with such reasoning about Noah’s connection to the Aryan race. Poliakov speculates that in part the turn to India was an effort to devise a rival origin to that of the Hebrew pantheon, in other words, the shift had protoracist undertones. Eventually, German thinkers lined up to "extricate [themselves] from Judeo-Christian fetters." For example, Johann Gottfried Herder, in Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Outlines of the philosophy of the history of man, 1784—91), was one of several contemporary German scholars who vigorously denied a Hebrew genealogy in favor of an Indian pantheon.
Ironically, during this time when some European nations were redesigning their myths of origin in favor of an Aryan ascendance, linguists were busy verifying the Indian origin of the Romani language. Romani dialects first became an object of interest in 1775—76 when a series of articles in a German-language Hungarian journal, the Wiener Anzeigen (Viennese notices), reported that a Hungarian pastor named István Váli had noticed an affinity between Romani and the dialect of Malabar students attending the University of Leiden. A few years later Heinrich Grellmann in Die Zigeuner (The Gypsies, 1782) ventured the theory that the groups he loosely identified as Zigeuner were a separate people who, based on linguistic studies, could be traced to an Indian homeland. For the next hundred years, linguists would examine more closely the Romani dialects of Eastern Europe and ratify Grellmann’s conclusion that Gypsies were racially akin to Indians. By 1870 when Alexandre Paspati published his influential Études sur les Tchinghianés ou bohémiens de l’Empire Ottoman (Studies on the Gypsies or Bohemians of the Ottoman empire), which purported to trace the earliest migrations of the Roma, it was generally accepted by philologists that Romani and certain Indian languages had a common Sanskrit origin. It then became expedient to distinguish the strains of Sanskrit to differentiate the groups that had migrated out of India and to establish a hierarchy of Indo-European peoples in which Gypsies, thought to be descendants of the pariah or low caste, were either excluded or assigned to the lowest category of migratory groups.
Like their Enlightenment predecessors, the Romantics expressed great admiration for Indian language, philosophy, architecture, and religion. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the cult of Indian culture had reached an apogee with Carl Schlegel’s 1808 essay Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der Indier (On the language and wisdom of the Indians). But with the rise of the physical sciences and the concomitant waning of the importance of biblical genealogies, philologists and anthropologists began devising other classificatory systems besides language to assess the value and origins of marginal groups. Depending on their lifestyles and professions, for example, groups were scaled on a grid with nature on one end and civilization and progress on the other. For some nineteenth-century thinkers, Gypsies represented a valuable link with nature that had been lost to modern societies. In 1882 the British philologist Charles G. Leland praised the wanderers he met along country byways who inhabited the scenery instead of houses. If you long to be a bird flying south for the winter, he rhapsodized, then you are not far from the spirit of the Bohemians: They are human, but in their lives they are between man as he lives in houses and the bee and bird and fox, and I cannot help believing that those who have no sympathy with them have none for the forest and road and cannot be rightly familiar with the witchery of wood and wold. Gypsies should be treasured instead of reviled, he reasoned, since they represent links which connect the simple feeling of nature with romance. Like children they lack the words to express the sense of nature and its charm, but they have this sense, and there are very, very few who, acquiring culture, retain it. For Leland and some of his Gypsyphile friends, there was an affinity between Gypsies and a vanishing femininity that everywhere was being replaced by intellect and fashion. If Gypsies could be imagined as a prelapsarian people who lived in happy communion with nature, as Leland and many others of his generation imagined them, then hatred of Gypsies would be akin to hatred of dogs or trees. The problem is, of course, that hating dogs and trees might seem foolish to a Gypsyologist like Leland, but liking or disliking animals or plants was a matter of taste, not of social justice, and justice for Gypsies was in short supply in Leland’s England.
What struck Leland most about modern-day Gypsies was the fact that they were wanderers. In Poliakov’s opinion, this fascination with the wandering Gypsy is related to man’s primitive narcissism, the universal aspiration to recover an archaic stage before individuation. Exalting nature was also an affront to the Judeo-Christian religions that had endeavored to establish man as a creature apart–a ‘cultural’ as opposed to a ‘natural’ being. In short, Gypsies were natural men if not altogether noble savages. Since Leland and other early anthropologists and linguists believed that the Roma were descendants of an undetermined Indian peripatetic group, speculating about their origins and wanderings became a challenging and exciting pastime. Leland’s theory was that Gypsies descended from the warrior Jats who centuries earlier had migrated from India westward into Syria and eventually Europe, acquiring the habits and professions of the people with whom they came into contact and bequeathing them atavistically to their descendants. Already in the eleventh century, their callings were hereditary, and they exhibited an inveterate attachment to certain unfortunate habits. In a move that we will see is typical of most writings on Gypsies, Leland mixes callings or professions together with habits or group traits in his description of the earliest Gypsies. They were, he reported, without religion, notorious thieves, and of the horse horsey. Before leaving India, Leland further speculated, Gypsies had intermingled with other groups like the Dom or Domarr, a pre-Aryan group who reportedly were basket weavers, heavy drinkers, carrion eaters, nomads, shepherds, and robbers. Later they came into contact with the Luri of Persia, a group of thieves, fortune-tellers, and minstrels. Descendants of these Luri still roam in Syria, Turkey, and Rumania where they are kidnappers and pilferers whose principal pastimes are drinking, dancing, and music.
While such speculations about the relation between ancient peoples and their modern-day descendants may shock modern sensibilities, we must remember that belief in atavism was commonplace among early social scientists. For example, ever since the earliest discovery of the Indo-European origin of the German language, German scholars had sought to endow their Aryan ancestors with qualities that magnified those they most admired in themselves. It follows that early Gypsyologists should try to link what they perceived as the modern Gypsy character to an imagined Indian prototype. In most accounts the Gypsy prototype was the pariah caste of Indians, who even before migrating from Northern India had constituted a doomed race. By demonstrating that the ancestors of the Gypsies descended from the pariah caste of India, with all of the negative traits that Leland ascribed to them, governments and judicial authorities could legitimize their stigmatizing policies by invoking scientific arguments. For many Spanish writers, on the other hand, it became important to establish that the Gypsies (or Gitanos, as they are generally called in Spain) originated in Egypt, not India, which further exoticized them and thus distinguished them from non-Spanish Gypsies. But this distinction did not translate into better treatment for the Spanish Romany any more than an Indian pedigree helped the Zigeuner avoid racial scapegoating in other European countries.
The Intransigence of Gypsy Myths
Another important question that dogs cultural anthropologists is why some myths are so enduring. Solutions to this riddle can be roughly divided into two groups. In our post-Freudian era myths of origin are often described as a natural response that reflects the permanent conflict which dwells in the heart of every human being. According to Sander Gilman, creating stereotypes is a coping device that helps to overcome anxiety, and in his critical study of Orientalism Edward Said remarked that it is perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness by exoticizing the other. Poliakov urges us to relate the aspiration to discover origins with an urge to recover the euphoria which characterizes the most archaic stage before individuation, in other words, a narcissistic stage preceding subjectivity before the separation of man and nature. Even those who are invested in showing the nefarious consequences of these myths often recognize their stubborn prevalence as a naturally occurring phenomenon. However, while Léon Poliakov’s The Aryan Myth convincingly distinguishes Europe’s myths of origins and their modern permutations, detailing how and why certain changes in the myths take place, his explanation for the compulsion to invent myths of origin is vague, invoking a kind of collective psychology based on a failed Oedipality that can lead to pathological consequences (for example, as manifested in the Third Reich). Certainly understanding and preventing the radical effects of this compulsion in its most paranoid stages require a recognition of basic psychological responses. Yet granting the compulsion ontological status is not as important as recognizing that some eras are more prone to regressive tendencies than others, because they are overdetermined by material, economic, and political factors.
Seeing the myth-making process as satisfying a deep psychological need without simultaneously taking into consideration regional economic and cultural realities leads to a dead-end acceptance of man’s innate tendency to engage in intergroup conflict. Accepting that there is a deep psychological need to create myths of origin as part of the process of establishing or affirming affinity does not adequately explain why it is that Gypsies (or other pariah groups) have been cast for so long as the outsiders even though they may have resided in a given place for centuries.
A second strategy for explaining the perpetuation of Gypsy myths is to avoid or diminish discussion of human compulsion and attribute the myth-making phenomenon to political and economic expediency. Myths of racial superiority then become part of a national false consciousness, a means to justify the dominance of some groups over others, part of the ideological ballast that is the effect of an imbalance of power and wealth. In this sense there is nothing natural about a group’s need to justify itself; the causes are to be located in the material conditions that should take center stage as providing the most accurate information about the history of inequality. Arguing that there is a natural compulsion to estrange oneself from the other, or that xenophobia and the demonizing of the other are universally characteristic of kinship relations, may indeed be valid, but still cannot tell us all we need to know to combat inequity and understand its structural complexities.
One of the problems with Gypsy studies, according to Wim Willems, is that there is a communis opinio about the origin, status, and habits of Gypsies. The study of Gypsies has been plagued for the last 200 years by this tendency to collapse all Gypsies into a monolithic ethnic identity. There seems to be an unfortunate universal agreement about the label Gypsy that has impeded rational discussion of origin, assimilation, persecution, and miscegenation: The most important cause for the failure of the historical picture to admit change is that most writers about Gypsies accept the premise that they constitute one people with a number of fixed characteristics. The following chapters trace the evolution of a cultural icon that, I argue, helped to color and sustain the frozen historical picture that Willems and others complain is so intransigent.
My contention is, first, that the cultural representation of the Gypsy provides historians a useful grounding for the study of both the evolution of European nationalisms and the complicated relations among Europe’s nations, and, second, that Spain’s role in this evolution is especially key for understanding the Gypsy stereotype. In the broadest terms, Spanish culture has had a dual relation with the foundational narrative of Orientalism, both as a culture that repressed a constitutive element of its historical identity, projecting it onto the figure of the exoticized Gypsy, and one that has represented, since the 1700s onward, an exoticized other to its Northern European counterparts.
To understand fully the role that the internal colonization of the Spanish Roma played in the construction of Spanish nationalism, cultural critics need to analyze the economic and productive forces that impinge on discursive practices that in turn participate in the construction of national identity. Recognizing the interdeterminancy of fields of representation—visual, literary, musical, historical, and anthropological—exposes the constructedness of the imaginary Spanish Gypsy. But to see this symbolic interface in its proper light, as a form of cultural capital with determined exchange values, we also need to analyze the historical contexts for the definitions of Gypsyness. It is especially important to trace the collapse of Gypsy identities into Andalusian identity, which by the twentieth century came to stand for Spanishness both outside and, to an extent, inside Spain’s cultural arena. The construction of the imaginary Gypsy depended on both intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue that until now has eluded us because of approaches that are overly focused on a single culture or framed within a single disciplinary approach.
Edward Said’s work has demonstrated how colonialism and imperialism are facilitated by emphasizing difference and stratification. In the case of the Roma, who in early chronicles are usually described as invaders rather than conquered peoples, we must speak of an interior rather than a foreign colonization, a self-colonization that nevertheless resembles other forms of imperialism in specific ways. Nation building and nationalism have a direct impact on the way dominant groups construct marginalized ethnic groups simultaneously as diseased members of a body that should be if not amputated at least quarantined, or, conversely, as exotic assets to some imaginary pluralist society. With the waning of Enlightenment universalism that sought to transcend human differences, racial difference and inequality had to be explained by other means than mere cultural differences, and the result was a scientific racism that relied on empirical data to stratify populations. Science was called on to explain the inequities and differences endemic in rising capitalist societies, and it obliged by explaining the Roma’s social degradation by recourse to physiological inferiority. Ethnic identity in the modern sense is an offspring of the process of state formation; when nationalism is on the rise in a given state, issues of difference generally gain prominence, and ethnic myths proliferate. When measured against the progress and patriotism of a dominant group, the disenfranchised of a nation are bound to suffer in comparison. The otherness of the disenfranchised group is then often maximized, or in some instances sanitized and provisionally subsumed into the national identity when there is an incentive to do so for reasons of exchange of cultural or economic capital. Where we find this otherness prominently manifested is in the discursive practices of emerging capitalist states where Gypsies were always imagined in permanent exile from some other place beyond national borders, even when, in fact, their Romany groups had been residents for many generations.
One of the things that makes Gypsies so interesting but also so difficult to study is that they are what Benedict Anderson has recently described as both an unbound seriality, by which he means a broad or open-to-the-world group that has its origins in the print media, such as nationalists, anarchists, or bureaucrats, and at the same time a bound seriality like Tutsis or Asian Americans. However, to show how these categories are causally related, it is valuable to go beyond this dyad and to distinguish three discursive categories that have achieved great symbolic prominence in discussions of Spanish culture. The first, gypsies with a lower-case g, roughly corresponds to a Romantic construction that still abounds in contemporary cultures. Anyone who exhibits nomadic or rebellious tendencies can be classified a gypsy; gypsies can be from anywhere and nowhere; there are gypsy scholars, bohemian (bourgeois) artists, and gypsy kings, all of whom have no ethnic affinity with the Roma. And the imaginary Bohemia that these gypsies inhabit, as Evelyn Gould points out, has accomplished its imperial goal, expanding its frontiers to embrace today’s Europe. . . . Bohemia continues to be conceived still today as the social performance that both dramatizes ambivalence about cultural identity and legitimates ambivalent cultural response. In other words, it is still desirable to identify with the freedom-loving, restless vagabond as Gypsies have been imagined, beginning with Miguel de Cervantes’ novella La gitanilla (The little Gypsy girl). The second category, the subject of this study that most Payo (non-Roma) historians and writers designate as Gypsies with an uppercase G (or Gitanos, when referring exclusively to Spanish Romany groups), is a racialized designation that refers to any number of ethnic groups as they are imagined by nonmembers of those groups. It is, nevertheless, ideologically aligned with the previous category. Already in the seventeenth century Spanish counselors of state, concerned with questions of blood and legitimacy, were debating whether Gypsies were a race or a self-selected confederation of thieves, tinkers, musicians, or fortune-tellers. As we shall see in Chapter 1, Cervantes’ contemporary Sancho de Moncada was ambiguous about Gypsy racial status. On the one hand he claimed that Gypsies were merely ruffians who banded together as thieves and ought to be exterminated. Yet he sprinkled his text with citations of the Bible implying that Gypsies descended from the Egyptians whom God had cast out into the world to atone for their sins.
Gypsies as a racialized category came into clearest focus in the nineteenth century with the rise of physical anthropology that distinguished groups according to the hard aspects of ethnicity, such as phenotypical difference, cranium size, facial features, and language. With the discovery of the Sanskrit origin of Romani dialects and the work of Heinrich Grellmann, it was no longer fashionable to speak of Gypsy speech as a rogue’s tongue, or jerigonza as it is called in Spanish, and historians and philologists rallied to construct a more modern (nonbiblical, scientifically based) myth of origin that still holds among many scholars: Gypsies are descendants of pariahs who left northern India sometime during the fifth to the tenth centuries. Their diaspora continues, according to nineteenth-century historians, because they observe strict endogamous practices and taboos against intermarriage with Gorgios, Gadjés, Busnés, Payos (the various designations for non-Roma). Coupled with the centuries-old negative stereotyping, the imagined purity of the Gypsy race encouraged communities to isolate and often stigmatize their Romany communities, reinforcing negative conclusions regarding their patriotism, religious practices, and ability to be honest, productive citizens. In his objective classification of degenerate types in L’uomo delinquente (Criminal man, 1876), the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso relied on racialized categorizations, claiming that criminality was a consequence of atavistic biological stigmata and that certain races, like Gypsies, were more predisposed to crime than others. The Spanish social anthropologist Rafael Salillas in El delincuente español. El lenguaje (The Spanish delinquent: The language; 1896) concurred, reporting that Gypsies by nature and occupation were more akin to the delinquent than to the normal elements of society. The nefarious consequences of this racialization of the Roma occurred during World War II when hundreds of thousands of Roma perished, many exterminated in the Nazi death camps.
The third category is most commonly referred to in English as Roma, Romá, Romani, Romany, or Travellers, subsets of which are the subjects that modern social scientists endeavor to study independently of the fictions, stereotypes, or racialized thinking associated with the other two categories. Twentieth-century cultural and social anthropologists reject received stereotypes and avoid references to ancient cultures, bloodlines, racial purity, and other pseudoscientific designations and instead examine the conditions and relations of specific ethnic groups, such as the Romanichals, Kalderash, or Spanish Calés, with their non-Roma neighbors. For today’s social scientists ethnic identities are more usefully thought of as instrumentalist or functionalist rather than primordial, since race has been shown to be a very inadequate marker of ethnicity.
Although Romany groups inhabit every European country, twentieth-century social anthropologists have until recently not been eager to study them because they were not considered an altogether separate culture; that is, they were not exotic because they were too close to home for comfort. Students of modern anthropology often avoided or were discouraged from choosing Romany groups for fieldwork because they resided in an anthropologically uninteresting Europe. In recent decades, however, dozens of social anthropological studies have begun to appear, such as Isabel Fonseca’s controversial Bury Me Standing or, in Spain, Teresa de San Román’s Gitanos de Madrid y Barcelona (The Gypsies of Madrid and Barcelona; 1984) and La diferència inquietant (The disquieting difference; 1994). Anthropologists may argue certain universals, for instance, that the Roma constitute an ethnic identity bound on the one hand by an often strict, self-imposed exclusivity, and on the other by centuries of repression, persecution, and ghettoization. But they also recognize that each Romany group has a geography of limited expanse, a national identity, and a history bound up with the histories of European nation-states that too often belittle, diminish, or overlook altogether their participation.
The reason that I call this category discursive, however, is not to divorce the term from its historical referent, but to argue that even the most objective, consciously unbiased analysis of Romany communities too often slips into harmful generalizations. Anthropologists have a tendency to abstract universals from the study of samplings that are too small and too local, and through the uncritical citation of dubious sources cultural historians as well as social scientists have unwittingly perpetuated ancient stereotypes and generalizations that obscure the true relations and complex realities of the Romany populations they analyze.
Recent studies critical of the theoretical underpinnings of ethnology highlight the need to broaden interdisciplinary approaches to the study of ethnic identity. The interdependency of the three categories described above is complex and resilient, and it would be a mistake to study any one of them in isolation from the other two. Perhaps the cultural critic, poised at the intersection of cultural anthropology and cultural criticism, can best gauge the co-determinacy of nationalism and symbolic practices. But this is the case only if all the many determinants of ethnicity are also taken into account: economic factors that compound racism; cultural conventions and traditions that get translated into historical verities and vice versa; competing nationalisms and their colonialist aspirations; hysterical reactions to the Industrial Revolution; evolving gender codes; and, finally, the Romany participation in their own isolation from, or assimilation into, national identity.
It is in the lateral shifts in European consciousness back and forth from one category to the other that we can start to see the political stakes of all three: how the unbound category of the gypsy, a Romantic fantasy based and proliferated in the world of print culture, music, and graphic representation, inflects the more bounded categories of Roma that are the subject of modern anthropology and history; how the passionate, freedom-loving gypsy gets superimposed on the diasporic Gypsy communities mistakenly imagined as culturally and racially isolated from the non-Roma; and how the latter affect the Romany subclassifications used by today’s cultural anthropologists who focus on Romany participation in urban and industrial economies and their complex cultural and social interrelation with the Gorgios. In the following chapters I use the term Gypsy or Gitano to refer to the cultural constructs that are the subject of this book, including the Gypsy image that some history books and anthropological studies have constructed, and I reserve the terms Roma or Romany (the adjective) to refer to real subjects whom most non-Roma still refer to as Gypsies.
Although often referred to as a Romantic construct, the Spanish Gypsy is not in any simple way the creation of the French Romantics. The icon as traced here evolved from the travel of print/visual/musical culture back and forth across the Pyrenees, beginning even before Cervantes’ La Gitanilla (1613), which is the subject of Chapter 1. It relied on historical documents as distant as Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (Cosmography; 1544) or Heinrich Grellmann’s Die Zigeuner (The Gypsies; 1782), and as local as the acrimonious treatises of the seventeenth-century Spanish arbitristas (counselors of state) such as Fray Melchor de Huélamo, Fernández de Córdoba, Martín Del Río, and Sancho de Moncada, who defined the Gypsy problem for a struggling nation in need of scapegoats.
Subsequent chapters trace how the Spanish Gypsy gained special prominence in the fabulous accounts of the nineteenth-century Bible salesman George Borrow, who borrowed heavily from Golden Age sources as well as living informants and philologists to create a veritable encyclopedia of known Gypsyology. In turn, Borrow bequeathed many, if not all, of the loathsome or fabulous stereotypes that quickly got grafted onto Preciosa’s Romantic progeny: Guiseppe Verdi’s Azucena, Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, George Eliot’s Fedalma, George Sand’s Moréna, and Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda all owe something to Borrow’s picaresque imagination.
In modern European systems of musical, visual, and literary representation, which are the legacy of Romantic idealizations, a host of female figures stand out above all others and can be said to make up the nuclei of the imaginary Gypsy. For example, new versions of Carmen, Esmeralda, and Moréna continue to re-create and, in ways I discuss at length here, reshape the myth. In addition to gender, they are linked together by many characteristics drawn from the pool of Gypsy stereotypes that has arisen from the seventeenth century onward. Except for Mignon, part of their enduring exotic appeal resides in their Spanishness, and one of the objects of this book is to discuss the relevance both of the fact that women have borne the heavy symbolic load of the unbound category of Gypsyness, and the tendency for Europe to look to southern Spain to fulfill its desire for an exotic other. To explain this phenomenon, the closing chapters of this book address the way Spain participated in its self-exoticization via the figure of the Andalusian Gypsy. As the final chapter argues, Spanish philologists and folklorists also perpetuated Borrow’s concept of the fictitious Gypsy, even when their stated intention was to correct his vision with that of a more authentic Gypsy based on historically accurate texts and scientific observation.
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