Gypsies in Spain: from the concept of race to the future of social relations in a multicultural world



In this paper we will discuss the main aspects of the Roma people that are considered most relevant for a first approximation to their ethnic reality and their main features susceptible to analysis from the intersectionality theory.

For this purpose, statements about race and racialization, ethnic groups and minorities, ethnic prejudice and discrimination, and future of multiculturalism and ethnic relations antagonism, will arise. But we will not take a strict line between these in order to make of this work a fluid narrative. In addition, we will discuss the psychological processes that reside beneath the prejudices.

The concept of race, addressing the “whiteness”


In light of the reading of Rosi Braidotti questions arise on the concept of whiteness and how the discursive hegemony is monopoly of an ethnic group from which the conceptions of the other groups have come. In the case of Spain, a complex network of prejudices and material conditions defines the discrimination against the Roma people that make their culture maintain in the oppression and marginalization.

As a starting point it seems clear that the binomial sameness-difference marks the future of a historically complicated relationship between Gypsy and non-Gypsy people in Spain. As Braidotti, making reference to contemporary feminist criticism, says: “A feminist in Europe cannot avoid a confrontation with the dialectics of sameness / difference”.

The concept of race is defined by Giddens1 as a complicated and complex term basically nonexistent for its scientific base despite the belief in a biological basis reinforced by racist interests of global governments and the ambiguity of its demarcation criteria. The author describes the emergence and early evolution of theories of race as a socio-political strategic product to maintain a situation of inequality and domination in colonial relations of the imperial powers. Braidotti (2002) says in this respect: “being ‘identical to’ or ‘different from’ therefore mark asymmetrical power relations”.

The historical (scientific, political, economic and social) processes that have been using pseudoscientific arguments to justify the racial stratification are called processes of racialization2. The theory of racial supremacy is clearly exemplified in German Nazism, South African Apartheid or the Ku Klux Klan. In the case of Roma people these processes are attached to their racial origins, a marked difference from the majority ethnic groups in which they are present: mainly European Whites.


There is talk of this group by assigning a heterogeneous origin rooted in the Indian peninsula (especially the regions of Punjab and Synth) more or less from the II century BC and that has “racial” influences both of Greek and Asian peoples in its first historical period as north Africa and eastern Europe and the Persian Empire in their migrations produced largely by the invasion of their original territory by the Muslim and Mongolian empires3.

Physical and/or obvious nature of Gypsies, distanced from (obviously ethnocentric) the European “desirable” canon, serve as an excuse as it did in every case throughout the world, to find a feature easily attributable with a defect or a weakness regarding to a discriminated group: “the scientific construction of racial taxonomies at the height of the European empires is one of the most damaging and protracted manifestations of the colonizing mission”4.

This seems to reflect a favorable historical situation for the discriminating group that by virtue of its advantages can judge the actions of others from an apparent moral superiority sustained primarily by their possession of most of the resources. In other words, they were segregated not only for appearing in Europe as a social group but also for their skin color, their dress, their language (not German, not Latin), and other characteristic features that were despised and feared. Later, in the unifying effort, the creation of a centralized state, and the obsession with cultural, linguistic and ethnic homogeneity, they would make the presence of groups such as the Gypsies as something “undesirable”.

The expulsions during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries throughout Europe (under penalty of death in some cases), the Prisión General de los Gitanos (General Gypsy Prison) in the eighteenth century in Spain, laws such as the Acuerdo interestatal cooperativo para combatir la plaga gitana (interstate cooperative agreement to combat the Gypsy plague), and its subsequent amendments and regulations (and genocide that these implied) as in Nazi Germany or the expulsion measures of Romanians and Bulgarians in Sarkozy’s France in 2010 are an example of how they have been persecuted throughout their history.

When we talk about the gypsies as an ethnic group, we stick to the definition given by Giddens (2009:627-673): A community singled out for a “set of cultural practices and the perspectives that characterize the community”. For the author it is important that “Members of ethnic groups see themselves as culturally different from other social groups and, in turn, are perceived by others in the same way “, so we can refer to Gypsies as strongly aware of their social reality as a group.

Gypsies cultural practices have survived over time, almost indifferent to the cultural evolution of the dominant majority, or at least have tried to maintain it, except obviously in recent decades with globalization and consumer culture. We could account for four basic characteristics of Gypsy culture have been maintained over time:

• Food: The Gypsy cuisine has been always associated with the need to satisfy a large number of people and especially to fight the cold that undergoes nomadic people.

It is an abundant and rich cookery, with many calories. Based primarily in stews and frequently used beans, chickpeas and vegetables. Gypsies typical dishes in Spain are the Berza Gitana (Cabbage), Zarangollos (gypsy pot). Particularly noteworthy is Saffron (from India).

• Nomadism: Although it is very difficult to find the exact reason that motivated decisively gypsy nomadism, as it was said before, their migrations appear to be motivated by reasons of war and invasions. The Muslim penetration in India and the need to address them, the enslavement of Gypsies by these, and military service, serving the invading empire can be a source of the first migration in the tenth century. Throughout the fourth teen century evidence of their arrival to Crete and later to Greece were found.

In the fifteenth century, due to the wars of the Byzantine Empire with the Turks, gypsies continued their migration through Armenia to the north of Turkey and elsewhere, through Syria to the Mediterranean. Afterwards, assumptions were made about several divisions in the bearings, throughout central Europe after crossing the Balkans and to the Iberian Peninsula, crossing all northern Africa and across the strait.

In recent history, after centuries of deportations to American colonies and closely in time, after decades of persecution and extermination in the twentieth century, gypsies suffer another great migratory movement, after the fall of the iron curtain and Yugoslavian war, making them mobilized to Western Europe.

Currently, in Spain, the vast majorities of gypsies have become sedentary; however, it can be find itinerant movements of gypsies’ communities across Europe that still maintains nomadism. In some countries, they remain more or less stable camps; some stations change their place of residence.

• Family: The family has been instrumental in the lives of the gypsy people. The clan, which ultimately is the extended family, is the core of the life of this group.

Gypsy family begins in marital unions (spiritual acts, which follows certain ancestral rituals very specific and with a great symbolic value) that occur almost always (at least when the group intends to remain “pure”, which is most of the time) of inbred way.

The clan, consisting of several households united by ties of blood, has a number of features that make it the engine of life of its members and the hub of their motivations and the recipient of their efforts

The roles between women and men are different. Since their childhood, as in most of the societies studied, are socialized in “appropriate “to gender roles. Thus, being socialization exclusively a family need, it differs among the boys, who should perpetuate the tradition of the father as for the work performance it is concerned and girls, will help your family at home, then marry and eventually will become directors of their younger siblings.

The father, in this patriarchal structure, is the ultimate authority in the house and is the one who provides sustenance; His image is that of an idealized model, which his sons would mimic. The mother however, is the giver of life, who will be in charge of the house and charge of taking care of children.

The values that govern the Gypsy family are especially loyalty, respect and solidarity with it. Gypsies will always be bounded by ties of love to his family, which will make them faithful to the decisions and paths that the group takes. Respect is not only towards the father but also the elders and clan chiefs, it is something that gypsy will have as irrefutable, in the same way, this respect will be reflected in defending the honor of his family. Solidarity has to do with the financial and moral support to be provided as an intrinsic requirement for membership of his family.

The nomadic lifestyle and living arrangements in community give a sense of freedom, which also creates a sense of pride, along with its internal cultural traditions.

Language: The Roma is an Indo-European language closely related to the current Sinhalese, that with the passage of time and the morphological, syntactic and phonetic influences of the indigenous languages of the places through which it passed, was modifying by dividing into several aspects. The main ones are the so-called Western Balkan Group, Sint Group, Greek-Turkish Group, Iberian Group and the Rom Group (currently spoken by about 8,000 Colombian Gypsies as their mother tongue).

Gypsy Law: Roma people have maintained as a way to govern their existence, a series of regulations to control everyday spirituality, justice and sexuality of its members.

As the lack of coercive institutions and jurisprudential processes were evident in a community in constant motion, Roma unwritten laws were controlled by councils within the clans that made the coexistence of a gypsy settlement was fair, just and effective. Although in many countries the gypsies who remain faithful to the traditions of their culture, do not comply and even ignore some of the opinions of the Gypsy law, most of them respect their main doctrines.

The psychology beneath the prejudice

The differences and clashes between gypsies and non-gypsies have been constant for a long time. To analyze this point we will use two terms coined by Anthony Giddens: group closure and ethnic conflict.

Since the gypsies started to become sedentary in Spain, it has been seen how they constantly lived outside the Spanish non-gypsy society not only due to the endogamy and the sealing of the Roma people, but also by a constant institutional and civil segregation. The group closure is evident not only through laws which we have already spoken, also regarding to the access to employment, education and physical limits no longer configured by Roma settlements, but by entire social housing neighborhoods in which many gypsy families are concentrated.

The non-Roma have seen gypsies as undesirables due to their culture and lifestyle, thereby maintaining their economic and political privileges perpetuating the same rejection relation systematically. Hereby, they have perpetuated myths and prejudices about this group with no intention of improving and, in cases in which it seeks to achieve a positive change, centuries of degradation are heavy and deceive us.

The media reproduction of stereotyped patterns reinforces the perceptual


that as humans we possess. Examples are5:

  • Hindsight bias
  • Confirmation bias
  • Availability heuristic
  • Adaptive memory bias
  • Over-inclusion and Over-exclusion.

Thus, the Roma people have been sentenced to stay out of the “normal” day-to- day Spanish society. Prejudices have been maintained and although the structural position of the gypsies that configure those preconceptions have some influence over the image of the Roma people, we constantly see the different perceptual biases and the natural attribution of humans as an excuse to stay on discrimination. Two examples could be6:

The just-world hypothesis: we tend to make attributions based on the group membership of the subject. So the existence of social differences is warranted.

Illusory correlation: bias, stereotypes applied, means that a small group is often evaluated less favorably than a large group. This involves the phenomenon of co- occurrence of rare information.

Hereby, there are two rare information on the one hand, minorities are infrequent and negative actions (as a crime) are too. This way when a minority does wrong, it is more remembered.


The possible solution to these ethnic tensions beyond the assimilation, the melting pot or multiculturalism as mere global theories of general postulates might be found in the radical struggle against the basis of prejudice and stereotyping. Some theories talk about the practical application of intellectual questioning of equivocal categorization processes that produce ethnic conflicts. These two theories7 tell us briefly how to perform the “de-stigmatization”.

Changing the stereotype: based on how people treat the discordant information with the stereotype.

a) Gradual change: it comes as it accumulates discordant information. This occurs when there are many cases of discordant representative examples of the group.

b) Conversion: conversion is an abrupt change that occurs in response to discordant important and compelling information. It has to happen when the stereotyped group is very small and homogeneous.

c) Processes of subtyping: In this case, the discordant information leads us to differentiate the stereotyped group into subgroups. It usually occurs when discordant information is concentrated only in certain examples of the group and when these are considered little representative of the group.

Reducing prejudice: It is derived from a theory of Gordon Allport8 called “contact hypothesis” which says that only through the relationship between groups (biased and prejudiced) prejudice can be reduced. According to the author this contact is not sufficient and may even be counterproductive if it does not happen in the right circumstances. These circumstances are:

1) Status of equality: that contact is made on equal status.
2) Potential of the relationship: the contact must have sufficient duration and

intensity to allow the development of meaningful relationships.

3) Social and institutional support: the contact occurs in a positive political and social environment towards integration.

4) Cooperation: when groups need each other to achieve their goals, the results are better.

Until the difference is not unlinked from exclusion, there will be no reduction of prejudice and thus discrimination.

“in European history this difference has been predicated on relation of domination and exclusion: to be ‘different from’ came to mean to be ‘less than’” (GRIFFIN, G. & BRAIDOTTI, R., op. cit).


1 GIDDENS, A., Sociology, Cambridge. Polity Press. 2009. Pp. 627 and following.
2 MARGULIS, M., & URRESTI, M., La segregación negada: cultura y discriminación social. Buenos Aires, Biblios. 1999.

3 IBARRA, E., Conoce al pueblo gitano in Materiales didácticos N. 1, Movimiento contra la intolerancia. Available in

4 GRIFFIN, G. & BRAIDOTTI, R., op. cit.

5 REVILLA, J.C. (1998): La identidad personal de los jóvenes: pluralidad y autenticidad. Madrid: Entinema. 1998.

6 LERNER, M.J. & MONTADA, L., An Overview: Advances in Belief in a Just World Theory and Methods, in Leo Montada & M.J. Lerner (Eds.). Responses to Victimizations and Belief in a Just World (1–7). Plenum Press: New York. 1998. And STROESSNER, Steven J.; PLAKS, Jason E., Illusory Correlation and Stereotype Formation: Tracing the Arc of Research Over a Quarter Century In MOSKOWITZ, Gordon B., Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition. MAHWAH, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2001.

7 Taken from: PLOUS, S., La psicología del prejuicio, el estereotipo y la discriminación: Un resumen. in S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2003. pp. 3-48.

8 Allport, G. W., The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. 1954.



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