Roma in Catalonia

On 9 June 1447, Maria de Castella, acting as Lieutenant-General (de facto ruler) for her husband Alfonso V, granted a safe conduct pass for Catalonia to a large caravan of Roma under the command of the duke Andrés and the counts Tomás, Pedro and Martín, of Little Egypt. On that same day they arrived to Barcelona and the following was recorded in the Manual de novells ardits vulgarment anomenat Dietari del antich consell barceloní:

Today a duke and a count arrived with a number of Egyptians or bohemians; sad, uncouth people who go about telling fortunes. [1]

On 23 May 1460, regional government ministers from Igualada issued a safe conduct pass to the count Jaime from Little Egypt, addressed to royal officers, to recommend the following:

the distinguished Count Jaime, a true Christian and Catholic from Little Egypt, is travelling with a number of men , women and many children on a glorious pilgrimage to San Jaime of Galicia and other sanctuaries. [2]

On 1 July 1477, King Juan II granted in Barcelona a safe conduct pass for “Count Martin, captain or leader of the bohemians from Little Egypt”. [3] 

The first document regarding the expulsion and repression of Roma in Catalonia was an order issued by Germana de Foix, the second wife of King Fernando the Catholic. In 1512, when she presided over the Catalan Courts in the city of Monzón, she took the decision to remove all Roma from the Principality of Catalonia and from the counties of El Rosselló and La Sardenya under an order stipulating “sien expel.lides e foragitades”: that they be expelled and sent into exile. They would furthermore lose their personal property and be subject to lashing and sent to the galleys if they did leave the Principality within 60 days. The Viceroys and subsequent Corts of 1542, 1553, 1585 and 1701 renewed this legislation, which never sought the integration of Roma into Catalan society. One exception was the Corts of 1585, which provided that if the behaviour of some Roma was proper, they could legally remain to live and work. [4] 

Corts catalanes en la ciutat de Monzó en 1512. Expulsió dels gitanos del Principat de Catalunya, signada per Germània de Foix. ↵

Because Roma were an illiterate people with an oral culture, documents about them always came from outside sources, usually from institutions: the Church, inquisition officials, courts, royal orders pragmatic decrees, etc. These documents always seemed to transmit the notion that Roma were nothing but trouble. We know, however, that this was not the case because Roma families in Catalonia showed interest in being a part of society and its ordinary work. In addition, few Roma ran afoul of ecclesiastical or civil laws, as evidenced by documents.

These documents confirming the presence of Roma in Catalonia include those related to cases of the Court of the Spanish Inquisition in Barcelona [5].  En un segle només apareixen quatre causes:

  • 1608. Gratiniana Bustamante. For reading the lines on a person’s hands. 50 lashes and exile.
  • 1609. Sacrilegious theft by Roma. The thieves were never found, nor was it proven that they were Roma.
  • 1667. Miguel Malla. “Rom by profession,” Balaguer resident. Prosecuted for blasphemy. The case was dismissed by the court.
  • 1667. Magdalena Malla. Married, with no job, “Rom by profession.” Tried for practicing witchcraft and casting spells. Severely reprimanded, put on notice and admonished. The case was dismissed by the court.

The Royal pragmatic Decree of 1717 stipulated the only cities where Roma could live, and none of them were Catalan. In 1729 some Catalan cities were included: Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Figueres, Olot, Vic, Vilafranca del Penedès, Berga, Manresa, Puigcerdà, La Seu d’Urgell, Tremp, Lleida, Mataró, Tortosa, Tarragona, Balaguer, Girona, Tàrrega, Solsona, Guissona, Vilanova de Cubelles, Sitges, Santa Pau, Besalú, Cambrils, Reus, Torroella de Montgrí, Granollers, Calders and Verdú. The city of Barcelona was added through the Royal Pragmatic Decree of 1746.

Policies enacted by the Bourbons in the 18th century sought to control Roma and their assimilation with the aim of making them “vassals like all the rest”. Several censuses or recounts were thus conducted in compliance with the Pragmatic Decree of 1717. This census in the Principality of Catalonia was conducted in 1729, because until that time a law for expulsion dating from 1715 had been in force. 95 Romani families with a total of 432 members were counted.  Another census conducted in 1746 counted 128 families.

The last census was in 1785 and counted 214 families with a total of 918 members. The counties with the largest Romani populations were: Tarragona (320), Girona (200), Tortosa (100), Lleida (90), Mataró (36), Vilafranca (27), Manresa (17), Puigcerdà (14), Vic (10).

The Roma population was very young: two out of three Roma were under the age of 25 and the average number of children was three per marriage.

Romani families were already very heterogeneous at that time. The majority of them were semi-nomadic, mainly owing to the very laws that persecuted them because of their need to find work. In fact, the jobs they held were often sedentary: shoemakers, blacksmiths, spinners, cordmakers, etc., as well as others that could be performed on a sedentary or semi-nomadic basis: day labourers, muleteers, shearers, shepherds, etc.
A small group of Roma families active in a small number of sedentary occupations had for many years been owners of houses, and some were even wealthy. They sent their children to schools and worked in the livestock trade or as farmers. There was another small group of nomadic families who had been involved in crime, with some of them having been sentenced to prison or the galleys; in 1785, only 18 of the 918 registered Roma were serving some type of sentence, so they were in the minority.

After Roma were finally allowed to live in Barcelona, the city came to have one of the largest censused populations of Roma: some authors suggest the number was 121, while others say it was 231 [6]. “With the exception of a family whose surname was Malla, the remaining Roma living in Barcelona in 1785 were in the 5th cuartel (city quarter), and they could all be classified into one of three groups. The first and smallest group was made up of descendants ‒ their surnames were Berenguer and Nogueras ‒ of soldiers with jobs for invalid veterans, and for whom a Royal Decree issued 20 December 1780 upheld their disqualification as Roma. They were involved in high-volume livestock trade and religiously paid their cabestraje (harness) taxes. A second group were the descendants of Captain Francisco Jiménez, who worked in service to the King at the beginning of the century in the city’s revolutions; a Royal Decree dated 17 March 1736 guaranteed him the right to be excluded from limitations that were applicable to Roma. Finally, a third group, larger than the previous two, was comprised of people with a permanent address within the city walls who always spoke Catalan and wore Catalan-type clothing. These were individuals of good standing who had often married locals and members of the military.” [7].

Unique was the implementation of the 1783 Pragmatic Decree’s Article 18 , which established committees for the education and training of Romani children and youth. Francisco de Zamora y Aguilar, a mayor whose judicial jurisdiction included the criminal courts of Barcelona, carried out an educational and social initiative in Barcelona and towns in its area of influence between 1785 and 1786. Census records began to count Roma in Barcelona. Children/youth were later examined to determine their aptitudes before deciding on their usefulness and what they would do. In regards to these examinations, the following was noted: “all of them were energetic and clearly had talent”, but “they only knew how to dance and sing bawdy songs. They did not know how to make the sign of the cross, and some still do not know how to.”

He eventually devoted himself to an urgently-implemented catechization that taught in a short amount of time “what is required of all Catholics”. Young girls were taught all of the “obligations of a good daughter and mother with respect to their homes and studies”.

He worked with 74 girls, boys and young Roma. During an initial phase, he educated them. Subsequently, he taught them a trade.

Finding honest teachers willing to accept Roma children was quite a feat: “Distrust resulting from thievery; they’re dirty and grow their hair long over their faces; they don’t cut their fingernails; they run around with bare feet and legs and have a slovenly appearance”.

He also visited villages close to the capital: Sabadell, Sant Andreu de Palomar, Terrassa, L’Hospitalet, Sarrià, Mataró, where he tried to improve the living and working conditions of Roma through expenditures to improve their housing and through the purchase of furniture, clothes, looms and other work tools. He spent 6,182 reales of billion that he obtained through donations from various illustrious institutions and individuals from Barcelona: the governor of Catalonia, the Countess of L’Asalto, the Bishop of Barcelona, the city’s inquisitor, two captains of the Walloon Guards and the Cinco Gremios Mayores (Five Major Guilds) of Madrid.

The King, through the Count of Floridablanca, saw with great pleasure the work that had been done by Roma and sent congratulations and encouragement. But when Floridablanca requested for the work to be extended to the rest of the Principality of Catalonia, apparently the response was not favourable.

It also breaks the wretched-life stereotype attributed to Roma in the report of the prosecutor of the Principality, who recognised in 1783 that “there is no evidence that everyone known as Roma engage in smuggling, highway robbery, murder or grand theft, given that in the past ten years only one murder case attributed to two of them has been presented to this criminal court. However, they have committed some thefts, though minor and almost always of food, which may have been the result of their deliberate need”. [8].

One record speaks of rich Roma, like the one who lived in house No. 8 on Riera del Pi street, to whom tradition attributes the building of the Pi church’s bell tower. [9].

The 19th century and its slow process of industrialisation slowly devalued the traditional trades performed by Roma. They had not been admitted into the trades and had no choice but to work as day labourers, farm hands, or as basket makers, shoemakers, vendors, etc. As the adaptation that they underwent in the 18th century was not possible in the 19th and 20th centuries, they descended into marginalised situations, both at work and at home. An example of this situation would be the ten families in Sant Martí de Provençals surveyed by the census from 1862 to 1866 who were shearers by trade.

In the first third of the 20th century there was a large, heterogeneous concentration of Roma in Barcelona. There were Roma shanty dwellers and itinerate residents; Roma living in American rental shacks under unfavourable conditions but integrated with other district residents and with their claims; there were also Roma residents who had fully integrated into the city’s social life without losing their cultural identity and sense of group belonging; families established in Barcelona for the past 200 years and considered to be Catalan Roma. [10]

75,000 Roma presently live in Catalonia. We Romani families live somewhere between a state of cultural maintenance and cultural change. There is a great need to hold on to certain values and customs we believe we should not lose. We also admit the need to participate in mainstream institutions and in the educational system. This participation will enable Romani children and youth to get educated and exist in a situation of equality with other citizens and residents, and hence gain access to work opportunities that will no longer consist of selling at flea markets or other traditional trades. The new challenges of the 21st century call for us to have new tools and new jobs so that we may progress without losing our culture.

One feature that distinguishes Roma in Catalonia is the Catalan rumba, a kind of flamenco fusion music that has crystallised brilliantly in Romani establishments in the Gràcia and Hostafrancs districts and in Carrer de la Cera in Barcelona, as well in other municipalities such as Mataró and Lleida. Names such as Pescaílla, El Tío Paló, Chacho and Peret are essential to understanding the genre. Catalan Roma set the standards in terms of the development of this rumba, particularly the sandunguero variety in which lyrics are sung mainly in Catalan with the accompaniment of a particular type of guitar playing which combines harmony and percussion, an invention that someone has given the name “the fan”. The older ones sing a more sober rumba while the younger generations delight in salsa, outlandish keyboards and percussion and take Americanism to the extreme.

Catalonia’s Romani society is still as heterogeneous as it was centuries ago. There are still well-off families and families on the verge of poverty. High percentages of illiteracy (11-12%) persist, while pre-school and primary school education is generally completed; secondary education enrolment levels are encouraging, although completion levels are low; presence at the university level is minimal (1%) and indicative of the hurdles that still Roma wishing to reach this level still face.  There are still too many districts where Roma are highly concentrated, in detriment to their ethnic coexistence.

There is a growing presence of Roma associations, and a nascent participation in non-Roma associations.

There is also a more recent participation in the Romani evangelical movement. Between 55% and 70% of Roma say that they belong to the Evangelical Pentecostal Church. And 25%-30% declare themselves to be Catholics.[11]

Our present democracy has brought some fundamental changes to Catalan laws. The following are two specific examples of favourable legislation:

  • The creation within the City Council on 17 July 1998 of the Municipal Council of the Romany Population of Barcelona, which is also part of the Municipal Social Welfare Council, where all of the city’s nine Romani associations and organisations are represented. This Council has the powers to promote actions and initiatives which combat racism and discrimination, defend the Romani culture, encourage Romani participation, promote the active involvement of young Romani women, etc.
  • The Parliament of Catalonia on 21 November 2001:
  1. “Recognises the identity of Roma and the value of their culture as a force for protecting their historical heritage.”
  2. “Urges the Catalan Government to carry out the measures required to help spread recognition of the Romani culture and its value to this Catalan society.” [12]

Bearing in mind everything that we Catalan Roma have experienced, we remain convinced that, in spite of the existence of necessary changes to our cultural patterns and strategies, Romani culture will endure and continue to live into the future.

[1] López de Meneses, Amada (1968). Los gitanos llegan a Barcelona a mediados del siglo XV. Revista Pomezia, No. 29.
Salvoconducto de María de Castilla: Archive of the Crown of Aragon. Royal Chancellery. Registry 3197, folio 101 recto and verso.
[2] Segura, Joan (1907-1908). Historia de Igualada. Barcelona: vol. II, pp. 228-229.
[3] Archive of the Crown of Aragon. Royal Chancellery. Registry 3391, folio 7 recto and verso.
[4] Vargas, Alejandro (2002). Los gitanos en la Cataluña del S. XVIII. Revista I Tchatchipen, No. 39.  Barcelona: Institut Romanó de Serv. Socials i Culturals.
[5] National Historical Archive, Inquisition Section, books 732.735.
[6] Gómez Alfaro would say 121, while Sánchez Ortega would say 231.
[7] Gómez Alfaro, Antonio (1980). Los gitanos en Cataluña en el siglo XVIII. Revista Historia y Vida, No. 150
[8] Sánchez Ortega, María Helena (1977). Documentación selecta sobre la situación de los Gitanos españoles en el siglo XVIII. Madrid: Editora Nacional, p. 215.
[9] Amades, J. Històries i llegendes de Barcelona.
[10] Garriga, Carme (Ed.) (2000). Els gitanos de Barcelona.  Barcelona Provincial Council, p. 69.
[11] Garriga, Carme (Ed.) (2000) Els gitanos de Barcelona.  Barcelona Provincial Council.
– (2003) Els gitanos de Badalona. Barcelona Provincial Council.
[12] Butlletí Oficial del Parlament de Catalunya No. 240. Palau del Parlament, 21 November 2001.
Written by Jesús Salinas.