Basque ethnography at a glance

Collecting heritage in Tudela. Source: Labrit Heritage.

Gypsies, bohemians, the Romani people. They have been part of Euskal Herria society for a long time. However, how much do we know about the history and culture of this community? In the following paragraphs, the testimonies extracted from the compilation of oral memories carried out by Labrit Patrimony, commissioned by Gaz Kaló, Federation of Gypsy Associations of Navarre, are presented. The main objective of this study is to bring the issue of otherness to the ethnographic field and do our bit to contribute against the invisibility experienced by the Gypsy community, through an anthropological point of view.

An informant interviewed for the Ijito Hitza project assured that the first references that can be found in the Navarre Archive date from the time of Blanche I of Navarre (15th century). Even if centuries have passed since then, it was only a few decades ago that most Romani people stopped wandering. Until then, those families that were part of this town came and went. However, in the south of the Basque Country, as in the case of the Cagots, the process of marginalizing gypsies has been going on for some time. This discriminatory fixation towards the Romani ethnic group has also been protected by the legislative apparatus until very recently: by the Law on Vagrants and Criminals, created during the Republic, and by the Law on Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation at the end of the Francoism. Both full of references to gypsies (and homosexuals, among others).

From town to town, from corner to corner, without property, the testimonies collected through the project focus on the lack of roots in a specific place. One generation goes, and another comes. Without money to be tenants and barely enough conditions to access stable salaried jobs. Many walked barefoot, and the wealthiest had at least one carriage that served as their home. They were skilled at carrying out seasonal and fieldwork, including children and adults who did not know school: shearing sheep, harvesting, threshing, collecting all types of crops… Basket weaving and repairing various objects, among others, were some of the sources of income that allowed them to lead a mobile lifestyle.

The family, that extended family system (which today is faltering), was the support and structure for basic functioning. Marry young, preferably within the family, age quickly and take the best possible care of the elderly. The status of elderly people was very relevant within the community, since old age and intra-community prestige are related to each other: tío (uncle) and tía (aunt) are widely used, so called despite not having blood ties. Those that we call from the outside “patriarchs” are conflict solvers within the community. An ancient law of its own, with its own ethical values, and its own representatives within the community to judge it. The greeting among Romani people, sastipen thaj mestipen (health and freedom), is worth mentioning, and so is the current severe situation of the Romani language. If Erromintxela was used in the area of Estella, the Rivera and the Pamplona region, current generations have not managed to ensure that this dialect lasts.

Collecting heritage in Lizarra. Source: Labrit Heritage.

In this way of life based on transhumance, according to informants, plants collected along the way constituted one of the pillars of the diet: fennel, for example, has had enormous importance for the Romani. Without agricultural land, nor historical knowledge to do so as a nomadic people, they also dedicated themselves to hunting and fishing. They were also skilled in dealing with human health problems, but even more so with animal health problems. Livestock farming, “as best they could”: a mule to lighten the load, a couple of goats to eat kids from time to time and, those who could, milk for daily consumption. The rest were used for trafficking and daily life matters.

There are transversal elements in all the testimonies: streams and sheepfolds. In the streams, the animals drank water, wickers were collected to make baskets, people cooked and the day’s filth was washed. They slept and gave birth on the banks and under the bridges of the rivers; they told stories about their ancestors around the low fire and, from an anthropological point of view, they carried out a transmission of intangible heritage: collecting and transmitting what had been accumulated over generations. That own way of living flamenco and music without scores on the slopes of streams and corrals, as the gypsy anthem Gelem-gelem (walking, walking) says with a torn voice: I went, I went. “What makes us gypsies is the way we live music,” said tío Selín, who settled in Tudela after ending his nomadic life.

The gypsies say that this way of life ended a long time ago. And for those of us who did not see caravans pass through our own town, it can be that too. But to understand today’s gypsies we cannot forget everything mentioned above. The values that are proclaimed in the name of coexistence are not universal. Culture runs through us from top to bottom, and our definitions of universality are also cultural. If we want to advance the inclusion of the Romani community, it is essential to move away from perspectives of hegemonic assimilation and recognize their history and culture.

Klara Larruzea – Labrit Heritage

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