It doesn’t look like a place of legend, but the narrow Carrer de la Cera is the birthplace of la rumba catalana, the infectiously rhythmic stepchild of flamenco created by Barcelona’s Gypsy community in the 1950s and popular today throughout the world.
It is now also home to a Gypsy museum, which opened its doors on Sunday, in the multicultural el Raval neighbourhood that was once the heart of the Barcelona community.
The museum is the work of the Gypsy cultural organisation Carabutsí, a Catalan Gypsy word meaning terrific. Sam Garcia, its president, says the aim is to preserve the memory of the now-disparate community.
Documents suggest that there have been Gypsies in Catalonia since the early 15th century and, in common with other Spanish Gypsies, they have long ceased to be itinerant. Most live in large cities, while some have been forced into shantytowns such as the Cañada Real, near Madrid, or the rundown La Mina estate in Barcelona.
“We realised there was a really big Gitano population here in el Raval, which is disappearing because of gentrification,” he says. “Three hundred years ago there were 1,500 Gypsies living in this one small street.”
A group of seven women set about collecting oral histories from elderly residents and accumulated an archive of 7,000 interviews, photographs and documents – all from the one street – many of which are on display in the museum while the rest will be available online.
“We’re not archivists or anthropologists so it’s been hard to organise all this information,” says Garcia, adding with pride that within a year their work had won them an award from the city council.
Prominent space in the new museum is given to celebrating la rumba catalana, a blend of flamenco, Arab music and Caribbean rhythms. Peret (Pedro Pubill Calaf), the most famous rumbero, performed at the closing ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. The museum will host workshops and study groups and has organised two tourist itineraries, the Carrer de la Cera and the ruta de la rumba catalana.
The photographs and artefacts that cover its walls reflect the joys and sorrows of a people who have been persecuted in Spain ever since the Catholic reconquest in 1492, when they were given 60 days to leave the country.
Hostility to Gypsies in Spain is so entrenched that racist comments scarcely raise an eyebrow. When Philip Alston, then the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited Spain last year, he was damning about their treatment, citing one “segregated school in a poor neighbourhood with a 100% Roma student body and a 75% rate of early leaving”.
Alston said an independent, comprehensive review was needed to ensure that Roma children were “not doomed to repeat the cycle of poverty and exclusion”.
A 2012 Eurobarometer survey showed that 26% of Spaniards felt “totally uncomfortable” about their children sharing a classroom with Gypsies.
“We have this reputation for being bad, lazy, dirty, thieves and criminals,” says Garcia, who comes from a family of scrap merchants. “We’ve been dragging around these stereotypes for years. You hear it all the time. If you try to rent an apartment, as soon as they find out you’re a Gypsy, that’s that.”
As well as these stereotypes, Gypsies’ resistance to assimilation means they are viewed as outsiders, the “other”, not really part of society, and were not recognised as citizens until 1978.
They are even sometimes accused of “auto-exclusion”, the implication being that they have chosen a marginal existence. Not so, says Garcia, who says non-assimilation is a form of resistance.
“We resist through the family,” he says. “When the Catholic kings banned us from speaking our language and broke up families, we knew we had to move on, get together and start again. The family is what protects us. For us, the family is fundamental. That’s why we mostly don’t intermarry, although these days marrying a non-Gypsy is more common and it’s not such a problem.”
“We want to educate people about the life of the Gypsies who have been here for 600 years. We hope if people understand our culture better they might see we’re not that different from them.”