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I Am a Gypsy

El vasco, el gallego, el tano, la gringa, la gitana. The Basque, the Galician, the Italian, the Gringa, the Gypsy.

Growing up in Argentina in the late fifties and early sixties, we still referred to many Argentineans by their nationality of origin and the perceived characteristics that accompanied that “other” country. “Vasco” was someone who hailed or descended from the Basque country, and were perceived as being very stubborn. My own father, who as far as we could tell was 99.9% of British descent, was perceived within his family to be an obstinate (mas terco que una mula – stubborn as a mule), and hence he was called a “vasco.” His sisters and my own father, in recognition of his strong will, would make allusions to some far-away ancestor from the Pyrenees. Later in life, when fully retired, my father took to the habit of always wearing a boina (beret), as is the fashion with the Basques.

“Gallegos,” from Galicia Spain, had a reputation of being hard workers and honest. Mom always hired “un Gallego” whenever we needed to move. They could be trusted not to break the furniture. If there was one thing Mom knew about, it was how to hire a good mover. We moved every four years, as she would get bored with living in the same place for too long. In the collective memory of Argentina, the Gallego was perceived as being from a small town, servile, uncouth, and for many years the bulk of Spanish immigrants to Buenos Aires.

There were many other nationalities thrown into the stew of immigrants in Buenos Aires. The “ingles,” “el ruso,” el “alemán. “Tano” were Italians in general. That was about 50% of the population. The term comes from “Neopolitano” (from Naples), where many of the Italian immigrants came from. La “gringa” normally referred to Italian women with blue eyes. Unlike other Latin American countries, in Argentina the term “gringo” or “gringa” does not refer to Americans; it refers to all immigrants, but particularly light-skinned ones.

I never thought of the Argentine terms to distinguish one particular nationality of immigrants from another to be a form of segregation. In one way or another, we were all gringos (immigrants). With the many mixtures of cultures, Argentines created their own jargon, called “Lunfardo” which consists of about 5,000 words that mix Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German. At first, Lunfardo was the slang of the lower classes. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it infiltrated into all Argentine culture, and became the staple of tango lyrics.

With our different backgrounds and traits, and our Lunfardo, we were all, first and foremost, Argentines. This was true for all the gringos, except for one group, the Gypsies.

We now refer to the Gypsies as the Romani, or the Roma. Romani immigrants came to Argentina since the beginning of colonization. However, the biggest wave of Romani immigrants came at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. They settled alongside the large influx of European immigrants. But just as the Roma came to Argentina with their cultural heritage, language and traditions, so too the European immigrants brought with them to Argentina their prejudices and stereotypes for the Gypsies. The Roma were not as easily integrated into society as the other immigrants, and to this day they suffer socially and economically. I remember hearing ridiculous tales of child kidnapping, stealing, cheating, sorcery and witchcraft. I was sternly warned by my grandmother not to play in an abandoned nearby field, as the Gypsies would surely steal me away.

In my little neighborhood of La Lucila, in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, it was not unusual for women in typical Romani dress to wander through our street, Calle Hernán Wineberg, and offer to read your palm. Most times, the door would be slammed on their face, and they would be called “gitanos sucios” (dirty Gypsies). But every once in a while the allure of the Gypsy woman would be too strong, and Mom would accept a palm reading. “You will be blessed and happy the next time you move from your house.” That was one of the Gypsy’s promises to my Mom.

To me, a small child, the Gypsies were magical. In common lore, a “Gypsy woman” is someone mysteriously beautiful and free-spirited. Throughout Europe and in European art, she is presented as sensual, sexually provocative and enticing. She is a wanderer who goes where her heart takes her. She possesses an innate ability to entrance and hypnotize those around her with a spell. She is nearly impossible to resist. This allure contrasts drastically with the racism and oppression that the Romani endure. In the fifteenth century, after expulsing the Jews and Moors from Spain, the Spanish crown decided to apply the so-called final solution and sold 30,000 Gypsies into slavery. In 1536, the descendants of those 30,000 Gypsies were taken to populate the Spanish colonies, from Puerto Rico to Argentina. In the twentieth century, Hitler condemned Gypsies, along with gays and Jews, to concentration camps. Laws were passed in Spain under Franco which in essence criminalized the Gypsy way of life. During the times of Peron in Argentina, many Gypsy camps were set on fire, in an attempt to force Gypsies to assimilate into society, to live in houses rather than Gypsy encampments, and to abandon their culture and way of life.

It is interesting that in spite of all the negative connotations against the Gypsies, there is a cultural admiration for their perceived magical strength. It is an acceptance that the Gypsy is a free spirit, a non-conformist. A complex being that cannot be put into a box.

I am fully aware that many of the terms and stereotypes that were used to designate people in the Buenos Aires of my youth were racist and bigoted. This became painfully obvious to me when at age twelve I moved with my parents to the United States. Suddenly, I was no longer “Ernesto” or “un porteño” from Buenos Aires, or an Anglo-Argentine, or this or that distinction by which we defined ourselves. I was suddenly “Hispanic” (a term we had never used before), and presumably dumb and uneducated. So often, when people meet me to this day, their first question is “where are you from.” They detect a slight accent, and something different about me. Trying to capture my origin is a way to try to fit me into a box, into a stereotype. A way of judging me by my ancestral past rather than by my worth. Often, all I want to say is, “I am a Gypsy.”


(c) 2021 Ernesto Beckford

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