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Marina Hertrampf

Roma Literature in Spain: An Overview

In Spain, Roma appear to be a part of the culture and literature of the country: Gitanos are present in both music and dance (Flamenco) as well as in the visual arts (e.g. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1618–1682) and literature (e.g. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1547–1616 and Federico García Lorca, 1898–1936). Moreover, in Spain the proportion of Roma fully assimilated linguistically and acculturated in the majority society at least selectively or partially (Bernecker 2007: 295) is relatively high in comparison with many other European countries.

Caló (I kali ćhib), the Romani variation of Iberian Roma, is hardly spoken at present, and so for the calé, as the majority of Roma settled in Spain for hundreds of years call themselves, Spanish represents a ‘foreign’ first language they are at home in and use to express themselves in art and literature. As mediators deliberately transgressing the cultural-ethnic boundaries between the surrounding society and their own community, Roma writing in Spanish nevertheless represent an exception to the way the motif of the gitano has been adapted by the majority society, and as in other European countries, they form a socio-cultural minority within the ethnic minority.

In Spain, as elsewhere, written Roma literature is a very recent literature, first appearing around a hundred years ago. The first Roma author to write in Spanish is generally considered to have been the artist Helios Gómez, born in Seville (southern Spain) in 1905. Apart from a few exceptions (e.g. Joaquín Albaicín or José Heredia Maya), the literature penned by Roma has remained an almost invisible literature to the present day, strongly decentralised and marginal. An encouraging special case is the debut novel by Spain’s first publishing Romni gitana, Núria L. de Santiago’s bio-fictional novel El ángel de Mahler (Barcelona 2014), which has enjoyed rave reviews in the Spanish press.

Whether novel, story, drama or poetry, literary works by Roma authors display certain stylistic and aesthetic similarities: a strong tendency towards orality; a comparatively high degree of dialogue; the integration of caló words; a basic tendency to blend different types of text, genres, forms and media as well as to fuse the artistic-aesthetic traditions of 1

In the self-understanding of Roma authors like José Heredia Maya, who explicitly object to every form of ethnic marginalisation, the literature of Spanish Roma is part of the literature of Spain:

‘Si escribimos en español hay una literatura española, con modulaciones personales, de estilo, de cultura...pero no se puede hablar en sentido estricto de una literatura gitana si no hay una lengua que la soporte.’

‘When we write in Spanish, it is Spanish literature, with personal modulations, in the style, in the culture... but one can’t speak of a Romani literature as such when there isn’t a language sustaining it.’

Heredia Maya quoted by Rodríguez Mata 2000: 16

This is also the position taken by Núria L. de Santiago. As the daughter of the famous flamenco legend La Chana she is open about her Romni background, but repeatedly emphasises that she is first and foremost an author who is not exploring Roma identity or the problems facing Roma. Her main concern at present is to establish her voice in a contemporary trend of (Spanish) mainstream literature with her fictional biographical novel of Gustav Mahler.

While the desire for equal treatment and the struggle to resist persistent stereotypes is consistently present, many works clearly reject complete acculturation. This contradiction is often expressed (for instance by Pedro Amaya) by propagating the equality of all persons in the sense of cosmopolitanism (see, for example, the programmatic title of Amaya’s volume of poetry El mundo es mi casa, literally The world is my home, while in the same breath the alterity of Roma culture is emphasised:

‘Que se den cuenta de que somos hombres. Y gitanos, pero gitanos de verdad (...).’

‘The others need to finally notice that we’re humans. And that we Roma are really Roma.’

Luis Giménez Mendoza 1969: 114