Gypsies in Brazil

Lúcia Gaspar
Librarian at Joaquim Nabuco Foundation
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Colorful clothes, joyful tents and attentive eyes to the fate of others. The way the Gypsy people relates to Brazilian history puts it in the condition of agent and victim of the impressions that governments, police and the whole society create about men who had their lives changed by the fascination they caused. [...]
From academic debates to informal conversations, the Gypsies are portrayed from feelings that range from the fascination that their traditions exert to the fears fueled by stigma and superstition harnessed to their free style of living.

 [...] Persecuted or assimilated into our social hierarchy, the Gypsies are more than readers of the future, and may also be considered writers of our past. [...]
 (Dossiê Medo e Sedução, Revista de História, Biblioteca Nacional, n. 14, 2006, p. 15.)

Probably originating from India, the Gypsies arrived to Brazil in the second half of the sixteenth century, expelled from Portugal as exiles.

It is likely that the first Gypsies banished from Portugal have arrived in Brazil in the 1560s and 1570s. There are records of Gypsies accused and sentenced to serve time in the Kingdom that, for personal reasons, requested commutation of the sentence to exile, and then were sent to the Colony.

The Gypsies’ integration into Portuguese society did not succeed, and because of the need to populate the territories beyond the seas, Portugal sent several individuals and their families first to Africa and then to Brazil. It was hoped that the Gypsies would help to populate the northeastern backlands areas, that were occupied by Indians. Although they are considered dangerous, the Kingdom preferred the Gypsies to the indigenous peoples.

The first Portuguese law to impose banishment dates from August 28, 1592. Men should integrate into society or abandon the Kingdom within four months, otherwise they would be subject to the death penalty and their wives would be exiled in perpetuity to Brazil.

A decree from January 18, 1677 imposed the banishment of Gypsies to Bahia or to the captaincies of Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro, among others. The deportation between colonies was also imposed on Gypsy offenders several times and under various pretexts. There were also attempts to separate men and women, with the aim of extinguishing the Gypsies as a people.

There is no known documentation that contains information about the amount of Gypsies deported to Brazil at the time, nor to which destinations or for what reasons, mainly since 1718, when the deportation of Gypsies in Portuguese politics increased.

Pereira da Costa, in his book Anais pernambucanos, brings up information on Gypsies in Pernambuco in the year 1718:

 [... ] The Gypsies traveled in more or less numerous groups, and those who did not give themselves to plunder, and certain businesses, such as buying and selling horses, in which little experienced individuals were always cheated, were usually itinerant coppersmiths and wherever they went, would lift up their tents, and go looking for work that consisted especially in the repair of brass and copper objects. The women, however, annoying, astute and minimally loquacious, went out begging, and read the buena dicha by the lines of the hand, predicting the good or bad fate of an individual for some remuneration. [...]

 [... ] The Gypsies called themselves Christians, but baptized their children several times, as a way to multiply the presents and protection of the godfathers, and had their Germania or particular slang to which the people gave the name of geringonça.

Historical documents show that there was a big population and economic growth of the Gypsy community in Bahia. Salvador, the first colonial capital of Brazil, became the most important city for the Gypsies in Brazil.

From Bahia, many of them headed to Minas Gerais, causing discomfort to the authorities of the time, who tried in various ways to prevent their presence in the region because they were considered a bratty and disobedient people.

There are reports of Gypsies in São Paulo in the year 1726, when the authorities were asked to arrange for their expulsion, within 24 hours, under penalty of arrest, since it was a people accustomed to games and other disturbances. In 1760, the Sao Paulo city fathers decided to expel a band of Gypsies composed of men, women and children, because of complaints from the public, also within a maximum period of 24 hours.

There are gypsies in the four corners of the Brazilian territory since the beginning of its history.

In the nineteenth century, a group of Gypsies accompanied D. João VI in his coming to Rio de Janeiro in 1808. They were theater artists who came with a mission to entertain the Portuguese Court.

After the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, there was a large number of Gypsy families who immigrated to Brazil, coming mainly from Eastern European countries. Upon arriving, they devoted themselves to trade in donkeys, horses, copper crafts, circus activities, living in tents and practicing nomadism. Today, few Gypsies are still nomadic in Brazil.

According to the 2010 Census data from the IBGE, there are about 800,000 Gypsies in the country. The Gypsy camps in the country were officially mapped for the first time. The IBGE research found settlements in 291 Brazilian cities, mostly concentrated on the coast of the South, Southeast and Northeast, especially the state of Bahia, with the largest number of groups. They live in canvas tents, which are usually erected on vacant lots.

In São Paulo, there is information about camps in 25 municipalities, including the capital, Sorocaba and Campinas. Most Gypsies live from trade and the women engage in palm reading. Much of the Gypsy population lives in houses, and do not practice nomadism anymore.

No camps were found in the states of Amapá, Roraima, Amazonas, Rondônia and Acre.
In general, there is a very high rate of illiteracy among them, and they are not included in government social assistance programs for health or education.

Today, there are two main groups of Gypsies in the country:

• The Calon, from Portugal, who speak the Caló dialect, are traditionally nomadic and linked to the trade of horses, cars, chains and artifacts imitating gold. The women practice palmistry in public squares, wearing gold teeth and dots (signals) on the face;

The Rom, mainly from Eastern Europe and who speak the romance language (romani). In Brazil there are Gypsies of the following subgroups Rom: Kalderash who call themselves "pure", some of them are still nomadic, working in the cars trade and women in palmistry and fortune telling; Macwaia or Matchuai, basically coming from Serbia (former Yugoslavia), living sedentarily in large cities, do not identify with the Gypsy clothing, and mostly surviving on divinatory arts activities; Horahane, of Turkish or Arabic origin, with activities similar to those of the Matchuaias. They live mainly in Rio de Janeiro, and only a few are still nomadic; Lovaria, a group of few basically sedentary people dedicated to trade and breeding of horses, and Rudari, also few in number, dedicated to the craft of gold and wood, who also live sedentarily and basically in Rio de Janeiro.

In the hinterland of Paraíba, in a less noble area of Sousa, a city located 420 km from João Pessoa, there is a community of Gypsies from the Calonsque branch that, for reasons of survival, set aside nomadism and took root in place since over 25 years. Despite the lack of official information on the number of inhabitants, it is composed of about two hundred families and is considered the largest Gypsy community in Brazil. They live in simple houses, built in masonry or stucco, and live in very poor precarious. They do not have access to basic public services and face problems that are common to poor communities as unemployment and alcoholism.

The first discussions on the inclusion of the Gypsies into the social rights began in the country only from 2002. According to the Constitution of 1988, the Gypsy ethnicity was included in the classification of ethnic minorities.

Currently, some government actions were implemented at the national level: the establishment of the National Gypsy Day, celebrated on May 24 in honor of their patron saint, Santa Sara Kali; the creation of the National Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality (CNPIR) and the publication of a booklet on Gypsy citizenship rights. There are also some specific and regionalized actions, a result of linkages with other segments of the organized civil society.

For the Gypsy, the feeling of belonging to a group, a clan or tribe, and compliance with the ethnicity code are very important. Their dialects (romani, sinto, caló among others) are unwritten, i.e. they are not written and nomadism, recognized as the benchmark of Gypsy identity, in many cases, was imposed upon them due to the constant harassment, prejudice and hostility of which they were and continue to be victims.

Recife, 23 August 2012.


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PEREIRA, Cristina da Costa. Povo cigano. Rio de Janeiro: MEC Editora, 1986. 266 p.
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SOUZA, Mirian Alves de. Ciganos, Roma e Gypsies: categorias de atribuição e classificações identitárias. Travessia: Revista do Migrante, São Paulo, n. 67, p. 37-44, jul./dez. 2010.

TEIXEIRA, Rodrigo Corrêa. História dos ciganos no Brasil. Recife: Núcleo de Estudos Ciganos, 2008. 127 p. Available at:<http://www.etnomidia.ufba.br/
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VANELLI, Marta. Nomadismo Cigano: migração dos excluídos. Cadernos do CEOM, Chapecó, SC, ano 23, n. 32, p. 257-266, jun. 2010.


Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Ciganos no Brasil. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Disponível em:
http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar_en/ . Accessed : Day Month Year. Example: 6 August. 2009.

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