Although there have been Gypsies in Brazil since
the sixteenth century, they have not been extensively studied. Their history
can, however, be retraced through the work of early scholars which reveals
that they were present at some of the most important stages in the formation
of the Brazilian nation. It is known that some Gypsies belonged to the
bandeiras, groups of adventurers and explorers from the region of Sao Paulo
who trekked inland in search of gold and precious stones. Gypsies were
also involved in the black slave trade: a nineteenth-century engraving
the French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret, court painter of Emperor Pedro
I of Brazil, shows the residence of a rich Gypsy slave trader at Rio de
In 1808, when King John VI of Portugal and his family took flight from
the invading French army and settled in Brazil, there were already large
Gypsy communities in Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
Contemporary accounts describe how for want of an official dance troupe
the organizers of the royal welcome recruited Gypsies to dance at the palace,
and how in spite of their services many of the dancers had to vacate their
dwellings the next day to provide lodgings for the Portuguese exiles.
The presence of Gypsies in Brazil was due initially to their systematic
persecution by the Inquisition, which regarded them as socially undesirable
heretics and sorcerers. Transportation to Brazil was one of the severe
punishments meted out to them, and the first transported Gypsy to land
on Brazilian soil, Antonio de Torres, arrived in 1574. Throughout the colonial
period the activities and residence of Gypsies were regulated, and measures
were taken relating to the use of their language and their dress.
According to specialists, the Gypsies who settled
in Brazil between the sixteenth and the nineteenth century belong to two
major groups, the Brazilian Gypsies from Portugal, or Calones, and the
Rom, Gypsies from elsewhere than the Iberian peninsula who arrived in Brazil
after the country became politically independent in 1822. The Gypsies who
have settled in Brazil in the twentieth century have come mainly from the
Balkan peninsula or from central Europe. Many came via Mexico; others arrived
in the Rio de la Plata region before spreading to Brazil and neighbouring
countries; others landed directly at Brazilian ports.
The Calones have preserved certain of their domestic customs but in
practice these are difficult to investigate since most Calones tend to
conceal their Gypsy origins. In Rio de Janeiro they pass themselves off
as Portuguese immigrants, and many of them are engaged in small- or large-scale
trade, work in bars, shops and hotels, or drive taxis. The Rom tend to
peddle such articles as bedspreads, carpets and cloth, deal in used cars,
or repair cookers and cooking pots in hospitals, hotels and barracks. They
are renowned for their skill as coppersmiths.
Most of Brazil's Gypsies belong to the following groups: the Kalderash,
who consider themselves aristocrats and the true guardians of the Gypsy
identity; the Macwaia (pronounced Matchuaia) who are inclined to abandon
nomadism and live a "crypto-Gypsy" life and are thus tending to lose their
identity; the Rudari, most of whom are from Romania, live and prosper in
Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; the Horahane who originally came from Greece
and Turkey and are mostly hawkers; and the Lovara whose culture is in marked
decline and who pass themselves off as Italian immigrants.
The exact number of Gypsies living in Brazil today
is not known. It has been estimated at 60,000 but some believe that the
true figure is over 100,000. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics
has no reliable data, for the Gypsies usually claim in censuses either
that they are Brazilian or that they belong to other nationalities. They
all speak at least three languages: Romani (their own language, which they
call Romanes), Portuguese, and Spanish.
Those who have remained more or less faithful to their cultural patterns
are almost without exception illiterate. The "crypto-Gypsies" on the other
hand take pride in achieving literacy and in making a career in one of
the liberal professions. Among them are law graduates, medical doctors,
dentists and athletes, as well as radio singers, TV performers and footballers--although
they do not always admit their origins.
The gayos (gadje, or non-Gypsies) know little about Gypsy life and cannot
understand the Gypsy way of looking at the world. A wall of mutual ignorance
divides Gypsy from gadje; as long as there is no attempt to bring them
together, each will continue to reject the other, and the prejudices which
surround the Gypsy culture will persist.
Press campaigns have been launched and approaches
made to international organizations to promote the idea of a "Gypsy Statute"
based on three fundamental principles: (1) the right to camp in every Brazilian
commune, so that the nomads do not always come into conflict with municipal
authorities; (2) the right to medical care and especially vaccination;
and (3) the opportunity to become literate in Romani and in Portuguese
so that they can safeguard their culture by preserving their language.
It is clear that for nomads the best educational system is seasonal schooling.
Thus the Gypsies have been present throughout the historical and cultural
evolution of Brazil. Although few studies have so far been devoted to them,
it is impossible to understand Brazilian culture as a whole without taking
into account the contribution of the Gypsies in the arts, literature, customs,
and in the traditional life of the country.