Gypsy Culture in Portugal


Gypsies or the Romani people can be found in Portugal and Western Europe with their own distinct cultural identity. They are known as Ciganos, Cales, Calos, Boemios and Gitanos by non-Romani ethnic Portuguese. Their presence in the country can be traced back to the second half of the 15th century. Romani population in Portugal is estimated to be more than 50,000 spread all over the country. Most of them live in Lisbon, Alentejo, Setubal and Algarve. The largest Roma communities in Algrave can be found in in the municipalities of Portimão, Loulé and Faro. Almost all Gypsies in the country have Portuguese nationality.

Romani people are more commonly called Gypsies or travellers. They are continuously on the move and have a reputation for a nomadic lifestyle and insular culture. Gypsies have been typecast as scarved fortune-teller giving gifted clairvoyant readings or a band of traveling musicians and dancers in colorfully decorated wagons. Fictional representations of Gypsies in art and literature romanticized their supposed mystical powers in fortune telling, love of freedom and the alleged tendency for stealing children and criminality.

Gypsy culture  in Portugal and Western Europe is colorful, dynamic and constantly evolving. It is constantly changing in today’s globalized world while preserving its ethnic cultural heritage. Gypsies do not have an official religion. They often adopt the dominant religion of the country which includes Catholic, Muslim and Protestant. TV shows  like “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding gives us a peek of their contemporary lives to help us understand and appreciate their culture. Gypsies typically marry in their mid to late-teens. Most marriages are arranged by the parents. Marriage is a major event where family member from all over gather numbering in the hundreds or even thousands. Weddings are huge affairs, brides are expected to show off and wear extravagant wedding gowns.

Gypsies have a strong family and community ties. They don’t want their children to learn non-gypsy ways nor be polluted with foreign tradition. Most of their children only attend public school until the age of 10 or 11 and continue their education from the home and community. Gypsy families tend to travel frequently as an extended family or with several groups. Although family members have their own homes, they still keep in constant contact with one another. Most extended family works together as an economic unit.

They have deep historic traditions, functional family structure and they have their own beliefs about the human body which are different from the culture of Western Europe. Gypsies have a strict hygiene system. They consider the upper half of the body as pure while the lower half as contaminated. A gypsy who touches his lower body must wash his hands. Anything the feet touched is considered contaminated. Gypsy women who give birth are considered contaminated so they are temporarily isolated from the rest of the family.

Gypsies have long been wandering entertainers. They are known worldwide for their singing, dancing and musical skills. In all places they become known as musicians and dancers. Gypsy music is soulful and characterised by vocals which are often declamatory. Their music often incorporates slides between notes and the instrumentation varies according to the region where the music comes from. There is no pure gypsy music, it is mostly adapted from the host country. Gypsies that move from locality to locality, learned music from people around them and blend them with their traditional music. Gypsies who travelled from Portugal to Brazil played a part in the development of Samba. Gypsy music today is blending of Rom, jazz, rock and local elements. Fado, a music genre in Portugal has gypsy music influence. Street Fado performers are frequently Gypsies.

Gypsies in Portugal tend to work at occupations that weren’t affected by frequent travel. Some of these jobs included woodworking, carpentry, metalworking and horse trading. As the times changed traditional occupations also changed. The woodworkers became furniture makers, metalworkers became jewelry craftsmen and horse traders became mechanics and used car dealers. Today, most Gypsies have settled into houses and apartments. Travelling Gypsies can still be seen in Portugal but most of them use cars and recreational vehicles to move from place to place.