RETURN OF THE GYPSY

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

There’s nothing more unsettling or singularly unproductive than a visit to your local police station; unless it’s a trip to the morgue. I challenge anyone to ignore the symbiotic relationship between these two outposts of our so-called civilization.


I spent three hours today at the ‘Jefatura de Policía’ in the Spanish town of Sevilla, most of that time awaiting service. Nonetheless, the young officer who handled my ‘denuncia’ (complaint) was surprisingly pleasant, even courteous. He patiently and attentively took down the information, printed three copies, then signed and sealed each sheet. That was all. I didn’t expect any follow-up because, like policemen everywhere, they don’t give a rat’s ass if your house was broken into. It’s all just a formality so you can file a claim with your insurance carrier.


Of course, the friendly young officer was too young to have experienced life under the dictatorship. The post-dictatorship National Police has made some effort to dispel the ugly reputation they earned for themselves during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), right up until the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975. Historians call these the ‘Black Years.’ I won’t go into the subject here. You can check out my blog posting at www.francescorizzuto.com/post/whatever-happened-to-the-ráfaga-collection for a bit of background.


My trip to the Jefetura de Policía was triggered by a visitation back in September 2020 from a trio of gypsies. Yes, gypsies: those colourfully dressed, enviously free souls that all hippiedom has emulated since I grew my own hair long, wore love beads, and lived in a VW van back in the 1960’s.


Despite the allure that the enduring gypsy mystique has for young people everywhere, the reality of their actual lifestyle, core values, and impact on host countries isn’t as attractive. The Spanish prison system is stuffed with ‘gitanos,’ while the government spends a lot of time and money in mitigating the impact of crimes perpetrated by some members of this longstanding sub-group in society. The gitano philosophy is not one of love and peace. A rigidly patriarchal hierarchy of power within gypsy families and the community at large, institutionalized misogyny, arranged marriages, a stubborn adherence to a medieval mindset and disdain for education, blood feuds and the valorization of manhood through violence; these cultural elements guarantee frequent head-on collisions with the rest of an increasingly liberal, digitized world. Sound racist? Then please read on.


I was enjoying a well-earned siesta upstairs while my wife and daughter idly chatted together in the ground floor living room of our house in the historic quarter of this lovely city. Without any warning, three gitanos busted down the front door and burst into our home. In North America, it's called a 'home invasion.' If they’d bothered to knock, we’d have quite innocently opened the door and invited the strangers in for tea. High tea is traditionally served with oat cakes at precisely 4 pm on Sunday afternoons.


The noise and violence of their arrival, not to put too fine a point on the destruction of our front door, propelled us into a fit of panic. I rushed downstairs to confront the intruders: a chunky older woman idling like a battered lorry outside in the street, a robust young man and younger woman inside. The two women were hauling grocery carts, obviously meant to soon contain all our belongings. Fortunately, there’s an iron gate between the formal entry and the actual living quarters which is a common feature of houses built here in the 19th century and for good reason. Spaniards know the drill.


Rushing out the door after the fleeing intruders, we exchanged multi-lingual obscenities but unfortunately in the heat of the moment I’d neglected to grab my mobile phone from inside and consequently didn’t capture any photos. I was also reluctant to physically confront the man who was much larger and younger than myself. Gypsies have an unpleasant tradition of concealing large folding knives called ‘navajas’ inside their belts under their shirts and today’s generation have an affinity for handguns.

One usually associates the Spanish gypsy with colourful skirts and shawls, wailing guitars and spirited flamenco dancing, all of which are emblematic of the culture. I knew they were gypsies by the ankle length skirts, bedroom slippers, and disheveled hair, as well as the characteristic dead look in their eyes, as if whatever idiom you might be attempting for communication, they might as well have arrived from the planet Mars. In general, Spanish gypsies are what Americans call ‘persons of colour’ but racism is not embedded in Spanish culture as it is in North America. So I won't go there. They broke into my home and that was enough.


Of course, we immediately telephoned the police, but without result. We phoned again two hours later. This time they disclaimed any knowledge of our earlier call although I’d spend a good ten minutes with the emergency dispatcher, pleading for assistance. So, next day I trundled off to the ‘Jefatura de Policía’ to file my ‘denuncia.’


The following day we got a call back. Inspector 123.689 wanted to know if the intruders had intended to rob or, perhaps, to occupy the house. You need to understand that in Spain the laws allow squatters to occupy any unoccupied premises at will and afterwards it’s quite impossible to get them out. In response, owners of unused properties simply fill in window and door openings with bricks and mortar, which seriously degrades the neighbourhood since there are lots of these unused properties. Why should good serviceable housing remain vacant, you ask? Well, that’s another consequence of law.


Here in the Province of Andalusia there is something called the Law of Succession. What the Law of Succession dictates is that when a person dies, his or her entire estate is frozen by the tax authorities until the succession (death) taxes are paid. These taxes can run to 60% of the ‘assessed’ value of the property, including furniture, paintings on the walls, and leftover food in the fridge. Worse yet, if a married couple has a joint bank account, the entire contents of that account are frozen until the full amount of the succession tax is paid. Withdrawals by the surviving joint account holder are blocked. Many an elderly widow or widower has become marooned without even a cent, compelling them to plea to the public welfare system which, because they in effect have assets, refuses to assist. What’s the point of marriage if you need to pay over half your partner’s net worth - and by implication, yours - to the government on their passing? Then your children need to do it again when you kick the bucket. Our friend’s 96-year-old father was placed in this very situation when his wife of 65 years passed away. It took years for his lawyer daughter to get the bank account unblocked, but only after his children finally paid off the huge tax bill in cash. They say that the only certain things in life are death and taxes. That very combination can signal financial ruin for a surviving spouse.


The bank account cannot be unblocked until the entire tax assessment has been satisfied, but most people have no way of coming up with the hundreds of thousands of euros it takes to pay an enormous tax on property that was originally purchased with after-tax earnings. The property itself cannot be sold until the succession tax is satisfied. No bank will issue a mortgage on any blocked property so there are few avenues for borrowing. It’s a nightmare. And a gold mine for the provincial government.


Government tax agents haunt the corridors of local hospitals, like the roving criminals who circulate throughout these narrow streets searching out targets of opportunity and who broke into my house. They note which patients are at death’s door, and even before the unfortunates are cold, the grave robbers show up at the deceased’s home – which is often still occupied by the rest of the family – jotting down inventory of everything of value in the place. With the current Covid-19 pandemic in full swing and a daily death tool exceeding 900 victims, you can imagine how busy the blood sucking taxman has become. Millions are out of work due to the impact of CV-19 on the national economy, while the government rakes in windfall profits on the dead.


Many families simply cannot pay the Law of Succession assessment and simply walk away from the inheritance. In this case, any real estate, furniture or other hard assets in question revert to the government which sells them at a discounted value to speculators. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest beneficiaries of these fire sales has been the Roman Catholic Church. You might have a million bucks sitting in your late Mom’s bank account but unless you can come up with hundreds of thousand in cash to ransom the remainder, you’re hooped; the classic Catch 22.


Spain has long been known for its corruption in high and low places, as well as a controversial relationship with the Vatican and other large real estate holders. For an interesting study on corruption in the country, check out British author Paul Preston’s non-fiction book “A Village Betrayed” (Un Pueblo Traicionado). Even the Spanish king, Juan Carlos I, was forced to abdicate in the midst of a recent corruption scandal. He handed off the crown to his son and this year fled to Saudi Arabia to avoid prosecution.


The foregoing is simply to offer an idea as to why there are so many bricked-in doors and windows in this town. As if the Law of Succession weren’t bad enough, let squatters into your property and you’ll never get them out. Apparently, the Church has no qualms about physically ousting the squatters after purchasing your family home then reselling it at a premium to developers.


That’s why the police called to ask if I thought the intruders intended to occupy the house or to rob it. Duh… We’re sitting there in the living room with all the lights on, dinner simmering on the stove in the adjacent kitchen, the cat scampering up and down the stairs. If they’d come to occupy the house, then why didn’t they bring their suitcases? Maybe they expected to use ours.


This past Sunday the same trio returned, but not to offer compensation for the damage they’d inflicted on their earlier visit. I guess it’s just too tempting not to revisit the scene of a crime or, more likely, these folks are just plain stupid.


In the interim, I’d installed a security system with IP cameras that issue remote alerts to my mobile phone. A few weeks after the first incident, the system captured a video of the same people trying the same door a second time. Having repaired and reinforced it, luck wasn’t with them. Again, we were at home, myself upstairs enjoying a siesta, my wife and daughter lounging downstairs when they heard the pounding at the door. My wife scolded me against confronting them, but I couldn’t resist dashing into the street. By that time, of course, they'd gone. So, back to the Jefatura de Policía this morning with another ‘denuncia’ backed up by a compact disk of photos and video.


What was more disconcerting this time is that our colourful friends left a marker on the house in the form of a pair of scissors inside a tobacco pouch, wrapped round and round with a woman’s elastic hair band, the whole assembly stuffed between the exterior security bars and the window frame. The police confirmed that this is a marker, typical of the gypsy modus operandi.

Now, having spent 20 years of my life in the USA, I think I recognize prejudice when I see it; so, I’ll quickly point out that I have nothing personal against gypsies. Or anyone. My daughter has been studying and performing flamenco for 8 years, the last 2 years with one of the most prestigious dance companies in Spain, operated by a ‘gitano’ family. We’ve had them over to the house for dinner on several occasions. I know that’s like saying “I’m not racist. I have a lot of Black friends.” But I’ll dare to argue that it’s not the same.


Gypsies didn’t arrive in Spain, or even Europe, as slaves. They came of their own free wills in a mass migration from South Asia starting some 1500 years ago, settling in the south of Spain during the 19th century, and have steadfastly refused to integrate with the local culture ever since. Quite a few have intermarried, and the trades, professions, and the arts contain excellent examples of persons of gitano heritage making good in this country. But as a whole, they refuse to assimilate. Their livelihoods are characterized by stealing, both petty and on a grander scale, and drug trafficking. They are often crafty and clever, very skilled at robbing tourists and those who don’t keep their wallets tucked securely inside their jackets and their purses in front. Perhaps it’s just too easy. Breaking into homes is more challenging but the gypsy is plodding and persistent.


There is a district of Seville known euphemistically as the ‘tres mil viviendas’, or ‘three thousand residences.’ Taxis won’t take you there. Municipal officials make their appointed rounds with a police escort. The area is dedicated to and dominated by gitanos. I visited there once to attend a flamenco concert at a community hall, the first community hall I’d ever seen here that employed uniformed, armed security guards. It was scary. Most of the neighbourhood buildings are crumbling, Soviet-stye concrete tenement blocks constructed during the Fascist era, many with windows and doors bricked in. After darkness fell, the streets around the community centre were lit with fires blazing inside oil drums surrounded by milling groups of people seemingly without anything to do. Expensive, flashy automobiles circulated like menacing sharks, filled with threatening looking young men. I was later advised to never enter the area with a car. A breakdown or flat tire guarantees a very unpleasant outcome.


I’ve visited a lot of slums in my working life, from New York to Mexico City to Johannesburg, but I’ve not seen anything so depressing as the ‘tres mil viviendas.’ Sevillianos call it “Sevilla’s Shame,” and for very good reason.


During the ‘Black Years,’ the Fascist government wanted to clean out the gypsy population of Triana, the community across the Guadalquivir River that bisects Seville on a north/south axis. Triana had traditionally been the lair of gypsies and sailors (Seville is actually a seaport where ocean going vessels have called since Roman times). Generalissimo Franco’s intention was to redevelop Triana to generate profits for himself and his developer cronies, therefore the core of the ‘tres mil viviendas’ began as a social housing project. The gypsies were forcibly removed from their homes in Triana and deposited, Holocaust-style, in the ‘tres mil viviendas.’ There they promptly began tearing out all the copper plumbing, elevator cables and motors, electrical panels, wire fencing, street lighting, and anything else of value, then selling those materials to the scrap dealers. They moved goats, horses and donkeys into rooms in the upper stories (while there were still elevators) and covered the now windowless openings with colourful fabric. That’s the condition of the area today, only worse.


Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and some social services-affiliated groups work out of store front offices in the 'tres mil viviendas', trying to ameliorate what is mostly the impact of people's intransigent attitudes and bad decisions. These valiant souls make their rounds each morning collecting school children from their families' living spaces then escorting them to the centres where the kids are washed, issued clean clothing and a morning meal, then escorted to their respective school classrooms. Spanish law dictates that all children up to age 16 must attend classes but the country's gitanos don't subscribe to anyone's law but their own. Having a social worker show up at their doors each morning to escort their children to school offends their sense of pride and the resultant public shaming gives the children a chance at learning. It's the only way.


80% of the European Union’s gypsies, and Spain is no exception, insist on living below the poverty line. It’s not like nations of the modern EU haven’t made efforts to accommodate them; quite the opposite. Nonetheless, the ‘tres mil viviendas’ was a very bad idea from its inception. Much of redeveloped Triana has, over the past 60 years, itself decayed into an unattractive slum. It was a lose-lose situation for everyone except the real estate developers and, of course, the dictatorship.


Since the formation of the European Union, gypsy communities from Eastern Europe (the so-called Roma or Romani) have decentralized and spread in a new migration throughout Western Europe, predominantly into Italy and Spain, bringing a crime wave and corresponding social problems with them. In these countries, university education is offered gratis and based on merit (you don’t need rich parents or crippling student debt to better yourself), and there is universal free healthcare, but gypsies don’t seem to want any part of it. Children are discouraged from learning or even attending school, many girls are already pregnant by age 14. Every church, and there are one or more churches on every street here, features its resident gypsy beggar poised at the entrance, often with a newborn baby which they pass back and forth from one shift to the next throughout the day. I could go on, but you’d say I was exaggerating.


And that brings us back to the Law of Succession. Most of the country’s gypsy population is concentrated in Andalusia. The socialist government in this province desperately needs the Law of Succession, which exists in other provinces but whose tax rate is limited to only a fraction of one percent, to fund its generous social welfare programmes. They need the cash inflow to hold onto power. If you think that people who refuse to participate in society will also refuse to accept welfare payments, then please think again. There’s more reason to become a mom at age 14 than just a shortage of condoms. It means government support for at least the next 18 years.


The folks who body-slammed our front door to pieces are thieves without any justification for their aggression except their own anti-social codes. Nonetheless, we’ve since become better acquainted, sort of. Mornings, the two women can be found seated on the sidewalk flanking the entrance to a local church, their sad-puppy eyes pleading empathy for their perceived misfortune, begging alms from churchgoers. At noon, the man who busted our door arrives, apparently to collect the coins the women have gleaned from conscience-plagued Christians. I watch them from across the street and wonder at their shameless tenacity and guile. I wave.


The eighth-floor apartment of my friend, a municipal judge, was broken into at 11:00 in the morning while she ducked out for a bag of sugar at a local convenience store, being gone less than a half hour. The building employs a doorman but if you look even halfway respectable then he doesn’t bat an eyelash. Just ask for anyone and he points you to the elevator. During that half hour, thieves managed to not only enter the apartment without smashing down the door (they had master keys), but they opened her safe and stole every last cent plus all her jewelry, much of it heirlooms from her late parents and grandparents.


Now this victim is a municipal court judge so you’d think the police might take some interest in her case. No such luck. They merely informed her that there was a rash of professional burglaries occurring across the city, all the work of Romanian gypsies (Roma). This particular robbery team had received military training. “You can’t keep them out,” they advised, as if pleading “Hey, we’re no match for them.” Seems that even the police are afraid of these characters.


Three years ago, another friend recounted a break-in at their hacienda, a medium-sized tract of land a good distance outside town, at least 45 minutes by car on some very rough roads. The thieves totally cleaned them out: saddles and bridles, guns, clothing, tools, even the diesel generator. They overlooked some 20 horses and flocks of sheep and goats but quickly neutralized the guard dog. The police pleaded that a gang of Romani gypsies had been knocking over properties all around the area, at the same time holding day jobs on local farms. Spain depends heavily on migrant labour, mainly from Romania.


Another friend was with his wife while she gave birth at the local maternity hospital when they broke into the family’s home. Furniture, sound system, microwave, clothing, everything. Cleaned out. These are working-class victims who struggle to put food on the table and give their families a decent life, holding down low-paying jobs. You’d think that even these interlopers would have some respect. But like I said, they have their own codes.


My Spanish friends insist that it wasn’t Spanish gypsies who broke into our home and seem determined to get in again until they finally succeed in cleaning us out. “It’s the Romanians,” they protest, “Our gypsies don’t wear long skirts.“ Here’s a shot of one of the three intruders, on their second try.

I might argue with that. My wife and daughter have closets filled with “trajes de gitana,” that is, gypsy dresses with long skirts. That’s what everyone here wears during the annual ‘Feria,’ and to local parties, even to weddings. Andalusians are very defensive of their own gitanos, and I get the point. But I sometimes think their affinity for traditional gypsy clothing is analogous to White Americans who go out to Halloween parties in blackface.

During the Black Years, the Francoist government in Spain did its murderous best to oppress the gitanos, forbidding them to speak their language called ‘Kaló’ (an antiquated dialect of Spanish with what are said to be South Asian roots), to travel or congregate in their traditional camps, and to play or dance flamenco music. The Catholic Church vilified them. Adolph Hitler gassed them (the so-called ‘Roma’ in conquered territories).


Nonetheless, the present-day Italian government has erected enormous refugee camps for the Roma outside the capitol city of Rome and elsewhere, while struggling to accommodate the huge influx of people from not only the eastern EU but Africa as well. Spain has been equally compassionate in absorbing the tide of migrants and refugees. You can visit Barcelona where a huge banner slung across the façade of City Hall declares “Refugees Welcome.”


Italians and Spaniards are open-hearted, generous people. They’re always ready to make an extra place at the table, no matter how meagre is their own meal. Their social welfare and public health systems are overwhelmed, especially so with the currently raging Covid-19 pandemic. But they continue to rescue people floundering in the Mediterranean, then housing and feeding them on dry land, streaming their children into local schools and generously handing out welfare payments. They really do want to integrate everyone, no matter their origin, into this society. There is no ICE here, and no cages at the borders.


Still, I don’t relish people breaking down my front door.

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