If the name "Gitan" is given in France to all of the populations of gypsy origin, it legitimately only belongs to one sole group, by far the most numerous and the most established in Saintes Maries de la Mer. Spain had been for a long time their favoured country: their family names have kept reminders of it, just like their dialect: the "kâlo",, unfortunately dying out... The women are very dark haired, the men have dark skin. They call themselves either "Catalans", or "Andalusian", according to their principal place of settlement. They number dozens of thousands in the South of France, where some have definitively settled since many years ago, even several generations. But there are also Gitan shanty towns whose population has increased tenfold with the arrival of Gypsies from North Africa.
It was the Gitans who gave Spain the best of Flamenco, and also the famous dancers (Luisillo, Imperio Argentina, Carmen Amaya, Lola Florès and La Chunga), as well as generations of great toreros. And to France, an inspired guitarist: Manitas de Plata.
These are the most easily recognizable, as the women continue to wear the traditional multicoloured skirts that fall all the way to their feet, and, when married, a scarf tied around their heads. The richest sport necklaces of gold coins, which make up the tribe's treasure. Many say life is an adventure, while the men are tinkers, coppersmiths or gilders. These professions prompt them to reside in industrial suburbs, notably in Paris, Lyon and Lille. This is the group that has most jealously preserved its original aspects: the language (close to Sanskrit), the traditions, the legends. After crossing Central Europe, the Roms are today spread out around the world, from Canada to Australia South Africa.
The Manouches (and their cousins, the Sinti), scarcely distinguish themselves. The poorest are basket makers, and have kept their horse-drawn caravans; others are fairground sellers or iron gatherers. The Manouches stayed for a long time in Germany and bear Germanic names (ex: Django Rheinardt); the Sinti have retained the mark of their passage in the Piedmont (ex: the circus family Bouglione). Both have a veritable passion for music, and it is from amongst them that the famous tzigane orchestras recrute their virtuosos.
They may really like to be be to explain the reasons for their unconventional existence, but how? Their only certitude is that they continue to belong to a world other than our own. Neither laws, nor military service nor child benefits would change anything of this fact that reinforces the silent suspicion that surrounds them and in which we see a certain form of racism.
Who hasn't heard soomeone say "Why don't they go back where they came from?". The answer is easy: "where they came from" is here, because 95 % or our Gypsies are French citizens, many amongst them have shone on our battlefields and in the Resistance. Did you know that 300,000 of their brothers died in Nazi death camps? As to living "like everyone else", their condition prohibits it. And then, in the name of what arrogant superiority would we have it that our way of life is the only legitimate one; there are breeding pigeons and there are carrier pigeons; there are settled peoples and there are nomads and that's how it is. So, visiting friends, you who find the Gypsies friendly when they go on long Procession or get drunk on the music and dancing in Saintes Maries de la Mer, in what light will you see them the day they arrive in your cities and towns? Will you open the door to them? Will you favour them with a smile or show some kindness to the Gypsy woman who wants to sell you her baskets, her household linens or sewing notions? Will you help them park for a good stopover somewhere other than the town dump? If you do so you will be in good company. After a long history, the Gypsies today count many friends: in the image of Jacques Callot, who followed a group of bohemians and immortalized them in his engravings, and of Stradivarius, who learned at their school the art of violin making. In the face of the prejudice, the false stories, the scorn of so many settled people, they have woven across all of France a large network of Gypsy friends. They feel like brothers and sisters of these misunderstood people who have paid for a too long time a too heavy price for the right to continue to exist.
So let work within you the mercy of Saintes Maries de la Mer, where the poor are honoured, the rejected welcomed, the unloved comforted. Forget just the Pilgrimage or a too short visit, we would like that you become one of those for whom the arrival of the caravans is a promise of joy. That's what, in its naivity, the Rom people's beautiful prayer expresses: Saint Sara, set us on the right path, give us you beautiful luck and give us health. et donne-nous la santé. And if someone thinks bad of us, change his heart so that he thinks good of us. -Amen.-