ECMI Minorities Blog. The Cultural Appropriation of Flamenco: Views of Gitanos from Jerez de la Frontera
*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***
Author: Marta Anzillotti Zamorano | https://doi.org/10.53779/AAPL9656
* Marta Anzillotti Zamorano is a trainee at Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Previously, she was an intern at the European Centre for Minority Issues. She completed her bachelor’s in liberal arts majoring in political science and anthropology at University College Utrecht, followed by a Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies from Lund University. Please feel free to send any feedback or comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerez de la Frontera, a city characterised by wine and flamenco, is also home to a notable Gitano community. With the mixing of cultures and the merging of Gitano and non-Gitano families, cultural exchange, as well as its more negative form, cultural appropriation, are very topical issues. Having conducted interviews with 17 different people, all but one of whom identify as Gitano in some form,[i] this blogpost aims to contextualize flamenco and draw attention to its cultural impact through the lens of Gitanos from Jerez de la Frontera. This is supplemented by further data gathered through a survey with 23 respondents. Moreover, the text will also use two case studies, that of Lola Flores and Rosalía, to move from theoretical to more practical examples of cultural appropriation. The goal of this text is not to compare these two cases, but rather to use them to demonstrate the nuances within the topic of the cultural appropriation of art.
The Gitano community of Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez de la Frontera (often shortened to Jerez) is a city of almost 213,000 people in the province of Cádiz in Andalusia, a large autonomous community in the south of Spain. It is a city that cannot be appreciated without the presence of Gitanos. It is often referred to as an example of integration where Gitanos and gachós (a colloquial way to refer to non-Gitanos) live side by side. The exact number of Gitanos in Jerez is hard to count as intercultural marriages are quite common, making the identity of some uncertain. In fact, the line between who or what is Gitano and who or what is not Gitano is very blurred.
Juan de la Plata, a writer and journalist from Jerez, acknowledges that while Gitanos in Spain have suffered severe persecution, anti-Gitano laws were not applied too rigorously in Jerez. This stems from mutual interests between landowners and Gitanos. On the one hand, landowners had an interest in Gitanos working for them, while on the other hand, Gitanos had an interest in having the patronage and protection of the landowning class. Javier J. Royo confirms this, noting how Gitanos often worked for payos (Spanish word for non-Gitanos) in Jerez, leading them to form intercultural bonds. Furthermore, Antonio ‘El Platero’ explains how in the mid-20th century landowners financially supported flamenco, hiring flamenco artists (often Gitanos) to sing in their houses and wineries. While these accounts do depict a more humane and better relationship between Gitanos and payos, Gitanos have been and remain one of the most marginalised communities in Spain and in Europe. An important historic example of their persecution includes the Great Gitano Round-up (Gran Redada de Gitanos) in 1749, where there was an attempt to ethnically cleanse Spain of Gitanos. More currently, Gitanos continue to be discriminated against, with the non-profit organization Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) publishing a detailed list of 364 instances of discrimination that Gitanos in Spain faced in 2020. This included, but was not limited to, discrimination in housing, health, and education, as well as by news outlets and in accessing the labour market.
Flamenco as a part of Gitano culture
Authors such as Rios Ruiz found that the origin of flamenco lies with Gitanos and Moors in the south of Andalusia (around Cadiz and Sevilla) and dates back to the 17th century. However, as Gitano politician Ramírez-Heredia explains, flamenco’s origins are contested, with some believing it is a strictly Gitano contribution to Andalusian culture while others claim that it is a strictly payo contribution. Nevertheless, it is generally acknowledged that it is an artform that Gitanos are particularly skilled at performing. When asked, 12 out of the 23 respondents from Jerez[ii] said that flamenco was a Gitano and an Andalusian tradition, with another four saying it was a Gitano and payo tradition. On the other hand, four respondents said it was a strictly Gitano tradition, and a final three respondents said it was a strictly Andalusian tradition. This reveals that generally it is acknowledged that Gitanos have played an important role in flamenco, with some considering flamenco to be a tradition that is more strictly attributed to Gitanos and others believing it to be a general part of Andalusian culture.
To illustrate the richness of individual understandings of flamenco, the focus can be turned to the responses given by interviewee 5. He acknowledges how the root of flamenco comes probably from the merging of different cultures; therefore, it cannot be traced back and attributed to an exact group of people. He continues by saying that an artform does not emerge overnight; that there is no proof that Gitanos created flamenco. However, he does affirm that there are more Gitano styles of flamenco. While acknowledging that it might not be possible to trace back flamenco strictly to the Gitano community, he expresses how more should have been done to criticise the fact that very few Gitanos have been included in the Cátedra de Flamencología of Jerez (a Flamenco academic institution). He stated how in Jerez there was no outrage about this, when in his opinion there should have been. This shows the delicate nature of attributing an artform to a certain group; however, it also exposes how harmful not recognizing the role of such a marginalised minority in shaping an artform can be, as this minority can easily be overlooked.
Stepping away from the origins of flamenco and looking at its more recent history in Jerez, Antonio ‘El Platero’ explains how in mid-20th century those who listened to flamenco were looked down upon, viewed as womanizers and as people who enjoyed staying up late too much. Flamenco was not always highly thought of; it was considered a marginalised art form, unlike today, where it is much more popular. This shows the evolution of flamenco from its humble beginnings to its approval from the broader public in Andalusia, Spain, and beyond.
Cultural appropriation is a term used to describe the act of taking something from a culture that is not one’s own, often in the form of artifacts, history, knowledge, cultural expressions, and artforms. In its most negative form, cultural appropriation can include the theft and imposition of culture, but some scholars also use the term in a broader sense to refer to an exchange of cultures, including reciprocal exchanges. Rogers highlights how a power dynamic between groups is what distinguishes the theft and imposition of culture from mutually beneficial exchange. Examples of cultural exchange include two-way flows of music and visual arts and/or the adoption of a foreign language, such as Dutch universities choosing to use English as a de facto second language for practical economic purposes, although even here Rogers highlights how there may be some underlying power dynamics. While cultures inevitably blend and change over time, cultural appropriation, especially in its most extreme forms, can have very real and devastating consequences. Cultural appropriation in the form of theft can be perceived as taking a culture from the oppressed and using it to subordinate them further. Examples of this include forcing Indigenous children to attend Anglo-American boarding schools in the late 19th century USA, or more recently, the hijab bans in Quebec (Canada) and France.
Returning to Gitanos in Jerez, accounts such as Juan de la Plata’s of mutually beneficial exchanges between the powerful and the powerless in Jerez start to raise questions on what is inevitable, what is beneficial, and what is harmful cultural exchange. According to the survey, 4 respondents answered that Gitano culture could be culturally appropriated in an offensive manner and 13 respondents said this was not the case, with the remainder either not answering or responding that they did not know what cultural appropriation was. With such a limited sample size, it is impossible to draw strong conclusions, however it does show that there is no unanimous agreement.
The case of Lola Flores: A deep-rooted and favourable exchange of cultures
Lola Flores (1923-1995) is widely considered to be a pioneer, a cultural icon, and one of the most well-loved flamenco performers from Jerez. Nevertheless, her identity in terms of whether she had Gitano ancestry remains unclear to this day. In the survey, when asked if Lola Flores was Gitana or paya, 6 out of 8 people who identified as Gitano/a said that she was paya, with another respondent selecting both paya and Gitana. On the other hand, 7 of the 8 respondents that identified as payo/a thought that Lola Flores was Gitana. This shows that those who identified as Gitano/a were more likely to consider Lola Flores paya. Those who identified as entreverado/a[iii] were split evenly, with half of them (3) identifying Lola Flores as Gitana and the other half (3) as paya. As the sample is so small, again no overwhelming conclusion can be reached; however, it does demonstrate that there is no unanimous agreement on her identity. Furthermore, these results indicate that a person’s own ethnic identity may influence how they perceive Lola Flores’ identity.
Lola Flores’ identity and her contribution to flamenco was discussed in a more in-depth manner in the interviews. Interviewee 13 explained that while Lola Flores was not Gitana, she grew up in San Miguel (a historically Gitano neighbourhood) and brought flamenco to the world. She continued saying that Lola Flores always spoke highly about Gitanos and was proud of her roots. This demonstrates how well-liked Lola Flores is amongst Gitanos, even by those that do not consider her Gitana by blood. It also shows how growing up in a certain place such as San Miguel, surrounded by Gitanos, can have a strong influence on a person and the way they express themselves. Interviewee 8 remarked that in Jerez someone who is payo/a may enjoy flamenco more than a Gitano/a. He further explained that in Jerez a payo may use the phrase ‘you are very gachó’ because it is a way of speaking and a custom that people of Jerez have. This demonstrates profound cultural exchange as the expression ‘que gachó eres’ (you are very gachó) comes from Gitanos poking fun at payos, but now it is used in various settings by everyone. Despite this blurring of lines and deep cultural exchange, the same interviewee who spoke about Lola Flores and her strong ties to Gitano culture (interviewee 13) was very hesitant to answer the question of whether someone who did not have Gitano ancestry could be Gitano/a. This occurred right after talking about Lola Flores, displaying conflicting and complex sentiments around culture and who is entitled to feel, perform, say, and do certain things. It may also indicate how feelings regarding cultural appropriation may change case-by-case. Moreover, it hints at a possible gap between what is theoretically considered to be harmful cultural appropriation and what is more acceptable in practice. This is particularly true when there is a face and a story behind acts that may appear to be cultural appropriation. As interviewee 13 explains figures such as Lola Flores spoke highly of Gitanos and made flamenco more widespread, which in turn may have some positive spill over benefits for the Gitano and flamenco community.
The case of Rosalía: a more controversial exchange of cultures
The other case study this blogpost will focus on is more recent: the case of the music of Rosalía’s, a 2020 Grammy winner. Rosalía is an artist from Catalonia and is not Gitana, with her work having been criticised for culturally appropriating flamenco and Gitano culture, especially her ‘Malamente’ music video. When asked directly whether Rosalía’s ‘Malamente’ music video was offensive, 3 survey respondents said yes and 15 said no.
The feelings this case elicited were elaborated on in the interviews, with interviewee 1 expressing frustration with artists who are not Gitano getting more appreciation for what she considered a bad copy of flamenco and a more harmful form of cultural appropriation. She gave examples of Gitano creative artists such as Pablo Vega who were not given as much attention or opportunities. Having said this, she expressed how expanding flamenco to other settings was not always negative, as she considered the teaching of flamenco at universities to be a source of richness for the Gitano community. In a similar, but softer line, interviewee 3 stated that as long as no real damage was done, things should not be prohibited; however, Rosalía’s art could not be considered as flamenco. Interviewee 3 added that Rosalía should acknowledge that she liked to benefit from flamenco. This is contrasted by the thoughts shared by interviewee 6, who saw a real value in artists such as Rosalía bringing flamenco to new parts of the world and ensuring that flamenco lives on. These three interviewees all show how the cultural appropriation of flamenco is characterised by feelings of frustration. They highlight that Gitanos are not granted the same opportunities and that their talent and skills are not acknowledged in the same way as non-Gitanos. However, they also see some advantages of non-Gitanos being influenced by flamenco and Gitano culture; more importantly, they are hesitant to set fixed limits on who is allowed to perform certain artforms and who is not.
Overall, the results from the interviews portray the deep ties that some Gitanos from Jerez have to flamenco as an artform and as part of their cultural heritage. The survey demonstrates the broad variety of opinions amongst Gitanos and payos in Jerez regarding this topic. Moreover, the cases of Lola Flores and Rosalía bring the theory of cultural appropriation to life, showing that cultural appropriation of art, and in particular flamenco, elicits a range of feelings due to the past and current struggles of a historically marginalised community. On the one hand, some see the benefits of artists (including non-Gitanos) popularising flamenco, especially when they have grown up among Gitanos and are as unique as Lola Flores. In the case of Rosalía, though, there has been more controversy. However, as she is not from Jerez, this means that perhaps people from there have fewer ties to her. Additionally, her music and the current cultural and political climate are very different to that of Lola Flores’, making direct comparisons between the two cases difficult. Nonetheless, for some Gitanos, Rosalía’s works do elicit the feeling that an artform has been stolen, with those who significantly contributed to it either not acknowledged or given the same opportunities.
[i] The one person who did not identify as Gitano is married to another interviewee who does identify as Gitano. A joint interview was conducted to better understand the dynamics in a payo-Gitano household.
[ii] 8 payo/a, 6 entreverado/a, 8 Gitano/a or who identify as Gitano/a, but are entreverado/a, and 1 prefer not to say
[iii] Entreverado/a is typically used to refer to a person with one Gitano parent and another non-Gitano parent. Entreverada is the singular feminine word and entreverado is the singular masculine word.