The Gypsy Festival
July 11, 2006
How do you measure the success of your annual festival? At the gypsy festival of La Virgen de los Remedios in Fregenal de la Sierra near the border of Spain and Portugal, it’s simple: The measurement is the number of young gypsy couples that have announced their intent to marry.
On the last weekend in October, gypsies from all over Spain and Portugal make a “romeria,” or pilgrimage, to this “ermita,” or hermitage, in the rolling farmland a few miles east of the small town of Fregenal. They arrive in family caravans – fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and grandchildren. There may be 30 or 40 people to a family. They set up tents next to their campers, light fires with huge chunks of olive wood, hang delicious hams from the trees, cook, dance, drink, sing and visit friends throughout the weekend.From the camping and partying area, a narrow road – lined with booths selling cooking ware, sunglasses, colorful blankets, shoes, olive oil, almonds and other food products, toys and games – leads to the ermita with the statue of La Virgen de los Remedios in its upper chamber. Throughout the weekend, families pay homage to this statue.
For some this is much more than a simple prayer. We watched one young man lie on the ground and drag himself with his arms along the narrow road, across the patio of the ermita and up the steep stairs. When I asked what was wrong with him, a friend said it was “La Promesa.” Apparently he had done something awful for which this was his atonement.For food and drink, local entrepreneurs set up “chiringuitos,” little booths with sandwiches, coffee, beer, wine and mixed drinks. Others erect a huge tent where singing and dancing continues throughout the night.
Although this festival began in the 16th century, it is little known even in Spain. The last time we visited – October 2005 – we were the only foreigners there.Gypsy society is generally quite closed and very separate from Spanish society. They were very open to my taking photographs once they found out that I was an American and not a Spaniard. They are also determined that their children will marry within gypsy circles. One of the drawbacks of their society is a lack of educational opportunities. For example, I always offer to send photos to the people I photograph. In this case, however, we would have to go through a complicated process of finding someone who could write well enough to write down an address.
In the case of most “romerias” there is a procession in which the statue of the virgin is carried from the Church. This is especially true of Holy Week or Semana Santa processions. At Fregenal this only happens every 25 years. Coincidentally the next procession will be this October. And we will be there.Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident who has written extensively about Spain. He can be reached at Morganfirstname.lastname@example.org.