The earliest records of people who are believed to have been the first Gypsies to enter Spain are several scattered documents of safe conduct, or "passports," from the early fifteenth century. These documents refer to the "Princes and Counts of Little Egypt," and place these people in the north and northeast of Spain, where they had probably arrived after crossing the Pyrenees from France. (There is no evidence to support a popular notion that they entered Spain from North Africa.)
From the first national law about Gypsies in 1499 to the last in 1783, all Spanish decrees about Gitanos had the single goal of assimilation (only the very early laws decreed banishment for the unassimilated). To achieve this end, the laws ordered the dispersal of Gitano barrios in the cities, the separation of children from parents and their simultaneous enrollment in schools (even when schools hardly existed), with other coercive measures. Beyond everything, however, were the continuing directives attempting to compel Gitanos to participate in wage labor. These laws, which failed repeatedly, were also repeatedly reissued over three centuries. In 1783, in the last national law that was directed at Gitanos, Charles Ill's government abrogated all previous laws about Gypsies, decreed "benevolently" that Gitanos could now enter many professions (but not those of innkeepers or livestock traders), and once again ordered that they become wage laborers. The law also successfully enacted directives that had previously failed, and it forbade the use of the word "Gitano" or the then-common euphemism "Nuevos Castellanos" (New Castillans). The principal result was that Gitanos effectively disappeared from national law. This gap in the data remained until the mid-twentieth century, when Spaniards in the social services began to form associations to address the Gypsy situation.
From the 1960s on, the Catholic church and lay socialservice organizations began to concern themselves with what they called the problemática gitana, "the Gypsy question," a trenchant expression more powerful than el problema gitano, "the Gypsy problem." Today, government agencies and voluntary associations still attempt to assimilate Gitanos by bringing them into wage labor. Gitanos are no longer depicted as being noxious and dangerous to the state but Instead as being disadvantaged by centuries of prejudice, a people who need help to promocionarse, to "modernize." Brutal laws to coerce wage labor have now become social work programs for job training and other kinds of "development." A change may finally occur, even though Gitanos continue to control their own work. In the last ten years almost all Gitano children for the first time have been registered in schools. This powerful acculturating institution may eventually lead to the kind of assimilation that authorities have aimed at since the late fifteenth century. (See under "Economy.")
Although Gitanos have never constituted more than 1 percent of the total Spanish population, they have regularly come to represent part of the romantic image of Spain. Even today, travel posters and airline advertisements still portray Spain as a mosaic of bullfights, castles, and Gypsies. While romanticizing Gitanos as exotic "Others" began in the early seventeenth century with Cervantes's La Gitanitta, it was George Borrow's adventurous travel books of the mid-nineteenth century that popularized Gitanos for the European and American public. Gitanos became the subject of nineteenth-century novels and operas (by Mérimée and Bizet); of travel accounts (by Hans Christian Andersen, George Henry Borrow, Théophile Gautier); of an entire genre of nineteenth-century costumbrismo plays about the Spanish lower classes; and of numerous paintings. Like Gypsies elsewhere, Gitanos have historically been the object of elite and artistic interest in subordinate minorities. Often depicted as idealized noble savages and sometimes as depraved beings, Gitanos have embodied the fantasies of both non-Gypsy critics and champions of Spain.