New Mexico's gypsy invasion


The Gypsies are a colorful, nomadic people numbering about 1 million who roam throughout the world. Originally from India, they speak their own language, called Romany, and specialize in the business of trading and in public entertainment. Holding firmly to their native customs, they refuse to assimilate.

After 1850, Gypsy bands from Mexico began to make periodic excursions into the Southwest. They wore flamboyant costumes — the men, for example, were garbed in loud shirts, baggy trousers and a silk sash. Many men wore an earring and on their heads a fez with a long tassel.

Actually, most of the "Mexican" Gypsies had been born in the Near East, hence their use of the fez. Seeing those distinctive caps, the Hispanic folk of the upper Rio Grande Valley always called their wearers not Gypsies, but Los Turcos (Turks) or Los Arabes (Arabs).

In the popular mind, the Gypsies were sometimes confused with genuine Arabs, who appeared in New Mexico in the 1890s and became involved in the sheep business.

For reasons I find difficult to understand, folklorists have not paid much attention to New Mexico's fascinating body of Gypsy lore. It is a subject that has been buried and is now almost forgotten.

Thirty years ago, I began collecting the stories of old-timers who could remember as children the annual coming of the Gypsies. In those days they traveled, like Spanish Gypsies, on horseback, with pack mules or in caravans of brightly colored wagons.

The late Samuel Lucero, of San José on the Pecos River, recalled that the wagon train of Turcos came to his village each spring when he was a boy early in this century. They always camped along the river where water, firewood and grazing were available.

In those sleepy farming villages where nothing much ever happened, arrival of the Gypsies was eagerly anticipated. The women would fan out through the community offering to tell fortunes, and the men would parade performing bears and monkeys in the streets. For payment of a dime, they would have the bears dance.

Olibama López Tushar, who grew up in a tiny farming settlement on the New Mexico-Colorado border, said: "The appearance of the Gypsies was a mixed blessing. They were welcome not only because they broke the monotony, but because they bought many chickens to feed the bears, and they always paid in cash."

But she adds that the visitors were feared as well because they stole everything in sight. Some people I interviewed said they remembered that while the Gypsy woman was diverting the family with her fortune telling, her husband would slip around back and raid the henhouse.

The going price for telling a fortune was 25 cents, but if the client was poor and couldn't afford it, the Gypsy might drop the fee to a dime, but never lower than that.

Since Gypsy women were thought to have curing powers, they often ran a simple scam. If a family had someone sick, the visiting woman asked for a dollar bill. She then placed it in a glass and covered the glass with a handkerchief. Next she would explain that for the ill person to be healed, the dollar must disappear.

After some arcane words were pronounced and the handkerchief snatched away, the money always mysteriously vanished. Of course, it ended up in Gypsy pockets, and at least a few of the rural folk figured out that they had been duped.

The main business of the men was horse trading. Behind every wagon train, the young fellows drove a herd of animals. When it came to hiding a horse's defects from a potential customer, they knew every trick in the book.

Gullible farmers entered into a trade at their own peril. They liked to think that they could outsmart a Gypsy, but almost every time they themselves were taken to the cleaners.

One of the most fervently held folk beliefs was that Gypsies stole children, and here in New Mexico it was universally rumored that they ate them. However, that never seemed to stop crowds of little boys from following a Gypsy caravan out of town as it left.

For some reason, the years after 1910 saw a flood of Gypsies entering the Southwest. They floated through El Paso, Roswell, Silver City and then up the Rio Grande into Colorado. The tide stopped altogether during World War I.

By 1920 they were back, but riding in automobiles — sedans and touring cars. By the 1940s, the Gypsies began to fade from the scene, and today their marvelous caravans of old are just a faint memory.