[Marxism] Roma Culture 101: Opening Minds With Song, Talk and Laughter

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 30 06:40:43 MDT 2017

NY Times, August 30, 2017
Roma Culture 101: Opening Minds With Song, Talk and Laughter

LANCIANO, Italy — For one week in August, a group of students in 
Lanciano, a hilltop town near the Adriatic Sea, sang songs, played 
music, danced, ate and went on field trips.

But this was no ordinary summer camp. This was the second annual Roma 
Summer School, a full immersion in Romani culture.

And so the roughly dozen participants — including “gadji,” or women of 
non-Roma origin — learned basic expressions in Romanés, the Romani 
language spoken in Abruzzo; gobbled up Roma cuisine; and were invited 
into Romani homes.

And they graduated with a better understanding, and appreciation, of the 
Roma and their struggles, returning home with a message of appreciation 
and integration.

At least that was the organizers’ intent.

“Only by sharing, understanding, drinking, eating and being welcomed by 
Roma families do you begin to have encounters on an equal footing,” 
explained Santino Spinelli, the ebullient director of the school. 
“That’s how you overcome the negative stereotypes and the widely held 
preconceptions and prejudices against Roma.”

Mr. Spinelli is arguably Italy’s best-known Roma personality, or at 
least the most famous Italian who admits to being a member of an often 
vilified group.

On stages elsewhere, he goes by the name Alexian, the accordion-playing 
leader of a Roma musical group that, he proudly says, has “played for 
three popes.”

As a musician, he has helped promote Roma culture, but he has also 
wanted to find a way to dispel persistent anti-Roma prejudice.

Last spring, Mr. Spinelli was at the seaside in San Vito Marina, taking 
a stroll after lunch, and the idea came to him: Why not have an 
intercultural school where Italians could meet Roma families and see for 
themselves what the Roma were really about?

“I am trying to get people to know the unknown side of the Roma, the 
families that are integrated, the Roma who work, who are honest, who 
have lived here for centuries but continue to preserve their culture,” 
he said.

The course emphasized Roma culture, but it unavoidably touched on modern 
social issues and preconceptions — like the notion that Roma are a 
nomadic people who feel at home living in filthy insalubrious camps.

Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

“Roma have been living in houses in Abruzzo since the 14th century,” 
said Mr. Spinelli, who owns a lushly decorated villa just outside 
Lanciano that he shares with his aging parents, his children and his 
wife, Daniela De Rentiis, who coordinated the logistics of the school 
(and cooked tirelessly).

Camps do exist, but the Roma who live there are merely the latest wave 
of Romani refugees escaping persecution and war in their countries of 
origin, he said.

“The Roma’s presumed vocation to nomadism has been the result of 
repression and persecution throughout Europe,” he said. “Running away is 
not a choice; it’s called forced mobility.”

And the camps that have been created by city governments to house these 
refugees — mostly from the Balkans — negatively reinforce the myth of a 
wandering people.

“They’re really an example of racial segregation, a crime against 
humanity,” Mr. Spinelli said. “As an Italian I am ashamed of this 

During the week, the students visited museums and a fairground run by 
Roma, ate with Roma families, and went on outings.

On one occasion, the class took a late-night trip to the bakery of 
Filippo Spinelli, Mr. Spinelli’s cousin.

“The best bread in Lanciano is made by a Rom,” exclaimed Mr. Spinelli, 
the musician.

Mr. Spinelli, the baker, said that his overnight business had become a 
habitual stop for locals, from young people to police officers working 
the night shift, and that racism had never been a part of his world.

“If you respect people, they respect you,” he said. “You have to make 
yourself known for what you do.”

But when his daughter, Elena, applied for a bank loan to open a 
restaurant, she was turned down. “They heard my last name and denied the 
loan,” she said. (In Abruzzo, several last names — Spinelli, Di Rocco, 
Guarnieri, Morelli — can signal Roma origin.)

“Prejudice can be strong,” she said. Another bank, in any case, approved 
the loan.

The Abruzzo region, where Mr. Spinelli lives and where Roma have been 
widely integrated for centuries, “is not all a happy valley,” said Paolo 
Ciani, an expert in Roma issues for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a 
Catholic lay group.

Periodically, crimes involving Roma generate local headlines. “The 
problem is that whenever a Rom commits a crime or some stupid act, it 
sparks the common prejudicial refrain about Roma, that there are too 
many Gypsies and so on,” he said.

“But for the most part, there is good coexistence in Abruzzo, and it’s 
been that way for centuries,” he said.

As it is, Romani culture is not widely studied in Italy, 
“unfortunately,” said Mr. Spinelli, who has taught university courses in 
Trieste and in nearby Chieti.

Academics across Europe are doing research on Romani studies, with the 
most substantial body of work at the Central European University in 
Budapest, said Alicia Clyde, a communications expert working on Roma 
inclusion in Europe.

“It’s important to give opportunities,” like the summer school, for 
greater examination of Roma issues, Ms. Clyde said. Still, when the 
course was announced this year on social media — Mr. Spinelli runs a 
variety of sites — it received mostly ironic media coverage.

But for Patrizia Schiavone, a participant, “It’s been a marvelous 
eight-day voyage.” Ms. Schiavone, who works as an educator in a prison 
near Naples, trying to tutor and empower the Roma women who end up 
inside, said the course was like “drinking pure water” from the source.

Concetta De Pasquale and Lucia Bassotti, two teachers from Pisa who have 
Roma students, underlined the difficulties the work sometimes entails, 
both within the education system and with unengaged Roma parents. A Roma 
student has to be guaranteed the “right to the same education” as any 
other student, Ms. Bassotti said.

For the Roma participants — there were a few — the course was meant to 
stir feelings of pride in their origins.

Emel Nardinelli, 24, is Roma and was adopted by an Italian family as a 
child. She said that until a few years ago she was “resistant, bashful,” 
about her roots.

Meeting other Roma, like Mr. Spinelli, has made her more outspoken, but 
she still struggles with racism.

“Before I was ashamed to say I was Romani,” she said. “Now I still don’t 
tell people because I am afraid of the repercussions. The circle never 

On the last night of the course, Mr. Spinelli organized a party, 
inviting some of the Roma families that had hosted the students. They 
gave out diplomas, took photographs, and laughed (a lot). Everyone sang 
“Gelem, Gelem,” the anthem of the Romani people.

Concetta De Flammeinis, Ms. Schiavone’s 17-year-old daughter, said she 
hadn’t been sure about the course before it began, but that she had 
immediately felt welcomed.

“In the end, you see that they are like you,” she said. “They don’t have 
prejudices, and yours crumble.”

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