[lg policy] Roma Culture 101: Opening Minds withSong, Tak and Laughter

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Sep 1 11:35:42 EDT 2017

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


Santino Spinelli giving out diplomas to participants in the Roma Summer
School, which offered immersion in Romani culture. Credit Alessandro Penso
for The New York Times

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

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

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.”
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Continue reading the main story

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

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

As a musician, he has helped promote Roma culture, but he has also wanted
to find a way to dispel persistent anti-Roma prejudice.
“Only by sharing, understanding, drinking, eating and being welcomed by
Roma families do you begin to have encounters on an equal footing,” says
Mr. Spinelli, who is also a musician. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New
York Times

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

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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.
Gennaro Spinelli, the father of Santino Spinelli, with Concetta De
Pasquale, center, a participant in the school. Credit Alessandro Penso for
The New York Times

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

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.
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“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.)

Continue reading the main story

“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
Mr. Spinelli explaining the region’s history to students. “Roma have been
living in houses in Abruzzo since the 14th century,” he said. Credit
Alessandro Penso for The New York Times

“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.


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