Roma Culture 101: Opening Minds With Song, Talk and Laughter – The New York Times

Good initiative:

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 treatment.”

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

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: