Roma cul­ture 101: open­ing minds with song, talk and laugh­ter

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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.”

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, 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 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 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,” 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.

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

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

Filippo 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 Santino 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 Santino 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 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, Clyde said. Still, when the course was an­nounced this year on so­cial me­dia — 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.” 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, 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 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 breaks.”

On the last night of the course, 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, Schi­avone’s 17-year-old daugh­ter, said that she had not 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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