The City of Sorrows: Understanding Seville’s Gypsy Culture (and giveaway!)

Driving past Las Tres Mil Viviendas, the notorious gypsy neighborhood on the southern end of Seville, is a daily constant for me. I’ve often wondered what life is like for the squatters who make their home there, where rumored jaleos stretch long in to the night. I’ve seen stray animals wandering around the stark grounds, nibbling on discarded garbage, from my car’s passenger side. Sevillanos consider it to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the city – so much, in fact, that policemen are said to not go there.

Gypsy culture is both revered and shunned, creating an interesting but sobering relationship between them and payos, Spaniards. Spain’s most celebrated artistis – from Camarón to Lorca to Falla – have gitano origins or influence, yet rejection, intolerance and marginalization continue to exist.

I recently read Susan Nadathur‘s debut book, City of Sorrows, about the difficult relationship between ethnic Gypsies, Spaniards and even outsiders. The fictional novel is a heartbreaking look at the misconceptions that exist in mainstream society, as well a message about overcoming tragedy in both cultures. Susan researched the book while living with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, providing a powerful basis from which to understand Gypsy life.

Intrigued by what I’d read, I asked Susan a few questions about her research and experience living with a gitano family. This is the first part of our interview:

Your novel challenges the idea that Gypsies are all fortune tellers, thugs and thieves. What should mainstream society know about Spanish Gypsy culture?

Mainstream society – both in Europe and the United States – has been at odds with the Gypsies since their migration from India in the 15th century. The Gypsies have lived most of their history accused of being different, non-conformists, and problematic. They have been marginalized, stereotyped, persecuted, glorified, and under-appreciated. But, no group can be lumped into one neat package. Yes, many Gypsies are fortune tellers, con artists, and thieves. If you are a tourist in Spain, you will certainly run into Gypsy women working the streets surrounding the cathedrals, offering a sprig of rosemary in exchange for a generic palm reading.

You may find others begging in front of the cathedral door. But you will also see many other hardworking Gypsy merchants at local outdoor markets. In Seville, they are at El Charco de la Pava on Saturdays, selling everything from shoes, boots and women’s stockings to children’s clothing and luggage. These merchants are serious vendors, with permits and taxable income. They are not thieves but hardworking groups of families who are out on the streets every day, rain or shine, in the bitter cold and the oppressive heat of summer, selling the merchandise that will feed their families. If we only see the negative of a group of people, we see only half the picture.

You’ve often said that your childhood being bullied has contributed to your empathy toward Gypsies? Can you draw any comparisons to their plight with the bullying you felt as a child?

I sincerely believe that if I had not been bullied and ridiculed as a child, I would not have developed the empathy that gives me the deep awareness of the suffering of marginalized groups like the Gypsies. In any society, there is the mainstream and those who live outside of it. I grew up in New England, which has historically been harsh on people who don’t fit it—on those who are “different.” In my case, being different meant looking different than my peers. I wore thrift shop clothes in schools where plenty of kids had plenty of money to buy new ones. I was the only one in my elementary school classroom to wear glasses—and the kids let me know how ugly those glasses looked on me. I was the classic school-yard victim, bullied because I looked and acted differently.

Because of where I come from, because of having endured acute feelings of intolerance and isolation, I can identify with the Gypsies—who are not necessarily bullied, but are certainly marginalized and misunderstood. Nobody wants to get too close to people they don’t understand. It’s easier, and safer, to make fun of, slander, or simply stay away from people who make us uncomfortable. My peers were uncomfortable with me because I looked different from them, acted differently from them (I was a loner who enjoyed reading and favored solitude in the village cemetery over jeering in the school courtyard). Many of my friends are Spaniards, who have all expressed very strong opinions about “not wanting to get too close to the Gypsies.” While I understand that some of their fears are justified, I wish they could just try to understand that beneath the surface of these enigmatic people lays the same common, human experience.

What gave you the idea to write City of Sorrows?

The seeds for City of Sorrows were sown long before it grew into the complex novel it is today. When you take a shy young girl and make her feel like a lesser human being—for whatever reason—a story is formed. When that shy girl takes refuge in books, a reader is made. And when that reader turns to journaling, a writer is born.

If as a child I had not been bullied, picked on, and humiliated, I would not have developed the keen sense of empathy I have for people who are marginalized. Without that compassion, I would not have been profoundly affected by a racist remark targeted at my Indian friend (now husband of 27 years) when we lived in Seville. “Gypsies and Moors are not served here,” a surly waiter said to my friend while refusing to serve us a cup of coffee. My friend was neither a Gypsy nor a Moor, but because he came from India, was dark skinned and looked like a Gypsy—that was enough to label him “outcast.” That one statement, spat out decades ago in a bar in Seville, became the catalyst for this story of love and loss in the vibrant world of Gypsy Spain—a world I would never have penetrated if I had not felt the sting of isolation, humiliation, and rejection that gave me the unique, unspoken connection to this group of persecuted people.

Interested in winning your own copy? Susan is an avid follower of Sunshine and Siestas and has offered one copy, either digital or paperback, to another reader of this blog. We’re interested in knowing how you feel about Gypsy culture, regardless of whether or not you’ve lived in Spain.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries on November 22nd, in honor of the Spanish celebration of El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces. Susan is offering City of Sorrows at a promotional price of $9.59 for the print book and $4.19 for the Kindle book, throughout the month of November. You can purchase on Amazon (City of Sorrows on Kindle or City of Sorrows Paperback) or via Susan’s author website. You’ll learn that it goes beyond flamenco and jaleo – Gypsy culture is passion, devotion, tradition.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. What a fabulous post and probably an even more fabulous book honoring a culture that has been persecuted, prejudiced against and ridiculed from the beginning of time. What a way to shed some light on an ancient culture. For me, the Gypsy culture is fascinating although I look at it from a distance. Being in a relationship with a “payo” I´m told of all their wrongs, what they´ve done and how they just love attention (ie: La Palabra Gitana and their elaborate weddings and communions), especially in the Spanish culture. However, it feels like a double standard since the common people are shamed and the fabulous flamenco singers are revered.
    Since I can remember, my own American grandmother has pointed her finger at them for kidnapping my great-grandfather to use him in the circus, only to leave him for dead in a field when they realized he was ill. I, like the author, had some hardships growing up which made me somewhat outcasted as well. Marginalizing an entire culture for what just a few of them do is sad and all too commonplace. I feel they are mysterious, passionate, and above all, misunderstood.

    • Hi Corey,

      We could be soul mates. Some of my best friends are Spaniards, but they just don’t get my connection to the Gypsies and have all sorts of negative things to say about the culture. Although I think that even they were impressed with the actions and attitude of Jose Luis Cortes after the abduction and subsequent murder of his daughter Mari Luz in Huelva in 2008. I met Cortes and worshipped with his family and friends. He is dignified and led by faith–as were most of the Gitanos I met. The “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” shows (both in England and the US) have not helped our understanding of Gypsy culture but done a whole lot to further the prejudice. The Gypsies I met had no money for extravagant weddings. Their weddings followed the Gypsy tradition of bedding a girl, and then taking her as a wife. I wish more people could see the humbler side of this fascinating culture.

  2. I’d be really interested to read this book, I’ve lived in Spain for two years and find the love/hate relationship between Spaniards and gitanos intriguing. I’ve asked my friends about it so many times about it but no one can seem to give me an answer that makes sense!

  3. Sounds fascinating, I remember my family being approached by the gypsy’s with the sage/herbs in Seville, it was one of the scariest moments, as we had no idea what they wanted, Looking back, we always remember this incident and would be interested in reading more about them and their culture.
    Cacinda Maloney recently posted..‘One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show’ The Rock of Gibraltar and Seville, SpainMy Profile

  4. Super fascinating interview, Cat, and to Susan, thanks for taking an honest look at Spanish Gypsies. Living last year in Andalucía, los gitanos were often the butt of jokes by teachers at my school, and when it was time for me to move out of my apartment, my Spanish flatmates were very adamant about not living with a Gypsy or a “Moor.” O_O Yikes—although certainly not as shocking as that asshole’s comment about not serving certain people groups at a café. Unbelievable.

    Sorry if this comes off as pedantic, but I think a better definition of “payo” would be “non-Gypsy” rather than simply “Spaniard,” as that implies Gypsies are not Spanish people. Maybe not ethnic Spanish, but they’re still an integral part of what today makes Spain, Spain.
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..Photo Post: The Sierra de Segura Mountains in Eastern AndalucíaMy Profile

    • Hey Trevor, thanks for sharing your story. I can’t believe the blatant disregard for Los Gitanos in a classroom, supposedly a place of learning and education. No wonder the Gypsies don’t want to go to school! I’d love to interview you about your experiences with the Gypsy culture. Drop me a line at Susan.nadathur@live.com

  5. I have just recently moved to Spain and am currently working in a school where the majority of the population are gypsies. A lot of the teachers that I work with make excuses for the students behavior by saying that they act that way because they are gypsies or they are undisciplined because they are gypsies, etc. I totally agree that they are marginalized group and stereotyped very heavily. I would be very interested in reading this book and seeing a different perspective of the gypsy culture.

    • Gypsy children can sometimes be Undisciplined, as can be any child from any culture. I think the challenge is in the context. Roma parents sometimes give their children more freedom in structured environments than what the mainstream will allow for. School teachers do not have any easy job. My hat is off to all of you.

    • That must be so strange! I remember being very put off by teachers making excuses for the students and wondering what family life would be like here. As Susan mentions, the Roma families have a different idea of growing up, and this seems to be where the discrimination starts.

  6. It is not that easy to be accepted as a #guiri in a Gitano environment. The book would really interesting. I would like to write a review. Let me know…

  7. One of our first friends at school was Pete, a gypsy. He only attended sporadically. When the fair was in town. And considering the town was a pretty conservative one, he got plenty of stick. We did our best to keep him out of trouble. He was twice the size of us, but he tended to lash out when he was getting picked on. Which meant he would be punished by the head rather than the original offenders. So, we just tried to encourage him to keep his cool. No matter what the provocation. We’d love to meet up with him for a drink. Wherever he may be.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..Playa del CuraMy Profile

  8. Just bought my kindle copy. Can’t wait to read it!
    Kara of Standby to Somewhere recently posted..Bye Bye BurgosMy Profile

  9. What an interesting book, I should give it a read. I first learnt a bit about the gypsy culture when I was guiding in Andalusia last year, and then a lot more this year when I was in places like Bulgaria. For some reason, it seems perfectly legitimate to be openly racist against gypsies particularly in those parts, yet everyone seems to love gypsy music most down there! It will take me a long time to understand it all, I think :)
    Caitlyn recently posted..Visiting Mostar, the non-Hamish and Andy wayMy Profile

  10. Fascinating, thanks for sharing this!
    Ayngelina recently posted..How to Make Pancetta in 30 SecondsMy Profile

    • It’s a really interesting paradigm, A. I’d imagine you’d seem some of it now that you’re in the Costa Brava area, and I hear Tarragona is quite the same with peope of Moorish descent. Spain has a past that, like the US, is full of immigration and cultural mixing, so it’s disheartening to sometimes see or hear the discrimination that’s still so present.

  11. Pedro Meca says:

    a “payo” is a term only used by Gypsies to describe a non-Gypsy.

    i am sorry if someone gets upset with what i say, but most Gypsies i know or come across are evildoers, whether drug dealers or just treat their women as if they were rubbish, a dog values more than a woman according to how many of them act within their homes.

    of course there are Gypsies who are nice persons who live amongst other people, but they are a minority.

    • Hey Pedro, I understand why you might have this impression of the Gypsies. Some Gypsies are involved in drug dealing and other criminal activities. Many others are hardworking, simple folk just trying to make a living. I wish you could meet more of the good ones and less of the bad. Thanks for keeping your comment respectful, despite your unfortunate experiences.

  12. This looks like a great read. Sign me up!
    Penny Sadler recently posted..Unusual Details of Venice: A Photo EssayMy Profile

  13. This sounds like a fascinating book, and one that I would enjoy reading. I have always loved reading about gypsy culture, and I’ve always been intrigued by groups of people who are labeled as “different.” Great post!

  14. I lived in Seville and thought the love/hate relationship was interesting. I feel like here in Barcelona where I live now there is less interest and respect for gitanos even though, yes some work hard at the markets, they have a bad name. I’d be interested in learning more!

Trackbacks

  1. […] novel ‘City of Sorrows’ about Seville’s Gypsy culture, she was telling us about Gypsy Culture as seen by outsiders. To research her book, Susan lived with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, and what she found out […]

  2. […] I interviewed Nadathur about her experience in Las 3000, the process of writing and how her upbringing led her to a career as an author early on SandS. […]

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