Scribbler in Seville

The underside of Seville: City of Sorrows, inside the gypsies’ world

The daughter and granddaughter of Maria, the 116-year-old gitana woman I met in El Vacie.

The daughter and granddaughter of Maria, the 116-year-old gitana woman I met in El Vacie. Gypsies suffer extreme social and economic exclusion in Spain.

The popular image of Seville, the one tourists see, and which appears on blogs like this, in guidebooks and apps, in newspaper and magazine articles, is of lively fiestas, fragrant orange blossom, windy cobbled streets, beautiful patios, tapas, and bullfighting (yeuch).

Most visitors to the city are unaware of its less picturesque underside. Some years ago, pre-blogging, I visited El Vacie, a shanty town in northern Seville where gypsies live, to meet a very elderly gitana woman, Maria.

A street in El Vacie, an area of Seville home to around 1000 Spanish and Portuguese gitanos.

A street in El Vacie, a shanty town in Seville where around 1500 gitanos live. It has been there for over 80 years.

The reason for my visit was to write a news story for an English-language newspaper. Maria was allegedly the oldest woman in Spain, at 116 years old, and her family was lobbying the ayuntamiento to give her a vivienda digna to live out her days in comfort  (sadly Maria died, still in El Vacie, a year later). My friends and boyfriend (now husband) were horrified, warning me that it was an extremely dangerous place, and insisting that under no circumstances should I go there. In the event, I did, together with another journalist and a woman from an NGO who works here. Maria lived with her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson in a small, spotlessly-clean prefab, with (cold) water but no loo, and intermittent electricity. The sitting room, where we sat, was bright and homely, with a large TV, pictures of the Virgin, and children’s toys. A typical Spanish salon.

The gitanas were polite but guarded, understandably suspicious of payas (non-gypsies), and even more so of foreigners; they were more willing to talk to the Spanish reporter from El Pais who was also there. Although I never felt frightened, I was aware that my safety depended on staying with my companions (the other journalist and the NGO worker), and not being overly inquisitive or taking too many photos. The news story was duly published (the print version was much fuller), but with a rather different angle about where Maria wanted to live; the paper obviously had its own agenda.

A few years later, I went to see a production of Lorca’s The House of Bernardo Alba performed by illiterate women from El Vacie, a stone’s throw from the theatre. It was a startling experience, watching these barefoot, strong-voiced gitanas acting out the words of this much-loved Granadan writer, who advocated the rights of gypsies. Then earlier this year, someone left a comment on the blog post I wrote about the play, saying that she had worked and lived with gitanos in Las Tres Mil Viviendas (three thousand homes) to the south-east of the Seville. Tres Mil, as it is known locally, is huge housing project notorious for its violence and drug-dealing. She was clearly an unusual person.

That person was Susan Nadathur, an American author who has now written a novel using her experiences of living with, and learning to understand, the inhabitants of Tres Mil; very few people (still fewer non-Spaniards) have had lived with gitanos, and been so accepted by them. Her novel, City of Sorrows, follows the lives of three men in Seville: two Spanish, from different ends of the social spectrum – a pijo (posh boy), and a gitano from, you’ve guessed it, Tres Mil. The other man is Indian – no coincidence, as this is where gitanos originally came from, 1000 years ago; and Nadathur’s own husband is Indian.

Each man in the book is an outsider in his own way. The Indian is an outsider in a strange country, and speaks no Spanish; the pijo is an outsider in his own home, since his mother is dead and he detests his father, whose mistress is a gitana; and the gitano is an outsider simply for his race.

City-of-Sorrows-by-Susan-Nandathur

The story starts with a terrible tragedy, which colours the lives of two of its protagonists; while the third main character eventually brings them together, to resolve their conflict provoked by a moment of thoughtless cruelty, and find some peace. Each character is struggling to survive without people close to them, from whom they’ve been parted, whether violently or otherwise. Each has their own way of dealing with their loss, whether turning to crime, drugs, alcohol… or unexpected but welcome friendship.

I found City of Sorrows a gripping read, a real page-turner; I wanted to know what happened, how these complex problems would resolve themselves. The ending managed to provide an unexpected twist, with the wronged man offering his tormentor a redemption I didn’t feel the other character deserved. Clearly I’m more hard-hearted and vindictive than Susan.

The book offers a valuable insight into the closed, secretive world of the gitano. Leaving aside the classic cliches of gold medallions, drug-dealing and flamenco, she gives them everyday, human identities – rounded personalities, in strong family units, ruled over by the intriguing, all-powerful patriarch, whose word is law – unquestioned. His sound, common-sense and empathetic judgement saves the protagonist from a dark future, as he spirals downwards, unable to cope with his terrible loss; given a second chance, he is ready to start again.

There are some memorable scenes which show up the prejudices of Spaniards/Sevillanos: the stubborn, determined gitano who refuses to be ignored by the waiter in a bar, sitting out his protest until he is finally served, kind of; the drunken, self-destructive pijo making an idiot of himself while trying to seduce a young American girl; the young Indian student sacrificing his religious beliefs to fit in with his new Spanish friends.

Soon after I finished reading this book (in a few days – it was a real page-turner) last summer, its events were reflected in real-life news reports from Seville about disturbances in the Tres Mil caused by a firearms incident, in which a child was killed. This novel is a fictional story, but it could so easily happen in real life. That’s why it’s such a good read – you believe the characters and their motivation; they are flawed and imperfect. Real people. Gypsies shown not as a two-dimensional, meaningless cliches, but as fully-fledged characters from loving families with strong morals: “We gypsies are many things. Stubborn. Proud, Vengeful. But we respect our elders and our laws.”

You can read more about Susan’s experience of living with gypsies in Seville here.

On October 30, 1996, the Andalusian Parlament declared that November 22 should be celebrated as “El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces”. This day celebrates the arrival of the first group of Gypsies to Andalucia, and their friendly reception by Don Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, governor of Jaén, in 1462. Today there are around 350,000 gitanos in Andalucia, about half of Spain’s gypsy population.

To celebrate Dia de los Gitanos Andaluces, City of Sorrows is available at up to 40% off the original price from Amazon until 22 November 2013 – see Susan’s website for direct links to buy the book (Kindle or print) from Amazon UK or US. Plus I have one copy of the book to give away, in either digital or print format. To win a copy, just leave a short comment below, before 30 November 2013, saying why you would like to read this book.

48 thoughts on “The underside of Seville: City of Sorrows, inside the gypsies’ world

  1. Paul Murphy

    Fiona
    My cousin,Frank, was a Catholic priest in Ireland who became very interested in Irish Travellers and authored a ground-breaking study of their plight, writing about their lives with great insight and empathy. He later abandoned his faith, married a parishioner and is now a house husband with 2 lovely children,.Reading your piece about Susan and her book on gypsies made me realise for the first time how lonely and how much of an outsider Frank must have felt, as his dog collar slowly tightened its grip, crushing the spirit within. He would have known the status of a pariah,he would have been exiled into the isolation of a race apart, he would have seen the downcast eyes and smelt the stench of hypocrisy. I understand now why he was drawn to the travellers and how he could feel their pain. Perhaps they helped him to accept what he was and gave him the courage to turn back and set out, one midsummer morning, on the path that he had finally found his way back too and be joined by a soulmate and showered with blessings. Paul

    1. Susan Lostocco Nadathur

      Paul, I was truly moved by what you wrote. That you could empathize with your cousin Frank through a story of the same people that he served is amazing. Frank most certainly must have felt like an outsider, which is why he identified with the Gypsies. Probably the same reason I identify with this group of marginalized people. Like Frank, I was an outcast, shunned because I was different from most people around me. But also like Frank, I have made a good life for myself with people who love me because I am different. In the process, I developed a keen sense of empathy for people who are either bullied, made fun of, or isolated because they are not like the majority of people around them. Thanks for understanding how Frank felt. I believe that in doing so, you also understand me.

  2. Susan Lostocco Nadathur

    You were braver than I, Fiona, to journey into El Vacie. That’s one place I didn’t dare venture into. The closest I got was the cemetery next door, which I was visiting while researching my book. An old woman warned me to put away my camera, because “it was not a good area.” I definitely got that, as soon as I edged closer to El Vacie. Our husbands and loved ones are probably wishing we had chosen other jobs than journalist/writers. My husband had the same reaction when I told him I was going into Las Tres Mil. I never would have gone in alone, though. But when I was with the Gypsies, I never felt unsafe. They watched out for me.

  3. Rena Dunne

    What a fascinating experience. I’ve lived in Seville for 7.5 years and would be terrified to go to El Vacie or Tres Mil although I have passed their outskirts many times. The book sounds like a great read and you have definitely tittillated me with your review, can’t wait to read it!

    1. Susan Lostocco Nadathur

      As Fiona and I have mentioned, Las Tres Mil and El Vacie are not places you want to venture into unprepared. But as others have said, those who are going into the barriada as teachers and students are coming out with renewed understanding.

  4. Mary Alice

    I am very interested in this read. It will be on my must list as it will be very informative for me when I do my social exclusion units in a course I teach with US American students. I send a group to the 3 Mil to do practice teaching and it is truly a transformational experience for all. If I had the book I could help them frame the experience properly to make it most worthwhile. Looks great.!

    1. Susan Lostocco Nadathur

      What a wonderful thing you are doing with your students, Mary Alice. I’m sure their lives, and countless others, are being changed by it. If City of Sorrows helps increase their understanding of this marginalized community, I would be both humbled and pleased.

  5. becci hickson

    Fiona you are so brave! I have always been fascinated with the gitanos since arriving in Seville, the way that they are accepted here but the locals and the gitanos don’t look at each other, the locals (including myself) leave Things outside the bins such as old clothes etc for them and the whole whole tres mil thing…..I would love to see the place but like you I was told its not safe to go!! This book sounds fascinating, I would love to earn more about the people we share this beautiful city with. Great article!

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Becci, I thought long and hard before going and, as I said, everyone advised me not to. But with common sense it was fine. Re the furniture, I’ve left some outside too, including a baby cot, and it’s always been snapped up pretty fast, though whether by gitanos or others, who knows. Good that things get a second life, anyway.

  6. Josh

    Great review Fiona. Molly blogged about the book too. I must get my hands on a copy; it’d be refreshing to read something so relevant to my day to day life and gain an insight into something which I honestly have no real clue about other than what’s on the surface. Off to check out your website now Susan!

  7. mmtread

    Sounds like a fantastic read, Fiona. One of my friends is a Romanian documentary film maker, and I think you would really appreciate her film ‘Our School,’ which follows a group of Roma kids who are trying to integrate into the local public school. It’s heart-breaking and frustrating but really quite well done. http://ourschoolfilm.blogspot.com.es/
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1238762/?licb=0.8800107182469219
    I don’t know if you’d be able to find it online, but if you’re interested I could probably get my hands on a copy. Thanks for the read!

  8. Moose

    Wow, I would love to read this book. I have always been interested in marginalised communities and the gitanos are such a special case, living in a world colonised and scarred by capitalism while trying to maintain their own way of life. It amazes me how acceptable anti-Gypsy prejudice still is, as evidenced so shockingly by the recent removal of blonde children from Roma families in Europe. Echoes of the Jewish blood libel there. I thought the chapter about Tres Mil in Giles Tremlett’s book ‘Ghosts of Spain’ was one of the best, and I’d love to read a fictionalised account of the gitano experience in Seville.

    1. Fiona Flores Watson

      Yes, the case of the blonde girl Maria sparked a level of racist hysteria which was really unattractive. Tremlett is one of the most insightful writers about modern Spain. Now he’s left the Guardian, hopefully he’ll be producing some more great books.

  9. Clare

    What a timely read. I was just speaking to a student of mine this evening about Tres Mil as she works at a school there. She loves working there and finds it extremely rewarding.

    1. Susan Lostocco Nadathur

      Interesting that against all the stereotypes and negative publicity, someone can talk about having a positive experience in las Tres Mil. I also found it a vibrant community that has given me many lasting, positive memories.

  10. Fiona Flores Watson

    Thanks very much for all your comments – Susan and I have discussed at length who should win the book, and our decision is that Mary Alice, who sends American students on teaching placements to a school in the Tres Mil, is our winner. If her students can spend time with disadvantaged young people, and take away a positive experience about a social minority which is so severely marginalised, then I think that is extremely valuable as they will carry their message to others. Not to mention how much the kids from Tres Mil themselves must benefit from having contact with young people from another culture, free from the prejudice they encounter here on a daily basis. Mary Alice said she would use the book to prepare her students so they have, as she said, a frame of reference for their time in the Tres Mil. I can’t think of a better use for it. Congratulations, Mary Alice!

    1. Mary Alice

      I’m so excited!!! And I am thrilled to be able to have some new materials for preparing my students. It will be used and used again, and I thank you!

  11. Susan Lostocco Nadathur

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts about a subject that is at once controversial and deeply human. Opening up positive discussion and understanding about people whose lives are different than ours is what life is all about. There was a rich array of experiences represented in the comments you left. Each one strengthened my belief that we can overcome prejudice and fear, one person at a time. Stay in touch. If you have any further thoughts, or comments on City of Sorrows, I’d love to hear from you. You may reach me at http://SusanNadathur.com, and on Twitter @SusanNadathur. Abrazos y besitos.

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