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.
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.
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.
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.