Roma Culture 101: Opening Minds With Song, Talk and Laughter

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.

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“Only by sharing, understanding, drinking, eating and being welcomed by Roma families do you begin to have encounters on an equal footing,” says Mr. Spinelli, who is also a musician.

Credit
Alessandro Penso for The New York Times

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…

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