Lanciano Journal: 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 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,” Mr. 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.

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Gennaro Spinelli, the father of Santino Spinelli, with Concetta De Pasquale, center, a participant in the school. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New York Times

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

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

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 the Central European University in Budapest, said Alicia Clyde, a communications expert working on Roma inclusion in Europe.

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Mr. Spinelli explaining the region’s history to students. “Roma have been living in houses in Abruzzo since the 14th century,” he said. Credit Alessandro Penso for The New York Times

“It’s important to give opportunities,” like the summer school, for greater examination of Roma issues, Ms. Clyde said. Still, when the course was announced this year on social media — Mr. 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.” Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Ms. Schiavone’s 17-year-old daughter, said she hadn’t 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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