Racism and Flamenco Culture

Racism has been a big topic in the news lately, as always. The gypsies are arguably one of the most marginalized groups around, and I’m reminded of my time studying in Seville with Señior Paco Fernandez. In Spain, study is often accompanied by a rich sharing experience outside the lesson time. There were several occasions when Paco’s wife, Pilar, would invite me to stay for a home-cooked meal and conversation. On one of these days, Paco brought out a well-produced documentary he had spearheaded about gypsies and racism – a topic close to his gypsy heart.

He explained to me that he grew up in an apartment building in Triana, a gypsy neighbourhood in Seville, surrounded by family members and a close-knit community. As I watched the documentary and saw so many famous flamenco artists, I would ask him how he knew each one. First, it was his aunt, then his mother, then his sister, then his cousin, then a close family friend. He seemed to be related to almost every famous gypsy I knew of from Seville!

In the past, flamenco was practiced in the same manner as a spontaneous kitchen party. There would always be someone around the courtyard, playing guitar, singing, dancing, hand clapping. The practice and study was informal and ongoing, a way of life. If you weren’t doing it, you were surrounded by it, listening to it constantly. Imagine – all that abundant history and culture, right there in your very own courtyard, taught to you by your very own family. I see that this is where the flamenco ‘work ethic’ comes from: Constant Play.

Paco explained that one of the mayoral candidates made an election promise to provide every home with it’s own kitchen and washroom – something the gypsies were in favour of – and when he was elected, he made good on his promise. How the plan would be executed was never part of the discussion.  To everyone’s dismay, each nuclear family was relocated and the Triana apartments renovated and sold, generating a tidy profit for the developers. The gypsies had their own kitchens and washrooms; but were scattered across the city, their community and way of life lost. Flamenco is forever changed because of it.

Today, the traditional flamenco ways are still present, but much diminished. There are still little pockets of this playful way of life, but it’s much less spontaneous; life is more stressful, and it takes planning to make a jam happen. Instead of just happening, it has to be made to happen. I like to imagine a world where governments understand that individuals are more productive, when they are resilient and allowed to thrive. A culture, and economy, a nation, is made up of individuals, and how we deal with those individuals determines how things will be in the whole.