The City Of Sorrows: Understanding Seville’s Gypsy Culture (part 2)

Where we last left off with Susan Nadathur, author of the novel ‘City of Sorrows’ about Seville’s Gypsy culture, she was telling us about Gypsy Culture as seen by outsiders. To research her book, Susan lived with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, and what she found out was surprising.

How did you end up living with the Gypsies in Spain? And what sticks out most about their culture?

Living with the Gypsies has become part of my life story. But it sort of got fleshed out when as a young woman I traveled to Seville after graduating from college in 1982. While there, I met the man who is now my husband. Govind is a first generation Indian, which led to some interesting experiences in Spain—mostly because many Spaniards confused him for a Gypsy.

As you may know, the Gypsies trace their ancestry back to the Punjab region in northern India, whose people journeyed from India to Europe in the 15th century. If you look at the features of many Gypsies today, they share many common physical characteristics with East Indians, so the confusion is understandable. Anyway, after having lived through some interesting, and at times painful experiences with Govind, I became curious about the Gypsies. I wondered why there was so much negative energy surrounding the culture. Years later, I started to write the book that is now City of Sorrows. Because I felt it was my responsibility to understand the culture well, so that I could write about it with clarity and avoid the stereotypes, I returned to Spain in 2008 and found my way into a Gypsy home. How that happened is an interesting story which begins and ends with a Spanish Gypsy pastor, Pepe Serrano.

To make a long story short, I ended up in a Pentecostal Gypsy church called La Iglesia Dios Con Nosotros (God with Us), in one of the most sordid sectors of the city (Las Tres Mil Viviendas). But not once did I ever feel unsafe. The congregation embraced me, though kept me at a distance whenever I asked questions about their culture. Too many years of marginalization and oppression had made them wary of foreigners. But as the weeks went by, and they began to trust me, my experiences began to change. I was invited into people’s homes, into their lives. Finally, I was asked to leave the apartment I had rented in Seville and invited to live with Pastor Pepe and his family in their home on the outskirts of Seville. Once I moved into Pastor Pepe’s home, I no longer had to ask questions. I only had to live as part of a family to understand the people I was writing about.

As far as what sticks out most about Gypsy culture is the way that they are able to maintain their traditional values without being remarkably changed by mainstream Spanish society. For example, the Gypsies place a high value on two things: a woman’s “honor” and respecting the elderly. In a society where premarital sex is prevalent and the elderly are placed in homes to be cared for by strangers, this adherence to what might be considered ‘traditional values” is inspiring. I was also impressed with how children obeyed their parents, with no back talk and/or disrespect. While my Spanish friends endured all the “talking back” and disrespect rampant in modern society, the Gypsy children I met (from all ages from toddler up to young adult) obeyed their parents and did what was asked—even if they didn’t agree with what their parents were asking of them.

One of the most surprising things I learned while visiting Las Tres Mil was that the Gypsies lived far better, and in much cleaner environments, than I had imagined. To tell you the truth, I was at first skeptical about taking a bus into Las Tres Mil. I’d heard all the horror stories about the poverty and the crime. My first impression of the neighborhood supported my perceptions. Piles of garbage lined the streets, and the buildings smelled of urine and alcohol. Once off the bus, I found myself thinking that I was going to be entering a ramshackle, run-down apartment complex. What I found instead was a beautifully maintained, humble yet comfortable home.

And what amazed me most was the family dynamic I experienced inside that humble home. The women cooked and served, the men socialized and were served. That might go against what most of us modern women expect in our homes, but in reality, it was a loving, functional way to be. Everyone laughed and shared. No one felt imposed upon or used. After dinner, the women got to work again, cleaning up the pots and pans, sweeping the floors, and then finally, sitting down to watch TV, all together as a family. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had.

Can you describe the writing process for City of Sorrows?

The writing of City of Sorrows was an almost eight-year process which began in the year 2004, when I told my husband “I’m going to write a novel.” Little did I know then how difficult that task would be. For the first two years after making that energetic declaration, I devoured books on the craft of fiction, books like Stephen King’s On Writing and James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. I wrote at least ten drafts, cutting, editing and revising as I went along. Then I read more articles, books, and blog posts about characterization, style, voice, and every other conceivable topic. Then with all this new knowledge, I went back to rewriting. Several drafts later, I finally hired a professional editor. That was when I thought I was close to being done with the manuscript. But then I decided to revisit Spain, for research purposes, where I lived on and off between 2008 and 2011. Much of that time, I lived with pastor Pepe and his family. I thought I was going to complete the manuscript in the fall of 2011, but to my horror, I didn’t write a single word of my novel the whole time I was in Spain. I spent all my time hanging out with the families and writing all these wonderful experiences in my journal. Then in 2012 City of Sorrows was finally complete and published by a small, independent press in Puerto Rico.

What’s next for you as a writer? Any other projects planned or underway?

I am currently working on a young adult paranormal romance about the downside of temptation and desire, the fragility of being human, and the challenges of being different in the Hispanic Caribbean. It is set on the island of Puerto Rico and has the working title Dante’s Kiss.

Interested in winning your own copy? Susan is an avid follower of Sunshine and Siestas and has offered one copy, either digital or paperback, to another reader of this blog. We’re interested in knowing how you feel about Gypsy culture, regardless of whether or not you’ve lived in Spain.

rafl/display/ca3df24/” rel=”nofollow”>a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries on November 22nd, in honor of the Spanish celebration of El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces. Susan is offering City of Sorrows at a promotional price of $9.59 for the print book and $4.19 for the Kindle book, throughout the month of November. You can purchase on Amazon (City of Sorrows on Kindle or City of Sorrows Paperback) or via Susan’s author website. You’ll learn that it goes beyond flamenco and jaleo – Gypsy culture is passion, devotion, tradition.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Glad to see day-to-day Gypsy culture highlighted in a somewhat positive manner in the travel world, breaking down stereotypes one blog post at a time :)

    • Trevor, I couldn’t agree more.

    • Kudos to Cat. She has brought an important topic into the forefront. It’s been great to see so many positive, insightful comments.

      • Pedro Meca says:

        positive comments go to positive and nice people :)

        the caretaker of the cemetery in my hometown, Puerto de Mazarron, near the city of Cartagena (Murcia) is Gypsy….he is a recognised person and very nice, together with his family, they have lived with non-Gypsies, in fact they don’t even speak like Gypsies, you know, most Gypsies speak similar to Andalú accents with the addition of “chulería y prepotencia”

        it is a fact (and sad) that most Gypsies live separate from the rest of people, they usually have their own neighbourhoods with their own rules, and here is where the problem arises: most of them are bad because they stay away from the rest of people, 100% of those neighbourhoods have something to do with drug dealing, etc….they look at you with “prepotencia y chuleria” if you happen to walk along a street with them on one side of the street….those Gypsies don’t respect the law, any bad situation they may have they will “repair” it with a knife…..

        of course i am not against Gypsies nor do i hate them, i just hate evildoers whether they are Gypsy from Sevilla or blonde from Murcia……which is the region with more natural blonde girls in Spain, 13% according to the worldwide famous cosmetic company L’Oreal (just to add my two cents) :)

        well what i say about Gypsies is a “hecho” or flat fact as people would say in English. i haven’t got a clue if i have sounded harsh (i think i have not) but i can’t express it in English better.

        good Gypsies have my respect, and bad Gypsies better to stay away from them (just like any other bad person)

  2. Hey Pedro, first let me say that I appreciate the respectful way you expressed yourself on this topic (and that in a foreign language; your English is quite good). It is interesting to read a Spaniard’s version on the subject. I don’t disagree with what you are saying. I saw the drug deals going down in Las Tes Mil and I understand the reality that some Gypsies are too quick to rely on the knife. And yes, they do have their own laws. But within these same communities, there are some Gyspsy families trying to change the way their communities are perceived. Take Juan Jose Cortes, for example. He had every supposed motivation for revenge when a Spaniard killed his five year old daughter, but he did not seek revenge in the Gypsy way. He chose God’s Word over his culture. That decision impacted the nation. Hopefully, we will start hearing more stories like his, and start seeing that there are as many good Gypsies as there are bad.

    • Pedro Meca says:

      thanks Susan, i really appreciate that you appreciate my comment, and more thanks for saying that my English is quite good. In the last weeks when i discovered this type of blogs i started to give my opinion, and i began to worry about what i express because sometimes what you express in a foreign language is not exactly or doesn’t have the same exact sense or feeling that is in your brain, in my case a Spanish brain.

      as for Juan Jose Cortes he is very well known….you say that he has chosen the God’s word instead of a knife to revenge his daughter…well yes you are right, but i think that it’s because the killer is in prison so he can’t revenge in a Gypsie way. Anyway i do agree with him asking for “cadena perpetua” (to spend the rest of your life in prison) but this is something impossible in Spain as our justice is rotten to the core, and many times a poor and lame robber who robs in a supermarket gets more years than killers.

      again thanks for saying that my English is good!

      • Hey Pedro,

        It’s great that you are expressing yourself on these blogs–and that you are doing so respectfully. Entiendo perfectamente bien lo que estas diciendo sobre escribir en otro idioma. No es facil, pero lo importante es que estas haciendo el esfuerzo (my keyboard has trouble with accents!)

        As for Juan Jose Cortes, I met with him and his wife when they were in the process of moving from Huelva to Sevilla in 2011. From what I understood at the time, many from his own family were unhappy with his position. They wanted him to take revenge the “Gypsy way.” He stood firm. I don’t believe it was because the perpetrator was in jail (there were periods of time when the murderer was out on the streets). I believe it was Cortes’s faith that kept him strong. As we know, there are good and bad people in every culture. I personally believe Cortes is one of the good ones. What do you think?
        Susan Nadathur recently posted..Who are the Spanish Gypsies?My Profile

  3. Don’t know why my gravatar switched to this photo. It’s still me, but way too many years ago.
    Susan Nadathur recently posted..Who are the Spanish Gypsies?My Profile

    • Susa, i do admire Cortes for struggling to have a better justice system in Spain, but he’s been criticised because he has appeared on lots of TV programs, and it’s said that he got paid to do it….so getting money talking about your daughter? no thanks!

      • I can understand why some would criticize that, but others would argue that while he was campaigning for a better judicial system, he wasn’t working in “la venta” and had no other way to feed his family. It’s a tough call, but ultimately, only he will have to account for his decisions.


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

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