Written by Kate Edbrooke
Every Spanish city has a poligono, an industrial area on the outskirts of town. It is where the poorest of the poor live, more often than not the Spanish Gypsies. In Granada this neighbourhood is called Almanjáyar. Over the last few years the area has seen massive construction with a new commercial centre housing Kinéopilis, the multi screen cinema as well as a Carrefour, Akí, Mediamarkt and various other large stores. New roads and roundabouts are being built and a swimming pool has been opened. The neighbourhood is changing but not fast enough for some people.
“We don’t want to live there anymore,” says Carmen, who was born and brought up on Calle Molina Nueva. “Sure the neighbourhood has improved, but it depends what zone you live in. The junta have put a building here and they fixed up the roads, but for them not for us.”
The part of Almanjáyar where Carmen grew up is a neighbourhood of high rise flats and high unemployment, as well as cockroaches, strutting chickens scratching in dirt, horses tied to trees and families sitting on sofas dragged out onto the streets to escape the sweltering heat of apartments with too many occupants and no air-conditioning. The inhabitants are on the bottom rung of the social ladder and are predominately Gitanos.
I take the number 1 bus to the heart of Almanjáyar to meet Carmen. The bus is covered with metal grilles as if it were entering a war zone, and that is what Almanjáyar can seem like with its wide pot holed streets, burnt out cars and children running around with dirty faces. I have brought my camera but some sort of family feud is brewing, men in the street are gesticulating and shouting, the atmosphere aggressive. I gathered there was a problem with a wedding, maybe a promised bride has reneged on the deal. Marriages are often arranged in the Gypsy community, but very rarely forced on someone against their will.
“What do you want to photograph?” asked Carmen. I pointed further down the road to an old man slouched in a plastic chair, a hat over his eyes, a white horse held on a piece of string. Her face told me all I needed to know. “Perhaps today is not a good day,” I say as the shouting turns to scuffling on the far side of the street. Carmen agrees and visibly relaxes when I put the camera away.
It is a Sunday morning, so we head to the Marcha Verde, an open air street market held weekly on the Calle de la Casería de Aguirre. The stalls that line the streets sell everything: fruits,and veg, clothes, shoes, handbags, CDs, light fittings, curtains and materials. The prices are low and the atmosphere, as you would expect from any street market, is noisy and colourful. It attracts locals and tourists alike and is well away from the less salubrious residential areas just in front of the commercial centre.
One of the first pieces of advice I was given by a well meaning local when I came to live in Granada was “Never go to Almanjáyar!” and to emphasis his point, “Don’t even drive through there, and if you do just pray you don’t break down”. At the time I had no idea where Almanjáyar was, but by coincidence the following week my husband, a music producer, and I were invited to a children’s performance put on by the Gypsy Association. We went by car and yes it broke down which at the time was terrifying but it was also the beginning of many wonderful friendships, and the night I first met Carmen.
The group we saw perform that night was called “Taller de Compás de Almanjáyar” (Rhythm Workshop of Almanjáyar) and the children, including Carmen as singer, ranged in age from 12 to 16. We went on to produce their CD ‘Cale Calé’ (Gypsy Rhythms) recording them in a windowless basement on Calle Molina Nueva, keeping the recording equipment locked up in a nearby garage. One hot afternoon Carmen’s brother Andrés and I stepped out of the garage, squinting into the bright sunlight to see two young lads pointing rifles at us. Andrés turned to lock the doors then firmly took my arm and said, “now we walk away”. Later he told me the way to survive was never to show your fear. Luckily the equipment was still there when we returned and that was the only bad experience I´ve had in the barrio.
The CD was a great success and I became chaperone to the girls as they traveled all around Spain performing. We even spent a month touring North America. It was quite an honour to be trusted with these young Gypsy children, aged 14 to 18, and without my female presence the girls would not have been allowed to go.
They are all grown up now and married with kids themselves. In the Gypsy community it is not unusual for some to marry as young as 13. However as the youngest member of her family Carmen remained at home to care for her elderly father. Her mother had long since gone to live elsewhere and her father was in no hurry to see Carmen married off young like her many friends. Carmen was in no hurry either but for different reasons. When she did marry, aged 23, only two family members attended her wedding. The ceremony made it to the front pages of the newspaper Ideal with the headline “Gypsy lesbian marries Cripple”. Carmen and her partner Sheila were not offended. We have been called worse, they say, laughing. Sheila has a deformed spine and walks with a pronounced limp. She is also a flamenco percussionist and has played with artists such as Juan Pinilla, Ana Calí and Antonio Vallejo.
The wedding was filmed by an Argentinian film maker Luciana Terribili who has followed the lives of Carmen and Sheila over the last two years. The documentary is called “La Pitimini, la Pequeña Flor”, a reference to Carmen’s flamenco name ‘La Pitimini’ which means the little flower. The film is now in post-production and has the support of the National Institute of Cinema in Argentina. Mayte Martin, the famous flamenco singer and also a lesbian has agreed to sing her song “SOS” for the film soundtrack.
Their marriage also caught the attention of Jesus Quintero who invited them onto his chat show “Ratones Colorados” Canal Sur TV where Carmen was delighted to sing live on television as well as meeting such stars as David Bisbal and Antonio Carmona.
However, not everyone was so delighted for them. When Carmen’s father first heard the news he rushed out into the street and proclaimed to his neighbours in Almanjáyar that his daughter was gay and he was throwing her out. They all cried out “shame on them,” but it was apparent that they already knew long before he did. Despite his outburst he returned to the apartment where Carmen and Sheila were preparing his supper. At 85 years old he still lives with them though they no longer live in Almanjáyar. It is a difficult place to live, but for a lesbian gypsy defying her own culture, it is impossible.