Pilar Ramírez on stage as Queen Isabella. All photos by the author

The Roma Women Taking Center Stage in Spain’s Theater Scene

Residents of Europe's oldest Roma settlement, El Vacie, have long lived in poverty. But recently, they've become known for something else—their award-winning performances in classic plays.

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Feb 2 2017, 6:10pm

Pilar Ramírez on stage as Queen Isabella. All photos by the author

The curtain rises and reveals a stage covered in rags. The dramaturge, Antonio Álamo, says the set evokes a refugee camp. The director, Pepa Gamboa, says it's a nod to Christian Boltanski's Holocaust art. But most directly, it references the place where the play's eight actresses actually live. When the female cast of this production of the 17th-century play Fuenteovejuna isn't performing on stage, the women rummage scrapyards, park cars for tips, and work to keep the rain out of their homes and the rats from biting their children. All eight actresses are Roma women who live in a settlement on the margins of the southern Spanish city of Seville.

At least 60 years old, El Vacie—which translates to "The Emptiness"—is reported to be the oldest shanty town in Europe. Almost all the residents are Romani, the traditionally nomadic ethnic group pejoratively known as "gypsies," and live in poverty; for some women, says Lole del Campo Diaz, who plays Pascuala, a gun is a standard security system.

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It's from this neighborhood that Gamboa, in association with the Atalaya-TNT (Territorio de Nuevos Tiempos) theater company, drew her cast. Located a few hundred meters from the settlement, Atalaya-TNT's first collaboration with these women was a 2009 staging of the 1945 play La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Also directed by Gamboa, that show ran 22 times in Seville before touring the country, racking up ten awards and a performance at the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Now Gamboa and the women of El Vacie have embarked on their second collaboration: Lope de Vega's Fuenteovejuna.

Sandra Ramírez Montero playing Manga

A classic of Spain's Siglo de Oro, Fuenteovejuna is based on events that took place in 1476 in a town oppressed by the military commander Fernán Goméz de Guzmán. The town of Fuenteovejuna—its women violated, its honor spat upon—rises up and kills the commander. When interrogated and tortured by the monarchy's magistrate to determine who committed the murder, the villagers would only answer: "Fuenteovejuna did it!"

In this adaptation, Lope de Vega's script is not at its fullest. Scenes have been shortened or cut, and the roles of nine male characters (mostly minor ones) have been scrubbed. What's gained is a higher focus on the female roles and themes that remain, and the implicit social message emanating from the cast itself: "We are not what you think we are."

Bringing the women from the hazy margins of society to a focal point of it—the stage—is Gamboa's way of spitting in the face of anti-Roma prejudice, a racism prevalent in much of Europe. Negative stereotypes of Roma portray them as thieves, primitive or violent people, and abductors of children. Standing on a stage, these women look nothing like their caricatures—and even less so in person. (They are paid a salary from Atalaya-TNT.)

A main street running through El Vacie

The day the tour was to premiere at Madrid's Teatro Español, Ana Jiménez García, who plays Barrila, invited me to have lunch with the cast in the apartment they were staying in for the start of the tour. The women relaxed on the couches, watched television, smoked, and took full advantage of the heating system. After our graciously home-cooked meal, Rocío Montero Maya, who plays the mayor, lifted her hands and eyes upward at the apartment's lilac walls and floral décor. "Look at it: We have heat, hot water, it's clean, there are no holes in the roof." Outside the window rose the baroque facades and spires of Madrid. El Vacie—where many of the women make their living doing odd jobs—was far away.

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The women say that when it rains, El Vacie turns into a series of lakes. The kids come back from school and are wet up to their thighs wading through the flooded streets. When night falls in winter so does the temperature, and then the rats come out.

"They look like dogs," Jiménez García says.

"Cats," says another.

"No, larger than cats. Like dogs."

A deserted building in El Vacie

Reviews of the play have repeatedly compared Fuenteovejuna to El Vacie, but seeing the play offers only a vague idea of what world these women come from. Nonetheless, there is a certain affinity between the play's oppressed town and El Vacie—much of it intentional.

The dramaturge, Álamo, filled the play with nods to the gypsy culture he found in El Vacie. He modeled Fuenteovejuna's wedding scene on a wedding he was invited to in the settlement. Moreover, female virginity is given special emphasis in this adaptation. Álamo says that while the high price put on sexual purity in Lope de Vega's 17th-century play may feel antiquated to most modern audiences, it's a cultural program very familiar to the women of El Vacie, where girls marry young and virginity is expected.

Bea Ortega as Jacinta and David Montero as Frenán Goméz de Guzmán

Fernán Goméz de Guzmán, the play's male figure of militant authority, has a parallel in the women's lives in the form of the police. And while Álamo says the play's autocratic commander is not intended to be a literal symbol for or direct critique of police misconduct, the women have claimed to him that police abuse does occur—though he did not name specifics.

For the cast, being on the road is a welcome relief. They like seeing other cities, going to after-parties. Some have recently tried sushi for the first time—though few liked it. "The people are very friendly," says Montero Maya. "They treat us very well. If we're feeling ill, they worry about us."

Ana Jiménez García

But after the curtain drops, the applause fades, and the run finishes, nothing fundamentally changes for these women. They head back to El Vacie, where they say they're not celebrities but regular Roma women with kids to feed and rats to fend off. "When we enter the roundabout [leading to the shanty town]," says de Campo Diaz, "we return to the same hell." In October, 2016 Seville received 15 million euros from the EU for a planned urban renewal project in the city's northern areas, and a plan to tear down El Vacie is currently underway. As part of that project, the city aims to move the hundred-some families of El Vacie into public housing apartments one by one. Each shack will be torn down after the family living in it moves out, and others will be prevented from re-settling. Some families have already made the move. While all the women of Fuenteovejuna are still living in the settlement, they look forward to when their turn in line comes.

Rocío Montero Maya playing the mayor in the opening scene of "Fuenteovejuna"

For now, they hope Fuenteovejuna's tour will be long, though they seem to care less about the fact that they are touring actresses and more that they earn a wage that helps them feed their families and clothe their children. Celebrity is not on their minds.

Upon first meeting Ana Jiménez García in El Vacie several weeks before, I asked her what she does. She did not say she was an actress. Instead she said, "I work."

The entire cast along with director Pepa Gamboa (top row, third from left) and dramaturge Antonio Álamo (bottom row, second from left)