José Heredia Moya: Writer and academic who fought for the rights of Spanish gypsies

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The Independent Online

One simple fact about the life of José "Pepe" Heredia Moya would be enough to earn him a key place in Spain's history books: he was the first Spanish gypsy to become a university professor, overcoming centuries of prejudice against his race in the process. But his three decades as a highly respected professor of Granada University was only one reason why Heredia Moya should be remembered.

A talented poet, librettist and playwright, Heredia Moya was one of the first modern-day Spanish artists to demonstrate how gypsy culture, and in particular flamenco music, was infinitely more complex, passionate and subtle than the quaint folklorish caricatures with which it had been fettered in the past.

Heredia Moya was also a leading defender of gypsy rights in Spain. This was no easy task in a country where historically attitudes towards gypsies have ranged from at best ambivalent – flamenco is, after all, one of the unique, outstanding features of Spanish culture – to at worst downright racist .

Born in the village of Albuñuelas in Granada's fruit-growing region of the Valle de Lecrín, Heredia Moya's early academic talents were such that the local priest and schoolmaster urged his parents to keep the boy at school for as long as financially possible. That must have been a huge struggle, given that his family's only income was what they could make as small-time travelling traders in the Lecrin valley. But Heredia Moya made it through school to university, taking up a professorship of Romance Languages and Literature in 1976.

He published Penar Ocono, his first collection of poems, in 1972, but it was his 1976 play Camelamos naquerar (We Want to Speak in Caló [the Spanish gypsy language]), which had a major nationwide impact. It centred on the centuries-old oppression suffered by Spanish gypsies to depict, through a potent mix of poetic text and flamenco music and dance, their complicated, often fraught, relationship with Spanish society. This subject was central to much of the work of Heredia Moya, and he was later instrumental in the beatification of Ceferino Giménez Malla, a gypsy killed in 1936 by a group of militiamen for trying to defend a priest, through the composition of his poetic oratorio entitled Un gitano de ley [A True Gypsy].

Camelamos naquerar was important for other reasons: in it Heredia became the first playwright to incorporate flamenco into a contemporary European drama, and in Macama jonda [Deep Reunion] he was the first to fuse flamenco with the traditional Arabic music of Andalusia. In 1990, Heredia Moya went even further and in Sueño terral combined flamenco with jazz and bullfighting.

One of Heredia Moya's central lifelong convictions, present in all of this work, was that different ethnic groups could and should live in peace – and that the consequences of not doing so are perilous.

Discussing one of his last collections of poems, Experiencia y juicio [Experience and Judgement] he once said: "When you look at the heart of the matter, then suddenly the map really shrinks. You suffer whenever and wherever you see victims of racism or murder, and I wanted to contribute, in my own small way, towards ending that violence."

Ian MacCandless, a senior lecturer at Granada University, said, "Pepe was unfailingly concerned with justice and decency. Although society dealt him cruel blows, he was never solemn, but rather kind, generous and understanding. When no longer able to show these qualities, because of his illness, he continued to hold a powerful, unforgettable dignity."

Alasdair Fotheringham

José Heredia Moya, poet and university professor; born Albuñuelas, Spain 2 January 1947; married Matilde Moreno (two sons); died, Granada, Spain 17 January 2010.