Lorca's Gypsy

A young English traveler and biographer, MICHAEL SWAN, now in his early thirties, free-lances where he pleases and writes about the people and places that invite his pen. He is the author of Ilex and Olive, a book descriptive of his peregrinations in France and Italy; of a short biography of Henry James; and of Temples of the Sun and Moon: A Mexican Journey, which has recently appeared in England. The portrait which follows was written in Spain,where he went in quest of new source material.



FROM the red Moorish ramparts that dominate Granada from the Alhambra hill, we looked across to the slope of the Sacromonte, where the evening sunlight had begun to turn the smooth planes of the prickly pears into trembling mirrors, a silver-green setting for the patches of whitewash that patterned the hillside almost to the church of San Miguel on its summit. Nestling close to the two hills of the Alhambra and the Sacromonte lay Granada, narrow at the valley’s end, broadening out across the great plain that was now bright green with young corn and red with rich, iron-laden earth. The sounds of the city itself didn’t reach us, but from the Sacromonte we heard the click of castanets and the butter-pat sound of the rhythmic clapping for the dance — or sometimes an Oriental arabesque of notes as a gypsy practiced a saeta to be sung during the processions of Holy Week. It grew darker, and in the center of the patches of whitewash on the opposite hill appeared blocks of light; the candles had been lit in the gypsy caves and the Sacromonte was preparing for its nightly business of entertaining tourists with flamenco singing and dancing and a censored glimpse of gypsy life.

The gypsies settled on the Sacromonte some two hundred years ago, cut caves in the granite of the hill, and lived the life of pariahs. Each generation was taught to think of the gentile Spaniard— or Busné as they called him in their own language — as an enemy to be hated, to be stolen from at every opportunity, to be used cynically. It was towards the end of the eighteenth century that Spain decided to do something about its gypsy problem; laws were passed giving the gypsies the rights of citizenship and they were encouraged to give up their language and their distinctive, brilliantly colored clothes. But today, although few of the families of the Sacromonte are without a strain of Spanish blood, they have managed to remain a people apart and to keep their own manner of thinking, speaking, and living. They still feel that all who are not gypsies are legitimate prey—and tourists are heaven-sent. Though you know that their desire to please is mercenary it has a form of sincerity, a passionate genuineness of its own. It is the same when they dance; their gestures and the movements of their bodies are sensual and passionate, they tumble their hair and flash their eyes.

In the moonlight we walked down the path to the trickle of the river Darro and across into the streets of the Monte itself, the gypsy quarter of the town. Our Spanish friend, Jaime, was taking us to see Lola Medina, the acknowledged queen of the hill. We climbed the zigzag path in the transforming light, past the simple wooden doors set in the whitewashed rock and the dense plantations of prickly pear. Feeble candlelight came through the cracks in the doors and occasionally we heard the sound of singing —but we were on a part of the hill where the gypsies sing for their own amusement, far from the stretch of road dedicated to the tourists. We walked on until, at a lower level of the hill, we suddenly came to a different world. Instead of a primitive cave we found ourselves in front of a forged iron gate beyond which lay a flower-surrounded patio and a fountain on whose base were carved the initials L.M.

Jaime had spoken of “ Lola’s cave" and had told us nothing of iron gates and patios; he smiled at our surprise and said that if we looked closer we would see that what appeared to be a charming villa was, indeed, a cave. A servant opened the gate and we entered the patio. The walls were flat and whitewashed; doors and windows were in the positions you would expect them to be, but above there was no neat roof of red pantiles, only a continuation of rough rock sloping up the hillside. We stepped through the doorway into a large whitewashed room brilliantly lit by electric bulbs set in the center of a dozen shallow copper bowls; brass and copper pots of all sizes hung like metallic eyes on the granular surface of the walls and cupped the reflected light. The floor was made of terra-cotta tiles, some of them glazed and colored and bearing the names of famous men of Granada; Manuel de Falla, Pedro de Alarcón, Federico Garcia Lorca. Above a simple chest six pairs of castanets hung from a rack, and above them a striking portrait of a gypsy dancer, inscribed “Lola Medina” in bold writing on the rose-madder skirt. It was of a woman in her early thirties, with a face of no great beauty but of a compelling strength.

Before I could look more closely at the portrait, our hostess entered from a side room and received us with no great show of interest — indeed with an almost regal condescension. She was dressed, not in gypsy clothes, but in a smart dress of clearest red that contrasted with her jet hair. From her face you knew that she was in her middle forties, but her figure was that of a rounded girl, and soon you knew that you could never tire of the play of her eyes or the swift kaleidoscope of her expressions. She spoke quietly in a singsong voice, and during the first half hour there was little temperament in her manner, and temperament was the one thing we had expected to find in her. It was cold in the cave and she asked us to join her at her brazero. It was a brass dish containing a burning log and placed beneath a round table from which hung a brightly colored cloth of heavy wool. Our legs went beneath the hangings of the cloth and soon the uninsistent heat traveled through our bodies.

“I put sandalwood or herbs on the brazero sometimes,” said Lola Medina. “I love scented woods and when I’m alone and lonely I put all I’ve got on the brazero until the whole cave is a sea of scent, and I just lie there listening to music on the gramophone — music from the East, that’s what I like best of all. My records of Scheherezade are almost worn away.”

A small keg of brandy was at hand; and as we drank more and more of the pale red brandy of Paz Varela, the temperament began to appear. The long slim hands began to play an accompaniment. to her speech; she laughed at her own jokes like the cut of a whip and banged the table and cried “Qué pasa?” when for a moment it seemed to her that the tension of the atmosphere had slackened. She decided that the two Englishmen would, after all, do, and told us that we were both her novios, her sweethearts. When we tried to express our pleasure without embarrassment she roared with laughter, cried “Ole“ to our efforts, and cracked her fingers.

Lola Medina was born on the Sacromonte in a cave some two hundred yards from the one where she now lives. Her parents were poor and she never learned to read or write — her only education was in the singing and dancing of flamenco. Her father had died when she was ten, and within a year her mother had been married again, to a man whom Lola grew to hate. Before she was thirteen she had left home and come to live in the cave in which we now sat — but in those days it had been a miserable hovel composed of only two small rooms furnished with a wooden chair and a mattress of dried leaves on the puddled earth. In the summer, water would ooze through the rock and drip into the earthenware pots that had always to be there; she had one flamenco dress and one petticoat, a privation she hated more than any other. She would wear the dress when the petticoat was drying from the wash and earn a few pesetas by dancing in the street for tourists; when it was dirty she would wash it and spend the day in the cave wearing no more than her petticoat. During the tourist season she could make enough to live on, but for the rest of the year her meals were usually a plate of chick-peas and a cutting of sugar cane. She hated her poverty and hated even more the thought that her neighbors should think she hadn’t enough to eat. To show them that she ate as well as they she would collect eggshells from rubbish heaps and ostentatiously leave them on her own rubbish heap. This extreme poverty didn’t last long; Busnés from Granada saw that she was no ordinary gypsy dancer, that she stood out among the rest as a subtle artist. She began to organize her own zambras of dancing for the tourists but, unlike Carmen Amaya, she never left, the Sacromonte to dance in theaters. Hers was an intimate art, she knew, and the great spaces of a theater could never produce what flamenco singers and dancers call the duende, the pure creative fire that must come to them before they can give their all. Today Lola Medina has an odd position in the society of Granada. Her legend has spread throughout the town and highly colored stories about her abound; the gypsies themselves fear and reverence her, while her many Busné friends treat her like minor royalty.


IT was during our walk back to the Alhambra hill from the Sacromonte that Jaime told us for the first time that Lola had known Federico García Lorca. The gypsies fascinated Lorca all his life, and the Sacromonte inspired much of his most popular book of poems, the Romancero Gitano. Night after night he would visit the hill and talk with the gypsies. Sometimes he would recite his poetry to a group of dancers and excite them to break into wild dances that would satisfy his own love of duende. Lola had been one of his closer gypsy friends and we decided that when we next went to the cave we would see what we could learn from her of Lorca. She had invited us to a party to celebrate her name day, the Feast of Dolores, and on the following Friday evening we arrived at midnight to find the zambra well started, wine and cognac flowing and a riot of color where the gitanas sat in a semicircle round the guitarist and clapped the rhythm for La Danza.

Lola was dressed in her usual rose-madder with a red carnation above her ear —taken, she told us, from the bouquet we had sent her earlier in the day. She had been entertaining since noon; guitarists and accordionists from all over the hill had come to play in her honor, and friends and relations had called to wish her well and drink a glass of wine. Fandango followed seguidilla, and when anyone asked Lola herself to dance she would murmur that she would dance when the mood came over her. In the early hours of the morning the mood came and she began to take out the pins that held her hair in place; all knew what this meant and the room hushed. Lola moved to the middle of the floor and slowly began her dance, a dance of the hands, the arms, the upper part of the body and, almost above all, of the face, which she transformed into a series of tragic, ecstatic masks as the mood of the dance changed; the long hair fell over her face as her head came forward and she threw it back with a sudden toss. An animal eroticism pulsated through her body, the tempo increased and then, at a second, she drew her head back, her body ceased to move, and the music stopped in the middle, it seemed, of a sentence.

As soon as the dance had finished, Lola’s face made an astonishing transformation from ecstasy to a kind of girlish shame, and as she sat down with us her hands went up to cover her cheeks. “I am sorry,” she said. “When I dance, something comes over me, I can’t help myself, a fire goes through me, it’s like making love.”

Some minutes later, when she had calmed down, we decided to introduce the subject of Lorca. “Federico!” she exclaimed. “You know of Federico! Do they know of him outside Spain as well?”

We told her his poetry was famous throughout the world, and after an incredulous glance she went on: “Then I will tell you something: in this very corner we are sitting in, Federico used to come to write his poems. That was when he was very young, perhaps eighteen or so, and nobody knew of him. I was thirteen then, when I first met him. He knew us all on the Sacromontc but I like to think he had a special fancy for me. He’d bring me sweets or money or food whenever he came, but he’d never just give it to me — always make me dance for my regalito. He loved asking questions — about my mother and father, how they’d treated me and what they said, stories about the family, what we gypsies thought about this and that, and he’d make me teach him words of our language, Calé. He’d go away often for months at a time but I always knew he would turn up again. I remember one lovely day when he took me to the fair at Loja and we were both photographed with our heads pushed through screens that had been painted with crazy figures — and I put mine on a man’s body and he put his on a woman’s. And all this time he’d often come up to spend an hour or two in my cave when I wasn’t there, and I’d ask him, ‘Federico, why do you come to my cave when you have your beautiful home out on the vega?’ and he’d say that he was writing poems about us gypsies and he liked to write in my cave, and, as I say, it was on a wooden chair in this corner that he wrote.”

The gitanas had begun their clapping once more and a young man was playing a fandango from Huelva on his guitar. His head hung down over the strings to display his fine crop of heavily oiled hair. “ You need less brilliantine on your hair,” cried one of the party amiably, “and more on your fingers, Paquito.” Lola began to clap her hands and the stream of her story was lost for the moment. But before we left she asked us, since we had a car and appeared interested, if we should like to take her to the place where Lorca was shot and buried in August, 1936.


WHEN we arrived, two days later, to pick her up we found her sitting in the patio, wearing a red torero skirt and a plain black blouse, her hair hanging demurely in a bun at her neck. On her lap was a bunch of some fifty dark red carnations, in the center of which was a solitary flower of greenish blue. She was silent during most of the ride, but warmed into speech as we approached the mountains. She told us that on the day the Nationalists arrested Lorca they took his chauffeur as well, intending to shoot them both. But at the last moment the chauffeur was spared and it was he who, with the return of peace, took Lola out to the Sierra de Viznar, to the place of execution and burial. We asked Lola if the exact spot was known.

“No,” Lola smiled, “but the place is not large and I have chosen a place which I call the grave. What does it matter? Federico’s body lies nearby.” She told us that she made pilgrimages to the grave whenever she could and each time she would make a rough cross from a branch—but always it had disappeared by the time of her next visit. She relapsed once more into silence, which she eventually broke when she told us how much she regretted the loss of her little mementoes of Lorca; he had given her little poems and she had photographs of him, but when he was murdered she grew frightened and burned everything.

The road climbed northwest from Granada, and before we reached the little town of Alfacar it degenerated to little more than a goat track. Caravansaries of donkey carts held us up as they returned empty from Granada, where they had been with bread for the wealthier Granada families; for the water and the wheat of Alfacar combine to make the finest bread in Andalusia. We moved from the bright green fields of wheat higher into a harsher, rock-strewn landscape; a goat track wound steeply up the hillside and we began to meet the donkey loads of fuel logs and carbon that were being brought down to Alfacar from the higher slopes of the Sierra de Viznar. Below, the great plain of Granada spread out in a pale blue mist. To the west, from the level plain suddenly rose the camel hump of a hill; the Sorrow of the Lovers it is called because so many unhappy lovers have thrown themselves from its height. To the east, like a magnificent theatrical backdrop, lay the unending snow-covered slopes of the Sierra Nevada, clear-cut against the amethyst sky.

Our route grew in harshness; towering above us was a peak of silver-gray granite, a white cross on its summit to mark a battlefield of the Civil War. Climbing still higher we turned into the opening of the col, granite peaks on either side forming a savage mouth wide-open to the sky, yet seeming ready to snap shut in a moment. Then, as is the way with cols, the climbing ceased and we came to an open space with a grove of pine trees to one side where we could make out the remains of Falangist dugouts.

At this point Lola told us to stop and we walked with her some twenty yards from the roadside to where a single pine tree, three feet high, grew from a concentrated patch of rosemary and sage. The tree, said Lola, marked the grave. We knew that Lorca’s bones did not lie beneath these bushes, yet it was not difficult to be moved in the presence of this simple, symbolical grave, to make, in the mind, a genuine obeisance. Perhaps it would have been more difficult had we known then that this col had been the execution yard for thousands from Granada and its province, that Lorca’s bones did not rest here alone.

Lola untied the bunch of carnations and threw them one by one among the tall herbs. As she placed the last flower, the green-blue carnation, at the foot of the tree, she murmured the line of Lorca’s, Verde que te quiero verde (literally, “Green how I love you green”). She walked some paces backwards and fell to her knees, where she remained for two minutes, her lips moving in a rapid, mumbled prayer. Then we walked with her to the pine grove and broke off a branch to make a cross, which we bound at its joint with some string Lola had brought with her. We returned to the grave and Lola pushed the cross into the earth beside the little pine tree. We stood in silence for a moment and then Lola clapped her hands and said, “ Huy, let us go.”

She brightened on the return journey and talked a great deal. At the foot of the pass we came to a solitary house near a spring and she suggested that the motorcar was thirsty and needed a drink of white wine. We sat in the patio of the house with a bottle of strong wine and a plate of black olives sprinkled with sage. Lola needed no encouragement now to talk of Lorca and soon she was telling us the most remarkable of her anecdotes of him.

“It was when I was about twenty-three,” she began. “Federico had been away and had come to meet his old friends on the Sacromonte. We were sitting in the inner cave—you remember I told you the big room was divided into two small ones in the old days. He had been questioning me about all sorts of things and reading me his poems and watching me to see what my face did when I heard this thing and that. I remember I told him I got a horrible pain in the stomach at one of the poems and he slapped his knee and said that was just right. Then suddenly he told me to dance, told me to wear an Oriental costume I had — you know, two round things over the breasts and a skirt. I lit some incense and then began to dance. Not flamenco, something much softer than that —Eastern — I love the East. I just stood where I was and danced with my body, my arms, and my face— moved my body like a snake. Then something began to come over me in the way it often does when I dance. I felt I was leaving my body, that I wasn’t Lola Medina any longer, that I was watching her dance from a corner. And Federico seemed to know what had happened. He began to speak, not ordinary words, and he didn’t seem to be speaking to me at all. It was like a huge poem that I couldn’t understand, except that he was making it up as he went along. We went on for what seemed like hours and got wilder and wilder. Ay, yes, it was real ecstasy. Then suddenly I collapsed and Federico had to pick me up. We didn’t speak for some minutes and then he said, ‘Lola, we shall never know whether we’ve been visited by an angel or a devil, whether we’ve been in heaven or in hell. We shall never know anything like this again.’ We never did. That was the closest Federico and I ever got to each other.”

She looked away up the mountainside towards the col where Lorca lay. He was, as she knew, one of thousands lying in their shallow pits in the barrancas of the sierras. For us and the world he was the chosen symbol of that terrible political martyrdom; for her he was a man whom she had known and who had been pointlessly murdered. Her eyes lowered and she looked across to the spring of pure mountain water that was surrounded by clusters of violets. No scene could have been prettier, more peaceful, and it was not till later that we discovered this place had been the clearinghouse for those who were trundled out daily from Granada to their death. They had drunk at this spring for the last time. The violets would not have been there that arid August, but the grass, kept fresh by the spring, would have been as green as the day Lorca made his last march up the hillside to dig his grave.