We are an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the history, culture and true lives of Romani people worldwide.
We confront racism and oppression wherever we encounter it.
We try to make connections with all the "isms" that make up western culture.
I am Roma, but for many years I denied my origins for fear of being called a Gypsy. I grew up in Romania, where one meaning of tigan — tzigane, Zigeuner, cigány, cigan, “Gypsy” in other European languages — is “a person who engages in harmful or illegal activities.” The name comes from a medieval Greek word that means “untouchable,” and derivatives — like “gypped” or “gypsy cab” — refer to stealing and cheating.
My parents and grandparents were well aware of the negative stereotypes of the Gypsies as rootless thieves and beggars, and they took pains to protect me. As a little girl, my mother dressed me in pale colors and cut my hair short so I would not look like a Gypsy. My father warned me never to steal, and to always associate with smart people. I can understand why my grandfather, a blacksmith, was so proud of buying a “corner of the village” and building houses for his children. My grandmother was a healer — not through magical powers but by volunteering to take people to the best doctors in the capital.
Still, all these efforts couldn’t stop my classmates’ parents from reproaching my first-grade teacher for giving the highest award to me, a Gypsy. That confirmed my grandfather’s belief that there is no use acting “as if I were an official from the Ministry,” as he would put it, since there was “no such thing as a Gypsy teacher, priest or lawyer.” He too wanted to be like “the others,” but he was also aware of the invisible limits that kept Gypsies separate.
I grew up believing it was better not to be a Gypsy, yet I couldn’t fully belong to “normal” society, either. I learned that I must not be the best in school.
Like an ostrich, I buried my head — in books. I spent hours reading and dreaming of discovering another world. I wanted badly to live a different kind of life, and I waited for the right moment to “escape.”
My childhood dreams started to come true in 2006, when I traveled to the United States — my first trip abroad. At 22, a new world opened up to me, full of freedom, adventure, romance and beauty. I connected immediately with people from all over the world, feeling like one of them. Attending weddings and receptions, I wore fashionable evening gowns. I craned my neck at skyscrapers in New York, explored museums in Washington and visited my first American university campus. I felt the salty breeze of the Atlantic and breathed the mountain air of the Appalachians. I felt like Alice in Wonderland (or Gypsy in Wanderland).
A musician friend, Nelson Emokpae, wrote a song to me — the refrain was, “Princess, who are you?”
I stayed for three months. Just before I returned to Romania, there was an incident involving some misplaced money. Though I was never accused, the fear that I might be suspected of thievery put me on the defensive and onto an emotional roller-coaster. I didn’t expect this incident, and in an unguarded moment the repressed image of Gypsy thieves and beggars that I had long kept in the closet broke loose.
Seeing myself mirrored in that shameful image terrified me. I was confused and felt a need to explain my reaction. That was when I came out. I couldn’t stop crying when I said, for the first time, “I am a Gypsy woman” — this to my friend, Harley Flack, cousin of the singer Roberta Flack. As a black man, he knew well the impact of negative stereotypes.
For many years I had kept away from “Gypsies,” which left me not knowing who I was. But his encouragement, along with the many positive experiences I had in the United States, gave me the strength to sort out my identity.
I soon came to understand that “Gypsy” connotes not only panhandling and rootlessness, but also fantasy, soul-wrenching violin music and freedom. In Nashville, where I go to college, or in New York where I often visit, people don’t know much about Gypsies and usually haven’t met any. They often presume that I must have a cool, carefree lifestyle, like Esmeralda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
This is the romantic image of Gypsies — mysterious people who wander the world in caravans and live in colorful chaos. Their children run barefoot in the dirt, their girls wear brightly colored dresses and long-flowing hair, and old women read the future. Gypsy history is written in song, and the pen is the violin bow. It is an image popularized in films like Emil Loteanu’s Soviet-era Queen of the Gypsies, whose heroes are free as the wind: Zobar is a bold and courageous horse thief; Rada, his love, bewitches men with her dark eyes and tempestuous dancing. It made me feel interesting and exotic.
But the other image, the one my parents tried to protect me from, is never far behind: In Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1988), the sordid underground world of Gypsy thieves made my heart heavy. Young Perhan, the hero, dreams of a house and an honest life, but is trapped in criminal activities; he is the eternal Gypsy outcast.
About 700 years ago, when the Roma first entered Europe, the locals assumed the dark-skinned people were from Egypt — hence the English “Gypsies.” In fact, they originally came from northern India, and “Roma” is what they called themselves.
The exotic culture and resistance to assimilation of these wandering people led to widespread discrimination and persecution, contributing to the broad dispersal of the Roma throughout Europe. They were enslaved in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (present-day Romania) from the 14th to the 19th centuries, and forcibly assimilated under the Communists. All the while, the Roma tried to protect their customs and traditions by moving on, reinforcing their image as nomads.
The discrimination and pressure to assimilate continue to this day: Last December, an Italian girl’s claim that she was raped by Gypsies, later recanted by the girl, led a mob to burn down a Romani camp in Turin; the year before, President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the expulsion of illegal Roma from France.
Estimates of the number of Roma vary widely, from 8 million to 12 million, in part because the Roma do not always register their ethnicity. Centuries of living in different lands have left them with a diversity of languages and religions, even within specific regions, and just a minority today speak only Romani. The largest groupings in Europe are in Romania, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia; there are sizable populations in France, Italy, Spain, Russia and the United States.
My family didn’t speak Romani or follow the nomadic lifestyle. However, my grandfather was a blacksmith, a common Romani occupation. My mother’s light skin allowed me to conceal my roots, but my father, whose darker skin would have drawn attention, avoided coming around my school.
They worked hard so I could get educated — my mother collected trash and cleaned stairs and my father was a welder — and they enabled me to attend university in the United States, at Vanderbilt, where I am now.
Today, most Roma are settled, like my family, but they have not yet found their place in the world. A majority of the Roma cannot find jobs, decent housing or decent medical care.
Many Romani children do not attend school; according to a 2011 Unicef report, only about a fifth of Romani children in Europe attend primary school. And many of those who do are bullied and do not dream of becoming professionals or earning awards.
Many Roma continue to roam. Some do so, because settling down would mean losing their source of livelihood; others because they have no place to go. As the poorest and most stigmatized people in Europe, they have no choice but to remain on the fringes. Whatever the advantages of permanent settlement, they are dwarfed by immediate needs.
I know now that this is why I so long denied my ethnic identity: Like many other settled Roma, I wanted neither to fit nor fight the stereotypes. And since I declared my identity three years ago, I cannot say how many relatives and friends, both in the United States and Romania, have told me that I am not “that kind of Gypsy,” or that I should “get over” my ethnic explorations because they will limit my further development.
Yet many of these same people also see “Gypsy” the way the Gershwins did in that song: “You and you alone bring out the Gypsy in me,” so that I feel pride and long to shout, “I am a real Gypsy! My life is as full and beautiful as the Gypsy you imagine!” Today, if someone tried to insult me by calling me a Gypsy, I would laugh and take it as a compliment.
I firmly believe we will get rid of the stigma not by suppressing the Gypsy in us, but by folding Gypsy beauty, romance and freedom into the ancient Romani nation, allowing us to maintain our extraordinary culture and to take our place in the world. We are the archetypical, multinational “people without borders”: Multicultural by definition, we can contribute to the construction of identity in the 21st century.
Pride in being Roma liberates the Gypsy in me. It expresses itself through the full range of emotions. It gives me courage and empowers me: I see no limits to developing my potential and performing at the highest level. It makes me refuse absurd conventions. I open doors by telling stories, and I let charm and creativity be part of my life. I do ballet, but I will join a Gypsy dance anytime. My hair is long and sometimes I wear bright colors; they look good with my dark skin.