I was born into poverty. The aching hollowness of hunger; the hand-me-down clothes and too big shoes. Parents always working; shifting jobs with the seasons. I was born in an osada, a tabor, a mountain village that had no running water, no electricity, and no hope. The houses leaned together, sheltering from the wind like old, worn women. Most of them were missing something – a window, part of the roof, most of the door – toothless grimaces spread across the hillside. Children flocked around the outskirts, flitting between cottages and the small stream. They played with whatever they could find – sticks, stones, discarded metal or rubber. I could say that I was lucky. My time in the osada was small. Not long after my birth, swaddled in silence, we made the long trip by road back to the UK. It was there I was registered and obtained my birth certificate. My birth-date a rough estimate and my name suitably gadžikanji.
My family, in many ways, were šatrika – non-settled. We lived between countries, travelling between our family settlements frequently. As I grew older, it grew more difficult to travel. Stopping places were blocked, barbed wire and boulders littered our route. My grandparents and older relatives became too sick to travel far, and one by one they took their last, long journey, leaving us far behind. We burned a great many things; the irony never fails to grab at my heart.
I am one of those Gypsies. The kind who was always cold, always hungry. The kind who had holes in their clothes and sometimes no shoes. My family did their best, but in the face of the trauma and discrimination we faced, it wasn’t enough. As a čorikani familijia, we were looked down on by Romani and Travellers alike who had money, and even though we were poor, we still had more than some other families and in turn we felt ourselves better too. It was a constant battle of our kind of Roma versus that kind of Roma. We always had to be better than at least one family. Somehow that made everything okay.
Since I came to the US, I’ve met many Romani from families who have done extremely well – many who have generations of literacy and educational attainment. Families who, although they’ve faced many struggles, have overcome them marvelously.
Sometimes, I wonder why my family could never do that. Was it the hollow darkness, which tore through their minds and their bodies, carried like ash from the fields of war? Or was it the constant barrage of “get out of here Gypsy” and “stupid, ugly, whore of a Pikey” heard every day? Was it the fact that schools didn’t want us and didn’t encourage us to attain anything but the destiny they thought we deserved? We are not thieves and alcoholics by choice. Often these are the only roads that are left unobstructed for us. These are the only places we can lay our starving children.
Yet, my family never tried. They didn’t want integration. They didn’t want non-Romani lifestyles, clothing, foods, or language. They didn’t want their children to act in non-Romani ways. They held us close, with a tight fist, romanija staining our lives like bruises on our skin
I’ve spoken to many Romani who are offended by my personal story. As if my poverty and unwitting adherence to stereotype stains their own image. But, the sad truth is that there are many hundreds of Romani like me – many Romani who are still living in abject poverty, even within my own family. I’ve heard it so many times “we’re not like those Romani”… and it hurts because, really, we ARE those Romani. Stories like mine are discounted because we exist in a no-mans-land. We are neither this kind nor that kind. We are the pioneers of our families, hauling wagons across literary and economic deserts, often with no support from those same families.
I have no tradition of education and literacy. I have no tradition of stable employment, housing, or income. I have no tradition of living the trajo gadžikano. It has been a fierce struggle to get to this point and it still is a struggle every day. The feelings of exclusion, differentness, and inferiority haunt me. I am regularly called “weird” and “strange” and “stuck up”, my silences interpreted as indifference.
I have more than I ever thought it possible to have, and yet I don’t forget those days spent gathering food because it was all that we could eat; digging through rubbish bins for glass bottles to clean and take to the store to get money for electricity to keep our elders warm. Tears pool like rain in my eyes. I am a nowhere child.
My grandmother always said that in the non-Romani world, we were only worth half of a non-Romani person, and a Romani woman was worth only half of that. I never expected to hear that from other Romani, but it seems that it’s relatively common. My Bergitka/Servika roots hold fast, won’t be cast off. My family were not wealthy musicians, actors, writers; they did not transcend difficulties and become doctors, lawyers, or teachers.
We were poor. We were illiterate. We were ragged. We were loud.
Some of us were thieves. Some of us were drunks. Some of us were musicians, fortune tellers, beggars.
When I came to the US, I had $300 and a couple of suitcases to my name. No one could understand why I made this choice. No one could understand why I wanted a non-Romani education; why I walked away from my roots and my own family in order to achieve it. There are Romani who hate me for leaving my family; who hate me for not being Slovak or not being American. There are Romani who hate me because I travelled alone as a woman, because I married a non-Rom, because I gained an education.
Even now, it’s difficult to explain – to Romani and non-Romani alike – how difficult, heart-wrenching, and lonely this experience has been for me; how I didn’t make these decisions lightly. Romanija – tradition, culture, history – a combination of forces tethering us into cultural patterns of poverty, needs to change. We need to breathe. We’re suffocating our children simply because the non-Romani tell us that’s all we’re capable of.
No. It’s not that simple, but nothing ever is, is it?
I’m that kind of Romani. I’ll always be that kind of Romani.
I used to be ashamed – of the poverty, the illiteracy, the alcoholism; of the steps I had to take to extricate myself from that history.
Not anymore. I am what I am.
Bergitka, Servika, Slovak, British, American…