Identity and Diaspora

Sep 3, 2013 by

I am Romani and when I speak about my community and my home it is of an imagined home and an imagined community. A collective “we” has emerged, but as a constantly shifting formation, a contested identity of our diaspora, its borders, and who counts as a member. Democratization and incorporation of many former Communist countries into Western political structures has had a profound effect on those of us living within those regions, as has forced settlement and legislation preventing nomadism. The intensification of transnational processes has created a series of demands that confront Roma as a whole – our historical, political, and ethnic connections cross borders (political, geographical, cultural, and linguistic) and leave us vulnerable to accusations of inauthenticity and illegitimacy. Unlike many other minority groups, the Roma have no “homeland”. Despite acknowledgement of our common Indian origin, we carry with us no idea of an ancestral “root” or land to which we belong, and as such, we struggle to reconstitute and authenticate a unified collective identity.

Nomadism has become (for many Roma) a state of mind, rather than a defining feature of every day life. Even families who have been settled for years perpetuate the myth of nomadism, discursively linking our mobility, or lack thereof, with attempts to forcibly assimilate us. For some families, identity is grounded in the idea of ethnicity and imagined nomadic community, while for others it may derive from traditions, occupation, lifestyle, and culture, especially language. The Roma exist simultaneously within and without European national communities. We claim brotherhood with ALL Roma across and beyond national boundaries, but at the same time, we take on the national identity of the country of our citizenship. Commenting on the dialectic of Romani identity, Horvath (2006) notes, ‘‘Social scientists, just like any ordinary person, cannot give a proper answer as to who is a Romani person. … In fact, it is the awareness of our dual identity that allows us to understand the essence of Romani identity’’.

Despite Roma being our formally accepted and politically correct name, we are popularly still referred to under the pejorative label of “Gypsy”. However, not all Gypsies are Roma and not all Roma consider themselves Gypsies. There are many groups who are corralled under the term, including Roma, Kale, Irish & Scottish Travellers, Romanichal, Manouche, Gens du Voyage, Jenische, Sinte…. As Petrova (2003) argues, “present-day Roma are a continuum of more or less related subgroups with complex, flexible, and multilevel identities”. We live these multilevel identities daily; we coexist as a cultural and economic community rooted in the patriarchal clan system, while simultaneously deriving a secondary identity from the surrounding nation.

As Herakova argues, “the making of a European Roma identity was an attention-grabbing strategy of the earliest activist efforts, projected, for example, in the Human Rights Watch reports of the early 1990s. The idea was that the more grandiose and nonborder-confined the problem, the larger its chance of receiving international support.” (2009). If this is so, what is our real identity? If being “Roma” was a strategy, then what are we? My grandmother always told me that we were Gypsies and would always be Gypsies. She said that if you tried to change the name of the moon to the sun, no one would be able to remember. So we were Gypsies and better get used to it. And, despite the best efforts of Romani activists, we are still referred to most commonly as “Gypsies”.

We are also still internally divided, more like distant ornery cousins than brothers. We distinguish ourselves by claiming we’re the true Roma. Every group claims to be better than their neighbour. I am half-Servika and half-Bergitka. My family lived on either side of the border between Slovakia and Poland. The Bergitka are seen as the lowest of the low by most other Roma groups, yet they in turn, believe that most other groups are lower than they are, and that they are the čačes (or true) Roma. I was born in Slovakia, registered almost 6 weeks later in the UK, and have lived in the US for the past 12 years.

But what does this make me? Am I Slovak, Romani, British, American, or all four? And does it matter? “Roma” as an identity marker is not clearly defined in the traditional sense like “Slovakian” or “British”. In fact, “Roma” seems to be other, as much marked by what it is not as those things it is supposed to be. We are not “one people, one culture”, in fact some groups (such as the German Sinte and French Manouche) reject the “Roma” identity and its implications in its entirety, despite being part of the larger diaspora. The assumption of a transnational “Roma-ness” has been fiercely debated, with scholars such as Simhandal arguing that “Roma is a political category created and altered in and by the EU and European Commission discourse since the 1970s. Such dominant discourse mutes marginalized groups by naming them and confining their realities into a language of power” (2006).

We are an oral culture and so, unlike Anderson’s (2006) vision of transnational imagined communities sharing solidarity and knowledge through the printed word, we rely on the spoken word. This flies in the face of many academic claims regarding diasporas and transnational groups. We identify as a group externally regardless of linguistic differences and a lack of a Romani writing system, however, internally we remain fractured along linguistic lines. Language has become another determinate of how Romani one is and where in the diaspora one fits. As we begin to lose our language more and more, we cling to it as a true demarcation of who is and who is not. This creates problems for many groups, including more assimilated Roma, those who have been adopted or fostered, those who left their family and region of origin, or those who have been taught to hide their “Gypsyness”.

So where does that leave us? In some identity no-mans-land of neither and/or both? Our common shared narratives – Indian origins, common linguistic base, and experience of the Holocaust and discrimination throughout Europe – have strengthened our ideas of being a single community and the development of both national and transnational identities. But, it isn’t enough, our singularity is still fraught with presentation of multiple (often competing) identities and value judgements of “who is more/less Roma”. But, I believe we shouldn’t subjugate individual experiences in favour of a united social front. My Roma-ness isn’t constructed or performed in the same way as a British Romany, a Welsh Kale, a Romanian or Russian Rom. The performative aspects of our narratives are just as important as the narratives themselves, and erasing these in favour of a singular “Roma” identity risks erasing the experiences of entire populations.

There is a great need for discussions of Romani diaspora experiences from a Romani perspective. Our dual identities, oral traditions, and linguistic heritages coupled with overt oppression, discrimination, and racism, make such discussions difficult – often impossible.

Nevertheless, as my mother would say, “so kerel o baro, keren the o cikne” – Whatever the elder does, the younger also does,

it’s time our elders stood together and recognized that differences in performance of Romani identity do not negate or lessen that identity.

Ame sam savoře Roma. We are all Roma.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Excellent article–particularly 3rd paragraph description. I’m wondering if non-Romani folks also identify with your article as there are so many ethnic and indigenous groups struggling to survive as ethnic, cultural groups. My father used to call us “Heinz 57″ because we came from many, mostly unknown, origins. I remember wanting to be able to identify with a specific ethnic group as a child (whose family moved a lot and who never lived near relatives)–probably for inclusion and security–and the appeal of indigenous and ethnic groups that were attempting to preserve their identity. We are all Roma. Viva la Romani!

  2. Your mother was right. A Gypsy is a Gypsy. There is something inherently forgotten when the imposition to switch from Gypsy to Roma occurs and that is the context. The word Gypsy isn’t going away but the stereotypical associations that accompany it and those outside our culture who want to appropriate it–need to.Consider the lesser offense “Gypsies are real people, most of whom have been living a conservative and stationary life with a strong sense of identity” verses ” I love my new Halloween Roma costume” It is not all about semantics. The other issue is that of translation and demographic. Where as all of the different words to describe our people Tsigani, Gitano, Sinti, that have very different connotations and origins are all just translated as Gypsy. In the Balkans the term Roma is in use today with our people who feel that being called Tsigani is a serious racial slur because of the history there, Gitano in the part of Spain I’m from, we don’t really say Roma there. Lumping everyone together is a colonialist strategy. If you want to learn the people you have to learn the names to some degree. Whenever I read about “us” though I always see some real distinctions between Gitanos/Cale and other Romanies, like the fact that we are very matriarchal..But there is always so much in common too. I think that the success we’ve had with flamenco music has given us a strong sense of identity and so we have been able to modernize both voluntarily and also survive our forced assimilation.

  3. Powerful and generous assemblage of thought, Qristina. Wish that I could have read this ten years ago. In a different manner, I am pulled by cultural and ethnic forces that make me up. Half-Black, half-White, born in NYC, grown up in Paris, I never am quite sure where I belong. There is one outcome of that life: I neither come in judgment of others, nor do I speak for them. My life cocktail allows me to lend a hand occasionally.

    I do wonder at times, though, when or if the survival tribal strategies which have, after all, served the Roma well over centuries can be woven into a greater emancipation. The people I have photographed obviously find this middle way, but that’s simply not available to the wretched souls living in settlements in eastern Slovakia. Such a tormented vision, where is the will to adjust those existences. The dynamic is almost a mutual codependency. Disgust and indifference on the part of the majority who safely place the spectacle in the category of “Other” and defiance to the point of self-destruction on the part of those living in such condition. Hard not to be despairing.

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