The Voice of Roma
“We should squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” - George Orwell, 1984
The 16th Annual California Herdeljezi Roma Festival on May 4th & 5th
at Sebastopol Veteran's Building & Ives Park
is an opportunity to learn more about the “Gypsy” culture
- bring your families and come learn our dances, enjoy authentic Balkan Romani food and listen to world-class Romani musicians.
By Voice of Roma Founder, Sani Rifati
For a long time, the Roma* (Cigan*) Gypsies*, have been misunderstood by western civilization. For a far too long time. In spite of so much discrimination, harshness and still constant discrimination, Roma still exist since they left their motherland in India over 1,000 years ago from the northwest region, Punjab. I went to teach traditional Romani dances in Bahia, Salvador in January 2012. It was such an honor and privilege to be part of that amazing experience with passionate Brazilians who completely fell in love with Roma culture. To my surprise, the term “Cigan” was the term that is used always in Brazil. Coming from former Yugoslavia in the Serbia region of Kosovo, we strongly identify as Roma. We refuse to be called other names such as Gypsies, Zingari, Zigonier, etc…
I was asked to write something about the guilt, the religious holiday in Brazil and could not resist the challenge to write on this topic. Before trying to cleanse my soul, let me tell you a few things and then maybe some of you will understand whether we, the Roma, are guilty. Western civilization has always seen our culture as the ‘pariah’ culture. They tell us that we don’t have real culture. As a matter of fact some still think we are sub-human. Being Roma, it’s not an easy thing, in our diaspora our host nations and societies often deny our existence. We are the wanderers, the existential travelers. Yet we are also uneducated, dirty, thieves, liars etc… So let’s go step by step and demystify the myth, and the stereotypes that are still haunting our Roma identity.
We’ve been always kicked from the mainstream society to the margins of towns, near the garbage dumps or most undeveloped part of the town. Most of the roads are unpaved and the environment around has a lot of debris and garbage. The public services don’t even bother to come and clean the space. If we don’t have these services provided to us, does that still makes us dirty or guilty?
Many Roma today in modern civilized world can’t obtain their birth certificates in the place where the children are born. Modern world is obsessed with paper, but if Romani children have no chance for this paper, that means these children are not allowed to go to school, look for work or get adequate healthcare, does that makes these children guilty of being uneducated? So what’s then left, but to pack your belongings and go on the road? Does that make us being guilty of being wanderers? Once when you’re on the road then the police authorities demand from the parents the proper documents.
Even another irony is they always refer to Roma music as “Gypsy Queens” or “Gypsy Kings” as a matter of fact Roma never had queens or kings, that label that was given to us by the western civilized world. In Romani culture there is always the head of the clan or group who represent the rest. Sometimes they are called kings or capo’s in order to establish some relation with the police with the hope the clan would not be kicked in to the next destination, and that’s why Roma must lie. Does that makes us liars and guilty? When we’re just trying to settle in the hope of having land or property. Is that too much to ask? But I am not seeing the Romani culture as only victims, we are also survivors.
Imagine having no country, no government, and no lobbying machine to defend your rights. Yet we, the Roma, still exist all over the world. Imagine a culture that never went to war, and that doesn’t have national heroes. Let’s talk about how much Roma diaspora contributed to the world in arts and other trades. I would just mention few of real Roma heroes in arts, Charlie Chaplin inspired many people around the world as well as Yule Brenner, Rita Hayworth, Roma invented Flamenco in Spain, Czardasz in Hungary, Django Reinhardt and many more.
Now, back to Brazil, we went to visit with a few Roma mahala (neighborhood) with lovely man named Rogerio Ferrari. We were embraced very warmly by the Roma community, and we connected around music and dance. It felt very safe and comfortable to be amongst my people. To my surprise, I found out that the Roma from Brazil one of the first groups of Roma that I encountered who didn’t bring the music with them. Most of them came from Spain and Portugal, some of them actually arrived on the third trip of Christopher Columbus circa 1500.
Also to my huge surprise, Brazil is the only country that has a national holiday for Roma, as some of you may know May 24 was dedicated to Roma in Brazil as their holiday. Many Roma in Europe are going on pilgrimage to honor the black Madonna, or as we call it, ‘Kali Sara’ in the south of France.
Now, back to Europe- most western European countries, such as Germany, Italy and France, think Kosovo is independent and are massively deporting the Roma refugees back to Kosovo to a very hostile environment. The Roma have no housing, no work and very few educational opportunities sinceno curriculums are taught in the Romani language. As undocumented citizens, Roma cannot participate fully or be integrated in the country where they were born. They have no rights. All of this happens under the disinterested eye of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO’s peacekeepers. To combat these forms of legislative racism, Voice of Roma has set up 10 pre-schools and youth centers to educate the next generation, and created self-sustainable business enterprises for Roma via women’s empowerment programs, agricultural projects, ESL classes so that they can work with business outside of Kosovo, and provided vocational training and opportunities to learn computer skills.
All of this we achieved thanks to the people who attend our Roma Festival, which will be on May 4th & 5th this year. The 16th Annual California Herdeljezi Roma Festival is an opportunity to learn more about the “Gypsy” culture- bring your families and come learn our dances, enjoy authentic Balkan Romani food and listen to world-class Romani musicians. Oven saste (thank you all)!
Sani Rifati - Voice of Roma
*Rom = human being, or person (sing) also means husband in Romani language
Romni= woman, or wife
Roma = people (plural)
Romani= adjective, example Romani language, history etc.
*Gypsy= The word is from Latin, “Gypsian” means a person from Egypt. In English that’s why they refer to Roma as the Gypsies or there is slang “I got gypped” that translates to somebody cheated you.
*Cigan= etymology is from Greek Tsiganoi or Atsiganoi means “untouchable”
Also Cigan is a derogatory term throughout all Slavic countries, as well.
VOICE OF ROMA (VoR) was founded in 1996 and incorporated as a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization in 1999.
It is the mission of Voice of Roma (VoR) to promote and present Romani cultural arts and traditions in a way that counters both romanticized and negative "Gypsy" stereotypes, and in so doing, to contribute to the preservation of Romani identity and culture. VoR also works to heighten awareness of human rights issues faced by Roma in today's world, and to support efforts by Roma to (re)build and maintain their communities, improve their lives, and to strengthen the Romani voice both nationally and internationally. Our mission is accomplished through organizing and implementing cultural arts, educational, economic development, and charitable projects for and about Roma.
The task of VoR is unique and crucial. Roma have been voiceless for centuries. A history of oppression, slavery, discrimination, ethnic cleansing and genocide informs the Roma's living culture, and anti-Roma prejudice persists even today. Against this background, a worldwide movement is working to increase recognition for Romani cultural arts and traditions, building a sense of ethnic pride, history and strength among the Roma. Voice of Roma is at the forefront of this movement, providing a voice for Roma across the world from Northern California to Kosovo, and many places in between.
In the United States Voice of Roma presents authentic Romani culture, music, dance and art, and educates the public about the history, current events and the plight of the Kosovo Roma. Simultaneously, VoR provides advocacy services both to Roma living as displaced persons in dire circumstances in Kosovo and to those living as refugees in other countries in Europe under threat of deportation. Since 2003, Voice of Roma has maintained an office in Kosovo with a six-member Romani staff team engaged in advocacy, humanitarian, economic development, and educational projects. VoR has worked to assist Kosovo Roma to participate in "Decade of Roma Inclusion" (2005 - 2015) activities, and in various civil society and democracy building meetings elsewhere in Europe, advocates against forced repatriation of Romani refugees to Kosovo, and has contributed to the development of a lobby for Romani issues at the United Nations. VoR is also dedicated to furthering Romani women's emancipation and full participation in our projects and in their own communities.