Reclaiming Roma Identity: Fifth Annual Roma Conference at Harvard

Painting by Zoran Tairovic, courtesy of the artist

Guest Post by John Anusavice

April 9 and 10 marked Harvard FXB’s fifth annual Roma conference, “Culture Beyond Borders: The Roma Contribution.” This year the event opened in the evening with a one-woman play,  “I Declare at My Own Risk,” written and acted by Alina Şerban, an alumna of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a Roma artist who grew up in Romania. Her performance delved into the struggles and hardships faced by a young Roma girl attempting to overcome the odds of poverty and racial oppression.

The next day the academic portion of the conference began, which focused on the representations of the Romani people.  In FXB director Dr. Jennifer Leaning’s opening address, she said that “Roma are among the most oppressed and haunted people in history; they are now claiming their rights and due respect.” FXB Roma Program director Margareta Matache provided context for the rest of the day’s discussion, asking “Can you ignore the fact that racism has harmed the daily lives of Roma  for hundreds of years?”  Then the invited panelists of the conference spoke and debated on topics such as the portrayal of Romani peoples in literature, art, theater, film, and the media; Romani contributions to the arts; and Roma identity.

On the portrayal of Roma in non-Roma literature, the panelists agreed that whether it be intentional or not, authors and artists have created and reinforced negative stereotypes of the Romani people. Ismael Cortés Gómez, a PhD candidate at the Instituto Interuniversitario de Desarrollo Social y Paz (Institute for Social Development and Peace), pointed to the fact that one can go back as far as Miguel de Cervantes to find stereotypes of the Romani people as mysterious hedonists, often associated with criminality and death. In addition, Romani author of the influential article, “Orientalism and Gypsylorism,” Kenneth Lee stated “Gypsylorists form their own opinion about what a Roma woman should be—which is not real life.” [Gypsylore and Gypsylorists were what early  non-Roma scholars of Roma called their field of study and themselves–Ed.] Lee continued his discussion of the misrepresentation of Romani women in describing the stereotypes that Gypsylorists often reinforce, using the example of Esmeralda Lock, who was first painted as a  “seductress with flashing eyes,” then, as a “deceitful vampire,” and finally as a trusted woman steeped in Gypsy tradition when she became a Gypsylore informant.

Other panels looked further at the contribution of the Romani people to the arts and their struggle to have their reality truthfully depicted. Alexandra Oprea, a Romani lawyer and essayist from Columbia University, continued the conversation from the previous speakers by noting that the Roma “have historically been denied the right to project their own image, always being gazed upon.” Her panel also discussed how the continued use of the word “Gypsy” to depict Roma hurts as it evokes all of the old negative stereotypes. Radmila Mladenova, a PhD candidate at Heidelberg University, carried this idea into the field of cinema, finding these stereotypes embodied in imaginary “Gypsy” figures such as Marlene Dietrich in Golden Earrings. These representations of Roma do not reflect Roma lives. Several panelists touched on the importance of narrative and of Roma having some control of the narratives of their lives. Oksana Marafioti, author of American Gypsy: A Memoir, signaled the task ahead for Roma artists, “For every stereotypical character, we need to create one grounded in reality.” Alina Şerban, whose play the night before had provided grounding in the reality of a Roma girl, explained, “If not for stories, I would not be here. They let me imagine a different life.”

As panelists discussed, the Romani people have a rich culture of music and artwork that is not only popular in their respective villages, but also across the world. Alexandra Oprea, the Romani lawyer mentioned above, also spoke about the Romani Manele music genre as being akin to hip-hop, with musicians espousing not only a type of music, but a lifestyle. She described Manele as lively and upbeat, celebrating love, family, and risk-taking in new lands. Oprea described the contempt that many non-Roma elite have towards Manele as low-class and vulgar. In contrast to such contempt, Carol Silverman, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Oregon, spoke about the assimilation of Romani culture into mainstream Western culture. Silverman expanded on this idea with the example of non-Romani popular music artists sampling melodies and various portions of their music with Romani beats and sounds. This sampling acts as an appropriation of Roma heritage:  the music becomes disassociated from Roma culture and the Romani do not receive acknowledgment of their work and cultural achievements.  And yet, contempt still arises.  Silverman noted that the appropriation of Romani music in general allows Roma music to be “revered, while Roma are reviled.”

Speakers also explored Roma identity in history and in the future. Chair of the Roma Education Fund, Andrzej Mirga spoke about RomaArchive, a project to create cross-European Roma archives. Earlier, Kenneth Lee had mentioned that archives are centers of knowledge production, but always a selection of knowledge with a particular perspective.  Mirga expects archives created by Roma to help future Roma better understand the diversity and strength of Roma identity and culture. In addition, he posited that these archives will also provide a basis for the deconstruction of social stigma against the Roma as well as a source to educate non-Roma about Romani culture. Harvard’s Homi Bhabha referred to history and the archives in a more general sense as “a storehouse of memory and language.” He reminded listeners of archives as an important bulwark against forgetting: “When we look back upon histories of oppression, we should not underestimate the importance of the fear of forgetting.” Bhabha stressed how vital this storehouse of memory will be in supporting the evolution of Roma identities, saying that the archive “holds the possibility” of being renewed and retold, of changing the story. Aidan McGarry, the author of Romaphobia, stressed the need for Roma pride. Expressing pride in Roma culture combats racism and discrimination against the Roma, raises visibility, and fights oppression. He explicitly connected identity and oppression, saying “the worst way to oppress a people is to disconnect them with their own identity.” By encouraging positive expressions of Roma identity, Romani people gain opportunities to embrace their culture in addition to disassociating the Roma with derogatory stereotypes.

The 2017 Roma Conference’s emphasis on cultural portrayal and the contributions of the Romani people has cast a positive light on the Roma community. By discussing ways in which stereotypes in literature and the media can be diminished, there is hope that through cooperation between Romani and non-Romani people, great progress can be made toward informing the societies in which Roma live and work of their worth. With an increase in Roma in higher education and the continued offerings of Roma scholarship, artists, professionals, etc. Roma identity and voice can be strengthened even further. This strengthening of Roma identity will provide a true sense of who Romani people actually are in all their varieties, rather than who they are thought and portrayed to be.


Guest post by John Anusavice, who is a human rights activist and junior at Saint John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Recent Related Content

See more pictures from the conference in the album on FXB’s Facebook page.

Read the announcement of the conference.

Read “A Life in the Margins: Understanding the Roma Experience,” a blog from the Weatherhead Center (one of the event’s cosponsors).

Read a recent blog, “Does Power Listen to Truth in the Case of the Romani People?”

Read the Realizing Roma Rights press release about the new volume from UPenn Press edited by FXBers.

Check back later for a link to the videos from the conference.