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Culture is a place of refuge for the Roma

DESPITE having spent her entire life in the urban environment, Žaneta Štipáková, a 27-year-old soloist of the Romathan theatre, is very familiar with the life of the rural Roma settlements. As an acress in a Roma theatre she travels around the villages and meets people from all corners of the country. She believes people living in the settlements miss out on social relations and have no real chance to get out of the situation they live in.

Žaneta Štipáková (Source: Courtesy of Mecem)

DESPITE having spent her entire life in the urban environment, Žaneta Štipáková, a 27-year-old soloist of the Romathan theatre, is very familiar with the life of the rural Roma settlements. As an acress in a Roma theatre she travels around the villages and meets people from all corners of the country. She believes people living in the settlements miss out on social relations and have no real chance to get out of the situation they live in.

What kind of family did you grow up in?
ŽŠ:
I’m one of three children. I have a brother and a sister. Obviously, we all work, as do my mother and father. My brother is out of work at the moment but he worked for a long time.

How were you raised? Did they teach you that the only meaningful or the most important thing for a Roma woman is to marry and have children?
ŽŠ:
It wasn’t like that with our family. Our parents steered us towards education, that to educate yourself was the most important thing, to have a career, etc. And then, of course, to live our own lives.

What did you dream about as a young girl?
ŽŠ:
I always dreamed about being a singer. And that’s what I’ve become.

And in regard to your private life: What do you dream about or what did you dream about?
ŽŠ:
A career was for me the most important thing. To be successful in my work, so that people would know me and I would know people. With the passage of time and age I obviously dream about family, too. But I still think I have time.

Don’t you keep any customs typical for Roma, things you could say: this is ours and ours alone – we Roma?
ŽŠ:
No. We keep the kind of traditions that all families keep. Christmas, Easter... but nothing that would be considered exceptional.

So the one thing connecting you with the Roma community is the language?
ŽŠ:
Yes, that’s right. We commonly speak in Romani at home.

Do you consider this as normal or does it actually divide you from the majority society? What does using the Roma language mean to you?
ŽŠ:
It’s my mother tongue. To me personally this means that I know that I’m a Roma woman and I’ll never deny it. Although it is very restricted, marked by assimilation and our difficult history, it is astonishing that despite this fact, you can communicate with the Roma all over the world.

When did you fall in love for the first time?
ŽŠ:
The first time in my life was when I was nineteen. As a twenty-year-old I got married. But fate was against me: at twenty-three I was divorced.

How did your family accept your divorce?
ŽŠ:
My family supported me, because they all knew what kind of problems we had in our marriage. They didn’t want anything bad for me, but they didn’t actually talk to me very much about it. I had to decide for myself, of course.

What did you think about when you decided to get a divorce?
ŽŠ:
I thought about whether I wanted such a life. Or the kind of life my parents lived. The problem lay in the fact that my husband didn’t work. Everything was on me to run the whole household. I took care of everything. Finances, the household. And to this add arguments and mistrust. Simply put, everything possible to limit me in my perception of the world as well as work.

So you chose freedom at the price that you’d be living for some time alone?
ŽŠ:
Yes.

How do Roma men view this? You‘re young, successful, pretty. Are you still alone?
ŽŠ:
Well, not the sort of men I would want. Roma men at this age are all married and have their own families.

Would you like to have a partner who is a Rom or could he also be a non-Rom?
ŽŠ:
I would prefer he be a Rom, because we have a slightly different mentality.

What exactly is this difference?
ŽŠ:
We’re different in almost everything, but mainly in things relating to running a family and finances. The Roma, for instance, are used to, as it is said, squandering money. And with non-Roma I’ve experienced things like, “I don’t want this, because it’s too expensive“... Obviously, I asked why not? If I want something, then I’ll have it...

Does this mean that you’ve had experience with non-Roma men, too?
ŽŠ:
Not so far. But I have a lot of non-Roma friends and we obviously talk about these things, about life.

When you chose your partner, did your parents approve of him?
ŽŠ:
Yes. Obviously, they didn’t want me to marry so soon. I got married some nine months after we met. But I made the decision myself, and they respected it.

And when you later got divorced, what did they say?
ŽŠ:
They respected my decision.

Do you have non-Roma friends?
ŽŠ:
Yes.

How do they perceive you?
ŽŠ:
They perceive me as an equal. The same as if I were a non-Roma.

Do you go out together sometimes, have fun together?
ŽŠ:
Yes, of course. We go for coffee, talk things over, then we go home.

Do you talk about men?
ŽŠ:
Among other things.

About what, for example? How is a non-Roma woman’s perception of a man different than a Roma woman‘s?
ŽŠ:
I have no idea.

What does a non-Roma woman value differently than a Roma woman?
ŽŠ:
The heart, fidelity. That he is good. That he is capable of caring for a family.

Why don’t you want a non-Rom?
ŽŠ:
Because this is a bit different. To be friends – this would be fine. But if I had to live with someone, then no.

What do you think would be the biggest problem?
ŽŠ:
The biggest problem? I think the relationship of a Roma and a non-Roma family. Because in the same way that our family would have difficulty accepting a non-Rom, I assume that a non-Roma family would also have difficulty accepting a Roma woman into the family.

Do you think they would be ashamed of having a Roma woman in the family?
ŽŠ:
Typically, I would say yes.

What do you fear in regards to a non-Roma man? Are you afraid that he wouldn’t be able to communicate with your family?
ŽŠ:
Yes, this too. Because a Rom will act completely differently to a non-Rom.

What does this mean?
ŽŠ:
It means a Rom comes and he knows what he should do. As if we understood one another without a word; we know our customs and traditions. This is, for example, evident in how you address someone: Among the Roma we commonly say brother, sister… And a non-Roma no longer says brother or sister when he comes on a visit. We are friends; we know one another, but there are these small details which determine the border distance between us. It has a space, acknowledges a hierarchy.

The Roma don’t have a sense of hierarchy? All are brothers and sisters?
ŽŠ:
Something like that.

Do you think that the Roma have more privacy than the non-Roma?
ŽŠ:
No. I don’t think the Roma have privacy at all.

Even if you live in a city, in a small family, you don’t have privacy?
ŽŠ:
Not even then. Because we have a lot of acquaintances. Our house is always full.

What’s it like to be a Roma artist?
ŽŠ:
It gives a great deal to me. I couldn’t live without music in general. If I wasn’t a soloist in a theatre perhaps I would do some other work, maybe teach children, but I would find something where I would be able to sing.

If you were to have a daughter, what kind of future would you imagine for her?
ŽŠ:
I would like my children to be musicians. To follow in my footsteps.

So that they would be educated, successful and do something common for Roma – music. Do you think that your mother is pleased with what you’ve achieved in your life?
ŽŠ:
Yes, certainly. My parents are proud that I’m trying to develop my talent and that I’m continuing in my studies. It pleases them.

Do you see yourself as being from the Roma middle class?
ŽŠ:
Yes.

How do you imagine poverty?
ŽŠ:
I’ve experienced poverty, so I know what it is. I know what it’s like to have neither money nor bread. I know what it’s like to be unable to go into a shop because I’ve no money to buy anything. An image of poverty? That’s impossible to say. This is a madly humiliating feeling.

Do you think that the Roma in Slovakia are poor because they are Roma?
ŽŠ:
No.

So why are they so poor?
ŽŠ:
I assume that it’s necessary for a person to try to live better.

Does this mean that not many try?
ŽŠ:
You could say that.

Do you think that they have a chance to get out of the situation they are in?
ŽŠ:
It depends how you see it. So long as a person is living in a settlement, then I can imagine that they have no chance at all. This is the truth. If they lived like our family, then obviously, it can be done. They know people, they know the city...

So it then follows from this that urban Roma have a better chance to be successful in life than those from village settlements?
ŽŠ:
This is how I see it, yes. Because the majority of people from settlements don’t have social relations.

Does this mean that urban Roma have, in your opinion, a higher level of education or a better chance and thus better opportunity to be educated?
ŽŠ:
I assume so, yes. They have a better chance. It depends on the person, obviously. If they want to.

What does that mean – if they want to?
ŽŠ:
A person has to want to have a better education and do something with it. Not only to wait for everything to come by itself. And then, it needs to be said, that some don’t want to live better, or they are not willing to do something better to achieve this.

What kind of friends are the Roma?
ŽŠ:
Sincere? You can be friends with Roma. You can talk with them, understand them, laugh with them... It all depends on what a person is like inside. If someone has a heart, if someone knows how to understand this other person, then everything is fine. But this is perhaps general among all people.

You live and work in the Roma community and meet with them daily. Have you experienced any great life disappointment? Like when you said that you were disappointed in the Roma?
ŽŠ:
What do I know? For the most part I have more educated people around me. But those who really disappointed me can also be found.

How do you feel when you come to a settlement?
ŽŠ:
I don’t have a problem with this – to go to a settlement and talk with people.

I was thinking more about when you come, as a person from a city, having a certain standing, and see how these people live. How do you feel about this? What are you feeling at that time?
ŽŠ:
Sorrow.

Don’t they ask you for any advice; don’t they complain to you?
ŽŠ:
Of course, they complain. A person can’t at that moment say anything, because you have to put yourself in their position.

Do you think that these Roma (we’re speaking now about uneducated Roma living in Roma settlements) are capable of self-reflection?
ŽŠ:
I think so, yes.

Don’t they suffer from a feeling of self-pity?
ŽŠ:
I don’t think so. They’re proud enough. Even though they live as they live.

I’m thinking about self-reflection as the ability evaluate one’s possibilities and to connect to a society. I’m thinking of self-reflection more about whether people know how to evaluate, whether they’re not suffering from the feeling that everyone does them wrong, because they cannot be compared with another society...
ŽŠ:
This is what I’m actually talking about: that they sometimes don’t want someone to help them. They have their own reasoning and anyone can say to them: You need to live this way, do that, do this. But they have their own reasoning. This is it.

What does Roma culture provide you with?
ŽŠ:
I grew up in an environment where I heard music from an early life. So for me this is my whole life.

Did your mother sing to you in your crib?
ŽŠ:
Yes, mama actually led me to music. She is also a musician. She played the guitar and sang. My father sang, too. So it was natural that I was encouraged in this direction.

What do you think: Why are culture, music, singing and dancing so important for the Roma?
ŽŠ:
Because Roma feel these things and at the same time can learn them.

What do you mean when you say the Roma feel this?
ŽŠ:
Because it’s everything to them. When a Rom sings a sad song, the listener knows that the singer has suffered, that he or she feels genuine sorrow. When a Rom sings a čardáš, then obviously, he or she is merry. And everyone around is also merry.

So culture is a place of refuge where you can communicate?
ŽŠ:
Something like that.

So culture is like a confession?
ŽŠ:
Yes, this is true.

Are you a believer?
ŽŠ:
Yes, I am.

What does faith mean to you?
ŽŠ:
For me it’s like this: I believe in God, but I’m not a fanatic.

And what does God mean to you? What is it?
ŽŠ:
Contentment in life... affirmation.

Love?
ŽŠ:
That too.

Do you go to church?
ŽŠ:
Sometimes.

Do you think that faith is important for the Roma?
ŽŠ:
Yes.

Are the Roma believers?
ŽŠ:
I think that every Rom is a believer. Even if they don’t go to church every day. They look for help and support from God. When they feel bad, they speak to God and ask him for help. Certainly they are believers...

If you could, as a Roma woman from Slovakia, say something about the Roma to members of the European Parliament, what would it be? What don’t they know about the Roma?
ŽŠ:
The majority of people in the world think that the Roma are bad, that the Roma steal, the Roma do drugs and I don’t even know what else they do. Let them go among the Roma and not just repeat what they’ve heard. Let them try it out for themselves. And not for five minutes and for one photograph from a settlement. Let them spend an entire day there.

Do you think that the worst thing about resolving or with unresolved Roma problems is that myths about the Roma predominate and no one in reality actually knows them?
ŽŠ:
I think that it’s necessary to understand the Roma. And very few people really want to listen.

Aha. So we know the external form of a settlement, but we know nothing about its interior world?
ŽŠ:
Yes.

You worked on the euro campaign Romathan for the Roma. What interested you about the campaign?
ŽŠ:
What most interested me was that the Roma came to watch because Romathan came to visit.

They discovered you in the film “Cinka Panna“ (The Gypsy Virgin). What do you think about this film?
ŽŠ:
The subject was a good one. Only sometimes it seemed that they made it more erotic than it should be.

Do you think that in the period in which the film takes place that the Roma community wasn’t so overly erotic?
ŽŠ:
No.

And is it today?
ŽŠ:
No, also not today.

So again, this is only a myth that operates?
ŽŠ:
In regards to this, I don’t really understand why, for example, they put in these bedroom scenes... Indeed, what my grandmother and grandfather once told me was that they were ashamed to hold hands in public and even more so to show that they were sleeping together.

So do you have the feeling that the way the Roma community was portrayed that it was more harmful than helpful?
ŽŠ:
I think so, yes.

Do your Roma friends like this film? What do they say about it?
ŽŠ:
No. They are also outraged.

Did it make you angry that we have in Slovakia so many Roma actors and musicians and in the end no Roma actually appeared in the film? Or they only played secondary characters?
ŽŠ:
Yes, this made me angry, because there are a lot of actors and a lot of Roma who would have played these parts.

Does a Roma woman have a more difficult life than a non-Roma woman?
ŽŠ:
I think so, yes. Because a Roma woman has a lot of children around her and therefore, obviously, she has more cares. With the Roma, the majority of people have more children. Non-Roma have two, at most three children, and the Roma have five or six. And this means a lot of care.

Do you think that a non-Roma woman doesn‘t have such feelings towards children as a Roma woman has?
ŽŠ:
No, she doesn‘t. I have non-Roma friends and they for the most part spread themselves too thin. They are at work all day and the children are either in school or someone cares for them. They don’t have so much time for their children. But a Roma mother must always find this time.

Why then are non-Roma children more successful than Roma children, if their mother devotes 24 hours a day to them?
ŽŠ:
Because that’s how it is with the Roma – they are very indifferent to education.

Isn’t this about responsibility? That the non-Roma have fewer children, but they feel greater responsibility and despite the fact that it doesn’t seem so, the whole family shares in raising children. But while the Roma talk about the whole family raising children, for the most part, no one raises the children?
ŽŠ:
Yes, for the most part.

Older children raise the younger ones without sufficient experience then, obviously, they are unable to teach them...
ŽŠ:
Yes. Yes, that’s how it is.

Is there then some difference between the city and the village?
ŽŠ:
There is.

In what way?
ŽŠ:
Village children remain without the opportunity to see another life. They don’t have a chance to learn something different than what they see in a settlement.

Do you think that Roma-non-Roma relations have improved or worsened in recent years?
ŽŠ:
Certainly they have improved.

Do you think that the majority now has a greater interest in knowing the Roma than in the past? Or that it knows them better?
ŽŠ:
The majority has an interest in knowing them better. That is, there is a lot better knowledge about the Roma community than in the past.

What do you consider as your biggest work-related success?
ŽŠ:
Success is for me each song that I manage to sing well. When we prepare something, modify something with Mr. Karol Adam and when people like it.

And what do you consider as personally your greatest success?
ŽŠ:
This is difficult. Perhaps the fact that I’ve gotten where I am. This means that I have some education and that I can be at the same time successful in work. These two things are connected.

Wouldn’t you like to be a soloist somewhere else, in the National Theatre for instance? Is Romathan enough for you?
ŽŠ:
I have no great desire to be, no.

You don’t feel segregated?
ŽŠ:
No.

Interviews with Roma women are part of a project by the Roma Press Agency and will be published in a forthcoming book.

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