Embracing the Roma Identity
An interview with Cristiana Grigore by Christie R. House
Cristiana Grigore is a visiting scholar of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in New York. As a Fulbright Scholar, she studied at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and earned a Master’s Degree in International Education Policies and Management, with a multidisciplinary approach that included both film and business studies. She is originally from Romania, part of a Roma family that has been assimilated into the mainstream society over the last few generations.
Christie R. House: Cristiana, I understand that you are of Roma descent, but that you didn’t really explore that aspect of your identity until you left Romania and came to the United States.
Cristiana Grigore: That’s true. I came to the United States for the first time six years ago for a summer exchange program. It was a very intense time—the first time I had traveled outside Romania—and there were many people from different cultures. People were very curious about where I was from. They are generally surprised to hear that I am from Romania because my features don’t look European. They would guess me to be Latin American, Arab, or Indian. But, while I was here in the United States, I talked for the first time about my ethnic identity. Clip 1
House: What was your life like in Romania?
Grigore: I had a pretty normal life growing up in a small city in the south. I found escape in books and television—especially Western movies. I was always very interested in school. With a lot of effort, I was able to keep my ethnic identity in the closet. I almost never invited my school friends home. My dad, who has darker skin and would be recognized as Roma, never came to my school. I was 19 when I moved to Bucharest for college. People there sometimes asked about my ethnicity, but I found ways to change the subject. I did not grow up in a Roma community. My friends were Romanian. Clip 2-3
House: Did your parents agree that you should keep your ethnicity a secret?
Grigore: Absolutely. It was a family mission to keep the Roma background hidden so that my brother and I would not be stigmatized. My parents and grandparents tried to protect us from the consequences of embracing Roma culture and publicly talking about our identity. I wouldn’t have been able to stay hidden that long without them.
When I was very young, my mom told me that we were Gypsies—but in a way that let me know the stigma and struggles associated with that identity. My ethnic identity was always part of my life, even if I suppressed it for a long time. When I came to the United States, though, and was in a different culture, it was time to look at who I was from a new perspective.
House: When did you decide to reveal your identity?
Grigore: It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened as the result of an incident. I talked about being Roma for the first time here, though it was a struggle to explore something that I had avoided for so many years. When I returned to Romania, it took me another year to talk about it there. After talking with my best friend, I cried for an hour. It has been a long process to redefine what this identity means for me. It was an effort, but it was worth it. I finally feel like myself—and I don’t have to hide. Clip 4
I had to get out of Romania and the European context to embrace my Roma identity. In the United States, I have been fortunate to experience the best of the American culture. That helped me to look at myself with different eyes.
House: How do your American friends react when they learn who you are?
Grigore: For Americans, really, it is not a big deal. Some who are more aware of the European context were amazed and asked, “How did you make it?” They know there are a lot of problems and issues for most Roma in Europe. They were impressed that I was a Fulbright Scholar.
In the United States, people are more exposed to multiculturalism. There is a long history here with African Americans and other minority groups that had to find and fight their way into mainstream society. I never experienced discrimination here. Just the opposite—people are very curious and associate this identity with more positive stereotypes. They see Gypsies as something beautiful, something creative and artistic, even something magic.
House: Would you say that the Roma are now a global community?
Grigore: Yes. Roma live in many parts of the world. It’s exciting to know that I am part of a widespread, resilient group. For me, being Roma means transcending my national identity and connecting with people across the world, Roma or not. I have a multicultural identity—Roma and Romanian—and I’m starting to grow an American heart. Clip 6
House: What kind of future do you see for the Roma people?
Grigore: I hope we move toward a more positive approach that focuses on solutions. There is a need to redefine what it means to be Roma and write a new narrative. Right now, the Roma are associated mainly with poverty, problems, and all sorts of clichés.
From inside, we need to find ways to overcome the stigma, but also the simplistic ways in which other people view us. And embracing an identity we can be proud of can be a great force in overcoming the obstacles we face.
We have a great opportunity to build on the fact that we have a multicultural identity—we live in Romania, in Hungary, in France, in the United States and many other places. That’s extremely relevant in the 21st century.
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine.
| Cristiana Grigore is an Areté Youth Foundation Fellowship recipient. To read more about her life and work, or to support her in her studies, visit http://aretefellowship.causevox.com/.
The Grigore family: Cristiana; Emil, her brother; Vica, her father; and Geta, her mother. Photo: Courtesy The Grigore Family
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