Monthly Archives: May 2012

Who Decides Your Name?

A name is linked to identity….but who gets to decide your name?

“Look at that dirty gypsy!” the woman at the hospital said conspiratorially to K., my new friend.  All three women had recently had babies and were recovering in a hospital in southern Serbia.  The ‘gypsy’ had been handed clean clothes and told to shower daily, but she had not showered even once. 

K. looked at the woman angrily.  “How dare you call her a gypsy?  Call her Roma!” The woman looked  startled at her passionate vehemence.  “Do you want to know something?  I also am Roma.”

“You?” The woman said, shocked.  “But you don’t look Roma.”  After K. convinced her that she was indeed Roma, the woman apologized for her behavior.

“Some doctors and nurses still call us gypsies at the hospital,” said K. who is in her early 20s and a mother of two. “They are educated—you would think they would know better.”

I  took a sip of my Nescafe and settled myself comfortably into her couch, happy to have a chance to hear a young Roma woman’s perspective.  K. was educated, reaching the final year of tourism school before quitting to marry her now-husband.  “Tell me about your years in Bosnia,”  I said.   Her parents had felt called by God to be missionaries in Bosnia after the war. I allowed myself to be drawn into her stories about her childhood experiences, fascinated at the role her family had in serving the young church in Bosnia.

“Once we were visiting this village…and those people there were real gypsies.”

I almost choked on my coffee.

“Wait, why are you calling them gypsy?”

“Well, they were really dirty and the way they were living….” 

“But I thought that word was very offensive to you?”

“It is…but if people are really living like gypsies….”

“So it is okay for you to call them that but not non-Roma?”


“But…so…gypsy is referring to how a Roma lives and personal hygiene?”

She looked at me with a half-smile, shrugging her affirmation.

I left that conversation even more confused about Roma self-identity.  A month earlier, I had been in a Roma village in northern Serbia.  Each Roma village has a different aura and character, yet each has the similar feeling of separation between the majority culture neighborhood a few streets away.   As I was interviewing some people there,  I asked a question referring to them as “Roma.”

“We are not Roma,”  they declared. “We are Romanian (meaning from the country). We don’t speak gypsy…we speak Romanian!”

“Oh…” I said, weakly.  “So because you speak Romanian and not Romani, you are not Roma, but Romanian?”


Days later, I was back in Croatia, and I described the village and the people to  some Romanian friends and asked them what name they would call people from such a village.

“Tsigani [Gypsy],”  they said.

“But they call themselves Romanian…in fact, they speak Romanian!”  I said.

“They are not Romanian.  Are you sure they were speaking Romanian?”

In another village, a Roma pastor smiled as he told me, “My people say they are not Roma because they send their children to school and are not dirty.”  He laughed.  “Except sometimes, when they have to be Roma to accept certain governmental help….then they are Roma!”

My identity is so easy.  I am an American because I was born in America and grew up there.  But what is it like to have no country associated with your ethnic identity, and to have other people name you, or to slip in and out of your identity depending on how the other person might respond?  What is it like to have one of your  identifying names mean “dirty and  uneducated”?  A name has incredible power—every name has a host of implicit meanings for identity.  It does not really surprise me that there are so many ways Roma self-identify or others identify them.  Roma history is complicated, and there are numerous languages and dialects, cultural groupings and nuances—all combined with hundreds of years of marginalization and discrimination.

“Those people should be proud to be Roma, ” my friend K. told me as I related my confusion about the village in northern Serbia. “It takes a special person to be Roma….we have so many challenges and obstacles to face….not everyone could be Roma.”