Monday, January 17, 2011

Addendum: another body of research, advocating as a voice to 'Break the Spell'

Mardo Family: Steve (grandpa), Anne (grandma), David (uncle) & Judy (mom) -- Christmas, 1956.

I have always considered myself a better listener than speaker. Beginning as a small child, I enjoyed listening to stories -- real, personal stories in oral history form; rather than fairy-tales -- shared by my grandma. Because we visited three times per week for my first 15 years, I became quite competent in that listening skill as she exhibited a touch of 'undiagnosed' Alzheimer's in her later years. She would tell the same stories over and over and over to the point where I would often fill in the details of her own life experiences (to her amazement) whenever her memory lapsed for a moment mid-story:)

Little did I know that by refining that vital skill, I was preparing for a future as an advocacy writer; capturing 1st-hand, personal stories as my research to give causes voice.

While driving to meet a friend for tea yesterday, I realized that there is a fourth body of research on a subject and a subculture that also needs a voice. I see this new topic as another interconnected layer of depth that drills down to the core of the overarching theme -- oppression-empowerment-change to which I am so intrinsically drawn. That unifying theme is the reason that I can simultaneously work on four bodies of work and not burn out (well... that's the hope anyway;).

The model for change I am most broadly exploring is in Agents of Change; then digging a little deeper through a specific topic that crosses gender, race and cultural lines in Demystifying Depression; a little further still with a look at one sociological cause of depression in You, me & the Cold War; until finally reaching down to one subgroup effected in particular, the archetype of oppression, the Romani people, in:
Break the Spell 
Advocating the end to anti-Gypsy discrimination

While there have been many stories told to bring light to + end to the severe persecution of specific groups, others are almost completely untold. 'Gypsys' are an example are those openly persecuted for centuries; particularly during WWII. Under the Third Reich, the Romani were the object of annihilation in numbers that come in close second to those of Jewish lineage. However, those numbers are largely mere estimates as the Roma subculture has become another casualty of 'unsung genocide' (thanks to Aaron Fraser of Evolver Pgh for the poetic term). Showcasing the extent of their discrimination, no one cared to/bothered to even take note how many were actually eliminated in raids/camps/etc., preferring instead that they simply disappear without a trace.
It's easy to think, 'that was the past,' in our politically-correct society of tolerance, but the discrimination does indeed live on to this day. The most visible and easy to see physical embodiment the negative sentiments toward this group are those Romani dispersed throughout East European; gathered in shanty-camps/slums/ghettos on the outskirts of town where poverty runs rampant. Less visible but still widespread discrimination takes the form of prejudgment and suspicion, (either assumed or outwardly spoken) messages like 'Guard your wallet... there are gypsy pick-pocketers everywhere here.' -- a message I was specifically told often while in Siberia.
But [as my friend, Aaron, pointed out at tea yesterday], simple idioms that are prevalent in our society ('I've been gypped') are probably most culturally derogatory because they are used without much thought in context, yet subversively those little messages promote negative perceptions; ingraining damaging prejudices deep in the psyche.  
It's time for their stories to have a voice and to shed light on the anti-Gypsy discrimination that continues to hold Romani in a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement to this day. Change begins by telling those stories.
Inspiration to Join the Cause
There are only a few people who are telling their stories. Thankfully, those few just happen to be effective in creating awareness, because I have learned most about the issues through their work.

The first was a documentary I saw in 2006, When the Road Bends: tales of a Gypsy Caravan, that opened my eyes to the existence, history and prejudice of the culture. From their website:
“You cannot walk straight
when the road bends...”

- Romani proverb


"Shot by legendary cinematographer Albert Maysles, this dynamic musical documentary follows five Gypsy bands from four countries who unite for the Gypsy Caravan as they take their show around North America for a six-week tour, astounding every audience they meet. Their musical styles range from flamenco to brass band, Romanian violin to Indian folk. And with humor and soul in their voices, they celebrate the best in Gypsy culture and the diversity of the Romani people in an explosion of song and dance.

As the film follows the amazing performances and behind-the-scenes action from the tour created by World Music Institute, we discover the real lives of these musicians. We visit Macedonia, Romania, India and Spain, meet their families and see what music brings to their lives. The tales of these characters are woven between their performances — allowing us to understand and celebrate Romani culture and the prejudice of their shared ancestry."  
The second is the gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. I was first introduced to the band through a friend who (knowing my obsession with all things Russian/East European) had recommended I see the movie, Everything is Illuminated. Eugene Hütz (brainchild of Gogol Bordello) contributes to the soundtrack (I highly recommend it) as well as stars as Alexandre Perchov. The book on which the movie is derived is by Jonathan Safran Foer. As an aside, I just read the book this summer and thoroughly enjoyed as much as the movie... enough to blog about it:).

After collecting most of Gogol Bordello's albums and being inspired by the lyrics/themes, I discovered the documentary, Pied Piper of Hutzovina. It documents the "road trip through Eugene's home country, Ukraine... in his aim is to rediscover his roots... where he hopes to find musical inspiration from the gypsy culture he is determined to preserve... a portrait of a punk musician with a longing to revisit his past."

My blog article in review/response to the documentary summarizes its effect on foundation for this new endeavor... in a sense, it lead me down the path to join their cause. In fact, the namesake & inspiration for this body of research comes from the song, Break the Spell (listen via Grooveshark):

Break The Spell
by Gogol Bordello



Just because I come from Roma camp on the hill
They put me in a school for mentally ill
O-pa, opa deedeeda
All their lies about Roma

Just because I do refuse to take your pill

Any road I take leads to the Bastille
O-pa, opa deedeeda
And all their lies about Roma

You love our music but you hate our guts

And I know you still want me to ride the back of the bus
Yeah yeah yeah yeah
Opportunities for me is a red carpet to hell
But I'm a Roma wunderkind I'm gonna break the spell, 
break the spell...
(chorus)

Like a pro I pack your dance floor
But you want me to come in and exit through back door
O-pa, opa deedeeda
All their lies about Roma
(chorus)

We came from Rojastan
No family, just travelers... 
[note: there's more here, but I not able to decipher all of it]
One thing about them gypsys, they never bored nobody
(chorus)

You love our music but you hate our guts
We know all about you; you know nothing about us...
Break the spell, I'm gonna break the spell, 
You gotta break the spell... 
I have, in a way, picked up Eugene's call to action in that last line to join him to "break the spell." Where as other artists have given voice to the cause with their documentary films, poetry/lyrics or  musical performances (effectively taking the story throughout the world with song), my contribution is through capturing the stories to give them voice in advocacy writing.

As with the other ones, this body of research will first take the form of a blog with social media outlets to broadcast the stories, in the hopes of one day having enough interviews to compile a book, speak at lecture tours, etc.



My Connection
Parts of my genealogical past are shrouded in mystery in such a way that leads me to believe my heritage may have Roma roots. Therefore this subculture has recently become the object of my invested interests. Both my grandparents were 1st generation immigrants, but only grandma (born 1915) knew that her parents had emigrated from Lithuania. Grandpa (born 1913, the oldest of 9 children) never knew -- and/or never told anyone -- from where his family originated.

There was simply speculation as to his origin, which fluctuated frequently depending on when/who you asked: some said Hungarian, others Czechoslovakian, sometimes even Romanian came up as an explanation... I resigned that it was simpler to believe he was Russian -- a mortal faux paux to any East European, as I've recently discovered. In my early 20s, I resolved to study Russian because it was more universally understood throughout East Europe (thanks to decades of Soviet occupation) and because the materials to teach myself the language were more readily available -- props to Half Price Books for making it affordable, too! Within the last 2 years, I joined forces with my cousin, Rebekah, to continue the genealogical research on both of our grandparents.

While it continues to be a struggle to find any documentation at all, Rebekah did obtain a few records; namely a photocopy of grandpa's baptism certificate. With my basic familiarity of Slovak language roots, I was able to help translate some of the documents, particularly church ones in Orthodox Greek handwriting (with the help of a Serbian friend, too; many thanks, Snejana:). Finally, nearly 10 years after his passing, we had discovered that grandpa's parents were from present day Slovakia.

Specifically, the document referenced a town/territory (not sure which) called Sobrance, which as the eastern most region of the country, borders Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, with Romania not too far to the southeast. My brief investigation into the geography and history of that area reveals that before/during/after the Austro-Hungarian empire (1867-1918), that particular region changed hands frequently as the country's 'official boundaries' evolved to what we now know/define it as today. Thus, it is possible that each speculation at to grandpa's origin (including my own) could have been correct, in theory.

There are countless reasons why so many emigrated to the US around the turn of the 20th century. From my understanding as explained by my Russian friends when I visited Siberia + Moscow, it was/is common for people to completely & permanently break ties with family as well as culture when moving to the States. Most did it to seek opportunity (ie: obtain a piece of the American Dream), others to avoid imprisonment, others to flee from the increasing oppression of new totalitarian regimes and still others to escape persecution. Persecution has its own variety of sources -- beliefs, country of origin, lineage, class or any other point of visible difference -- that leads to contention and animosity. One group who have experienced extreme persecution during the 18 & 1900s are the Romani.

Because my great-grandparents left their former lives & family members behind in East Europe when coming to America to start fresh & anew, it is possible that the reason was because of such persecution. It's a bit of a stretch, but Rebekah and I suspect Roma influence because of the uniquely similar physical traits/markers that keep popping up unexpectedly (but consistently enough to not be simple coincidence) in our bloodlines -- black hair (either wavy/curly or shiny & straight) paired with olive skin tones. Rebekah and a few of her brothers have it, my younger brother has it and my mom says that her aunt (grandpa's sister) had it as well. (Note: I'm super jealous that hereditary combination skipped me, though I did get the wavy/curly hair, when it was my turn to pull the level of the 'genetic slot machine'... I think they are beautifully intriguing traits that are a bit exotic:)

Ways You Can Help
As with my other research endeavors, they are completely reliant upon the stories/experiences of others. As a writer of this form of advocacy, all the words or knowledge/skills to compose them essentially is for nothing without any tales to tell.


If this project resonates with you, please email me srexroth@hotmail.com to either:
1) discuss your expertise (especially historians, sociologists, language-speakers) and how we may partner to collaborate; or
2) tell your story and discuss how we can work together to share it, thus giving the greater cause a voice.


My Anthem for Advocacy
I'll leave you with the song that I've picked up as my career/life anthem for this transition (listen via Grooveshark).

Apparently, Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello gets me or perhaps there exists some sort of kinship -- the lyrics and music of so many of his songs deeply resonate with me.
Last One Goes The Hope
by Gogol Bordello

Invisible barbed wire all along
Around the neck of my song

Hey Romale, I'm beat up
But going strong



Unstoppable fire of my tongue
And the path ahead that's long
Will get me at the end where I belong


Chorus:
Cause I've seen ship of fools
Sinking in the dunes
As I dragged my coffin on the rope
Them all look down at me
But I got all the help I need
Cause the last one, last one goes the hope
Last one, last one goes the hope...

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