“Omigod, the room is on fire!” was the first thing that went through my head when a tide of yelling men suddenly spilled from a cloud of smoke in the back of the room, pushing dangerously close to the stage. But no. No fire. The evening gown competition had begun. Looking proudly out over the throng of cheering, whistling Romany men, one young lady after another sachéd onto the stage in glittering, clinging dresses.
This was Miss Roma 2004.
Dzeno’s own Radio Rota personality, Iveta Demeterova, and Ladislav Goral, a Romany employee of the Government of the Czech Republic, hosted the most recent installment of this annual event. They looked spectacular. And I didn’t understand a word. Truthfully, though, I doubt anyone else did either. The spirit of festivity was so high that I could only have measured it in decibels. Particularly noticeable was what Jakub referred to as the “family meter.” That girl in red? Yes, it is quite clear: she has twenty-eight members in her extended family, most of who are dangling over the edge of mezzanine.
The audience could have been a scene from The Outsiders, with chain-smoking boys in leather or denim jackets lounging in packs on the sidelines. Girls wore mid-riff shirts emblazoned with “U.S.A.” and jeans painted on their Aphrodite bodies. Disrupting the scene were the man with the slate-grey mullet and the woman in the red sequin cocktail dress, both with cigarettes dangling at the same precarious angle from their lips.
To any Czech or Romanian or Albanian, and certainly to the small posse of club-bearing police officers lingering at the door, this was a typical “gypsy” event. But perception is everything. These families, so recognizable here, could have been anyone at home. Indians or Brazilians, Greeks or Bangladeshis. To me, this was not what so many Central and Eastern Europeans see as a teeming and untrustworthy underclass. This was simply another of those vibrant, boisterous cultures whose deep traditional roots would, back home, add yet another color to the layers of our thick American sandstone.
But in the Czech Republic, the Roma are a world apart. “Are you nervous?” someone asked me as I rode the tram out to the theater. “No,” I said surprised, “should I be?” “Well you’re non-Roma.” This statement sort of puzzled me. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should be the least concerned about my Euro-mutt, American heritage at this decidedly (I was soon to discover) Romany event.
Despite all the political correctness that goes along with human rights work, there is something of a chauvinism – or maybe more accurately, a cultural territorialism – that I’ve detected in my conversations here. This was reinforced at the pageant as one particularly attractive girl paraded into view. Someone leaned over to me and whispered “I hope she doesn’t win.” Why not? “She’s a Crossroads.” Huh? “Half-Roma.”
Half-Roma. Like Half-breed. She twirled her skirt over her bare feet as well as every other girl on the stage, but she couldn’t win, because in some views, she could never represent Prague’s Roma, or be a role-model for its thousands of Romany teens. This was the cultural territorialism of a people under siege, a people who Hitler tried to obliterate and Communism tried to assimilate, a people whose fierce loyalty to their identity is exactly what so many non-Roma find intolerable.
But then of course, there are the ones we don’t hear about. There are the few, yet uncountable, Romany men and women who succeed, who manage to stay out of the “special schools” where Roma children are warehoused till they drop out, who get both educated and employed, who make something out of their lives… and who do everything in their power to hide their heritage. Too often successful Roma find that pretending to be Greek, or Italian, or whatever, is the only way to make it in the still blindingly prejudiced world of post-Communist Europe.
But then also, there are the Miss Romas. Rosali Bocková is Miss Roma 2004, with a crown and a banner and a proud, cheering family to prove it. Unfortunately, though, for most of the city of Prague, she doesn’t really count, like a make-believe princess from a farce of a fairytale. She too is one of the ones we just won’t hear about. Crown and all, she too remains an Outsider.
Posted By Stacy Kosko (Czech Republic)
Posted Jun 25th, 2004