On my way to work this morning, a kind gentleman held the door for me and without thinking I nodded and said, “najis tuke!”…

and then promptly turned a very bright shade of red and scuttled off into the coffee shop.

I haven’t slipped like that in a long time. Before I came to the US, I had stopped speaking Rromanes almost entirely. I had decided that perhaps my mother’s family were right and that it was better to keep a silent tongue than to speak “like a Gypsy”. They weren’t open about their heritage, though they understood the Rromanes I and my father’s family spoke.

It didn’t matter in the UK though – people knew you were Romani based on where you lived and your family name. They knew your cousins and your aunts and uncles and they knew, without doubt, that you were “one of them Gyppos”. All I know is that my grandfather’s family had settled in Latvia for a while, but were Polish Bergitka, even though they identified sometimes as Lotfitka.

Called “Lotvi” by a lot of people (though really, it’s Lotfitka/o)

The Nazis annihilated almost all of the Latvian Roma… there’s a famous story about the mayor of Sabile refusing to sign the papers to let the Nazis shoot the Roma there – so there’s a place in the forest where the grave was dug for them, and they were stood in front of it, but they never killed any of them. The mayor saved over 200 Romani that day and he is considered a great Baro Rom and his grandson is still considered that today. Sabile still is the “Romani town”.

There isn’t much on the history of the Romani in Latvia before the War. Some say we’re Carpathian, some say we’re Ruska or such. The language is similar to many other populations (including Slovak, Polish, and Russian Romani).

My Papo’s familija had already left when WWI came. It’s likely they fled the start of the Great Northern War in the late 1600s making their way to the UK. Pradada (great-grandparents) changed their name to the British “Cooper” and settled in the South, around the New Forest and married with the other Cooper families. I’m not sure how all that part happened since none of my family could write. It’s likely they took on a name that accurately described the Rom’s trade. They all mended or made wooden barrels for storage of liquor or food, as well as wagons, windows, doors, and other wooden items.

So, as far as I know I’m from two separate lineages – Servika (Slovak) and Bergitka (Polish via way of Latvia). My language is jumbled and I am hideously embarrassed to speak it to anyone – even though I’ve been working to standardize it to the East Slovak dialect, which more people seem to understand.

I don’t have many photos of my family, and those I do have were scanned online years ago now. I do know that my Papo’s familija had several vardos that they used, until they were forced to settle. We had the horse brasses hanging on our hallway wall.

I want to remember where I came from. I want to always speak the words my grandparents and parents gave to me. I want to remember my ancestors. I don’t want to hide because I am afraid I’m not “Romani enough” with my imperfect dialect and my light-skinned facade.

But, I want to keep my names alive.