I was raised to code switch admirably, to play the part, to step out of one world and into the next seamlessly. It wasn’t a conscious decision on the part of my parents – it wasn’t even their decision at all. Baba Edita prided herself on her good English and her ability to pass. She knew all the ladies on her morning walk into town and would ask after Mrs. Robinson’s children, or Mrs. Williams’ husband. There were lots of other, similarly passing Romani on her walk too – the Bucklands, Fowlers, and the Coopers down on Hope House Lane – and they would stop and chat about the weather or hundreds of other beautifully British banalities.
Maami Babka, on the other hand, was stoic in her refusal to be anything other than a Gypsy. According to academic, literary, and political rhetoric, a restless wander, sixth-finger, loafer, stroller, con-man, charlatan, conjurer, wanderlust, mendicant, floater, rover, prostitute, flunkey, vagrant, peripatetic, itinerant, vagabond, fugitive, listless, indolent, nomad. An unproductive, socially undesirable, non-being who belonged to the strange spaces of abjection and the fourth world.
She clung to tradition like I clung to her skirts as a child. She’d light her cigarette, cast her eyes at her feet, and shuffle down the street, a poor and lonely old hawker. She held tight to the chords of our language, fastening them about herself and stopping up her mouth with their roundness. I knew she could speak English, but she refused and made me do her asking.
Although we had no country to call our own, it became clear the older (and more educated) I became that my family and my people were colonized. We had become subjects that were spoken for and spoken about. Marginalized, ghettoized, stigmatized. Baba Edita chose to become English … but, this idea of assimilation itself was already rotten and discriminatory. She was both subject and object, her crude gadžikanipen concealing the subtle violence inherent in the act of cultural suicide she had undertaken.
Maami Babka, on the other hand, chose to resist – a subaltern seamstress, sewing her children’s mouths shut – uncompromising in her belief that gadže were no good for Roma and that we should have as little contact with them and their their colonial trappings as possible.
“Pal amaro čirlatuno…” she would mutter, back turned as though we were already traitors. Every breath was rooted in tradition, every step, every creak of her old bones.
Decades of colonialism and the Holocaust tore apart long established Romani communities smothering our language and culture beneath layers of White ash. Romani ideas of home and history slept, tight in the arms of our language; a language that they plucked, rotten from our lips.
Maami Babka hid her language in the hem of her skirts; kept her words, round and polished like pebbles in the palms of her hands. Oppressed and discriminated against for generations, her family were devastated during the Holocaust. For Maami, this became a delineation – the time before and the time after; in between lay only silence. Hunted, murdered, raped, beaten, disenfranchised and displaced – what else did they have to hold on to but themselves?
For Baba Edita, the exact opposite was true – passing and assimilation became her safety. Spared from the ravages of World War II, her family needed to move silently, carefully beneath the turbulent waters of discrimination and hatred that were slaughtering their brothers and sisters throughout mainland Europe – so they gave themselves away. They handed over the round vowels and full-figures of their language, choking instead on the bitter tongue of their oppressors.
Now, we are left here – a generation of colonized, insecure, acculturated, marginalized in-betweeners who still listen rather than speak and try to pass for anything but ourselves. Our broken languages reflect our broken histories. Colonialism is still alive and well, building walls around the ghettos where we are forced to live and snatching our language from the mouths of our children.
We must not forget what we had – what our grandmother’s carried in their skirts and in the weather-worn palms of their hands. As I grow older, I speak less and the few remaining blossoms of my language are coiled, dying in my throat. I’m left to wonder which half of my family walked the right path… as I sit in the middle, neither here nor there, a not-Romani Romani with pebbles in her palms and bitter words in her mouth.