My cousin Penhelli was always outspoken, loud, brash, tough. She’d punch a gadžo boy in the face soon as look at him. I was never that strong. I’d sit and brood, tears welling, after the gadže kids would call me a stinking gyppo, a dirty brown whore, or worse. I’d curl into a ball if anyone hit me or tore at my hair. Penhelli was my hero. Although a year younger than me, she’d wade into the mob, fists swinging, screaming obscenities learned from bitter uncles. “Dordi, you hinditti kuresa, marav te murdarel tut!” Her cries a mixture of dialects and languages and improper grammar.

A little over ten days ago someone hacked my blog and my personal computer. I immediately wanted to curl up and give up; tired of fighting the incessant hatred, I let the tears slowly trickle down my face, carrying all my hope and heart with them. I thought about Peni, then. How she’d have just started shouting at the computer, bashing it uselessly with her hands, spitting on it.

I wished I could have called her, but she took her long last lonely walk eighteen years ago, smashed to smithereens on the side of the road. I never understood – how the strongest of us died so soon, so violently, taken by drunk drivers, tuberculosis, alcoholism, suffocated by the ghosts of memory.

The people who hacked this blog and my personal computer obviously wanted me to stop talking about Romani rights – principally, I imagine the creation of a European Roma Institute (ERI). Well, unfortunately for them, it’s not going to stop me talking about anything, especially not the Institute. If not for myself, I owe it to Penhelli; to all the uncles, aunts, sisters and brothers, devoured by our own history.

A quick look at my Romani authors pages (here and here) reveals just how vast our literary canon is. I am also working on a Romani artists page (here), as well as adding a page with videos created for and by Romani (here) – both of which are in the very beginning stages of creation.

Although I fought hard to gain my master’s degree I have no academic publications to my name. I am not a well-known cultural leader. I’m not even involved or important. My sole argument for creation of the Romani Institute is that there is so much history, culture, literature, art that is unknown, unheard of, rotting in absentia. My family was not full of famous musicians, writers, artists, or even horse dealers. My family was poor, uneducated, and stereotypical. Yet, this blog runs solely on the memories we created together – the stories, the images, the life that we had. A cultural institute would embrace my history as part of a much larger history. My history, our history would become something more than a footnote in a textbook.

When I look at all the wonderful work that Romani writers, artists, musicians, and others have done it breaks my heart to realize that much of it is already fading away. Who outside of Romani culture has heard of Ceija Stojka, Dušan Marinkovic, or Helena Červeňáková-Laliková? What’s worse is that many Romani haven’t heard of them either.

Penhelli could never read. She had no desire to stay in school. She was absent more than she was present. Even when she was in school, she was always in trouble for being “disruptive”. Once she was hauled out of the classroom by two large, pale and doughy policemen, because she spat on our very ignorant and very racist teacher. But, Penhelli sat still for hours listening to Papu’s stories or Maami’s poems and songs. She was always the first to offer a hand and always the last one to quit. I often wonder how different her life would have been if our stories were easily available and written into a curriculum, if our songs were choices for the school choir, if our style of drawing as children was applauded too (when you consistently draw people with no arms, or consistently draw the devil (because so many of our stories had him present), teachers question your ability and your stability).

Romani culture isn’t one homogeneous group – it’s a broad collection of dialects, groups, knowledge, and history. Use of the word “Gypsy” has, for generation after generation swept us all under the same rug. The same argument is always presented (and always by the same people). As a well-known academic recently argued (in statements against the founding of the ERI):

“The group seemed to come from nowhere: They had no track record of local leadership, no experience in cultural management, and no academic publications to their names. But they claimed a connection to Romani ancestry…”

As we slowly crawl out from under hundreds of years of oppression, as we lift the tattered remnants of that rug from our eyes, we are met with disbelief and downright hatred. I too have no track record of anything. I have no leadership, no cultural management experience, and no academic publications. I too claim Romani ancestry (in the same way that a Japanese person lays claim to Japanese ancestry). Does this make my voice unworthy? Does this make my family’s struggles and heartaches less than those who have no need to claim their heritage? I don’t understand. I come from illiteracy; I come from poverty; I come from survivors of the Hungry Smoke. Yet, here I am fighting for things much bigger than myself. Here I am writing word after word and eagerly devouring every morsel of Romani literature I can find.

You can send me hate-filled emails. You can threaten me and hack my website, email, and computer. But, if you’re trying to get me to be quiet, then you’re going about it the wrong way. All you’re doing is making me a little less like me and a little more like Penhelli…

The ERI (te del o Del) will do great and necessary work and I will keep speaking about it and posting my stories and thoughts and memories. Our voices are important, perhaps now more than ever and the more we rise up, the more we’ll be pushed back down …

but the strongest trees are born with the weakest limbs. It is only through fighting the wind that they grow into great and sturdy forests.