The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)
A "Gajo" in the Romani Camp
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Information: This interview regarding the Rom culture is derived from several interviews we were fortunate enough to have with John Filcich. John was born in Croatia, and migrated with his family to Chicago when he was about eight years old. At the age of seventeen, he moved to Arizona, and has lived in the San Francisco Bay area and in Los Angeles. When we asked how and why he got so involved with the Rom community, John had quite a tale to tell.
"My first experience, one I'm not proud of, was when I was only six years old, living in Rijeka, but it could have been anywhere in Europe. I remember an aunt cautioning me not to go from her yard out into the street because 'The Gypsies will take you away'. There's a big message there that tells you something about what the people in various countries of Europe thought about the Roma. 'The Gypsies will take you away'. They didn't say the Germans or the Italians would take you away . . . 'the GYPSIES will take you away'. So, in Europe, that myth existed. The Roma today laugh at it . . . they say, "We've got so many children of our own, what do we want with yours?" Anyhow, that was my first encounter.
The second was when I was about ten years old, living in the outskirts of Gary, Indiana, where the Roma would pass through on Route 6 that connected with Route 66. They had a pattern of going from East to West every year. They were in automobiles but had tents that they'd pitch overnight. They'd usually stay a day or so in one field or another, and then disappear.
My next encounter was with another, more sedentary tribe that camped all summer in a field off of Route 66. They'd stay all summer and make wicker furniture . . . they had a huge truck and they'd drive as far as St. Joseph, Missouri to bring back willow sticks to use for making furniture. They'd sit all day in front of their tents making baskets and furniture, and then they'd line them up along the highway to sell. They'd stay three months out of the year, and over a period of years, I started to go to visit with them. They were, I know, Romanian Romani. I would just wander inside their tents and play with their kids and watch the mother cook food over an open fire outside, and eat with them. This went on until I was around thirteen years old . . . this would be in the mid-1930s.
My fourth encounter was in Arizona, where I spent the war years. I'd often walk up and down Congress Street where there was a Rom fortuneteller. Whenever I passed by, the woman beckoned me to come in. Finally, I did. She sat me down in a chair, took my hand and told me to put ten cents in my palm. When I did, she closed my palm and then told me I could take the money back. I don't remember the fortune that she read, but I do remember that she spoke in Serbian with her daughters that were there. So, I started talking with her in Serbian, which really surprised her. Serbian was their second tongue . . . Romanes was the first. They also learned Spanish and English. Anyhow, from that moment on, I was no longer just another customer. I found myself visiting them often, and just chatting with them in Serbian.
My fifth encounter occurred after I'd opened up my shop in Oakland, California. My first Rom customers were three women, who I like to believe were those same ladies from Tucson, Arizona. From the time that they first came into my shop to the present, there's been a continual stream of Romani encounters, forty-five years long. Many descendants of my first customers then came into my shop. They remembered that they came into my shop with their parents decades ago, and this is very special to them . . . it gives a feeling of continuity, and they are very faithful customers. I know that, for example, I served five generations of the Adams family in my store.
You can become good friends with the Roma, but never intimate 'friends'. No matter how good your relationship is, you cannot become a Rom. There are very rare cases where an American woman would marry a Rom, but to become truly accepted by the family, she would have to truly become a Rom in every way. She'd go into the family and be a part of the household and never leave.
I would like to think that I have treated the Roma with dignity and respect when they came into my store. In the 1950s, there were dozens of stores where you could buy folk dance music, my own included. I became the distributor for several stores wherein I would buy from them and sell to other companies. I also carried a few records that the Rom liked for dancing. Once, when I went out of town to sell to another store, I told the owner that these records were good for the Roma and that the Roma liked them. He said that he would not allow Roma in his store, didn't want them as customers, and would chase them out as soon as he saw them coming in. Can you imagine the indignity of that? A Romani family coming in and the owner chasing them out? When they came to me, I might offer an older person a chair and treat them as valued customers, which they are. It has proven to be an excellent financial arrangement for me . . . the Roma are excellent customers. And they told each other about my store, so that I and my store was well known throughout the Rom community, even amongst those that live outside of the United States. They have followed me wherever I've gone. They're very loyal.
I started in a room upstairs in Oakland, California and then I moved down the street where I bought the record shop. And I did a lot of Romani business there. Then I moved to San Francisco, California and they followed me there. They started coming from everywhere, from Oregon or other areas to sell. Whenever they came, they'd come to my store and what one bought, everyone would buy. They'd all want the same record! For a while, I had three stores and five employees, but the employees did not take to the Rom very well. Of course, the Roma are hard to take if you're not on their wavelength. But I tried to impress on them that I'm not just another 'gajo' (an uncomplimentary Rom word for 'outsider'), that I 'speak the language'. As a result, they tone down their behavior with me. If you're just another 'gajo', they'll give you a very hard time, acting like you're the enemy out to cheat them. Their attitude . . . they get into an adversarial posture and will barter with you for everything. I don't allow that . . . I set a fair price for everything and do not waver from it. If I did, for example, if I sold a record to one person at a discounted price, the next Rom that came in would know all about it and feel cheated if I did not sell it to him at the same discount. So, I didn't do that. They have the world's fastest telephone system. Though they are, for the most part, illiterate, they use the telephone chronically . . . they're forever on the telephone.
As you can see, I have had many years of dealing with and learning about the Rom. Through this time, I have learned to respect their culture and traditions, and to somewhat understand their ways, however curious thay may appear to the American public. As a cultural group, they have managed to retain their moral codes, their language, and much of their traditions under the most difficult of situations. It has been my privilege to share in many of their traditions, and to experience their generosity and loyalty over the years. I hope to share some bit of this understanding with you through this interview."
Used with permission of the authors.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, May 1995.
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