“Slavery may have ended 166 years ago, but I can still see the hatred today.”

A young Roma woman wrote a play about slavery to show her peers their history because if you hear your own story, you feel it.

Elisa Dinu is 20, lives in Valea Seacă, Bacău county, and is a community worker at E-Romnja, a feminist Roma NGO. After learning that the Roma were enslaved for nearly five centuries, she wrote a play in Romani imagining the lives of Roma women at that time. In one of the scenes, Elisa wrote a dialog between a mother and her daughter, scared of the enslaving boyars’ vassals coming to buy several women from the community. “Listen to me, my girl!” the mother says. “The Romanians came, they took all the girls and paid for them. They will come for you too. You must hide!” After this conversation, when the boyars’ men arrive in the community, the stage fills with screams. First, the girls: “Don’t kill the child! The child is innocent! May God punish you the way you punish us!” Then the boyars: “Where is my slave?! I paid for her!”

This essay is part of a project called The Way of the Land, a journalistic initiative documenting the impact of 500 years of Roma slavery on relationships between Romanians and Roma today.

I did learn a little about slavery in school, in the seventh or eighth grade, from our Romani language teacher who told us a thing or two about our ancestors, but not in so much detail.

A few hundred years ago, Roma women and girls were seen and treated as sex objects. Boyars bought them, enslaved them, and often raped them. They beat and humiliated them. They sold their children. But I only understood this was enslavement at 17, when I started working on a project by E-Romnja, where we held workshops for young adults and discussed community participation and involvement, sex education, women’s rights, slavery, the Holocaust, and intersectional feminism.

I was infuriated when I learned how much suffering there was in our past, but I turned that feeling into the power to fight. It gave me the strength to do more, to speak out, to cry out on the street when I have no choice, to work with the children in my village and tell them a different story about ourselves as Roma.

On a camp with E-Romnja I decided, together with other youths, to do a play in Romani about slavery and what life must have been like for women during that time. Some of my peers knew nothing about it. When they understood that our ancestors were bought and sold and worked without pay, it motivated them to get involved even more to make our history known and to make others understand the roots of the inequality and injustice that we Roma still face.

When we put on the play for the children in my village, it was as if we were all living that moment. We were there with our ancestors, with the Roma of the past – and we felt their strength as well as ours. When it was over, everyone in the audience was silent. Then they started weeping and applauding. We, too, were on the verge of tears, even while we were acting.

Photo from Elisa’s personal archive, from the play she performed together with the teenagers in Valea Seacă.

It makes a world of difference when Roma tell this story. When we write it, when we act it out, when we pass it on to children. It’s not enough to say it was hard and unfair, you have to feel it.

And you feel it if it’s your story, too.

When you start to understand, you can’t believe it. You think, how can people be so cruel? Women had it even worse during that time. They were seen only as sex objects to be bought and used at will. Eventually, you get used to the thought because you see the same treatment nowadays as well, just in a different form.

Back then we were called “gypsies”; “you’re ugly”, “you’re filthy”. Today, it’s the same. Slavery may have ended 166 years ago, but I can still see the hatred today.

We have our freedom, but it doesn’t weigh the same for all of us. You’re no longer shackled in chains and forced to work someone else’s land, but some of the people around still see you like that. Authorities, doctors, teachers, many of them still treat Roma badly. They still see us as inferior, less than human. It’s incredibly painful to feel this from a very young age, that you’re not seen as equal to your Romanian peers.

In our community, poorer Roma work as day laborers. If, for various reasons, they stop doing that, the people who pay them ask angrily, sneering: “Aren’t you coming back to work for me?”. Perhaps the man doesn’t want to or has other work but, because he is Roma, Romanians treat him as if he had no right to refuse. In a way, they still see themselves as masters. This is the legacy of slavery: a different form of slavery, because it is still exploitation and humiliation. They think we Roma should be grateful that they’re doing us a favor.

Non-Roma people don’t even bother to learn about us. We are the ones who try to make them see things differently, and each time they take offense. People are offended that we have a history.

I see the traces of this past clearer and clearer. We, girls, are stereotypically labeled as being curvy, black-eyed, red-lipped and great dancers. We are considered lustful; in other words, we must be craving sex just because of our ethnicity. Our body “demands” it; that’s the way others see it. Today, in schools, for school plays or other such events, teachers and classmates go directly to Roma girls and don’t even ask them whether they are good at dancing or whether they like to dance, they just cast them as dancers.

I see the traces of our past in my mother, who tells me she needs to wear clothes that are “more Romanian” when she goes into town. She calls plainer clothes „Romanian”. I always ask her why she would ever need to wear anything but the flowered clothes that make her happy. She doesn’t realize she has this fear of being judged, and a wish to blend in with Romanians when she leaves the village to avoid humiliation.

Activities organized by E-Romnja for the young girls in Valea Seacă.

I believe we must fight to change the present. To not let ourselves become part of a sad history like that of our ancestors, which I sometimes feel we are still living.

At the nursing school where I enrolled, the head teacher was telling us how we should treat patients in the hospital and she started listing them: “poor ones, uneducated ones, Roma”. I felt guilty for not having said from the outset that I was Roma, so I wouldn’t be in such a situation. Then, in biochemistry class, I told the teacher I was Roma and she patted my back and said: “Don’t worry, we’re all here for you. If there’s anything you don’t understand, I will explain it to you.” I was the only Roma person in the entire school and I felt as if my ethnicity was seen by the others as a disease. I am proud I didn’t give up then and that I had the power to make myself heard.

I am also proud when I interview women in our community and I ask how their lives have changed since E-Romnja managed to get electricity to people who hadn’t had it before. I am proud that, while I was once a shy and scared child, today I teach online classes for Roma teenagers and together we talk about healthy relationships within the Lache Phandimata project.

All my work with myself and our community is ultimately a cry: for non-Roma to understand they have the obligation to change the present and not repeat the mistakes of the past, and for us Roma to write our own history and together ensure that we all learn it correctly.

This essay was also published in print in DoR #46, as part of a series curated by Margareta (Magda) Matache, the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. Because healing the wounds of the past has to start with recognition and reconciliation.