Who Am I in the World?

Until I was 25 years old, I was convinced that I’m just a label of my ethnicity and that my world was predestined to remain between 4 walls of dirty glass. Then I left.

By Rowena Marin
Photo by Sara Carabantes
Photos from the author’s personal archive
11 November 2021

This story is also available in Romanian and Romani.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this essay I will refer to myself by deliberately switching terms between “gypsy” and “Romani (Roma)’. The term “gypsy” has a double meaning outside the Roma communities, but my wish is to maintain the one I grew up with, that is only associated with the beautiful values that I got from my family: community, devotion, and love.

I look at my mother’s hand with so much love. I want to shrink her and stuff her in my soul, to heal her womanly wounds. My mom, a gypsy, now 72, was a fighter, she worked for a whole village of people, and she raised her own 4 children plus some cousins of mine. From the age of 22, when she got married, her life was a constant struggle.

I asked her last year: “Mom, when was the last time you were truly happy?” I never thought of asking her such a question until then. Happiness is not a common topic between the Romani women I’ve met. After a few superficial answers, she gave me the honest one: “the first year of marriage with your father, before the hardship begun”

I wish that she could see through my eyes, could flourish, could live what she couldn’t live because she chose to conform to a set of rules that weren’t hers, but never questioned. The rules in our community are tough for women. There isn’t any place for creativity, beauty, art, dreams, and self-discovery. There’s the house to clean, dishes to be done, relatives to please and later children to raise. Of course, not losing your virginity until marriage and then accepting whatever behavior your husband chooses to have towards you are basic rules that define us.  The whole value of a woman’s life begins with these two elements. But, besides these basic rules, there are lots of requirements, preconceived ideas and expectations, which lead to a preconceived destiny for Roma women.

At 25 years of age, my life’s trajectory was about to lead me in the same place where my mom is now. Or my dad, who died before reaching 50 years of age, because I don’t think I could have handled more. I was about to become a struggler in life, to be turned off as a woman, to become what others expected of me, and to live with a single purpose: my children to have a better life than mine.  And, in turn, they would be  expected to do the same thing as me. But I completely changed my life’s direction when I understood that I’m more than just my gypsy body. I then chose the difficult path of discovering the “more’. After eight years, I’m still searching, but now I am much closer to an answer.

It all began that year, 2013.

I had graduated from college and also got a master’s degree, which no one from my community of gipsies ever done before.  My community is called “gypsy silversmiths” due to the main occupation that man had in the past, working the silver.  In the past we were  spread out all over the country, but now the vast majority of us live in Bucharest. Me and my family are from Baia Mare, but we moved to the Capital in the early 90’s.  There was no reason for women to continue their education after the 8th grade; they were going to work alongside their husbands. For the longest time men, including my dad, made the jewelry and the women sold them, as my mom did. As of the turn of the century instead of selling handmade jewelry, families trade retail products bought from China. So not much has changed. All of my female cousins that are around my age have all abandoned their schooling.

At that point in time my education was the one thing that set me apart from them and the lifestyle I was originally destined to live. I had the liberty of following this “whim” of mine because I was daddy’s little girl, with him being a true philosopher in my community. Although he was a craftsman, you could find in our personal library authors like Goethe, Sartre and others.

Instead, I was selling on the streets, with my Mom, when it was necessary, as the other women did. I lived by the same rules and I had the same behavior within our community. I started a relationship when I was 19 and I was married(according to tradition) at 22. I was checking all the boxes. I was living with my mom because it was my duty to take care of her, my friends were my cousins, and my aspirations peaked at having children soon, a good car and maybe affording to visit a foreign country. Weekends were about cleaning the house and visiting our relatives. From time to time we were attending weddings, baptisms or wedding ceremonies, where women were always separated from men, with the dancefloor, which I didn’t set foot on,   being the only meeting point. Not because I don’t like dancing, but because I was always the one that ended up being the center of attention because I was tall, skinny and wearing the least amount of jewelry.

It was like I was from another world.

Jewelry, such as massive golden chains, seemed to me that it was showcasing a part of my ethnicity that I didn’t particularly like: the need to show off wealth and status. I came to this realization later in life, obviously, but I never felt represented by this style. Aside from selling on the street with my mom, I worked with my brother at a consulting firm and I liked to brag that I like to work a lot, because I thought it would impress my  people.  One morning I ran into my godfather’s daughter on the street and she asked me why I have such big dark circles under my eyes. “I work a lot”, I told her, satisfied.

 At 21 I tried to leave the country to go study in England for a year, but I backed out quickly. I realized this would mean that I was going to come back with a questionable reputation. Unmarried girls are closely monitored so that they don’t make a “mistake” before marriage. For example late nights were considered scandalous.  So you can imagine how studying abroad would have been scrutinized.

A „nice” aunt asked me once, as a joke: “What if someone rapes you out there, who would be willing to accept you anymore?”. When I travelled to England for a few days to see the campus my mind was set only on this question.  Raped? Me? I didn’t want to lose the relationship I was in; I was already “old” by other people’s standards. What if that relationship didn’t work, I would have to stay single for the rest of my life. At least that’s what I was told. I gave up on the idea and I settled for a university in Bucharest, because it was easier for others to accept. 

Regardless of how much education I had, in my mind I was a Romani who already got off track from my roots and I didn’t want to wander further off track, where, from my understanding, wasn’t safe. I was a good girl that followed the rules, did what was expected of her, didn’t cause any trouble, and didn’t ask much from life and from the people around her, a naïve child that was following a life pattern. My sister and my brothers loved and still love me  unconditionally, but, until I became me, the love of others was conditioned by following the prescribed path.

From time to time I had moments of rebellion, but I directed them at Romanians, especially when I felt discriminated against. The last time, in my high schools’ yard I heard a guy asking someone why they even allow gypsies in Sincai high school. There wasn’t any room for doubt. My skin was too dark for me to pass by as a  Romanian.

All my frustration came to surface and I yelled out the nastiest swearing that I was capable of. I was so determined to slap him, but my colleagues stopped me as he  hid inside the school. I knew that I was accepted because I worked so hard in primary school and I didn’t calm down until I poured all my anger out.

Back then I couldn’t give it a name, but discrimination of my ethnicity was a red line in my life that was too familiar to me. My first memory of it was from when I was six. I was on the Bucharest – Baia Mare train with my dad, we had tickets for the 1st class. There were a lot of times when we didn’t pay for the tickets and slept in the hallway, so I can acknowledge why the other passengers weren’t convinced that we had a ticket, so they looked at us with a lot of skepticism. We took our seats and at some point we heard a loud shout: “This train is not for crows”.  I was convinced that there were birds on the train.

“Cai sâle?”(Where are they?), I asked my dad, waiting for him to tell me that they entered through the windows. “Ame sam” (We’re the crows), he answered, with such a sad and dark smile that stuck with me until this day.

I learned to react to these racist moments, but back home I was obedient, docile, a dreamer and introverted. This is how I thought a girl should behave to be a female role-model among gypsies. But frustration from within me grew as I waited for someone to come and save me from my life.  In reality, I felt that no one was going to do so because I didn’t deserve it.

I truly doubted the necessity of my existence, given the fact that: I’m a gypsy (and Roma people didn’t seem to be vital parts of society), and I’m a woman (and women didn’t seem to be vital in my community). I used to tell myself that women didn’t seem to be absolutely necessary, unless they have kids or in case of an emergency situation. As I didn’t have children nor was I in an emergency situation, I was heavily questioning my meaning.

What happened when I was 25 and threw me in a totally different trajectory, was a tragedy.

I got a phone call on 3rd May at 5 o’clock in the morning from my cousin Ramona. It was as if I just got up after falling from a rooftop when I heard those damn words for the first time, so clearly spoken, that I leaped to my feet and started to shout with all my strength: he didn’t die, that can’t be true, you’re crazy.

One hour later I saw with my own eyes that she wasn’t crazy.

Giovani, my cousins’ boy that grew up right before my eyes, died from a car accident at the age of 19. Death was another red line in my life. I was somehow used to its presence, back from when I was a child, given the fact that my dad died when I was 10. But Giovani it was different. I found myself in him. So, when I first saw his breathless body, I was torn in two.

A part of me, gipsy Rowena, did what was necessary in that moment: I cried with my people, I cleaned; I set the table, shared food. Another part of me completely detached. In one of the three days of mourning, I haven’t moved a muscle away from Giovani. I looked at him, watched him closely, spoke to him, remembered all the dreams that we talked about when we were kids, I listened to the desperate cries, to his mom’s moans, his fathers’, his sisters’, our cousins’, uncles’, and aunts. He was dreaming of traveling the world with his car, to learn about the worlds’ nationalities and to provide for his mother.  On the day of the funeral I closely watched as they lowered him into the ground. I observed it really closely, as if I waited for the ground to befall over me as well.

Suddenly I understood the one thing that made me a gypsy and nothing more, living my life on someone else’s rules: fear.  The fear of understanding who I am, what I want, the fear of not being accepted by people that I love so much, besides whom I grew up with, the fear of growing up, the fear of loneliness. But, facing death, all these fears became so small that they were barely visible.

Shortly after, a cousin of mine told me that she saw the guy I was in a relationship with. “He’s using you, Rowena, he doesn’t love you”, she told me.  A man cheating or not loving you isn’t enough reason for break up in our community. She told me just so I can take care of myself. Men are allowed to cheat, to beat, to lie or to have any kind of vices: alcohol, gambling, drugs. In my case, finding out that he cheated on me was so insignificant compared to others that I usually used to completely ignore such news, even though I received them often.

From now on I had no reason to be afraid anymore. The voices inside my head that kept telling me that I will end up alone, that I deserve my faith, that I don’t deserve anyone better, that men are all the same, suddenly stopped.

I broke up with him that night. The next day, my extended family panicked.

Women’s “councils” were organized, to find out what happened. I didn’t even tell them the reason, because they would reject it without a second thought. For them, the real reason would be just a good opportunity to draw him back to me and prove to be a “smart woman who keeps her partner”. I told them that we’re taking a break.

I applied for a master’s degree in Madrid and a scholarship the same week. I got them both and five months later I was moving to Spain, for the first time alone, in a breathtaking city that I still love to this day. To be honest, our breakup was just a break, because the pressure laid on me was too intense. I left and I decided to maintain a long-distance relationship.

On the 14th of October I moved and on the 17th I started my classes at a French college that had a campus in Spain. The only Spanish I knew was the one I heard in soap-operas when I was a child. I didn’t know anybody and the only Romanian girl from that college, whom I contacted before arriving in Madrid, didn’t really want to meet me, let alone help me.

Even so, I managed. Right from the first week of school I started to discover a Rowena that I didn’t know before, a Rowena that I started to really like. I was courageous, proactive, the informal leader of my class on various administrative themes and not on a close call, keeping up with the class’s level. Sometimes, late at night, after I got home from my classes, I used to stop and think how no one raped me. Because I got this warning from an aunt that I respected, I used to really consider the possibility when I was alone on the streets at night. But not even this fear, that not long ago was paralyzing, couldn’t stand in my way.

Shortly after, I became a students’ association volunteer that was organizing a start-up weekend on campus. Although I studied for five years in college, I never once was a volunteer, because I started working in my second year and I spent my evenings helping mom at the market. I still remember the white page that said: “Do you want to help organize a massive event at the school? Join us today!”

 The reason I signed up was because it was written in blue and somehow reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before she found the rabbit hole.. I ended up being the leader of the organizing group. On the last morning of the event and after a Friday and Saturday that consisted in 16hour work days, while waiting for the bus, I felt such a huge joy in my soul that I just couldn’t stand still.

I found myself dancing in the bus station, alone at 7 AM. The bus driver started laughing and said to me “me alegraste la mañana, gracias”. I took a seat and finally realized that I’m on the right path.

This is how true happiness felt like, I told myself. Without a particular reason, even if I’m exhausted, I just know that I’m on the right path and this is why I’m happy. One of the women attending the event told me “your patience and your desire to win motivated me to come today”.  I was transforming from the docile child into a girl that could bring joy, motivation and value to other people.

I was starting to really like myself. Something very new to me

That winter I went to Asia because it was part of the master I enrolled in.  I was studying in various parts of the world to expose myself to different cultures. The first stop was Mumbai where, after the shock of the first days, I adapted to the environment and I seemed to be a local. I became friends with Shraddha, an Indian girl who studied in England, who had taken me and my colleagues under her wing and showed us around. Her mother wanted to show us a market in town, where she was about to test our negotiation abilities.

After twenty minutes of seeing me either deal with merchants and swapping life stories, some got bored and wanted us to leave. But I didn’t want to stop. As I was talking to the traders, I realized that I wasn’t just a gypsy anymore, although maybe I was more of a “gypsier” than ever. There, my ethnicity didn’t matter one bit. But I was enjoying putting to practice what I have learned among my people: negotiating, reading people, annoy them until we get to know each other so well that we would like each other, discovering the limits of people I was talking to and mine, as well, and to test them just enough so they wouldn’t sense it. I was enjoying the smell of that market, a combination of leathers, spices, cooked food and dust, the familia sound: fuss, market, and sales. I was so far away but I was home, but a home where I didn’t feel judged for whom I was. 

I was enough.

It didn’t take long until “who am I” came back to find me, even on a different continent. I was in Beijing, on Saint Nicholas day. For me, Saint Nicholas had a bigger meaning than Christmas; it was the name of my father and the day that I used to suffer the most when I was a child. If on Christmas day my folks managed to somehow provide so that we wouldn’t have any shortages, on Saint Nicolas we barely gathered food to put on the table.

That’s the reason why I shared on Facebook a  song called “Home”, as it was the first time I was away during that holiday.

That’s all it took. I received messages from aunts, uncles, cousins that barely abstained from cursing me saying that “I left my poor family, my old mother, the boy I was with to study, when actually I was in China”. And now how dare I share that song? “How can you be so shallow?” was the reply of one of my cousins whom I grew up with on that post.

From that day on I decided to distance myself from them with my heart and soul. I felt that I couldn’t be myself among them, and that I couldn’t be a gypsy in the world.

Even during my master’s degree didn’t say anything about my ethnicity, because I already had a label, being from Romania. My colleague from Bulgaria told me that he overheard some colleagues taking about this: “Until they got to know you they were a bit cautious around you, given the fact that you’re from Romania and your country’s reputation around here”. I didn’t know. That reputation is far from good.

I didn’t have any advantageous labels: gypsy, Romanian, or a woman. So I decided to be myself and nothing more. But it took some years for me to realize all the component parts of this “me”.

At the event I coordinated at college I met the founder of a start-up that gave me a job in her marketing team. For two years spent there I learnt all the things I know now, I launched a new market, I managed a team, and I became a successful woman with a career to look forward to. My salary was high enough to cover my rent, to live a decent life and to send some money home. Money that allowed for my Mom  to finally retire from selling in a flea market at the age of 65.

I was really proud of myself, and the days and nights in Madrid were magically easy to live. It was as if I was living in a fairytale, with a large smile on my face all the time. Not because everything was going great; before I got a job there were days in which I was hungry and I had to survive on a maximum of 7-10 euros a day, but because I didn’t feel the pressure of my ethnicity. I felt like I was growing wings, but I knew that they would be cut as soon as I got home. Once you experience flying, you don’t want to crawl anymore. But, regardless of how important it was for me to fly and how brave I became, it was something there that kept me up at night. I didn’t want to disappoint to the point of no return.

On one of the cold March nights, Anca, a former college classmate of mine, one of my best friends and the one that inspired me to discover the world when she left for France to study, a few years before me, gave me a call. Even Anca was advised by her mother to be prudent around me because I am a gypsy. But Anca knew better and she ignored her mother’s advice. I was in the kitchen of my apartment in which I lived along with four other girls, an apartment so small that I didn’t even have room for a wardrobe in my bedroom.  I went to my bedroom and we talked for more than an hour, as usual. Among other things, she asked me: “Rowi, are you happy there?” “I’m happy anywhere, just not at home”, I told her.

The second day she recommended me for a job at Axa, in Paris, and shortly after, I passed every interview. I called the boy I was with and gave him the news. He told me to come back home. He was right. “How much longer could I maintain this running away?”, I told Anca once. I don’t remember if she answered my question. I didn’t know from what I was running, I only knew that I didn’t want to go back to who I was before, at a life of hardship where every day feels like late November. I had become a woman who I respected and whom I didn’t want to disappoint.  “Which way, which way”, Alice used to ask in the story at one point. I was stuck on that exact point. Should I disappoint myself or my family?

I started my next week with this question in mind. It was Monday morning and I came from work with this feeling of “what now?” I was in the kitchen preparing myself a coffee when the phone rang.

“Rowi, can you talk?”

It was Loredana, my older sister. I told her: “Yes, I just finished making a coffee, how are you, is everything OK”. “Yes, everything’s ok, but I have some big news for you. Sit down if you’re standing.”

She didn’t have to say a word. She wanted it for so many years and it finally happened: she was pregnant. I spilled my coffee on my pants, but I didn’t care, I was happy all day. I was going to be an aunt. I already had three nephews, a girl and two boys, my brothers’ children, whom I adore. But if I were to continue my stay abroad, he was going to be my first nephew not to grow before my eyes. The way was beginning to show itself.

During that same week, the founder that hired me gathered all of us on a Friday, close to the end of the day, to make an announcement. This time I wasn’t holding a cup of coffee in my hand, which was good because maybe I would have thrown it all on her. The start-up was going to terminate its activity in a couple of weeks due to financial problems which she never told us about. The way home was starting to become even clearer.

During that year I started to run often. During the week I decided to go back home, I went for a run even before the Sun came up because I couldn’t sleep. My legs were jogging without me and I cried the whole time, until I stopped in a garden, a place where I had never been before.  Despite the fact that it was January, there were some roses that blossomed. Somehow, that idea of late bloomed roses and maybe the fact that I blew off steam by crying right before, made me smile. Something within me told me: “it’s going to be ok”. I really needed to know that.

And so, the black sheep returned home. Everything was the same: the same street, the same people, the same jokes, the same existential crisis, the same constant gossip and the same feeling of heaviness on my shoulders. I didn’t have a job that was waiting for me in Romania, so I decided to work with my brothers that had just opened up a consulting business. I was really proud of them, maybe the first and only gypsies that managed to do this sort of thing. But I wasn’t at all proud of myself.

I had the feeling that all my life I was a disappointment for the people around me, but now I have become a disappointment to myself, because I discovered my potential which I threw in the trash. It was as if I got a sign that said “disposable trash” and I couldn’t hide it no matter what I did. I carried it everywhere with me. I didn’t share these feelings with anyone, because I felt like they wouldn’t understand; I was the only woman that I knew that went through what I did. To mom and my community I was “the wasteful daughter” that came back, so she was forgiven. In the eyes of my brothers and sister I was the same sister that received their love unconditionally, in Spain, Romania, or any other corner of the world I would have chosen.

In my eyes I was the embodiment of compromise.

For all of my childhood I had dreams that were hard to understand and take charge of at such a young age. I had such a dream during the week I returned home, one that I think I understood, but I was unable to do anything.

I dreamt that I was on a bike with mom and an aunt, an old gypsy lady I haven’t seen in years. The bike was hard to steer, I was barely keeping it on track when a hill that I had to climb appeared out of nowhere in front of me. I tried to steer but I felt hard and injured myself severely, while  my mom  and aunt just got up and continued. I woke up thinking: I know, I will fall at some point. But I am and I will stay the same person I was born, I need to climb my hill’.

Rowena and her mother, in 2020.

Shortly after, my godfather’s birthday came and his kids arranged a party. I went with my cousins and, as usual, we were sitting away from the men, we were joking, laughing, telling life stories. For the girls that wanted something more from life I was a role model, because I studied abroad, but I was “still a gypsy”, as they used to say, because I came back to mom, to my sister, because I forgave my man that cheated on me, I didn’t completely shake off the person I was before. Among the elders and conservative I had a questionable reputation. That night it was clear to me who thought what of me, because depending on that they addressed me with “Rowi” or “You”. I wasn’t bothered by this style of call; it doesn’t really have a hidden meaning, in general. But, that context was clearly a way of setting some kind of distance between me and them, the ones without a stained reputation. But the paralyzing fear of judgement that I had in the past wasn’t there anymore.

For the first time I acknowledged them for what they really were: women with admiration or with fear of the unknown. It was about them, not about me. My fear turned into compassion towards them. Approaching morning, when almost all the men were drunk, we all gathered because it was the last round of barbecue. This particular moment, in which a group of gypsy guys cook, is maybe the only one in which they show their love for their wives. They invite them to eat with such love and acceptance, as if they need approval. „Hai șeorale te han, că termenisardeam” (come and eat, girls, the food is ready), a cousin of mine proudly announces.

We all started eating (maybe 20 people, because we’re a lot of us when we gather) and one of my godfather’s boys, older than me, told a girl:” first you serve food for your husband, and then you eat, fatty”.  It was meant to be a joke; people were laughing, actually. But the girl stood up and went to her husband to place a steak on his plate, even though the pot was right next to him.

I stood up, smiling, and told my cousin: “But why didn’t you get up to serve him, if you’re so affected by it? Or maybe you’re just misogynistic? Can’t you see that she started eating? She’s also pregnant. Aren’t you at least a bit ashamed of who you are and what you represent”? It got very quiet. He didn’t respond. I sat down at my seat and the women (aunts and cousins) next to me started to lecture me quietly. All the men left the room we were in and we remained there alone.

I left shortly after and never returned home to my godfather, whom I really love. Such a revolt can have serious consequences, such as the fact that I was to be spoken ill of and even excluded from certain circles. From that moment I knew that I had become a topic of discussion, a bad example for young girls. I was very disappointed in myself, on many topics, but I was no longer afraid to say what I really believed. Moreover, I felt that now I really had a responsibility to say what I believed. I had gained self-knowledge and knowledge of the truth. I was furious at what I realized now that it was degrading behavior on the part of people I considered authority-figures, like my older cousins. And the responsibility I felt was for the girls who didn’t even realize this truth yet.

With new perspectives and a burning desire to manifest my new personality, I applied for a job at IBM, which I got. I met new people, I learned a lot, I made new friends, but this time I wasn’t talking about being a gypsy either. It was obvious, I wouldn’t have denied it for a second, but I wasn’t talking openly about my personal life. I was still living a double life, as I did before I left, only now I noticed that I was the same person in both worlds.

I became an ambitious woman, with clear beliefs and confident with her intellectual capacity, who didn’t need everyone’s approval any longer.  I walked away from most of my past friendships, I walked away from relatives that I considered to be toxic and I became a beast when it came to the discrimination of my ethnicity or gender. One time at a Christmas company party I happened to overhear a remark told by a colleague that I barely knew, regarding “filthy gypsies” who refuse to die, whereas other “good people” do.

I heard this exact same thing in the past from a colleague at another job. I kept my mouth shut, that time. But  now I couldn’t, so I heard myself saying: “Look me in the eyes and tell me that you want me to die, instead of someone better than me. I am gypsy, not necessarily a filthy one. My cousins are gypsies, my uncles are, and my aunts are. What do you have to say about that?

“What do you mean?”he answered, visibly shocked..

“I think you got the general idea: a gypsy just overheard what you have said”, I answered. There was a short exchange of lines, because we didn’t know each other well and I didn’t want to ruin my evening. But from that moment on he never looked me in the eyes when we met in the company hallway. I don’t think he’s a bad person, I just think he doesn’t know us at all, but thinks he does.

My nephew, my sister’s boy, was born with a health issue. After a whole year of hospitalization, my sister managed to receive a charitable fund-raising so that we can take him to Vienna for proper treatment. I went there with her and her husband for two weeks, as their personal translator. My new personality that I have built over the last couple of years came in handy when dealing with the incompetence of the people in that hospital. We returned without a particular solution: Patrick didn’t get any diagnosis and Patrick’s survival depended only on my sister’s mad perseverance and trust she has shown in Patrick’s inner power. 

After we came back from Vienna, followed a vacation in Greece that I planned for some time with my partner, the boy I was with all these years. I changed a lot; I wasn’t the same Rowena he met at 19 years ol. I changed so much that he barely even knew me. I chose to be a shadow of my true self when I was with him, to maintain the functionality of the relationship. The main things we had in common were our community and his family. 

After a hard week with Patrick from which I wasn’t able to detach, I talked to him a lot about how I felt about the whole situation. Our discussion somehow went towards how the moral support of a man is important in crisis situations. He disapproved, saying that a woman should be in charge of moral support and everything else. “A woman is truly a woman when she knows how to handle difficult situations and knows how to make them right”, he told me. “So then what’s the husband’s role?” I said.

The old Rowena would have kept her mouth shut and moved on. The new Rowena exposed her point of view until the end. That end was basically the end of our relationship.

What happened in that discussion wasn’t really a fight, but a display from my behalf, for myself, of what I truly thought and an acknowledgement of his real opinion regarding what a healthy relationship between a man and a woman should look like.

Being a gypsy woman is not easy. The models of behaviours that shape our understanding and expectations, both for women and men, were constructed for a world where gypsies were still slaves. There were 500 years of slavery in Romania, and despite that, not many young gypsies know. This part of the history was hidden from us until recently. But when I found out from an aunt that my great grandmother was a slave, I started understanding better what was happening. I believe that this was the root of our community’s mentality regarding women. That, on an unconscious level, we think that our life’s value depends on our ability to face hardships, we should always stay humble, docile, obedient, and suffer in silence not to upset our “master”. If not, the suffering can be beyond imagination. My aunts were Holocaust survivors; so I also that that consciouness running through my veins.

But I didn’t want to have a “master”, so six months later, at 29 years old, I was permanently leaving the country.

I applied for a job at Google, in Ireland, which I fortunately took. In the period in which I had to decide if I would accept the offer and move again, all the opposing forces re-entered the game to try and stop me.

Mom, who up to that point, seeing me suffering,  accepted that I should continue my path, was suddenly pressuring me to stay home. “You’re leaving again?” “What about me?” she told me. “Don’t go, sweetheart, put your life in order, you’re almost 30 years old, what are you going to do next?”

Every single one of my people lectured me because I broke up with my partner, because I was about to leave my mother alone at home and especially for not appreciating the things I have. “You have a car, you have a job, you have a partner, all of your family is here, what more do you want?”; “Why aren’t you grateful for what you have? It’s like you’re trying to upset God.”

I felt this last one deep into my soul. It made me highly doubt myself, because I have a special relationship with God. “Can I really upset him?” I used to wonder at night when I was in bed. It was extremely hard to handle all the pressure. But I didn’t give in. My soul felt the need for freedom of expression and for this reason I had to be far away. In the gypsy community there’s no such thing, and I wasn’t so crazy to ask permission for such a right. “She has gone completely mad”, they used to say about me. “God took away her sanity.” “She doesn’t know what she’s doing, she will regret it later.” “She will return full of sorrow, because she abandoned her family, her mother will die of loneliness and sadness because of her.”

I left for Ireland with these sorts of ideas in my head.

There, at the Google headquarters, 7000 people work for all the markets of Europe, Africa and Middle East. Therefore, I had colleagues from Norway, Finland, UK, Turkey, Russia, Moldova, France, Germany, Spain and even China, USA or India. After the shock of the first six months in which I was behaving like a poor kid who was taken to Disneyland, desperate not to be thrown out, I started to adapt.

A defining trait of us, the Roma people, is that we can adapt in every situation.  These adapting skills came in very handy in this particular situation.

I started to get to know my colleagues that were from all corners of the world. At lunchtime we gathered in the restaurants that were arranged for us inside the building, where food was free. From my colleagues, who lived as princes and princesses in their houses in which they had at least three servants, to the English and Spanish of high society, who studied at internationally prestigious colleges, to people like me, with extremely modest roots- there, at lunchtime, we were all equally happy.

Of course, maybe some of them lived in apartments that had bigger rents than their wages, because their parents were paying for them, and some of us lived with three or four other people in tiny apartments, but we all had similar concerns.

A relevant example would be my relationship with a colleague from Greece. She was the best of her class from the moment she started school to the moment she finished it with magna cum laude, at Oxford, England. When I first met her I couldn’t think that I could ever speak to her as a peer. In my slave rooted mind, she was superior. She was blonde, tall, and beautiful, with big blue eyes that intimidate both men and women.  Then I found out that her mom finished school at almost 50 years old, because when she was 18, her mom made her marry. So she tried to discover herself as a response to her mother’s inability to do so. This realization unified our perspectives.

At our very core, we’re all made from the same dough, regardless of where we’re coming from. And us, Roma people, most definitely are not superior or inferior to anyone. My self-discovery has brought me to this epiphany. At a conceptual level, I already knew that. I would have punched a hole in the neck of any Romanian that would tell me differently, but if I did it would have been because I didn’t really believe in the same ideology I was fighting for.

I had to leave home twice, to get to Babylon, to meet people with every label this world has to offer, to work at a diverse company just to convince myself that I’m equal to others.

It’s hard to believe so, when the blood of your ancestors’ feelings that used to be slaves on the estates of the church, nobles or rulership, runs through your veins.

Suddenly, once I convinced myself, I saw a world completely transformed. I’m not just a Roma anymore, or just a woman, or just Romanian. I don’t live simultaneously in two different worlds anymore. I’m not a label anymore, so I stopped carrying with me the duties that come along. I’m myself, Rowena, pleased with myself, discovering the world through the filter of my compassion towards everything that’s surrounding me and my desire to contribute to the well-being of everyone that’s around me, regardless of the label they’re wearing.

In the Christian religion, and others, it is said that all our feelings are routed into twoo basic emotions: fear and love. In fear, the human is captive; lives a hard life, with shortages, full of trouble. In love, although the living conditions might be similar, the human is free, open, sympathetic, and reasonable, and finds solutions: it is, as one could call it, lucky. I managed to leave fear behind because I allowed myself to understand who I am and what my soul really wants, because I stopped lying to myself that I’m fine.

Now I’m in a state of observing the world, of exploring the possibilities, in which the gypsy that lives within me, the woman that lives within me and the Romanian that lives within me, are all in my tool box. Only that now, I don’t allow anybody around me to dictate my decisions. I make my own decision depending on what I want and I use the necessary tools depending on the context, whenever I think it’s necessary.

This sort of life is lived at its fullest, with strength.

I wish for every Roma girl and woman to have the chance to live this way. A life lived at its fullest.

In this case, I would tell them: Your only purpose in this world should be your self-discovery. Who’s your true self? What are your passions? What brings you joy? What makes your heart sing? What makes you wake up with a smile on your face?

You don’t owe anything to anyone, not your mother, not your father, not to your family, not to your husband if you’re already married, not even to your kids if you already had kids. I know that this thought sounds extremely selfish and scary, but let me finish.

If you wake up with a soul full of joy, the whole world will light up. Your kids, your husband, your parents, along with the rest of the world, will be better because you are better.

Continuing to live up to their expectations will be the death of your soul, your death as a woman. When your soul dies you cannot make the world light up. All that you’ll be doing is to be like that aunt or that woman from you community who you know or hear about, which is obnoxious and whom nobody can stand and waits for her to die.

I’m sure you know someone like that. That is the destination of this path.

Leave it behind, no matter how naturally it comes to you to do what is expected of you, don’t do it.

Think about what you want to do and make steps towards that goal, even if it hurts. Sometimes, the right path doesn’t always feel like the natural and easy one. And if this means that you have to break the most serious rules, do it, as long as you stay true to your soul.

Listen to your soul with great consideration, don’t rush things, ask women who are engaged in such paths, and when you hear your heart telling the truth, go towards that truth.

After four years since I left home, my mom is doing really well, she lives with my sister and her boy, with a cousin and a nephew of mine – she’s not alone. The fact that I left has only served to make room for others in her life. She can’t visit me, because she’s claustrophobic and the only way that she could get to the US is by plane, but I go home often, to visit her, my brothers and sisters and some of my cousins with whom I still hold a very strong connection.

Rowena with her brothers, her mother, and one of her cousins, in 2019.

The rest of the community excluded me from the very beginning. I read in a psychological study that this is the worst thing you could do to a person, because it could have long-term consequences on the psyche. In my regards, I think that I’m ok, because the Marin family was always very united, which helped each and every one of us to land on their feet, even in the hardest times.  Now, I feel that I’m being accepted and even liked by a small part of the community, although it certainly feels weird for me. But no one writes to me anymore, besides from the few cousins whom I grew up with and that don’t judge me. The good part is that I don’t receive mean private messages when I post something online. It’s quiet, as it should be.

I got promoted twice over the last four years and my financial situation is a huge help for many people at home. Besides this I created an ONG and I proactively participate in charitable actions.

The fact that I left didn’t do anything besides helping me become a pillar for those around me and to have what it takes to extend the circle of people to whom I can offer support.

I’m married, but this time legitimately, my husband is a college professor, and the fact that I left helped me evolve so much that now I can be a conversation and life partner to a man whose purpose in life is to educate others. I continue to discover life free of the restraints of the gypsy woman label. Beyond this label, we’re souls that have the need to create, to explore, to confront life in their own ways, so that, at the end of the road, can say that life was worth living, not only for raising children, but because they were: creators, fighters, entrepreneurs, artists, actresses, anything they wished to be, the wives of incredible husbands and mothers. This is what I wished I’d been told at 15. This is what I wish someone had told my mother or Giovani’s mother at 15. Eight years after her boy died, her husband, my cousin, died too, and life has even less meaning for her now.

I wish for every girl to understand that she has not only the right, but the responsibility to choose for herself. This is the epiphany of my gypsy life.