Celebrity rejected by Czech real estate agency because of Romani surname: "It was a shock"
Jan Cina is a popular 23-year-old actor in the Czech Republic. His father is Romani and that part of his family hails from eastern Slovakia.
Even though he has never had a problem with his Romani ethnicity before - especially because his appearance does not conform to stereotypical expectations of what Romani people look like - he recently encountered what many Romani people have to face all the time in the Czech Republic. When he was considering buying a residence, a real estate broker asked him, on the basis of his surname, whether he was Romani and added that the seller of the property might have a problem with that.
"I was terribly shocked. [...] It didn't hurt me personally, I don't feel as if anybody has attacked me, but it disappointed me unbelievably," Cina admits.
He decided not to tolerate the situation and wrote a complaint to the company's management. "In the complaint I explained what had happened, why it was unpleasant to me, and that it apparently is not an isolated incident," he adds.
Cina says he has been looking for a way to deal with his Romani origin since childhood. He first realized he is from a Romani family at about the age of six.
"Once when my paternal grandmother was babysitting me, she fixed me bread and margarine for supper. I didn't want to eat it. [...] I told her I didn't want it because they were black. Grandma mulled that over and later told my parents. They then explained to me who is Romani in our family and that I am half-Romani," he says.
Today Cina says his identity as a Romani person is important to him and he is doing his best to make it a plus. For that reason he is planning to visit where his Romani family comes from in eastern Slovakia to get to know more about his roots and be able to build on them.
Q: You recently were involved in an unpleasant situation. What happened?
A: My partner Péťa Vančura and I have been wanting to buy some land, a place in nature where we could spend some time. I began looking for one through a real estate agent, we looked at two properties, we were just seeing what's out there. Around when the quarantine began, a broker contacted me. He wrote me text messages and then called to ask whether I wouldn't want the real estate that I had expressed interest in by using their automatic e-mail. I got in touch with him the next day, we had a long telephone call in which I did my best to explain to him that I am more interested in the land than in the building on it. Towards the close of the conversation, he casually asked: "Wait a minute. Cina? Cina, Cina... You're Cina?" I'm accustomed to that because people sometimes recognize me, so I thought he was probably going to ask me whether I am an actor. I was inhaling and getting ready to say that yes, I am 'that' Cina. However, we had a bad phone connection, so I wasn't certain that was what he was asking. So to make sure, I asked whether he could repeat the question. "Well I asked if you're Cina and if that means you are Romani," he reiterated. What went through my mind at the time was that he was apparently asking because he might also be Romani and recognized a Romani surname, or that he liked it somehow. Perhaps he also knew somebody named Cina. I asked why he was interested. Then came the hard blow that I, idealistic, romantic Jan Cina, had not anticipated. He said: "Well, just so there wouldn't be any problems with the owner." That option had not occurred to me at all, so I just made a noise of surprise. He wanted to finish explaining himself, so he began to describe that some property owners are bothered by clients who are Romani, but that he himself has nothing against 'them'. He said he himself has Romani neighbors who are fine. I said to him that if the owner has a problem with Romani people, I am not interested in buying anything from him anymore, I have no interest in buying real estate under those conditions. So he began to backtrack, he was saying that the owner could be ok with it, but that it might bother the neighbors. He likely wanted to make it better by saying that, but on the contrary, he just lost me.
Q: What effect did this have on you?
A: I was terribly shocked. Really. It was beyond my capacity to imagine, because I live in a bubble where racism doesn't happen. My Péťa told me to call the broker back and to give him a piece of my mind, but it's not my style to behave so emotionally. I looked into whether what happened had been legal, and eventually I wrote a long, organized e-mail to the management of the real estate agency where I explained what had happened, why it was unpleasant for me, and that it apparently was not an isolated incident. I received an answer from the management that this was the failure of that individual broker and that they apologized. That was the end of it. However, it was terribly unpleasant for me. It didn't hurt me personally, I don't feel as if anybody has attacked me, but it disappointed me unbelievably.
Q: Was that the first time you had encountered that kind of rejection?
A: Over the fact that I'm Romani, I think so.
Q: Why do you think that is? Other Romani people encounter this more frequently.
A: Certainly it's because my ethnicity isn't visible. I do my best to say in interviews that I'm half-Romani, but it still doesn't occur to many people.
Q: You mentioned that this was your sole experience with rejection because you are Romani. Does that mean you've been rejected for other reasons?
A: About seven years ago. It wasn't such a tangible experience, but it basically hurt my feelings much more. Back then Péťa and I were looking for a place to live and we went to look at a villa in Břevnov. I'd just spoken with the broker by telephone and spoken of us in the plural, so it was clear we were a couple, but I didn't say what sex Péťa was. We arrived to look at the place together and I could see great horror and disappointment in the lady's eyes. Suddenly her approach was noticeably very curt, compared to the previous telephone calls. The reason was that we are both guys. She never said anything, but the way she looked at us, the change in her behavior, and the very fast tour of the property during which she essentially dissuaded us from taking it betrayed how she felt. If that were to happen today, I'd say something to her, or ask why she was afraid of us. Back then I noticed it, but I told myself to just act as if it wasn't happening. To this day I remember it, though, and it's a very unpleasant feeling.
Q: Does this kind of rejection affect other parts of your life?
A: Certainly, yes. I believe I have come to terms with my homosexuality, but at a seminar I've been attending for a couple of years I discovered a particular shame that is exactly associated with my homosexuality, among other things. It may even be thanks to that experience. One is just different from other people - neither better nor worse than others - and logically one is frequently subjected to different confontations with that. The fact that I did not speak up for myself back then builds up over time, I carry that fact around with me. It's still inserted in my memory.
Q: What kind of family do you come from?
A: Grandad and Grandma Cina are from Kurim in eastern Slovakia. They were both Romani and moved to Prague sometime in the 1950s. Granddad delivered coal and Grandma was a hommemaker. Mom is not a Romani woman, she is from Blatná in southwest Bohemia.
Q: Did the fact that your Dad is Romani play a role of some kind in your family?
A: Very much. Mom's family had a big problem with Dad when they started going out. I never got to ask my maternal grandmother about that, unfortunately, before she died, but based on what I know about her, what played a role was especially her fear of the reaction of her neighbors in their small town. They were afraid the neighbors would reflect badly on Mom. So she had to defend herself in her own family. However, it affected those relationships afterward as well. My maternal grandmother used the familiar form of address with everybody else in the family, but she and Dad always used formal address with each other, they were the only ones to do that. I think it was associated with that, to a certain degree. I recall going to dance class in childhood and the parents of the other children believed Dad was Arab. I always said no, he's Romani. It wasn't an issue for them after that.
Q: How did it occur to you that you are half-Romani? Were you always aware of it?
A: I recall how we first addressed this at home. I realized that Grandma and Grandpa Cina and Dad were black and Mom and I were not. I was about six. I was at my Grandma Cinová's home, she lived on a really disgusting housing estate in Hloubětín where there were a lot of terribly weird people, Roma and Czech, including drug addicts. The entrance to the building where Grandma lived was repulsive. From time to time there were things in the elevator that one would actually never want to run into. Inside Grandma's place it was nice, tidy, the entire family gathered there, but I didn't like going there because of the disarray outside. Once when my paternal grandmother was babysitting me, she fixed me bread and margarine for supper. I didn't want to eat it. On the one hand I didn't like the taste of the margaine, but also it suddenly seemed dirty to me. The entire place. I told her I didn't want it because they were black. Grandma mulled that over and later told my parents. They then explained to me who is Romani in our family and that I am half-Romani.
Q: Did you have a problem with that?
A: My family went over exactly that incident with Grandma and realized they had to begin to address this with me. I recall that back then, it was about 1994, there was a big concert at the Church of Saints Simon and Jude with Ida Kelarová, Iva Bittová, Věra Bílá and other women from all over the world. My parents went to that concert but they didn't take me and to this day it's an issue in our family because they regret that. They bought a cassette tape there, brought it home, and I grew up with it. I know all that music to this day, it was one of the most important albums of my life. Then they brought me to different concerts, including world music concerts. When I was a bit older, I began to notice Uncle Emil Cina, who was a great Romani figure. I greatly regret not managing to get to know him better before he passed. By the time I woke up and began perceiving myself to be Romani, he was already very ill.
Q: What relationship do you have with your Romani identity today?
A: Basically it rather calms me down. Suddenly I understand things in my own life more. They can just be little things. I have a friend who is a Romani man and who grew up in a children's home. He has long, curly hair, it's just different to the touch. It's Romani hair. It's good, strong hair. I have two kinds of hair myself. I have bristles that are curly and thick, mixed with fine hair that is, in my opinion, from the Czech side. I know that's bunk, though. A couple of years ago I was in Greece at a yoga gathering where there were people from all over the world and each of us said something about ourselves at the beginning. Because everybody was introducing themselves so nicely there, I suddenly found myself saying "My name is Jan Cina and I am half-Romani." At that moment it was important to me. It was the first time I felt that need.
Q: What does your Romani identity consist of?
A: I'm still looking for it. This summer it may finally work out, I will be visiting Kurim in Slovakia for the first time, which is where my family is from. I am hoping to find something out about myself there. However, to be sincere, I probably will not be able to say what it is. For me it greatly consists of, I guess, adaptability. I am very adaptable about where I live, with whom I spend my time and how. Romani people have always had to be rather adaptable. I feel that in myself, it's been handed down to me a great deal in some form.
Q: Did you ever have a problem identifying with this at some point? After all, according to opinion polls, the public has a problem with Romani people.
A: Probably not. I recall my Grandma and Grandpa Cina themselves would berate Romani people from around the neighborhood who were behaving stupidly. I always perceived that as more about individuals than about the group. That's how I see it to this day. I comprehend that people who are not Roma, or who have never come into normal contact with them, perceive them with bias. It's always unpleasant to run into somebody who's an idiot. If the idiot is Romani, you generalize from that to the entire group. It's the same with bankers, if you believe all of them are cheats, or if you think all taxi drivers certainly want to rip you off. I think this is a two-way street, though. Romani people also have prejudices about non-Roma. That is why I think both sides must take a step toward each other. Czechs will begin taking more of an interest in Romani people, giving them chances.
Q: Or leasing apartments to them.
A: Exactly. The Roma will do the same. It's logical. If you get burned once, you're afraid to get burned again. At the same time, this is about respect for the fact that each group does things differently. Their behavior and culture are a bit different. That seems odd to Czechs, and some things Czechs do make no sense to Roma. What is needed is the taking of steps toward mutual recognition. Maybe, in the beginning, this is just about trifles. Starting a conversation with a Romani man on the street because his daughter is wearing a nice backpack and I want to express my appreciation, stuff like that.
Q: You are currently undergoing a journey of self-discovery as far as your Romani identity goes. Is anybody else on that trip with you?
A: Not even. It's my thing. It's not an issue for Péťa, he is not as fascinated by it as I am. However, I would be very glad if in the summer we could all go to Kurim. I need to put the family together there, bring them together, for us to be there together. We are planning to go there together - including my uncles and their children. A Czech Gypsy expedition to Slovakia [laughs]. I certainly see Péťa there.
First published on the Hate Free Culture server.
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