Czech-Romani actor Jan Cina: People should be judged by how they do what they do, not by labels
Jan Cina is an actor, moderator and singer from a Czech-Romani family. News server Romea.cz is interviewing him as part of its series on Romani identity, during which the concepts of "Romipen" (Romani identity) and "Czechipen" (Czech identity) have been developed.
Q: What does "Czechipen" mean for you, in what situations do you experience it?
A: "Czechipen" is a word I'm actually hearing here for absolutely the first time, but basically, in connection with my Romani origins, I really like this term. I like that it's a combination of that Romani word with "Czechness". What "Czechness" is, though - that's actually a difficult thing, I am only gradually coming to understand it. The strongest such moment of that I can recall was not that long ago - about seven or eight years ago I was visiting relatives in New York who are about 80 years old. We spent a beautiful evening together. About midway through the subject was raised of whether we would be willing to give our lives for our country. That question caught me absolutely unprepared. I had never asked myself that, I did not comprehend what it was they were asking me about. For those Americans it was terribly interesting that we had never even considered such a question, and for me it was interesting that it was an absolutely normal thing for them to consider. At the same time, the question arises how much that laying down one's life for one's country is real there, whether it isn't just propaganda or something they grow up with and consider a matter of course. Nevertheless, for me it was the first moment I had ever thought about something like that, and it was during a phase when one reflects about life anyway, it made a big impression on me. Ever since I have sometimes thought about what position I have on that question.
Another strong such moment was when I first head the "Vltava" symphonic poem from the "Má vlast" cycle performed live at the Rudolfinum in Prague. That was powerful, I felt patriotism then. That's also a word that sounds like it comes from the theater, or from the history of the Czech language, like a question you have to answer on your final exams, and one doesn't know what to imagine that it means. Somehow, though, I felt that way when I heard the "Vltava". Now, for example, more recently I have felt my Czechness in the fact that the republic is celebrating its 100th anniversary and basically I am moved by that and I feel proud. I also recently returned to Brighton, England, where I have been studying English, and one meets people from all over the world there. When I'm there I'm confronted rather with my European-ness, because you meet people from Asia, from South America - there this is about lifestyle, values, and it's very interesting.
Q: Do you recall any other situations where those words came alive for you?
A: I believe it is mainly good to say upfront that there is no pattern for how that feeling of "Czechness" or "patriotism" is supposed to be. For me it's good to say that in the beginning here, because otherwise I have the feeling that my notion of it is not grandiose enough, if there really is one way it's supposed to be. I recall, for example, that experience listening to the "Vltava" movement, there it was connected with emotions and music. I even cried, that was an emotional experience that moved me.
Q: What were those emotions about?
A: It's really difficult to say. In my case, it's very simple things - one feels light, you feel that everything fits with everything else and makes sense. Mainly, as a person, you feel sure of yourself. It gives me bravery, self-confidence, that kind of thing...
Q: What does Romipen mean for you, and in what situations have you experienced or lived it?
A: Basically I don't know what that is either and I'm also hearing it now for the first time. I believe it apparently exists somehow, but I personally don't know what it is, I'm not able to imagine what it means. I guess I don't know of any specific case where I might have encountered it. Our family was not a traditional one. I believe it's connected with "Czechipen", though. Both basically concern my parents. Mom comes from a small town in southwestern Bohemia. Dad comes from Prague and in the 1980s, when they met, their ethnicities were a big subject - I think it was more that way for my Mom's family, i.e., it was a bigger deal for the Czechs than for the Roma. It was a big problem, they had to fight for their relationship, and it was rather crazy. A long enough time has passed since 1980, when my parents experienced that, but despite that, people here keep experiencing this. When relationships develop across ethnic lines, then it's a problem for one side or the other.
Q: What are those problems about?
A: For me it was, for example, between the ages of seven and 10, when I first went to primary school and began to have to deal with the fact that Dad is a bit darker than Mom, which seemed interesting to me - and something about it also did not sit well with me. I spoke about it with my parents, and it was then that they told me that I am half-Romani. For me that was a curious moment, not an absolutely pleasant one. It seemed weird to me that I had not known about this for so long, and that it was somehow a marked case. At the same time, I also have the feeling that I am one of the luckiest people in the country. I never experienced bullying - on the contrary, I had a friend in my class who protected me if something was being planned. There were big reasons to bully me, because I was constantly making friends with the girls, I had a dark-skinned Dad, and I didn't play football, so I was an absolutely weird boy. I wore button-up shirts and went to arts school. Paradoxically, everybody accepted me and I have sailed through life well. I think it actually isn't that I never wanted to see the bad things, but if a person does his best to function normally, then everybody always appreciates that. However, maybe it's also about the kind of high school I went to.
What's funny is that Dad had three siblings and just one of them married a Romani woman, the others also married Czechs. We're all mixed together. That seems interesting to me and probably not customary as well. I don't know if it was some kind of family sport, but that's what happened, that's how those guys made that decision.
Q: Can Czechipen/Romipen be - or is it - something that aids our coexistence (and in which situations), or is it something that, on the contrary, will rather keep us from bridging the gap?
A: Well, what comes to mind is my last experience after coming home from Brighton, which was not about "Czechipen" and Romipen, but about sexual orientation. Brighton is famous as an LGBT city, it's open to many artists and festivals, all of that is alive there. In the evening my fellow students and I went out, and I proposed going to a gay club. We found out that in Brighton it just doesn't exist that a club would be just for girls, or just for guys, that it's all mixed together there. They just don't care about that at all there, they have a club for all and it's not even a question, which surprised me greatly, and basically I said to myself "This is ideal." Naturally I was just there 14 days, so its probably not all sunshine all the time, there will be problems there too, but, it does occur to me that the ideal solution is to get rid of all the labels. My other personal experience is that after the media "discovered" me, the most interesting thing about me for most journalists was that I have a boyfriend, and that I am half-Romani - and nothing else. Not one does, takes an interest in, has achieved or not, what one's dreams are. These labels are important and safe for us, we can grasp them. I comprehend why that is, I also like to have a name for things, I like having instructions for everything. It's good to know how to approach matters - but this is probably the main problem. It would be ideal to judge people by how they do what they do, how they live, not according to a label given them.
Q: If we were able to time-travel into the future and you were able to have your dream come true about how the comprehension of these terms might change, what direction would things move in? What would it look like?
A: I think it would be good if people were aware that these words exist, because I have the feeling that if there is a problem, something I want to solve, then first it's good to name it, to take a look at it, and only then can I do something about it. I can either work on getting rid of it, because it's unpleasant to me, or on the contrary I can figure out what to do with it. Everybody should be able to answer the question of what these words mean to them. For me, what's most similar to "Czechipen" is the word "patriotism", but that's also terribly wreathed in laurel, if you will. I would like everyone to have a nice kind of "Czechipen" in them, just a bit, and be able to work with it. I think that thanks to this, the negative things could disappear about "Czechipen" and "Romipen", the labels one drags around with one. It's probably good to begin with oneself, though. This can't be solved en masse. Mainly it's important to talk about it and have one's own personal experiences of it. Our imaginations are limitless, and our fears are great dictators who know how to create things for us to cling to. If a person experiences what it means to befriend somebody Romani and knows what it's basically like, all that we know how to do, and don't, then on that basis this can function responsibly.
Q: Is there something you would like to mention that I am not asking about?
A: I don't know what it's like on the Romani side, that seems like an interesting question. I have the feeling that the effort to change something comes more from the Czech side, but that may just be because I spend more time on the Czech side and don't see the Romani one. That's just a feeling I have and I don't know whether it's justified or not. Again, what is inconvenient is that there are two sides at all. It would be ideal if each side preserved something of its own, but if both knew how to mutually aid each other, to open up and accept the things that are not good about each other, not to be deterred by them, to want to communicate, to cooperate. That would be ideal.
I might also mention how this is reflected in my work. For Czech Television we are filming a series called "Lynch", inspired by the events that happened three years ago, when they beat up that Romani guy who then died in North Bohemia. The series addreses racism in Bohemia, in us. It takes place in a small town. I play the Romani man who was lynched, and it's really interesting for me, because even though I am close to this and half-Romani myself, on television my own Romaniness suddenly doesn't work. It has to be stylized somehow - coloring my hair, darker makeup, we've dealt with speaking in dialect, ethnolect. How to speak Czech with a Romani accent - I think it's the first time that something like this in Bohemia is being performed. Petr Václav makes films that are almost documentary-like works where Romani people play Romani characters. It's basically really interesting and I am terribly curious about the final product. I appreciate the fact that something like this is being created and it may move all of this forward a bit.
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