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Jana Horváthová: I was ashamed of my Roma origin for a long time

Brno, 19.7.2010 16:29, (ONA iDNES.cz)

Her grandfather was the first Romani person to earn a college degree in the former Czechoslovakia. Both she and her father are also college-educated. Even though Jana Horváthová has risen to become the director of the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno, she must often argue against the stereotype that Roma are ineducable.

When you were a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

As far as I can recall, I wanted to be an actress. It amused me to transform myself into various people, to put myself in their place. I even performed in the theater - some of my ancestors’ genes came out in me - but during puberty I started to feel terribly ashamed, and that was the end of that.

Did your parents support you in performing?

They discouraged me, rather - they are quite conservative. They didn’t want a comedienne in the family.

Jana Horváthová (43)
was born in Brno. After graduating high school, she graduated in 1990 from the Brno Philosophical Faculty in history and museum studies.
She briefly worked for the Roma Civic Initiative in Prague before co-founding the Museum of Roma Culture in Brno, where she has been director since 2003.
She has worked for Czech Television as an editor, literary adviser, moderator, and scriptwriter.
She has published several books, such as “Chapters from Roma History”, and many scholarly papers.
She is married and has two daughters, Erika (18) and Natálie (10).

You have ended up as a museum director, which is a serious profession. Did you study history to get back into their good graces?

Not at all - history was my second love, my father, who is a great lover of history, brought me to it. He took us to see all kinds of monuments when we were children. I wanted to study art history, but because the communists had “labeled” us [dissidents], I was concerned I would not be allowed into such a high-profile field, so I went into general history. Studying was a turning point in my life.

A turning point in what sense?

Until then I had felt pretty ashamed of my Roma origin.

What bothered you so much about your origin?

Ever since elementary school, and even at high school, I would get very depressed whenever people started to tell primitive jokes about Gypsies, I was horrified that someone might point to me and say I was one. I was ashamed to have a recognizably Romani surname. The Holomek family was made up solely of Roma who had integrated even before the war and had nothing to be ashamed of, but back then I didn’t know that. I didn’t want to be identified with people who were said to be backward, dirty.

Your older sister didn’t struggle with that?

No, because she is light-skinned. I was dark and I was always the only Romani girl in the class. I didn’t know why my eyes were slanted and dark, why my hair and skin were dark. Seriously, my appearance was pretty odd.

Today it’s not apparent at first glance that you are a Romani woman. Have you changed since your childhood?

Not drastically, but a young child wants to blend in rather than attract attention. Sometimes children I didn’t know would yell “Gypsy” at me.

Did you confide in your parents?

No, and to this day I don’t know why, a psychologist might be able to explain it, it’s probably hard for children to get a handle on their problems, to name them. The fact that we did not associate with other Roma played a big role, I had no other Romani children around to discuss it with. Nevertheless, our family was never ashamed of being Roma.

How did you come to terms with all of this?

I did everything I could to mask my origins, such as wearing very reserved clothing.

Such children usually become either sheepish or extremely willful. Which end of the spectrum did you belong to?

I was the model child. At school I was a nerd, I knew I had to know more than the other children and that I was not permitted to make any mistakes. That had to do with the fact that my father was a dissident.

Your teachers must have been glad. Were you a favorite with them?

I wouldn’t say so, but I didn’t cause problems. At school I was a model pupil, but then when I came home, I reacted by “berating” everyone, as my mother called it. I was just expressing my opinions, because I couldn’t do that at school.

Were you friends with other Roma?

I had no opportunity for that. When I was older and saw them on the street, I was ashamed in front of them because I didn’t know their world. They would call out to me - they recognized me as one of them.

Gwendolyn Albert, Eva Tichá, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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