'American Gypsy': A Road From Siberia To Hollywood Oksana Marafioti spent her childhood touring with her Roma family, a traveling Gypsy ensemble. At 15, life changed drastically when they moved to the U.S. In her memoir, American Gypsy, she recounts her journey from the stages of Siberia to a magnet school in Hollywood.
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'American Gypsy': A Road From Siberia To Hollywood

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'American Gypsy': A Road From Siberia To Hollywood

'American Gypsy': A Road From Siberia To Hollywood

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan, in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. Gypsy: It's a term that needs to be used with care, because it's often used inaccurately and sometimes as an insult, and not always in the knowledge that Gypsy actually describes an ethnic group that, in the U.S., has a million members living mostly with their differences out of view.

What differences? Well, a language, a history, traditions that go back centuries and centuries. The language is called Roma, or sometimes Romani, and that's what the people known as Gypsies call themselves. In Europe, they have come in for more than their share of bashing and stereotyping over the years, but they're not all fortunetellers and singers - although, as we're going to hear, some are.

As for life for Gypsies working out in America, well, if you are a part of that group, we want to hear your stories about that. An American Gypsy: What is unique about your life in this country? Our number is 800-989(ph). Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website: npr.org.

Later on in the program, it is "Shark Week" again, and how it all got started 25 years ago. But first, Oksana Marafioti is the author of "American Gypsy." It is her own story, the story of how she spent her childhood in the Soviet Union touring with her performing family, a famous Gypsy ensemble that was based in Moscow.

She then emigrated to the United States with her parents and her sister when she was 15 years old, and found herself navigating an entirely new life in Los Angeles, where her father made a living first as a musician - or at least trying to be one - and then performing exorcisms and conducting seances with the long-dead and the not-so-long-dead. Oksana now lives in Las Vegas, and she joins us today from the studios of Nevada Public Radio.

Oksana, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

OKSANA MARAFIOTI: Thank you, John. I'm glad to be here.

DONVAN: I have you tell you how much I enjoyed your book, as everybody in the office has heard me talking about for the last several days. It is a really, really well-woven tale filled with humor and stories of culture and nationality and identity, and there's a laugh about every five pages and some tears about every 15. It's spectacular.

You talk about a moment I want to go right to. When you were 16 years old, living in Los Angeles already, trying to figure out who you were as an American kid, your dad - who had divorced your mother and had married his mistress - was living in Los Angeles. And he had - after trying to work a while as a musician - had reverted to, let's say, perhaps a stereotype and was working as an exorcist and performing seances, where the clients knew that he was a Gypsy, which probably added to the spice for them.

And a woman came in who he believed and she believed was possessed by demons. She was haunted by memories of her husband. And he asks you to watch this. You're 16, standing in the corner, and you felt something happen. You felt a spirit enter the room. The woman began to fall to the floor and speak in tongues and to vomit, and you saw the candles flicker, and it seemed to have terrified you. And in the end, you turned, and you ran away. So, in the very big sense, in the very specific sense, what were you running away from?

MARAFIOTI: Something my grandfather warned so many people about. I completely agreed with him when he was very much against the - you know, falling back into the stereotype. It's not that I didn't believe what was going on. It was more that I was afraid that that was going to put us in this little cage again that I would not be able to get out of as a teenager. And because of my experience in the former Soviet Union, I definitely didn't want to go through that again.

DONVAN: So you - it's not that you were scared of ghosts. You were scared of the real world, it sounds like.

MARAFIOTI: I was, yes, very much so. I mean because it's - I know it sounds like strange, but to me it seems like reality is more unpredictable than anything else.

DONVAN: I mentioned at the open that there are a million people of Roma heritage living in the country. And before we go even further, I also mentioned this sensitivity about the word Gypsy. Now, you call your book "American Gypsy," but I'm not from your ethnic background. Do I get to say that, or does it sound a little bit problematic coming from my mouth?


MARAFIOTI: I think it depends on the people that you talk to. Some are very, very staunchly against others using that word. Others have absolutely no problem, and they understand that not everyone is aware. I probably fit in more into the latter group. I'm...

DONVAN: Well - no, go ahead. Sorry.

MARAFIOTI: I'm not very much bothered by the word, but more by the actions that might be behind the words.

DONVAN: Well, we're asking listeners who are also members of the Roma family to give us a call at 800-989-8255 and share your stories, as well as Oksana did so brilliantly in her book. And Oksana, you really started with life in the Soviet Union, where life for the Roma people has really been a mixed bag. Tell me a little bit about the status of life for your family back in the old country.

MARAFIOTI: I think what was different about the status of my family is that they were able to develop further than many Roma in that area were able to do. I mean, they were very well-recognized artists first. So when that was the case, you know, the heritage background kind of came in second, because the general public knew them as these talented performers first.

So, in that sense, I think we were a bit unique in our situation, because there were others who were not able to get to that stage.

DONVAN: And you had some money at the time, the family?

MARAFIOTI: We did, because - I mean, most of it was made through the performance and traveling. So that kind of made things easier, as well.

DONVAN: And what was the attitude of the larger culture to the Roma people in Russia?

MARAFIOTI: Well, this is kind of funny, because if you look at the Soviet Union historically, you will see that most famous Soviet writers from long ago, they had this really, really great relationship with the Roma culture. Many of them - you know, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky - they mention Gypsies or Romanis in their writing, and it's most of the time very positive.

But at the same time, it was almost kind of like an unspoken rule that Gypsies remain Gypsies. You know, you kind of know your place, and you're great where you are. Just don't try to be anything else.

DONVAN: And what would be the Russian stereotype of a Roma?

MARAFIOTI: Russians consider Roma very talented artists and musicians first and foremost. And so if you were trying to be something bigger than that, then you usually did not disclose your heritage.

DONVAN: And what was the negative side of the Russian stereotype?

MARAFIOTI: The negative - and I think some people will not think that this is negative - but the whole, you know, free-spirited, devil-may-care attitude.

DONVAN: Yeah. But what's the downside of that?

MARAFIOTI: Because that, I think, shows a person as being irresponsible, first and foremost. So if there are mistakes made by that person, it's attributed to that, you know, devil-may-care attitude, which might not be necessarily the case.

DONVAN: So you open with the book with a scene where you and your family are at the American consulate in Moscow trying to get your papers to come to the United States. And you're somewhat embarrassed by your father, it sounds like. He was saying - he was speaking very broadly in very bad English. And your mom - who is actually of Armenian extraction - was kind of holding things together.

So did you perceive a large cultural difference between your Armenian mother and your Roma father?

MARAFIOTI: Oh, definitely. My father is, to this day, you know, kind of larger-than-life and kind of a bit of an unpredictable and sometimes embarrassing person to be around, because he doesn't necessarily think sometimes before he says things, where my mom was brought up in a culture where you knew your manners, and you really thought about the words before you uttered them. I think that way, they balanced each other out pretty well.

DONVAN: Yeah. Well, I want to get to the point where you actually come to the United States, and you're 15, and suddenly you're poor and rather lost. But I also want to bring in some of our listeners into the conversation before we get to that. So I just want to go to Steven in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi, Steven. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.



STEVEN: My experience, I was - I never knew about our Gypsy heritage until after my grandfather died. We were estranged from him. He divorced my grandmother way before I was born. And when he died, someone said, you know, oh, you never knew he was a Gypsy. He was - you know, it was well-known in the family, but I guess my folks were ashamed of that. And growing up, you know...

DONVAN: Steven, did you connect to that shame? Did you - was their shame a mystery to you, or did you have some sort of...

STEVEN: Well, I never really thought much about it, but my - like my - I have dark skin, big eyes, and people would always ask me: What is your ethnicity? And I would say, oh, I really don't know. I think we're from England. And that would, you know, never satisfy people.

And then when I found out, the amazing thing is, they say, oh, now that I tell people what my ethnicity is, it kills the conversation. Nobody really wants to pursue it any further than that. You know, what are you? I say Gypsy. Because they're, like, oh.

MARAFIOTI: That sounds familiar.

DONVAN: Yeah, Oksana's just saying that sounds familiar. Go ahead, Oksana.

MARAFIOTI: Oh, I get that all the time. I mean, there was a period of time where I would not tell people about that part of my heritage. I would just stick to Armenian or Greek, you know, the safer ones. And after - once I started writing the book, I began to tell people openly and kind of watching the direction - how they would react. And it's just amazing. It was just like Steven says. Sometimes, the conversation is over as soon as you say Gypsy.

DONVAN: What do you think that's about? Do you think it's that they don't know what that means, or do you think they have a negative connotation?

MARAFIOTI: I think they're afraid. I think they do have a negative - many people do have a negative connotation, because those who know, they will continue and kind of ask questions, and, you know, they're not necessarily awed by the stereotype or anything. But they want to know more, because maybe they're heard a little bit.

But the ones who have heard the negative, they just don't want to go any further because they're afraid of what you're going to do, as a Gypsy.

DONVAN: So it's not just in the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union and in parts of Europe that the negative stereotype has a story to it. You're saying also here, in the United States, that people have their impressions of what a Gypsy's going to do.

MARAFIOTI: Yes, I have encountered it. It's just not to that - the level it was in the USSR, where people would just, you know, spit on you or hit you as soon as you said you were a Gypsy.

DONVAN: Well, we're talking with Oksana Marafioti. The book again is called "American Gypsy," and we're going to hear more from her and from you in a moment. If you are part of this group, an American Gypsy yourself, what's unique about your life in this country? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News; I'm John Donvan. In her book "American Gypsy," Oksana Marafioti describes her parents bringing her to the United States from the Soviet Union and her efforts - ultimately wildly successful - to become an American.

And Oksana, why the goal of becoming an American? And when you started out, did you have any idea what you were doing?

MARAFIOTI: No, not at all.


MARAFIOTI: I think I panicked, and I thought that that was the only way to take control of my life back into my hands, is to have some kind of a goal in life. My most earnest goal was to become part of this new society.

DONVAN: So how did you go about doing that? What did you think were the steps you needed to take?

MARAFIOTI: Well, now, remember how old I was: 15, 16. My first step I thought would be to learn the language. And so I just kind of dove in head-first into learning. I was memorizing pages from a dictionary every day. I was trying to read and listen to TV as often as possible. In fact, there was an instant where I approached my teacher in high school, asking her how I could learn, how could I speed up learning of the English language.

And she said, well, you know, you can start by reading romance novels. So actually, the first year or so of me learning English, it all came from romance novels - historical romance novels, at that. So I had a pretty outdated vocabulary at that point.


DONVAN: The incident we talked about earlier in the program, where your dad was performing this exorcism and you ran away - in part, you say, because what he was performing was not just an exorcism, but the role - the stereotypical role of the things Gypsies are said or imagined to do. And yet, at the same time, throughout the book, you refer repeatedly to a kind of a cult or spiritual or superstitious interaction between your family and a world beyond.

So how - you know, is it pure stereotype? Or is there, in the Romani culture, some core of these kinds of beliefs and actions that really is part of being an American Gypsy?

MARAFIOTI: Well, I think that most cultures have that, will find that in the core, that spirituality and the connection to the other world. It may be in religious terms, or it may be in just the spiritual terms that are not attached to a specific deity. But I think it's a common feature in most cultures. It's just when you're in the United States, you might not notice it as much because most people do not talk about, you know, things like that.

DONVAN: And would you say that Roma people in the United States are ducking, somewhat, that they're - they want to keep this stuff out of sight of everybody else?

MARAFIOTI: You know, I could not really give you an answer to that, because there's such a diversity with the Romani culture in the United States. There are people who are extremely - you know, very religious. Others are not at all. So I think the number one thing that most Romani that I've come across would like to bring across is that there is as much diversity among us as there is among all the other cultures in the world.

DONVAN: So there is no answer that fits everybody...

MARAFIOTI: No, not at all.

DONVAN: ...to any of these questions. You know, I note also you talk about the fact that your mother is Armenian, and you don't call the book "American Armenian." Why is that? Why did the Gypsy side have some much (unintelligible) for you?

MARAFIOTI: You know because learning so much about the American history, I've come to this, to the conclusion - and it was kind of a discovery that just kind of wowed me - is that the Americans, you know, the early Americans, the originals, were really like the American Gypsies. We kind of all are.

If you look at the word Gypsy in terms of not labeling a specific culture, but in terms of what it means socially, maybe, you know, what you know about the stereotype of a Gypsy as being that free-spirited individual who doesn't necessarily agree with what they're being taught, and are out there finding their own way.

And, like I said, reading about American history, I found that this is what the country was built on, these people who left everything behind to find their own truth. And they were not being afraid to do that.

DONVAN: And yet in the case of your culture or your parents' culture or your heritage, it turns into a cartoon so often. You talk in the book about a time when you and your dad went to visit - and you're in Los Angeles, and you went to a kind of a boutique that was - tell me about that place. Who was in there, and what were they claiming to sell?

MARAFIOTI: Well, the boutique was called Gypsy Lair, and as soon as my father...

DONVAN: Gypsy Lair?



MARAFIOTI: And as soon as my father saw that, he said, well, you know, if it says Gypsy, it's probably owned by Gypsies. Let's go see if it's someone we know. And we walked in, and we see, you know, a Bohemian store, basically, lots of Bohemian-themed clothes, many costumes that would say, you know, Gypsy witch or Gypsy dancer or Esmeralda on them.

DONVAN: Like Halloween costumes, basically.

MARAFIOTI: Halloween costumes, yes. And the girl at the counter, she was a very young girl. I think she was maybe 18 or something. And she, I think, was from the Valley, so she had that accent. And she talked about how she was a Gypsy because she was so free-spirited and she, you know, ran away from her conservative, I think, Republican parents, and she was living - she was belly-dancing.

So it was kind of funny to hear - to me, it was funny to hear somebody comparing that to being an actual, real Gypsy. But, of course, my father was very, very upset.

DONVAN: And yet for her, the stereotype was a positive one, but it was still a stereotype. Let's bring in - let's bring in Robert, who is in Sacramento. Hi, Robert. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBERT: Hey. How are you doing?

DONVAN: We're good.

ROBERT: Yeah, I just basically - I was talking about - I was over listening and heard, you know, the stereotyping and so forth. And it's very true. You know, I got my taste of that, oh, gosh, back when I was maybe 10, 12 years old, in Southern California. I used to play, you know, with my friends, neighbors and so forth, and I believe it was an Italian family or something like that, and they were from the East Coast, you know. And we used to play all the time. You know, he used to come over to my house, and I used to go there, to my neighbor's and stuff.

DONVAN: Hey Robert, before you go further, can you kind of identify yourself in - yeah, OK. So you are of Roma extraction, I take it?

ROBERT: Yes, I am.

DONVAN: Your parents from overseas, or were they born here, or what?

ROBERT: No, my parents were born here. So were my grandparents. They...

DONVAN: OK, so it goes way back. But you go way back as an American, then.

ROBERT: Oh, way back, yeah. I...

DONVAN: And yet this is still coming up. I want to hear this. Go ahead.

ROBERT: Yeah, my grandparents were - gosh, they came in from Ellis Island, oh, gosh, maybe over 100 years ago, you know. And we just - my family migrated to Southern California from the East Coast back in the '30s, I believe. And we've been here on the West Coast ever since. I was born and raised here in Southern California.

DONVAN: OK. So that's very interesting that the stereotype stuff keeps coming up, and that's the part of the story I want you to pick up now.

ROBERT: Yeah, yeah, it really does. Like I said, you know, I was growing up in Southern California as a child, you know, 10, 12 years old, and I used to play with, you know, with my neighbors, you know, with the children and so forth. And like I said, they used to, you know, come to my house, and we used to play, and I used to go to their house.

And then there was one day that I'll never forget, where the parents of my friend found out that I was a Gypsy, and I got kicked out of the house.

DONVAN: No, really?

ROBERT: Yeah, yeah. And that was my first taste of stereotype.


DONVAN: With any message? I mean, there's a clear message there, but with any explanation?

ROBERT: Oh, yeah. Oh, he's a Gypsy. I don't want him in my house. You know? So that's when I got my first taste of that kind of stuff, and it was - you know, it's sad, you know.

DONVAN: Yeah, it is.

ROBERT: You know, when you get stereotyped like that, you know, it's - you know, we're like everybody else. You've got some good people and some bad people, just like every other culture.

DONVAN: Oksana, I'm taking it that my surprise at this story is not shared by you, that this rings true.

MARAFIOTI: Well, let me tell you about this experience I just had last week during my book tour. I was in San Francisco, in Berkeley, doing a reading, you know, about the book and just talking about mostly my family history. And there was a couple in the audience who were from Romania, and they became very confrontational and just, you know, shouting things in the middle of me just talking about regular family things.

And one of the things that I'll never forget that was said, the wife, you know, she stood up, and she said: Well, do you know that Gypsies are genetically engineered to have children at nine years old, and then they all die at 15? And she said it in front of a roomful of audience.

It escalated to a point where the audience members were so aggravated at hearing all these things and so shocked, that the store manager had to escort them out, or there was going to be a physical confrontation between some of the audience members.

And there's a picture on my Facebook page that I posted from the book tour. One picture shows my face, the shock on my face. Somebody actually caught it, when I was listening to what this woman was saying to me. So it's shocking to me, too. It still is.

DONVAN: Wow, a little bigotry from the old country. Well, Robert, thanks very much for sharing your story with us. We really do appreciate it.

ROBERT: Thank you.

DONVAN: I want to bring in Patrick from Waynesboro, Virginia. Hi, Patrick. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

PATRICK: I've been listening to some of the conversation about stereotypes, and just to give you a little bit of background, I'm in Virginia, obviously. And my girlfriend and I have been embracing a lifestyle that's very, very similar to what Oksana would call the Gypsy lifestyle. And I just wanted to simply ask her: Is it something that's appropriate for us to call ourselves American Gypsies, or do most Gypsies take offense to that? Or is that something we can embrace?

MARAFIOTI: You know, that's actually a very good question that I was going to kind of talk about a little bit later on. But, yes. If you have - there is such a thing as a Gypsy lifestyle. You could be called a Gypsy, but that does not necessarily mean that you are Romani. There is a difference that most people don't know about, and there's actually a website called Gypsy Cool...

PATRICK: Gypsy Cool.

MARAFIOTI: ...that's dedicated - yeah. It's dedicated to people who live a kind of a, you know, almost a nomadic, a semi-nomadic lifestyle. And this includes people who love to RV. So, yeah, that would be very appropriate to call yourself American Gypsies because, in a sense of a lifestyle, that is what you are.

PATRICK: I thought it was remarkable what you said earlier about the types of people you have to be careful about saying this around and all the stories that the other callers have been mentioning about, you know, their hardships about mentioning that term in front of other people. And we find ourselves very careful about who we - who - or how we tell our story. And it comes off a lot of the times, people just assume that term and apply it as a stereotype. But, you know, I use it as a positive stereotype, I imagine. But, you know, something that your father probably wouldn't appreciate. But...

MARAFIOTI: Exactly, yeah.

PATRICK: ...our spiritual - since we've been everything. I've grown up in Catholicism and quickly diverted to Buddhism and Daoism. We've gone quite the many spiritual paths. But right now we found ourselves embracing what I believe your book might talk to, and I hope to pick it up and read. So I just wanted to make sure that, you know, in the right sorts of people, that was an appropriate term.

DONVAN: Patrick, it sounds like you got permission. Thanks very much for making the call. You know, I just was struck when Patrick was talking about being Roman Catholic in that the Roma people are - they're all kinds of religions, aren't there? I mean, there are...


DONVAN: ...Christians and there are Muslims. Give us, in one minute, the anthropology of the Roma people, where they came and where they went and when.

MARAFIOTI: Well, they started their journey from the region of Punjab, which is, I think, northern India - no, I think it's southern India, I'm sorry - probably around the 11th century. And they - before that journey was taking place, they were not a nomadic people. They were, you know, pretty settled.

But if you know anything about the Indian caste system, the Gypsies, or people who were - became to be known as Gypsies were the caste of musicians and performers. That's what they did for a living, which was one of the poorest castes within the system.

And some of them left because of the unrest, the political-social unrest in the area. And others were taken on as slaves, kind of in spurts. And the journey kind of went through Middle East and Africa.

And the reason why most people know Gypsies as Gypsies is because when they first arrived in Europe, some people assumed they came from Egypt. So that's where that term kind of took root. They arrived in Europe around the 14th century and just kind of spread out into the Americas from then.

DONVAN: We have an interesting email from Kelly, who writes: I wonder what you think - meaning you, Oksana - what you think about recent television shows about Gypsy life in America, specifically one called "American Gypsies," and one a few years old - older, the name of which escapes the person.

And there are a few others. There's a reality show, I think, coming down on National Geographic that, actually, some Romanis are talking about wanting to sue. And there's "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding." So, you know, what do these television programs do? Are they celebrating your heritage, or are they hijacking? What's your take on that?

MARAFIOTI: I think they would be fun programming to watch if you know the rest of the story. But I think it's dangerous if you're showing it to a population that knows so little about our culture, because it does put us in this small, little niche.

DONVAN: Can I interrupt you for one second to do...


DONVAN: ...a little piece of business? I just need to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And now you can resume. Thank you. Thanks.

MARAFIOTI: Thank you. I had a personal experience with the producers of "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding." That's the longest name. I don't know why they couldn't condense it somehow. But I actually flew out to L.A. to see the producers before the show came on television. They were still kind of toying with the idea of how they would present it to the American public.

As you know or, you know, you might know, it was very - the show was very popular in England and Britain. But they wanted to - they were thinking of different ways of tailoring it to the American public. And when I was talking to them, I was struck by the reaction of the producer, who was really looking for that stereotype, and he quite openly admitted that to me.

So when I was coming into the conversation, you know, with this pride in finishing college and having a university degree and being a classically trained pianist and doing this and that, he said, well, but do you ever get together and play music, you know? Do you ever have, like, weddings with huge dresses? And he admitted to me that, in Los Angeles, he was meeting more Romani people like me than the stereotype that he was looking for. And that should kind of tell you, hopefully give you the answer to that.

The shows that they - the way they present the shows are one-sided, for sure. For example, in the "Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding," they have a narrator that actually talks over the show. And the narrator, when he uses - when she uses phrases such as, you know, Gypsy girls love to stay home and clean house, that gives most people...

DONVAN: It really says that?

MARAFIOTI: Yes. You should listen.



MARAFIOTI: Oh, yes. You know, so if you know enough about the Gypsy community, it will make you laugh. It will be a fun, you know, entertaining show to watch. But if you don't and that is all you can base your knowledge on, now that's where it gets kind of tricky.

DONVAN: If you have kids someday, what's the message that you want them to get from this book that was so intensely about your family?

MARAFIOTI: I do have kids.

DONVAN: Oh, you do. Congratulations.

MARAFIOTI: Thank you.

DONVAN: That's a failure on my personal research.


DONVAN: Sorry.

MARAFIOTI: That's all right. I do - I want them to know everything that they are. I want them to be proud of all of the heritage that they have. In fact, I have an older kid and a much younger kid. And my oldest, when he goes in public and somebody might ask, you know, the heritage comes up in the conversation, he will start listing all the different nationalities that he is. I mean, I married an Italian - Irish-Italian. And he'll go down the list and say, I'm Italian, I'm Irish I'm Gypsy, I'm Armenian, I'm Greek. It's just - it's really funny.

DONVAN: Thank you so much. Oksana Marafioti is the author of "American Gypsy: A Memoir." And you can read an excerpt from her book at npr.org. She joined us from the studios of Nevada Public Radio in Las Vegas. Oksana, thanks so much.

MARAFIOTI: Thank you, John.

DONVAN: Coming up next: 25 years of "Shark Week." We're going to talk with the executive producer about how to keep it relevant. What's your most memorable "Shark Week" moment, past or present? Stay with us. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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