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Stories: Mirrors of Identity

Stories are pre-models of existence.

Stories reveal you.

Stories compel us to face our truths. The story is the mirror in which we look to see our truths.

Stories teach us to look in deeply.

The minute you see, the minute you can do. A story helps one see.

Whenever you’re telling somebody about a series of events, you are telling a story—no matter what the subject is or when the events occurred. Because of this, stories are of great value to human culture and are some of the oldest, most important parts of life. In his speech, “Why do we tell children stories?” Nigerian author Ben Okri says: “To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the storytellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts and who are irresponsible in the application of their art.”

Almost every other civilization tells stories to their kids and to each other. It is interesting to reflect on the conclusions that anthropologist Jean Kommers comes to in his book “Stolen Children? or Stolen Gypsies?” and that, unfortunately, are still valid as of today. He claims that “through the accumulation of negative stereotypes about them, children’s literature has robbed gypsies of the opportunity to be seen as respectable people by successive generations of adolescents.” It is significant to think that most of this “children’s literature” has been written by people that have not even met any Roma people in their lives. And what is more, this “literature” has not only shaped the vision that others might have about Roma communities but also the vision that Roma's have had about themselves.

As part of the Roma movement building, we need to challenge the kinds of stories that are told about us and refuse to be silenced. In many cases, Roma voices and experiences are not visible, and it is very rare to hear Roma people telling their own stories. One way to challenge this is to produce stories that put Roma experiences and perspectives front and center. The more Roma’s stories are told and shared, the more it will become the norm that our stories are important and valuable. For any group that is marginalized and whose stories are not heard or valued, storytelling is an effective way for people to empower themselves by sharing their own stories in place of the stories told about them.

With this in mind, our organization, Asociación Cultural por la Investigación y el Desarrollo Independiente del teatro profesional en Andalucía (or Aaiún Producciones) partnered with theatre companies from Hungary, Romania, and Italy for the Erasmus+ program in 2020. The project, entitled Roma Heroes in Streets of European Cities, was the second Erasmus+ project that our four organizations—Independent Theater Hungary, Giuvlipen, Rampa Prenestina, and us—have done together. We are all theatre companies with different approaches to our artistic work which made it an even more interesting and needed project.

Erasmus+ is a European Union (EU) program that supports education, training, youth, and sports in Europe. Erasmus+ gives us the opportunity to cooperate with organizations from different countries in the EU, and building this way connects our organization to others. Through this program, cultural organizations in Europe have the opportunity to internationalize our work and learn from other organizations.

In many cases, Roma voices and experiences are not visible, and it is very rare to hear Roma people telling their own stories.

It’s important to keep in mind that European countries do not have a common language, history, or culture which—in my opinion—offers the opportunity for a multitude of perspectives. However, this can also can be a burden to overcome. In the case of our Erasmus+ team, we come from countries that speak Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, and Spanish, but we use English as a common language. Many of the Roma youngsters we work with have little or no knowledge of English, which has brought back into focus the Romani language. Many of us no longer speak Romani because it has been systematically forbidden in the countries we come from and therefore it has practically disappeared. Language as a sign of identity but also as a means to communicate with other Romani people from other countries, is put forth as an issue that can become a relevant aspect in future projects.

The first Erasmus+ project that our consortium did took place from May 2019 to November 2020 and was called: (Roma) Heroes in Theater Education and Everyday Life. In Sevilla, Spain, our organization used storytelling and Story Circles to build the play Roots and Wings, a HUMAN library from the Poligono Sur. The process combined not only the production of a play but also the training of youth at a national and international level from the neighborhood of Poligono Sur, one of the most deprived areas in the south part of the city of Sevilla with a population of over 50,000 people and a per capita income of €5,329 per year.

These youngsters were trained to be cultural mediators in their community using the common methodology that we developed in this Erasmus+ program: the Roma Heroes methodology. Our organization has previously worked with true stories for our Theatre of Life and Experience project, which we spent seven years developing. Through that process, we gained valuable knowledge on working with real-life stories in adult education settings, and we applied that knowledge when we worked on our Story Circle methodology.

A Story Circle is exactly what it sounds like: a group of people gathered in a circle sharing stories. There is nothing particularly new about Story Circles. In fact, cultural anthropologists studying tribal societies have found story circles to be a foundational practice of communities all over the world. This activity uses storytelling as a process of empowerment in which participants’ voices and experiences are affirmed and they build community and solidarity. It is also an introduction to listening and documentation skills. This activity enables participants to experience the power of storytelling in amplifying voices and building connections among those often not heard. It can be adapted for any group whose stories are distorted, unheard, or unvalued.

For any group that is marginalized and whose stories are not heard or valued, storytelling is an effective way for people to empower themselves by sharing their own stories in place of the stories told about them.

As part of the process for creating the play Roots and Wings, the youth at Poligono Sur arranged Story Circles comprised of no more than ten people per group. A total of twelve Story Circles were done with the participation of over fifty people from the community. More than twenty-five hours of audio material was recorded. The youth then worked with the stories to create their own version of them that were performed in the play. Once the stories were ready, we called the story donors to an event where the young people retold the stories they’d heard in the previous Story Circles in the first person—as if it had happened to them—so the donors could validate them. It was an intimate act that was a crucial part of the project.

The whole process brought about not only remembrance but also firsthand knowledge on their own community and different approaches to the diverse approaches to the differing perspectives about events that had happened in the neighborhood. It was an excellent opportunity to get to know one another and to create long-lasting bonds between children and adults who otherwise might have never sat in the same room together.

COVID-19 highly impacted the Roots and Wings project, just as it did to the work of all our other partners. We realized that for the next Erasmus+ project, it was important to consider the possibility of bringing the performances and workshops to the streets of our city. That’s how we came up with the idea for storytelling walks. This project is taking place from June 2021 to February 2023 and not only will it be outdoors, but we will also be traveling along a planned trail. This can be done in many different ways, for example we could have a story walk leader that will take several people through a proposed route, where they can encounter small, theatrical representations or even embody the different proposed scenes.

In our case we are elaborating a play about the “Falah-mencos-stories”: the stories of Roma people and their relevant roles in the community of Sevilla. We will center the role of Roma communities going back to the times of the reconquest by the Catholic queen and king, the pragmática, and their interaction with the Arab and Jewish communities that were also being oppressed and how all of that is reflected in our current realities (linguistic, social situation, identity, etc.) We are putting special focus on the historical fact known as “the Great Raid”, one of the first attempts of genocide of the Roma community.

Listening to stories creates a shared experience. Storytelling is a powerful tool to strengthen communication in a community. It also allows us to build community and solidarity in our organizations and movements. As we hear each other’s experiences, we better understand how we can learn from and relate to one another in the fight for justice. By telling our stories, we affirm their importance and create more space for others to tell theirs. Using storytelling in a wise way, we can promote the approach to the Roma culture in a conciliatory and attractive way. We can promote cross-cutting objectives, such as the recognition of valuable intangible heritage that constitutes orality, a support in reading promotion and cultural education and an invitation to look at our society from another perspective. So let's take a look at ourselves in the mirror of our stories and let's share the stories in order to understand ourselves and others better.

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