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'American Gypsy': A Road From Siberia To Hollywood

Oksana Marafioti moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 15.
Courtesy FSG Books
Oksana Marafioti moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 15.

Oksana Marafioti spent her childhood touring the Soviet Union with the family band. She is a Gypsy — from an ethnic group dispersed throughout Europe and linked by a language called Roma, or Romani.

In their travels — from the deserts of Mongolia to the Siberian tundra — her family endured intense racism.

"In the USSR ... people would just ... spit on you or hit you as soon as you said you were a Gypsy," she tells NPR's John Donvan.

Marafioti says they were viewed as third-class citizens, associated with a long list of stereotypes: stealing, fortunetelling, dancing and begging.

"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," she says.

When she was 15, her family emigrated to the United States, and the move set off a whirlwind of change. Her parents divorced, and her father — among other pursuits — opened a psychic shop.

There are a million people of Roma heritage living in the United States. In her memoir, American Gypsy, Marafioti tells the story of her journey from the stages of Siberia to a magnet school in Hollywood.

Interview Highlights

On adjusting to American culture

"My first step, I thought, would be to learn the language. And so I just kind of dove in headfirst 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 So I had a pretty outdated vocabulary at that point."

On visiting a Los Angeles boutique called Gypsy Lair

"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 ... Gypsy witch or Gypsy dancer or Esmeralda on them.

"And the girl at the counter, she was a very young girl. ... And she, I think, was from the Valley. ... 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 ...

"It was funny to hear somebody comparing that to being an actual, real Gypsy. But, of course, my father was very, very upset."

On the word "gypsy" as an offensive term

"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 not very much bothered by the word, but more by the actions that might be behind the words.

"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. ... Sometimes, the conversation is over as soon as you say 'Gypsy.' "

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NPR Staff