We were sitting on the steps of some hidden monument flanking the Danube, which celebrated a long-ago victory over the Ottomans. There were 8 of us there on the steps, 1 guitar, and no voices melodic enough to be enjoyable. We compensated by singing some traditional Romanian song in unison, reading the lyrics on little slips of paper our friends had printed up. The environment was relaxed, touching on boredom.
Then the four gypsy boys arrived. They were young, 10 years old maybe, but their presence made the air so tense it could have been cut with a knife. The Romanians pulled their bags a little closer. Nobody said anything, but nobody turned their backs to the boys either. There was a Uruguayan volunteer in the group, and she invited the boys to sing with us; it did little for the Romanian’s nerves. The first boy to receive a slip with lyrics glanced at the paper and handed it back. “I can’t read,” he said.
Romania’s whites and its biggest minority, the gypsies, co-exist in a racial tension that mirrors the 1930’s south. Gypsies, called the Roma by the politically correct, tend to have less money, less education, and a higher unemployment rate. They have a reputation for crime and theft. More often than not, they live apart from their ethnic Romanian countrymen, in separate communities that are tight knit and closed with their own customs, dress, and even language. Each ethnicity likes to keep the other at arm’s length.
The racial tensions, cultural differences, and poverty produce a spectrum of problems broad enough to be its own college major. All of the problems, of course, are inter-related. But where their ugly face cannot hide is in the education system. Huge numbers of gypsies barely go to school at all. A quick look at the numbers gives a sense of the story. From first to fourth grade, 13-16 percent of the Romanian student population is Roma. From fifth to eighth grade, it drops to 9-11 percent. By the time the class reaches high school, only 2 percent of the class is Roma. That’s an effective dropout rate of 85%.
These are statistics that make Los Angeles Unified look functional. The problem is far from a simple one, but the thickest of its roots leads to poverty. World Bank statistics list that nearly 70% of the declared Roma live under the poverty line, and 20% live off less than 2 dollars a day.
Constin, a native of Calafat who gave only his first name, came from one such poor family. The fifteen year old boy had only finished three years of school. By the time he was 12, he was accompanying his family to Spain every year to work as day laborers on the farms. “We can get more money there” he said. In Spain, Constin and his family members could earn up to 45 euros a day, while the number was under 15 euros a day in Romania, if there was any work at all. When asked if he wanted to finish school, Contin didn’t show a lot of interest. “I can read and write… making money for my family is much more important.” The 15 year old ended the conversation by asking for my spare change.