Cristina Salvador Klenz first encountered Romani families in 1984, when she was a 20-year-old student visiting her grandmother on the west coast of Portugal.
Their living conditions along the roadside were tragic: Metal shacks with dirt floors. No electricity or running water. No education for the children. Just bare survival. Klenz was especially drawn to the children whose faces, she said, “seemed to glow when they smiled.”
As an aspiring photojournalist attending the University of Missouri, Klenz had a dream of some day telling the story of the Romani people, an ethnic minority that has continually faced persecution and discrimination since their exodus from India more than 1,000 years ago. It’s estimated that there are more than 1 million Romanies in the United States, with about 50,000 in Southern California. The world’s Romani population numbers an estimated 15 million.
“I felt strongly that there was much to be learned from Romani lives, culture and history,” Klenz said, “so long hidden from mainstream societies everywhere.”
Klenz’s lifelong dream has finally become a reality with publication this year of her stunning collection of rare, intimate photographs in the book, “Hidden: Life with California’s Roma Family.”
It is the first photography book to feature Romani Americans and is being published by Brown Paper Press just in time for International Romani Day on Thursday, April 8, which is also the date for a book signing from 7 to 9 p.m. at Page Against the Machine, 2714 E. Fourth St. in Long Beach. Another book signing is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. May 7 at Iguana Imports, 3440 E. Broadway, also in Long Beach.
The book is available on the author’s website, americanroma.com.
The Roma people are still widely known by another name — which, to some, may conjure images of a bohemian lifestyle, but is generally considered an offensive term. (The term, omitted here, has been used regularly in films and other pop culture works, perhaps most famously in Disney’s adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”)
The book, said Brown Paper Press publisher Wendy Thomas Russell, is being released “amidst a global movement away from the word, which is increasingly considered an offensive pejorative.”
Because the Romani people have been targets of persecution, discrimination and stereotyping, they have become known for fiercely guarding their privacy, which initially was a problem for Klenz, who wanted to take candid photos of them.
In 1990, while working as a staff photographer for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Klenz got a chance to contact a Long Beach Romani family through a fellow photojournalist and met with the family as often as she could. Although they were friendly, the family initially rebuffed Klenz’s request to photograph their daily lives.
But then, Klenz said, she got “a lucky break” when she was invited to a wedding and, to her surprise, was allowed to take photos. By being at the wedding, she was able to make contact with more people in the Romani community, gaining trust, acceptance — and permission to take more pictures.
“I encountered pockets of reluctance, of course, if not outright hostility,” Klenz said. “A few feared I might be a spy, a thief or an FBI agent. Eventually, I was invited into homes and workplaces and given access to intimate moments rarely glimpsed by non-Roma.”
The Romani people she met spread from the Greater Long Beach area into the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, the Inland Empire and Northern California. Klenz spent the next four years photographing Romani families whenever and wherever she got the chance. At one point, Klenz — an accomplished photojournalist — quit her photographer job at the Press-Telegram to pursue the project full time. (Rich Archbold, the author of this article, is the Press-Telegram’s former managing editor and hired Klenz.)
Her book contains more than 100 photographs documenting the daily lives of Romani families and individuals. Ken Kobre, a photojournalism professor at San Francisco State University and author of “Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach,” said Klenz’s work “will become a photojournalism classic.”
The book’s photos celebrate the joy of close communities bound together by language, history and love. The photos capture milestones in the lives of Romani people, from a delightful picture of the first birthday of a couple’s first child in Bellflower to a young mother giving birth to her first daughter in Northridge — while her sister, who assisted in the delivery, looks on.
A particularly captivating photo is titled, “Heels.” It shows a young girl, Natalie, walking in high heels just like a grownup. She walks with her cousin, Hugo, near his home in El Monte. In a later photo taken last year, Natalie, now a real grownup, holds a portrait of herself in the book.
Another photo, “Generations,” shows a grandmother with two younger women and a baby. It was taken at a birthday party in Long Beach’s Recreation Park.
A powerful photo shows an anxious wife sitting next to her husband, Bob Thompson, as he undergoes dialysis treatment — with intravenous lines in his arm — in Ontario in 1993.
The man’s daughter, Pavlena, was overwhelmed with joy when she found out that her father’s picture was in the book, Klenz said.
“She told me that it was his dream to be in the book and that whenever they were at a mall, he would go to the bookstore and ask if there was a book on Roma by Cristina Salvador (Klenz’s name before she married Todd Klenz).”
Unfortunately, he has since died — never seeing his photo published.
Thompson was excited until the day he died, in 1999, about the possibility of his photo being in the book, Pavlena said in a recent phone interview.
“He was absolutely excited and intrigued by Cristina’s project,” she said from Phoenix, “her interest and her love she had for our people.”
The book also contains photos showing the effects of illiteracy, poverty, parental discipline and what the book calls “intergenerational trauma – children marrying in high school and becoming grandparents in their 30s and 40s, for example.” There are wonderful portraits of individuals of various ages, from the two handsome young Long Beach brothers who grace the book’s cover to a wizened retired migrant worker in Riverside County.
“Emotion seems to pour from every page,” Russell, the book’s publisher, said, “and the scenes are all the more powerful given how rare they are.”
What’s in the future for Klenz with Romani families?
“My goal now is to reconnect with the rest of the families in the book and document what their lives are like today,” she said. “In a broader sense, I would like to see Romani history included in middle and high school world history textbooks. I hope that ‘Hidden’ can help bring a greater awareness of Romani-American history and help increase inclusion and awareness of Romani culture on many levels.”
Klenz, for her part, has already done significant work, through her book, to reveal the lives of the often hidden Romani people.
Source: Orange County Register