Cristina Salvador Klenz first encountered Roma families in 1984, when she was a 20-year-old student visiting her grandmother on the west coast of Portugal.
Their living conditions by the roadside were dire: metal shacks with dirt floors. No electricity or running water. No education for children. Just simple survival. Klenz was particularly drawn to children whose faces, she said, “seemed to glow when they smiled.”
As an aspiring photojournalist attending the University of Missouri, Klenz dreamed of one day telling the story of the Roma people, an ethnic minority who have faced persecution and discrimination ever since their exodus from India over 1,000 years ago. It is estimated that there are over one million Roma in the United States, including approximately 50,000 in Southern California. The global Roma population is estimated at 15 million.
“I was convinced there was a lot to learn from Roma life, culture and history,” Klenz said, “hidden for so long from mainstream societies around the world.”
Klenz’s lifelong dream has finally come true with the publication this year of his stunning collection of rare and intimate photographs in the book “Hidden: Life with California’s Roma Family.”
It is the first photography book to feature American Roma and is being published by Brown Paper Press just in time for International Roma Day on Thursday, April 8, which is also the date of a 7 p.m. book signing. at 9 p.m. at Page Against the Machine. , 2714 E. Fourth St. in Long Beach. Another book signing is scheduled for 1-4 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.
Roma are still widely known by another name – which to some may conjure up images of a bohemian lifestyle, but is generally seen as an offensive term. (The term, omitted here, has been used regularly in movies and other works of pop culture, perhaps most famously in Disney’s adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”)
The book, said Wendy Thomas Russell, publisher of Brown Paper Press, is being published “amid a global movement away from the word, which is increasingly seen as an offensive pejorative.”
Because Roma were targets of persecution, discrimination, and stereotyping, they became known for fiercely protecting their privacy, which was initially a problem for Klenz, who wanted to take candid photos of them.
In 1990, while working as a photographer for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Klenz was fortunate enough to contact a Long Beach Roma family through a fellow photojournalist and met the family as often as she could. Although they are friendly, the family initially rejected Klenz’s request to photograph their daily lives.
But then, Klenz said, she had “a lucky break” when she was invited to a wedding and, to her surprise, was allowed to take pictures. By being at the wedding, she was able to come into contact with more people in the Roma community, gain trust, acceptance and permission to take more photos.
“I encountered pockets of reluctance, of course, if not outright hostility,” Klenz said. “Some feared that I was a spy, a thief or an FBI agent. Eventually, I was invited into homes and workplaces and had access to intimate moments rarely glimpsed by non-Roma.
The Roma she encountered spread from the Greater Long Beach area to the San Fernando Valley, Orange County, the Inland Empire and northern California. Klenz spent the next four years photographing Roma families when and where she had the chance. At some point, Klenz – an accomplished photojournalist – quit her job as a photographer at the Press-Telegram to pursue the project full-time. (Rich Archbold, the author of this article, is the former editor of the Press-Telegram and hired Klenz.)
Her book contains more than 100 photographs documenting the daily life of Roma families and individuals. Ken Kobre, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University and author of “Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach,” said Klenz’s work “will become a classic in photojournalism.”
The photos in the book celebrate the joy of close communities linked by language, history and love. The photos capture milestones in Roma life, from a delightful first birthday photo of a couple’s first child in Bellflower to a young mother giving birth to her first daughter in Northridge – while her sister, who helped at childbirth, look at the.
A particularly captivating photo is titled “Heels”. It shows a young girl, Natalie, walking in high heels like an adult. She walks with her cousin, Hugo, near his home in El Monte. In a photo taken later last year, Natalie, now a full adult, holds a portrait of herself in the book.
Another photo, “Generations”, shows a grandmother with two young women and a baby. It was taken at a birthday party at Long Beach Recreation Park.
A powerful photo shows an anxious woman sitting next to her husband, Bob Thompson, as he undergoes dialysis treatment – with IV lines in his arm – in Ontario in 1993.
The man’s daughter, Pavlena, was overwhelmed with joy when she discovered her father’s photo was in the book, Klenz said.
“She told me that it was his dream to be in the book and that every time they were in a mall he would go to the bookstore and ask if there was a book about Roma by Cristina Salvador (Klenz’s name before she married Todd Klenz).”
Unfortunately, he has since passed away, having never seen 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, “his interest and love for our people.”
The book also contains photos showing the effects of illiteracy, poverty, parental discipline and what the book calls “intergenerational trauma – of children marrying in high school and becoming grandparents in their thirties and quarantine, for example”. There are wonderful portraits of individuals of various ages, from the two handsome young brothers from Long Beach that adorn the cover of the book to a wizened retired migrant worker in Riverside County.
“Emotion seems to flow from every page,” said Russell, the book’s editor, “and the scenes are all the more powerful for being rare.”
What is the future for Klenz with Roma 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 Roma history included in middle and high school world history textbooks. I hope ‘Hidden’ can contribute to greater awareness of Roman American history and help increase inclusion and awareness of Roma culture on many levels.
Klenz, for his part, has already done important work, through his book, to reveal the lives of the often hidden Roma.