Godparents, Patrons, and Trust in Ethnically Mixed Rural Communities in Transylvania
Does social inclusion mean that we can eradicate social inequality or even just reduce inequality between certain categories of people and/or groups? Or we need to refresh our thinking and chose the harder way which seems a bit Sisyphusian and instead of focusing on social exclusion and inequalities, to look for cases of social inclusion and social cohesion (in their broader sense) and try to understand it. The situation of the Roma minority might be illustrative. Historically, the Roma population was excluded and marginalized all over the world, yet, there are situations when despite the measurable unequal position in the local community, the relationship between the local Roma and the non-Roma population was free of conflicts. The way the local society organized itself might answer the question of why in certain communities we can feel some kind of social cohesion on which social inclusion can be built later. One of the practices that contribute to maintaining local equilibrium and overcoming ethnic, racial, and class-related prejudices is the practice of Godparenting. In the village, Roma parents choose Hungarian Godparents for their newborn children. Their request is rarely refused by the Hungarians. During the years, the Roma family and the Hungarian family maintains an asymmetrical relationship but still based on trust. In this context, not all, but more social interventions that address inequality are reported as successful compared to more conflictual localities. Ethnic identity gains more cultural importance and its social prestige grows.
Stefánia Toma is a researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities working on various topics related to the Roma minority. She is interested in how social cohesion, trust, and belonging are articulated in ethnically diverse localities. Steffi has conducted fieldwork in rural Transylvania on international migration and its impact on home communities, the temporality and motivations of home-making practices, and the return migration to the rural.
Melinda Ureczki Lázár
Melinda Ureczki Lázár is an artist, illustrator and animator. In her artistic practice, she is interested in reflecting on social issues and presenting them in narrative forms through different media. Her main themes are explorations of local identity, the interpretation of interpersonal relationships and experiences in everyday life, the present manifestations of tradition and its presentation through conceptual and lyrical associations. She graduated from the Bachelor degree in graphics and the Master in animation and comics in Cluj-Napoca. Since then, as a member of the ArtiViStory collective, she has participated in various research projects using comics for documentary and mediation purposes, while also participating in the POC!#2 documentary magazine project. She has had solo and group exhibitions in Romania and participated in collective art projects in Hungary.
Flipping through my old childhood photos—which are so few compared to nowadays’ family photos—I noticed that my godparents (along with my parents, grandparents, and brother) occupy a central place in the frame. Baptisms, birthdays, major family events and parties, excursions, and weekends are all captured there. They are all there, not just in my photos, but in my memory and my life as well. Sadly, only my godmother is still here, as my godfather passed away a few years ago. My godparents also played an important role in my parents’ lives. They were the best komák [Hu] (compadrazgo, co-godparents).
But godparents were present in my life in so many other ways and instances. We used to spend our school holidays in my grandparents’ village, where we soon learned that the word koma has many more meanings than a child should know. It rather belongs to the adult world, even though it is used also in children’s stories associated with animals (like róka-koma or medve-koma). In the first example koma refers to the classic ritual kinship relation. In addition, compadrazgos were featured in many jokes, as in the main character who was in a complicated situation or relationship. But more often it was used to mean “mate,” “dude,” “buddy,” or “best buds.” It was also used half-jokingly to suggest an extramarital relationship. But it also denoted a situation of being in debt to someone. It may be that these various meanings are no longer really in use, or we can recognize them in other forms and other contexts. For example, The Godfather trilogy would later become a favorite of mine (both the books and movies).
It is used in many different situations, with many different meanings, but there is always a shared characteristic: it depicts a relationship between different people. Between a child and adults, between two pairs of parents, between two men, women, friends, a leader, and their followers, and so on. And not just any kind of relationship, but one that entails a kind of intimacy and bonding. Through this, it has a role in maintaining social cohesion in the community by keeping alive social relations based on reciprocity and mutual trust, and respect.
So why is it relevant from the point of view of social inequalities?
Inequality is also present in our daily lives in various forms. The form inequality takes depends on its causes, the context in which it occurs, the actors involved in different processes, and the institutions that may or may not intervene to address or eliminate inequalities. Nevertheless, most of the causes of inequality and exclusion stem from our everyday practices.
All these forms and meanings (both for inequality and godparenthood) are so deeply embedded in our everyday lives that they are as much taken-for-granted as our beliefs about the sequence of the seasons (though even that is no longer to be taken for granted). But while inequalities still catch our eye because most of them have tangible consequences, social practices that have the potential to overcome social inequalities and exclusion are unfairly condemned to remain in the shadowy taken-for-grantedness.
On beginning fieldwork in an ethnically mixed village in Transylvania in 1999, it took me a while to realize that there was something about godparenthood that was worth consciously investigating. However, godparenthood was as common as it had always been. It was I who had changed, for I had now completed a degree in Sociology, followed by a two-year Master’s in Anthropology, so my gaze and my diary helped me to overcome my ingrained beliefs. But it also meant that I observed and saw society and the communities around me in terms of categories. Who belongs where? How can we describe these categories? In terms of age, gender, political convictions and/ or ethnicity, religion, language, and the place where they live? So, there were more and more boxes crowding my mental maps—overlapping, intersecting, leaking into each other, which sometimes looked like more chaos. This was a reflection of the complexity of the forms that social inequalities can take; how they can emerge, be maintained, reinforced, or overcome.
When different ethnic groups live together in one place, we say that it is an ethnically mixed locality. But sometimes these groups are fragmented or segregated. In this village, the Roma families live on the periphery of the village, in a so-called neighborhood that is more or less integrated into the physical space of the village but still separated on the mental maps of the inhabitants. Over the decades, the physical barriers have become more blurred, but the boundaries of the mental maps are slow to change.
The Roma population was and is very young, mostly because of their precarious health. There are very few people over 70. Traditionally, most of the adults are unemployed, live in poverty, own no property, have poor education, and mostly work in the informal economy and on the properties of the Hungarians. However, the situation has changed slightly in recent decades. Local agriculture went through a transformation, becoming increasingly privatized, with large companies taking over the small family plots, depriving the local Roma of their small but regular income. Some of them were employed by the new farms. Slowly they began to migrate abroad, a little later though than the average Romanian migrant. The picture I have presented here is not specific, it could describe many marginalized rural Roma communities. However, there was something that singled out this place during those years when there was more and more news in the media about interethnic conflicts and tensions, or just simply tensions, involving Roma too. Despite their poverty, there was daily contact between the Roma and the Hungarian families. When the Hungarians were still working their fields, they had Roma families working for them as day workers. Sometimes the Roma women were asked to help in with housework—cook, wash carpets, clean the house. When they needed something (some wheat, sugar, or shoes for their children), they went to their Hungarian family and asked for help. And most of the time they got it, in exchange for their work. It was an important help, but it was not enough for them to make ends meet.
It was in this context that the topic of godparenthood came up constantly in discussions and conversations—when people recalled some important events in their lives, when they complained about their problems and grievances, old or new, when they joked or gossiped. Godparents were sometimes mentioned in a way which suggested that it was not appropriate to go into detail. When I became aware of the recurrence of this topic, I also began to ask about it deliberately. Finally, when I had access to some resources from a project, I had the opportunity to ask every Roma household whether they had Hungarian and/or Romanian godparents for their children. And almost a quarter of the households did, one or even more pairs of godparents. For many people, this is an unbelievable situation. How is it possible for well-off “us” to have such an intimate relationship with the stigmatized “them”? They are different. They are the Other.
The literature makes a distinction between the godparent and the co-godparent relationships. The relationship between godparents and godchildren is very different from the relationship between co-godparents. In the case of the Roma, the emphasis was on the relationship between the parents of the child and the godparents (co-godparent relationship). This relationship replaced a social contract between them: it had rules, conditions, rights and duties, and deadlines. Although it resembles a patron-client relationship, it is much more than that, because it involves more continuity and trust between the people. And more importantly, it has a broader symbolic function at the local level. The Roma family with Hungarian godparents seemed to have more prestige at the local level. And the Hungarian family was also seen as more trustworthy and reliable.
This practice is not new. Historians and ethnographers have described it in great detail. In many cases, what they describe is a practice that strengthens relationships between people and families that share the same or at least a similar socio-economic position in the local hierarchy, but also between those from different social groups.
Godparenthood, because it has a moral and ethical component as well, is built on trust and reciprocity, and it enforces local social cohesion. The question whether it can contribute to the blurring of ethnic boundaries remains to be answered. It might not even be a relevant question at all, as godparenthood might have another function: to dissolve tensions, creating occasions to meet and interact, discuss, and know each other.
While inequality is easily recognizable, quantifiable, and definable, social inclusion is very likely to cause researchers, practitioners, politicians, and journalists, just to name a few, a headache. What does it mean? What does it look like to be socially included? How can we translate it into the language of politics and social policies? It seems like a vicious circle. Does social inclusion mean that we can eradicate social inequality or even just reduce inequality between certain categories of people and/or groups? At first, it might seem that this is work fit for Sisyphus. And it is indeed. We thus start our inquiries looking specifically for exclusion and inequality, relentlessly trying to describe, analyze, and understand it, and then we move on to designing, implementing, and evaluating an intervention, only to realize that it doesn’t work if left to its own devices—and begin the whole process all over again.
But what if we searched for cases of social cohesion and tried to understand what its driving forces were? This would entail to focus first on the ingredients of local social cohesion, and only after that on social inclusion. This could also be a new approach to designing new inclusion policies and interventions.
The situation of the Roma minority might be illustrative here. Historically, the Roma population was excluded and marginalized all over the world, yet there were situations where despite the quantifiably unequal positions in the local community, the relationship between the local Roma and the non-Roma was free of conflicts. The way the local society organized itself might answer why in certain communities we can feel some kind of social cohesion on which social inclusion can be later built.
Interethnic godparenthood is just an example. It is an asymmetrical relationship, there is a hierarchy involved in this relationship; still, it offers the poor Roma families a social network, work, income, support, and even prestige on the local level. It is not an ideal situation, far from it.
A Hungarian woman told me: “If they [the Roma] helped me, I paid them because you must pay. After a while, they asked me if I wanted to baptize their new-born child. I said yes, why not. We still keep in touch with them. That is a really OK family. For example, if I need some work done, I ask them. So it is good for them, but also for me.” Years later, when that child graduated high school, many more people were—quietly or not—proud of him.
Some contact can reduce social distance and bring people, who are considered different, closer to each other. It creates space for cooperation and time to listen to each other. So ethnic belonging is no longer the strongest criterion in defining each other. And this has immediate effects on the individual, economic, and social levels. We are all the same regardless of our differences.
 Róka koma and medve koma are fictional humanized characters in children’s books, like cumătra vulpe and cumătra urs in the Romanian folk stories or ”Br’er Fox” and ”Br’er Bear” in the African-American tales.