BBC News

The baby that divided a nation

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Hungary


As 2015 began, a boy was born in Hungary - the country's first baby of the year. But his family who are Roma, or Gypsy as they prefer to be known, found themselves at the centre of a national debate about racism.

Outside the Korona Hotel in Mako, a town in southern Hungary famous for its warm weather and its excellent onions, stands the bronze statue of Mihaly Fatyol, a Roma violin virtuoso.

He holds his violin lightly in his left hand, the bow in the right, and looks to one side, as though directing the applause of the audience towards the other members of the band: Geza Racz on second violin, his dad Geza on viola, Jozsef Kelecsenyi on the cimbalom - a kind of Hungarian dulcimer - and Janos Puka on double bass.

These were the most famous Gypsies of Mako until little Rikardo came along. Mihaly Fatyol played the dance halls of Budapest and Europe from the 1920s to the 1970s, at a time when no restaurant, no society wedding was complete without a Gypsy orchestra.

Rikardo Racz was born at one minute past midnight, five weeks ago, and thus became the first baby born in Hungary this year. National, as well as local media noted his birth and a photo of Peter and his wife Sylvia holding Rikardo made the front pages.

Then Elod Novak, deputy leader of the far-right Jobbik party, posted that picture beside one of himself, his wife and three children on Facebook, mentioned that Rikardo was the third child of a 23-year-old Gypsy mother, then added: "The number of Hungarians is not just falling disastrously, but soon we will become a minority in our own homes. When will the day come when they decide to change Hungary's name? And when will we finally tackle our country's biggest problem?"

This provoked an avalanche of both condemnation, and approval. Rikardo's birth seemed to hold up a mirror in which both Hungarian racism and anti-racism were reflected.

"They're breeding like rats, like parasites," was a typical comment from those who sided with the Jobbik deputy. Opposition and government politicians tried to outdo one another with gestures and words of solidarity with the family.

Rikardo became Hungary's most famous Gypsy, at only a few days old.

image copyrightother

I meet Rikardo, his mother Sylvia and father Peter in the town hall of Mako - this is the first media interview they have given. The splendid old building smells of new paint. There are wooden parquet floors, a cluster of flags, and the mayor herself, Eva Erzsebet Farkas. As every year, she says, she promised 100,000 forints (£250, $380) to the parents of the first baby born in her town in 2015. She didn't realise what she was letting the family in for.

Rikardo takes one look at your BBC reporter, and bursts into tears. Nothing personal, his parents reassure me, he's just eaten and his tummy hurts.

Peter outlines his life story. The family are the only Roma living in a small village on the edge of Mako, they get on well with everyone, and have never experienced personal hostility or racism before. Peter does community work, and is just taking his driving test for tractors and harvesters. Their two daughters are still at kindergarten.

"I just want a quiet family life, with no media attention," he explains. "Warm food at home when I get back from work, my family around me."

Sylvia hands him the now wide-eyed baby, the sometimes-quiet point at the centre of the storm. "People should not be stigmatised from the moment of their birth," she says.

"When my son is 18, he can decide whether he identifies himself as Roma or not. Its not his fault that he came into this world a few moments after midnight. Maybe there was racism in Hungary before this, but we didn't feel it. We love living in this town. Everyone is kind to us here. Now my baby is giving me the strength to get through this," she adds.

"All that differentiates us is the colour of our skin," says Peter. "We have the same hearts and blood and souls. Rikardo will go to kindergarten and school, and learn a trade, like any other child."

They're in a rush to fetch their daughters and go home. I offer them a lift, but they'd rather take the bus.

Elod Novak, the Parliamentary deputy, has refused to apologise for his comments and even suggested that Peter should apologise to him. Far-right media are still full of allegations of an "explosion" of Roma births. They maintain it's Hungary's biggest problem. They don't seem to realise that Roma are Hungarians too.

With equal rights. Peter, Sylvia and Rikardo disappear into the sleet and gloom of the February afternoon, past the statue to Mihaly Fatyol, violin virtuoso.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and Thursdays at 11:02 GMT

BBC World Service: At weekends - see World Service programme schedule.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics

  • Hungary
  • Race and ethnicity