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In Tacoma's Roma Community, Hustling Was A Way Of Life

Will James
Miller Steve, who grew up in Tacoma's Roma community, at the game room of his apartment complex outside Portland

This story originally aired on September 27, 2017.

Growing up Roma meant growing up fast -- and learning how to hustle. 

That's how Miller Steve describes it. He was raised in Tacoma's Roma community in the 70's and 80's, when it was a close-knit collection of families, all descended from a nomadic minority group in Europe

The Roma suffered persecution for centuries, including at the hands of the Nazis. As a result, Steve says, lessons in survival have bled into almost every aspect of Roma culture. 

"I think it's something just embedded in us," he said. "It's because of the fear." 

Steve spoke to KNKX reporter Will James about how that emphasis on survival, including making money quickly, shaped his life. 

In Tacoma's Roma community, Steve said, 13-year-olds were treated like adults. As a teenager, he learned how to buy and sell cars and find work in construction. 

"You had to have a car at the age of 14 or 15 years old," he said. "You had to be smart, like a man, because they didn't want you to have that teenager life, that wild life."

But those early lessons in self-sufficiency and business came at the cost of a formal education. Steve said his parents didn't want him to go to college, in part due to their fears of corrupting influences.

"They wanted us to have a little education, but not a lot, because they were afraid of the drugs, the sex," Steve said. "We moved three times, and every time I would get to sixth grade, they would go and put me back to fourth and fifth." 

Now in his 40's, Steve is looking back at a lifetime of hustling to survive while grappling with a question: was his Roma upbringing a blessing or an obstacle? 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.