top of page

HerStory: Ruxandra Nagy - My Journey is My Destination

Meet Ruxandra Nagy, My Journey is my Destination

Every story begins somewhere else. July 1951, Socialist Republic of Romania. It’s a hot, humid night and a man in striped pajamas is tossing in bed in his house. A huge serpent is coiling up around the fence. Follows hard knocking on the door and the short order of the Securitate officers “Put on your clothes”. In the middle of the night, Professor C is taken away by gunshots. The man in striped pajamas was my grandfather. A writer, historian, and ethnologist, he wrote about the world as he saw it. For that, he paid with 4 years of his life in one of Romania’s worst prisons and labor camps. In prison, Professor C. meets Monsignor Ghika, a Romanian prince turned Catholic missionary. Now in his 80’s he is being held prisoner by the Communists who torture him up until his death. He carried a relic from the Crown of Thorns, and the prisoners compared him to a saint. Monsignor Ghika was beatified in 2013 by Pope Francis.

Just before the Monsignor dies, he tells Professor C. that if he had a granddaughter sometime in the future, she should be baptized Catholic and be a voice for those without a voice. In 1967 the Communist regime issued Decree 770 which outlawed abortions, banned contraceptives, and forced women to have a monthly exam to check for pregnancy. The purpose of it was to increase the population - the result was the opposite: between 11,000-15,000 women 1 died from illegal abortions. The children who were born between 1967 and 1989 were dubbed children of the decree. In 1986 a man and a woman have just graduated college and are planning on a lifetime of adventures. The woman gets pregnant, and their plans change: the adventure is over, and after looking at their options, they know there are no options. They move to his hometown, a coal miners’ town in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania. The child is born, a child of the decree. Parents overnight, the couple works several shifts, and the child is sent to live with the grandparents.

That child is me. I am the continuation of these stories that started somewhere else, long ago. I was born at the threshold of two regimes, with one foot in Communism and one in democracy. Until the age of 8, I was raised by my paternal grandmother, a Hungarian ethnic, and a Catholic. I was raised bilingual, and I knew more words in Hungarian than in Romanian. At the age of 1, I too became Catholic. Professor C came to the baptism. This granddaughter was the promise he had made to the Monsignor that one day, she will step out, and speak out.

I grew up listening to these family stories. I started traveling around the country by myself in high school to interview survivors of the Communist camps. My writing progressed from stories for my chickens, adapted from Virginia Woolf books to national writing competitions. I moved to Bucharest and graduated from the University of Bucharest with a dual degree in Language and Literature. I spent many hours of my college years in the company of my aunt, a graphic and textile artist. All her other friends were artists too, and her niece, and her nephew too. I wished I was one of them. I wished I could weave a big tapestry one day.

Verging depression in the noisy, polluted, Bucharest where there was no room for my mountains, no room for my hometown flowers, and little room for miracles of becoming, I had to hit the road again. For a year I traveled across the country as an independent researcher. As a result, I published a book, available in English, “Love in Times of Communism”. Based on dozens of hours of interviews with women who survived the horrors of Decree 770, it is a reminder of what can happen when the state controls the woman’s body. Inspired by the missionary work of Monsignor Ghika, I signed up for programs in different parts of the world.

In Serbia, I worked with different ethnic minorities and had my first experience with the theater of the oppressed in conflict areas. A year later followed Jordan, where for 6 months I lived in the Dana nature reserve and worked alongside rangers of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. In the desert, I slept in a Bedouin tent with an iguana who never bothered asking if he could share, I washed my clothes in the river, ate hummus and apricot jam for way too many breakfasts, listened to the donkeys screaming at my tent at midnight, and felt a shiver down my spine every time I heard the hyenas. And at night, there were more stars in the sky than lights in New York. And from there I knew I could do anything; I could be anything.

Sometime in 2012, I heard for the first time about community organizing. Grassroots, empowerment, people power, democracy, change – foreign words in 2012 Eastern Europe. I was invited to the U.S. as a Legislative 3 Fellow to learn community organizing on a U.S. government program. And this is how my love affair with the U.S. started.

One of my mentors in the program was Martin Nagy, an art innovator, educator, accomplished weaver, and founder of the Common Space Centers for Creativity as a place for artists to create, collaborate, and thrive. Forty years later this place is still here, and now it’s my home too. While he was on a work visit to Romania, we fell in love. Following several trips to Romania and the U.S., we decided we should spend every day of our lives together.

I moved to the U.S., and here in Toledo, I finally found a home. Little did I know though, that I was not just marrying him, but also this place called Common Space Center for Creativity. He was already married to it, and he never told me. So I had to fit in. I love you forever, Martin Nagy, every day with you is a gift. I am humbled by the honor of being your wife and best friend.

In Romania, while in school, the arts were given little to no attention, unless one attended an arts school. In my small miners’ town, that was not an option. My art teacher was an artist, and she divided us into two categories: the natural-born talents and the good-for-nothing. As you can imagine, I was in the second category. So, I ended up hating the arts, and now, life throws me in the arms of an artist. On my first days in Toledo Martin gave me a small backstrap loom made of popsicle sticks, tied it to the fireplace, and made me believe in my hands, feel the yarn, see the colors, the intertwining of body and loom. Magic. That’s what Martin does, magic, he makes you believe in yourself. I made my first woven bookmark, crooked, bumpy, and imperfect. It was the first time I made something with my hands, and I was not told it was bad. I am sure it was. I wanted to learn more about art and make more things. I read books on creativity and textile arts, pottery, and anything arts that got my attention. I attended every art class Martin was teaching to children at Common Space and learned all the basic art concepts I didn’t learn in school.

As a European living in a system where artistic skills were not encouraged as a path for a career, I never thought there was a place where artists of all social and professional backgrounds could coexist and collaborate to make a living. At Common Space I got to see painters working together on the same painting at the same time, I saw the meticulous hands of the Black Swamp woodcarvers, adults, and children trying to master their French language skills. I saw dancers who excel in their performances at different venues in Toledo and around the country. I could only grow admiration for a place that can bring together magicians, Irish, Middle Eastern, North African, Indian, or ballet dancers, and for me, it was clear that in Toledo, art means business.

I was given the chance to teach theater to children at Common Space. For 6 years we created plays, from script to stage, with a focus on social issues and developing community organizing skills. In my second year in Toledo, I became a historical interpreter for the Seven Eagles EARTH Center and developed the persona of a Swedish pioneer woman, Sandra, who came to the Americas sometime in the late 1700s and the power of storytelling helps her travel through time. I became a symbol of resistance and survival for the kids who witnessed Sandra butchering pigs, raising chickens, growing gardens, defending the land, and building a house, a family, a community, and a country. My stories brought a sense of empowerment to their life. I look at myself and I see an immigrant who can teach American history to American kids. What else can I ask to feel included? More.

In 2023 The Arts Commission believed in me and awarded me the Accelerator Grant to continue creating and studying pre-Columbian textiles designed by the Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes. That little cooked bookmark has come a long way. Grateful to the Arts Commission, the City of Toledo, and Lucas County for also awarding me the Toledo Lucas County Rescue Plan Grant to pay rent for my very own studio at Common Space and continue supporting Common Space. Again, it became clear to me that in Toledo art means business. My journey is my destination. It took me 10 years to call Toledo home. Today I am proud to be an immigrant who calls Toledo home and I hope one day Toledo will be proud of me too.

Our stories shape our place in the community. Stories humanize, bring people out of the shadows, and bring visibility. It’s a gift to tell you just a tiny piece of my story today.

I believe in the power of storytelling to stop the fear of the unknown, to know and understand each other better, and to fear each other less. Because when we tell our story we give all our brothers and sisters a voice. I want them to know they are not alone. Let’s keep speaking our truths, and keep speaking for each other.

"I believe in the power of storytelling to stop the fear of the unknown, to know and understand each other better and fear each other less. Because when we tell our story we give all our brothers and sisters a voice. I want them to know they are not alone. Let’s keep speaking our truths, keep speaking for each other."

WOT gives us women a platform to

voice the many voices in our hearts. WOT is an outstanding example of

collaborative leadership of women for women

Thank you, Ruxandra for sharing your story via our #HerStory campaign and blog!

52 views0 comments


bottom of page