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ALTERNATE NAMES: Self-ascriptive names: Roma, Rom, Romanichals, Cales, Kaale, Kawle, Sinti/Manouches. Also known as Gypsies.
LOCATION: Dispersed population in Europe; parts of Asia, North, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, North and South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
POPULATION: 12-15 million (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Romani dialects; also the language of the host country
RELIGION: An underlay of Hinduism with an overlay of either Christianity or Islam (host country religion)


The Roma people originated in India. By the 11th century ad they were located in the area called Gurjara, in what was then the Rajput Confederacy. The Rajputs were a group of clans. Each had its own ruler, a caste of military landowners, and a population belonging to the lower castes, composed of animal drovers, artisans, entertainers, blacksmiths, weapon smiths, and persons in other modest but necessary occupations. Among these supportive castes was a group called Dom, who belonged to the aboriginal peoples of India but had adopted the Hindu religion and an Indo-Aryan language derived from Sanskrit. Some groups of Dom were nomadic entertainers and artisans. The Hindus defined the word Dom as a lower-caste person who did jobs forbidden to higher-caste Hindus; however, to the Dom themselves, the word simply meant "man" and, in the plural, "the men," or "the people."

In the 10th century, a Muslim kingdom arose in what is now Afghanistan, with its capital at Ghasni. This was called the Ghaznavid Empire, and in 1017, its ruler, Mahmud Ghazni, launched a series of massive raids into India. He and successive rulers entered India, plundering and massacring the people, carrying off thousands of slaves, and laying waste to the countryside. The Rajputs contested these raids, and many battles took place, during which groups of people were displaced or forced to move out of desolated areas. At some point during the 11th century, the ancestors of the Roma made their way into the Upper Indus Valley from Gurjara and spent some time in this region, whose inhabitants spoke Dardic languages, which had an effect on their own.

The ancestors of the Roma then left India via the Shandur or Baroghil pass and entered Xinjiang in northwestern China. From there they followed the Silk Road, which led them to ancient Persia, then through Southern Georgia to an Armenian-speaking region around the city of Trebizond, and finally to the Byzantine Empire, borrowing words from these linguistic regions as they slowly migrated over many generations. From Constantinople (now Istanbul) they traveled up the Balkans and reached the Romanian Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia by at least the 14th century. Some groups remained in the Balkans below Romania but many moved through Romania, traveling both west and east. By the end of the 15th century, Roma could be found as far west as the British Isles and Spain and as far east as Poland and Lithuania.

At some point during their migration from India, scholars believe, their original name, Dom, or Domba in the plural, was altered phonetically to Rom (singular) and Roma (plural), while the caste structure of the group gradually disintegrated until they intermingled and became one people culturally.

Millions of Roma now live in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The post-World War II communist governments of countries, such as Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, attempted to assimilate their Roma populations into economic and ethnic mainstreams. These efforts were, for the most part, unsuccessful. The political and economic turmoil that followed the fall of communism has harmed the position of millions of Roma in Eastern and Central European countries. Roma in Slovakia have faced forced residential segregation. Roma communities in Kosovo and other territories of the former Yugoslavia have faced ethnic cleansing from majority communities. In other countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, Roma have been turned into scapegoats for the economic ills of the post-communist transition. The recent accession of many Central and Eastern European countries to the European Union has brought a new focus to issues of inclusion and human rights for European Roma communities.


Since the 15th century, Roma have been a dispersed ethnic population in Europe. Roma in the Romanian-speaking principalities, later including Transylvania, were enslaved. These Roma are known as Vlach Roma (the "ch" in Vlach is pronounced as k). After their emancipation in 1864, large numbers promptly departed and made their way into Central and Western Europe and the Balkans, eventually reaching North, Central, and South America by the 1890s. Today, they are the most numerous and most widespread group of Roma. In Western Europe, because of persecution in most countries, Roma were forced to become highly mobile nomadic groups, giving rise to the tradition in popular literature of the semi-mythological, footloose, vagabond "Gypsy." In Spain, Roma were forcibly settled and their language and culture destroyed, surviving only in Flamenco music and in the Calo dialect. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Roma were tolerated but were considered to be outcasts at the bottom of the social ladder.

By now Roma from many groups have migrated from Europe into the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, North and South Africa, and elsewhere. They assume the nationality of their host countries and consider themselves American Roma, Canadian Roma, Australian Roma, or South African Roma, depending on where they live. In the past, the colonial powers deported or transported Roma to their colonies in Africa, the West Indies, the Americas, and Australia, while Portugal even sent some to its colony in Goa, India, where they found people speaking a language closely related to their own. Since the fall of communism, hundreds of thousands of Roma have migrated from Central and Eastern Europe to Western European countries, such as France and Italy.

Accurately estimating the number of Roma is a difficult task, because official censuses often undercount Roma communities. Turkey is home to about 2 million Roma, making it the country with the largest Roma population. Current estimates put the number of Roma in Europe at approximately 10 million, making the ethnic group the largest minority in Europe. Of these 10 million, 1.8-2.5 million live in Romania, 600,000- 800,000 live in Bulgaria, 500,000-1 million live in Hungary, 480,000-520,000 live in Slovakia, and 250,000-300,000 live in the Czech Republic. In Western Europe, France and Spain have the largest Roma communities. The French Roma population numbers between 500,000 and 1.2 million, while the Spain's Roma population is estimated to be about 700,000. The countries of the former Yugoslavia are home to over 750,000 Roma. The United States is home to approximately 1 million Roma.


The original language (proto Romani) spoken by the Roma when they arrived in Europe has evolved into numerous dialects. The speakers normally refer to the language as Romani , Romani chib (Romani language), or by the adverb Romanes, which means "like a Roma"; thus, they say Vakiarel Romanes , he speaks like a Roma (i.e. speaks Romani). The Romani dialects of some splinter groups have different names, such as Romnimus (in Wales), Kaale (in Finland), or Calo (in Spain). Most Romani speakers speak what is called inflected Romani, which has its own unique grammar, as opposed to adopting the grammar of the country in which they live. As an example, note the following comparative sentences:

I am going into the village to buy a horse from the non-Roma man.
Inflected Romani Jav ando gav te kinav grast katar o gadjo. (These are all words of Sanskrit/Indian origin)

I'm jall in' into the gav to kin a grai from the gorjo.

Voy en el gao para quinelar un gras del gacho.

In the English and Spanish versions, the Romani grammar has disappeared and been replaced by the grammatical structure of English and Spanish, into which the original Romani vocabulary has been inserted. (How this happened is not clear and is disputed by scholars.) The inflected Romani example could belong to many different dialects, while the English and Spanish versions would be understood only by other people who spoke the same dialect.

While English makes use of prepositions, such as with, from, to, etc., inflected Romani dialects replace these by varying the endings of the words themselves (referred to as post positions). Below are examples of the inflection of the word manush (man).

NominativeThe man is comingO manush avel
AccusativeI see the manDikav le manushes
InstrumentalI went with the manGelem le manushesa
AblativeI heard from the manAshundem le manushestar
GenitiveIt's the man'sLe manushesko si
DativeI did it for the manKerdem le manusheska
VocativeListen, man!Ashun, manusha!

There are only two genders in inflected Romani. Male persons and animals are masculine, female persons and animals are feminine, and inanimate objects are either masculine or feminine. A chair is feminine, while the house is masculine in Vlach Romani. As commonly spoken, Romani uses many idiomatic expressions, proverbs, and sayings, often with metaphorical qualities. For example, "He is retiring" in English would be expressed in Romani as: Beshel lesko kam (His sun is setting). This makes it difficult to write dictionaries of Romani with word-for-word equivalents, leading to the erroneous belief that Romani is not a complete language. For example, there is no verb for to think. All dialects employ a word borrowed from another language. However, in Romani itself, "What are you thinking?" is expressed as So si tut ando shoro, which means "What do you have in your head?"

Romani employs an English alphabet except for the letter x (pronounced like the Spanish jota) and zh (as in azure).

Roma in Christian countries usually take Christian names like those of the people around them, such as Milano, Yanko, or Zlatcho for men, and Mara, Tinka, or Pavlena for women. The last name is the genitive inflexion of the father's Christian name. Thus, a name is O Milano le Yankosko— the Milano, son of Yanko (Yanko's Milano), or E Mara le Zlatchoski— the Mary, daughter of Zlatcho (Zlatcho's Mary). When Vlach Roma meet they ask each other, Kasko san tu— "Whose son are you?" The Vlach Roma have no surnames. Other groups adopt last names similar to those of the people among whom they live. The Vlach Roma also do this for identity papers, driver's licenses, and other documents, but do not use these names among themselves. Many of these "non-official" Roma names are quite colorful. It is possible to find Roma named after famous politicians or celebrities from the entertainment industry. Some Roma names are also derived from distinguishing physical characteristics of the name's owner.


Roma have a rich folklore, which is contained in the paramichia, or folktales and legends. Stories would be told around the campfires at night while the adults, teenagers, and children sat around listening to their elders recite them. They later passed them on to the next generation. Like most other groups, the Roma have their ethnic hero. Among the Vlach Roma this is Mundro Salamon or Wise Solomon. Other Roma groups call this hero O Godjiaver Yanko. Among the Wels Kawle, he is Merlinos (the Wizard), taken from Celtic folklore. Essentially, Mundro Salamon is the archetypal wise man who uses his mental powers and cunning to escape from those who would harm him or to save others from danger. Since the Roma always lived in small groups surrounded by strangers who outnumbered them and had the law on their side, they were unable to resort to force of arms to defend themselves. Their defense mechanisms were wisdom and "the smarts," which Mundro Salamon exhibits to the "nth degree."

A typical Mundro Salamon story runs as follows: One day Mundro Salamon learned that the Martya, or Angel of Death, was about to come and claim the soul of the village miller who was his friend. He went to the Martya and asked her to spare the miller's life because he had small children to support and the people of the village needed him to grind their corn. She refused, so Mundro Salamon tricked her. "How could you take his soul," he asked her, "if he locked himself in a room?" "I would simply dissolve into smoke and slip under the door," she told him. "Rubbish," Salamon replied. "You mean you could slip inside this peashooter I am whittling for the miller's son?" To prove it, the Martya dissolved into smoke and entered the peashooter. Salamon then plugged both ends of the peashooter, trapping the Martya inside. He locked the peashooter inside a metal box, rowed out to the sea in a boat, and dumped the box over the side. For seven years nobody died, until one day two fishermen casting their nets caught the metal box and retrieved it. They smashed it open, found the peashooter, and unplugged it, allowing the Martya to escape.

Now she began to search for Salamon to get her revenge. But Salamon had anticipated she might escape and had taken precautions. He had shod his horse backwards so that the prints of the horseshoes led the Martya to look for seven years in the wrong direction. She then realized her blunder and spent another seven years looking in the right direction. She finally found Salamon, now an elderly man. "Now I'm going to make you suffer," she told him. "For seven years I will freeze you in ice. Then, for another seven years I will roast you in fire. Then, for seven years I will turn you into rotten pulpwood and you will be nibbled on by maggots. Only after this will I put you out of your misery and take your soul." "Rubbish," Salamon said mockingly. "How can you take my soul? You don't have the power. You're bluffing me." "I'll show you," the Martya screamed, and blew three times on his face. Salamon died smiling. He had outwitted the Martya even in death!

Roma folklore often impacts the daily lives of ordinary Roma in very significant ways. For example, many Roma believe that diseases are caused by evil spirits (Hungarian Roma refer to these spirits as beng, or bizuze ). According to some Roma traditions, these sprits can take the forms of a shepherd, a dog, a rabbit, or some other animal or human form.


As Roma tend to adhere to the religion of the country in which they reside, the vast majority of Roma are Christian. Roma in the United States tend to be either Protestant or Catholic Christians. In Europe, the majority of Roma are Catholic, although large numbers of Orthodox Roma live in Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine and elsewhere. About 10-15% of the world's Roma are Muslim. Most Muslim Roma live in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Albania. Evangelical Christianity is growing rapidly amongst Orthodox and Catholic Roma, as it allows for more accommodation of traditional Roma beliefs and practices.

Traditional Roma religious beliefs are rooted in Hinduism. Roma believe in a universal balance, called kuntari. Everything must have its natural place: birds fly and fish swim. Th us, hens, which do not fly, are considered to be out of balance (and therefore bad luck), as are frogs, which can go into the water and also walk on land. For this reason, many Roma will not eat hens' eggs and are afraid of frogs. The Roma also believe it is possible to become polluted in a variety of ways, including breaking taboos involving the upper and lower halves of the body. A Roma who becomes polluted is considered out of balance and must be restored to purity through a trial before the Roma tribunal of elders (called Kris Romani among the Vlach Roma). If declared guilty, he is usually given a period of isolation away from other Roma and then reinstated after a specified time. In severe cases of pollution, a Roma can be outlawed from the group forever, but this is rare today. Children are exempt from these rules and from pollution taboos until they reach puberty.

The surrounding host-culture religions are used for ceremonies like baptisms or funerals for which the Roma need a formal religious institution. Except for the elders who are the spiritual leaders, there are no Roma priests, churches, or Bibles except among the Pentecostal Roma, who are a growing minority. Despite a 1,000-year separation from India, Roma still practice shaktism, the worship of a god through his female consort. Thus, while most Roma worship the Christian God, they pray to Him through the Virgin Mary or St. Ann, his female consorts, just as they once prayed to one of the Hindu gods through his consort Sat-Sara, or Kali/Durga/Sara. In France, there is a shrine at the village of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue. Tradition says that the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Jacobee landed there after the death of Jesus, having come from Palestine in a small boat with their Egyptian servant, Sara. The three Marys then preached the Gospel among the local people and converted them to Christianity. Every year, in May, large numbers of Roma from Spain, France, and other European countries take part in a pilgrimage to the shrine, where they pay homage, not to the three Marys but to the servant girl, Sara, who does not exist as an official saint in the Catholic Church. In Romani Saint Sara is called Sara E Kali and identified with the Kali/Durga/Sara of Hinduism. In France the Roma carry a statue of Saint Sara on a large platform into the nearby Mediterranean Sea.

In Canada, at Sainte Anne de Beaupré in Québec, there is a shrine where Roma of the Vlach Roma group make annual pilgrimages late in July during the Novena. The Roma women offer flowers and rice cakes to the statue of Saint Anne, the men prepare a feast table with a roasted lamb, and the Roma celebrate Saint Anne, whose statue appears on the feast table. The ceremonies the Roma perform differ radically from those of non-Roma Catholics, who also attend in large numbers.


Roma in different countries celebrate different holidays, and different holidays are observed by different groups of Roma as well. The Vlach Roma and many other groups celebrate Christmas, Easter, and All Saints' Day. They have no specific Roma holidays except in Romania, where there are holidays commemorating the emancipation of Roma slaves. In Muslim countries Roma often observe Muslim religious holidays. In some countries Roma take part in the national holidays and play an integral part in religious festivals. In Canada and the United States some families travel to Sainte Anne de Beaupré for the annual pilgrimage just to see friends and relatives and to socialize. Others do the same thing in Europe at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. Here they can celebrate their group culture, playing music, dancing, singing, and socializing. It also gives the teenagers a chance to meet other young people from different groups and sometimes meet someone they want to marry.

Christmas and Easter among the Vlach Roma are always celebrated by feasts. The head of each extended family will prepare a lavish table and invite all the Roma in the community. Sometimes family heads will get together and pool their resources to hold one large feast for the entire community. There will be music, dancing, singing and socializing. At Easter, each family will dye Easter eggs a special color and place them in a large bowl. These are given, one each, to every guest. There is also a ceremony called chognimos, or egg-whipping, where the visitor or guest will bring one of his own eggs and hold it in the palm of his hand. The host will do the same, and they will slap their palms together, usually cracking or crushing both eggs. This is believed to bring baxt, or good karma. Many Balkan Roma also celebrate St. George's Day, which they call Ederlezi . The holiday celebrates the spring season and is usually observed with feasts and picnics. Some Roma believe that wishes come true on the night of Ederlezi . Many also believe that Ederlezi is a time when people receive cures for their ailments and good luck.


Birth is a happy event among the Roma. They believe in fecundity, and large families are the norm. When the baby is born, the mother and her baby are considered agents of pollution and are separated from the rest of the household and from other Roma for a predetermined period, which varies among clans and groups. Once this period is over, godparents are selected from the Roma community. They take the baby to a church for the actual baptism ceremony. They also give the baby a small gold cross. When the godparents return with the baptized baby there is a feast called bolimos.

Children are pampered and protected by the Roma. When they reach puberty, they become shave (boys) and sheya (girls) and are initiated into the world of adults. Boys are taught to drive and to work with their adult male family members at the family trade. Girls are instructed by female adults in women's work and strictly chaperoned when they go to movies or shopping. Teenagers enter adulthood when they marry, which is generally at 15 or 16 for girls and from 16 to 18 for boys. The young married person becomes a Rom (male adult Roma) or a Romni (female adult Roma). The bride, or bori, must serve a period of apprenticeship in the home of her in-laws until the mother-in-law is satisfied that she is following the laws of respect and pollution to the family's satisfaction.

When adults become middle aged, they graduate to the ranks of the elders: men become spiritual leaders of the community and sit as judges on the tribunal of elders. Women, once they pass through menopause, can no longer pollute men and are then "sanctified" among the Vlach Roma. They too become spiritual elders who advise the younger women. Some gain a reputation for white magic and herbal remedies.

Death among the Roma is a serious affair. There is a one-year mourning period called pomana, with feasts for the dead at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months, as well as the actual funeral feast. Deceased Roma join the ranks of the ancestral dead who watch over the actions of the living and are called as witnesses at solemn events like the swearing of oaths at the tribunal of elders, where they are assumed to be spiritually present and able to send a prekaza, or jinx, to any Roma who perjures himself. Roma do not discuss their dead. They say simply Mek les le Devleste—"Leave him to God to be judged."

Roma traditions have proven remarkably durable. They have survived repeated cultural assimilation campaigns in many of the countries in which Roma live. Furthermore, the phenomenon of Roma conversion to Evangelical Christianity has done little to change the traditional rites of passage of the Roma.


Roma greetings are respectful. When a guest arrives, the host will say "Welcome! God has sent you!" The guest or guests must also be served food and drink. Not to do so would be a sign of disrespect. The usual greeting is a handshake, although Roma men often embrace relatives and close friends and kiss them on the cheek. Women also embrace and kiss when they meet. The guest or guests must be shown the utmost in politeness, served food on clean dishes, and offered whatever they might require. Family members and friends are usually received more casually than adults from another clan or an unrelated family group. When such people visit, the host will often provide entertainment and ask his sons to play music and his eldest daughter to dance. Women must appear modestly dressed before guests and at group gatherings. Roma girls do not go on dates and must be chaperoned outside the home. Boys have more freedom and are allowed to go to dances and socialize with non-Roma teenagers.

Roma body language varies in different countries but most Roma are very expressive and impulsive. They make use of gestures, use their hands when talking, wink, snap their fingers, and indulge in mimicry. When talking about somebody else, they will imitate his or her voice or mannerisms. Among the Vlach Roma, behavior toward other members of the group, including the beliefs that govern taboos, is codified in the Romaniya. Whereas most modern cultures have two concepts of cleanliness (clean and dirty), the Roma have three: wuzho, or clean; melalo, dirty with honest dirt; and marime, which means polluted or defiled among the Vlach Roma (other groups use different words). Where Westerners regard a person who showers twice a day, even if he is a plumber, as clean, a Roma man who worked as a plumber would be defiled or polluted no matter how many showers he took, while a man who sold horses for a living might not take any showers but would be considered unpolluted. While non-Roma are concerned with visible dirt, Roma are concerned with invisible pollution.

Another central belief regarding cleanliness involves the upper and lower halves of the body. Roma do not take baths but shower standing up, since the lower part of the body is considered an agent of pollution. The body above the waist is considered clean, and the head is the cleanest and purest area of all. Clothing worn above the waist must be washed separately from clothing worn below the waist (also, men's clothing cannot be washed with women's clothing). This demarcation between the halves of the body accounts for another Roma custom that often amazes outsiders. Since the female breast is above the waist, it is not seen as a sex object. Many Vlach Roma women carry money, cigarettes, and lighters in their brassieres. It is not unusual for the husband to reach over and help himself to a pack of cigarettes and lighter concealed in his wife's low-cut blouse. Women's legs, however, can only be visible below the knees, hence the traditional long skirts of Roma women.

Sometimes a Vlach Rom man will experience a string of bibaxt, or bad luck, and will assume that he has inadvertently done something that has placed him out of balance. Believing that God is punishing him, he will throw a lavish feast, or slava, to some saint, usually Saint Mary or Saint Ann or, among some groups, Saint George. He will rent a hall and prepare a long table, inviting all the local Roma in the town or in his kumpaniya (an economic unit of Roma occupying a specific geographical area). He hopes that the saint he honors with his feast will intercede with God to change his bad karma (bibaxt) and remove the prekaza, or jinx, from him, and provide him with good karma (baxt). This belief in baxt is fundamental to most Roma groups. One gets baxt by being in balance and one stays in balance by following the Romaniya (cultural taboos) and adhering to the potchiyaimos Romano (Roma code of respect).

The Romaniya affect many aspects of Roma life. Dishes cannot be washed in the sink or in pans used to wash clothing. The floor is considered defiled, so food or anything connected with the intake of food, like dishes, cannot be placed on it. Anything that does has to be destroyed, because detergent cannot remove pollution. Roma wash their hands constantly-after touching their shoes or doorknobs, or doing anything considered necessary but potentially defiling. Menstruating women have the potential to pollute men.

If a Roma person is declared to be polluted, he or she may not socialize with other Roma nor have any dealings with them, since Roma believe that the pollution can spread from one person to another and contaminate the entire community.

The relationship between Roma communities and non-Roma communities is often strained. Since the fall of communism, the level of anti-Roma discrimination and violence has increased in Central and Eastern Europe. Discrimination and hostility towards Roma has fueled the social segregation of Roma from majority populations. Roma beliefs about cleanliness, along with a traditional aversion to Gadje (non-Roma people), also leads to the alienation of Roma from other communities.


The living conditions of Roma vary enormously, from the wealthier, technologically advanced countries like the United States and Canada to poor Balkan countries. In any society, Roma usually live at a somewhat lower standard than the non-Roma—in Albania, where the non-Roma have next to nothing, the Roma have even less. Roma are usually industrious and are always able to earn enough to feed and clothe themselves except in circumstances where they are prevented from doing so, such as under the former Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, where free enterprise was a crime against the state.

Roma fit well into societies where there is a surplus of consumer goods that they can buy and sell, or where there is scrap they can collect to recycle. While many Roma are nomadic, especially in Europe, others are sedentary. They might settle in trailer camps, living in horse-drawn wagons or travel trailers, or in modern apartments. Others live in shantytowns or bidonvilles in France and Spain, which are often bulldozed into oblivion by the town councils while the occupants are at a local feast. Many Roma in Western Europe are squatters, occupying condemned buildings while trying to find more suitable accommodations. In the United States many Roma own their own homes or rent decent living accommodations. In Central and South America many are still nomadic and live in tents. In Portugal Roma travel with horses and wagons and sleep in tents.

The settled Roma of Eastern and Central Europe tend to live in ethnically homogenous villages or ghettoes. In some cases, residential segregation is a choice of Roma families. In other cases, it is forced upon Roma. For example, in many Slovak towns, Roma have been forced from city centers and herded into crowded ghettoes. In most of Europe, the infrastructure and social services available in Roma ghettoes is of much lower quality than what is available to members of the majority-communities.

Nomadic Roma are often healthier than those who lead sedentary lives. The Roma diet was evolved for a nomadic and active people, and when they settle down and still eat the same types of foods, they often become overweight and suffer from health problems. Women generally live longer than men, who often pass away in middle age from heart attacks. Roma life can be stressful because of constant problems arising from their lifestyle, which is often misunderstood by the law enforcement agencies who move them on when they are traveling or, when they are sedentary, harass them over by-laws, work permits, and licenses. In Eastern Europe, there is a high mortality rate among Roma children and infants, and it has been reported that 80% of the orphans in Romania are Roma children suffering from diseases like AIDS (often caused by infected medical syringes).

Except in rural areas of the less developed countries, where they still use horses and wagons, most Roma have made the transition to cars, trucks, and travel trailers. In countries like the United States they fly to visit relatives or to attend weddings. In Europe they travel by train, bus, or in their own cars and trailers. The Roma in the United States and other developed nations see the car as a status symbol and try to own an impressive vehicle. Usually the interior sports torn upholstery and stains caused by children, but from the outside the vehicle reflects pride of ownership. The Roma have adopted the conspicuous consumption of their fellow Americans and love to show off their purchases to visitors. They often buy expensive jewelry, watches, home furnishings, and appliances as well as luxurious carpets and other furnishings. In Europe, Roma caravans are often full of expensive china dishes. They also buy tapestries and brass decorations. In general, Roma like to live in comfort. Even if they live in substandard housing, they will try to fill their homes with attractive furnishings and decorations.

Discrimination and poverty tend to the limit the access to health care of most Roma. One effect of poverty and lack of health care access has been an increase in the HIV rate amongst Roma. In Bulgaria one study found that Roma intravenous drug users were several times more likely than non-Roma intravenous drug users to contract HIV. Lack of information about safe sex and the increasing prevalence of sex work amongst impoverished Roma also leads to higher HIV rates.


Roma families are usually large and extended. The nuclear family is rare and unmarried adults are looked upon with suspicion. To be unmarried means to be out of balance according to the Roma beliefs. Among the Roma women are equal to men, but each sex has its own traditional role. The men go out to work and earn the larger sums of money, which tend to come in sporadically, while the women earn the day-to-day expenses needed to run the household. This is somewhat reversed in the United States, where the main income in many families comes from the reader/adviser parlors of the women. Here the husband acts as a manager/agent as well as working for himself in some trade or profession. This applies primarily to Vlach Roma, however. Other American Roma groups differ. Among the Bashalde, or Hungarian musician group, the men play music while the women generally remain at home and fulfill the role of wife and mother. Among the Romanichals the men earn most of the money, but the women also contribute by selling items or operating a tea room. The Roma woman, or Romani, is the absolute ruler of the home and plays a very matriarchal role. The eldest daughter, or she bari, also has a special role in the family. She replaces the mother in the role of housekeeper when the mother is sick or absent and is responsible for the meals, housecleaning, and the care of her younger siblings. Men do cook and do housework but their role is often limited to doing the dishes and cooking the lambs for a feast. Generally they clean the house only if their wives are unable to do so.

Pets are rare among the Roma since animals can pollute the Roma environment. Watchdogs are kept outside, while cats, which can jump and climb, are taboo. However, some groups are more relaxed toward pets. Horses are considered clean animals and many Roma like to own them even if they no longer need them to travel. Some families even own racehorses.

Since the fall of communism labor migration has become a common phenomenon for Roman males from Central and Eastern Europe. Labor migration often weakens familial ties in normally tight-knit Roma families, leading to higher divorce rates in Roma communities.


There is no traditional male Roma costume. Women among the Roma wear a traditional costume composed of a voluminous ankle-length skirt tied on the left side at the waist, a loose, low-cut blouse, a bolero vest, and an apron. In the United States the bandanna of the married woman is often replaced by a thin strip of ribbon. In Europe the full traditional female costume is still in common use among the Vlach Roma and other more traditional groups. Roma men like to dress well and often adopt a particular style. In the United States during the 1980s the "J.R. look" from Dallas was popular: the Stetson, cowboy boots, and Western suit of the Texas oil tycoon. Roma men wear expensive suits but seldom wear ties, except for Western-style string ties. In Europe men in some groups, like the Romanichals of Britain and the Sinti of Western Europe, wear a diklo, a type of neckscarf, around the neck, often with an ornate ring that they slip over it to tighten it. Most Roma men like fancy belt buckles and lots of jewelry. Women also wear jewelry. Traditionally they wore gold coins, or galbi, on a gold chain around their necks. In modern societies too many have been mugged and their chains stolen. Nowadays they seldom wear them outdoors unless accompanied by men.

For everyday wear Roma dress casually. When working men wear a business suit without a tie, unless they are doing manual labor like sandblasting or spray painting, for which they will wear jeans and an old shirt. Hats are still popular among older Roma men and they also wear them indoors, at feasts and even just sitting in the living room. Teenagers and younger men adopt the local styles, such as baseball caps, sneakers, and windbreakers. Girls can wear jeans at home, but when guests arrive, they have to rush off and change into something more traditional. Miniskirts and other revealing garments are forbidden by the parents.


Roma food differs from one country to another. The roasted lamb of American Roma feasts becomes the roasted pig at Hungarian Roma feasts. The Vlach Roma love stuffed cabbage rolls, which also appear among the foods eaten by Roma of some other groups. Stews are popular among most Roma groups and in the past nomadic Roma always kept a stewpot simmering in the camp, where the hungry members of the group could help themselves. Many items of small game were baked in clay in the fire, especially hedgehogs, which are a delicacy among some nomadic Roma.

The two basic dietary staples of the Roma are meat and un-leavened bread, called pogacha, augmented by salads and fruit. Roma drink a lot of tea specially prepared their own way, not with milk, but with slices of fruit in glasses with sugar. Tea is often made in a large silver samovar among the Vlach and Russian Roma. Most prefer cast-iron or copper pots for cooking and try to avoid modern aluminum pots and pans. Lambs are roasted outdoors on revolving spits and sprinkled with beer. The crusty skin of roasted lamb, called chamb, is considered a delicacy.

There are many taboos surrounding food. Certain foods like peanuts can only be eaten at a pomana, or funeral feast. Bread cannot be burned, and any food that falls on the floor is polluted and must be destroyed. Horsemeat is taboo to all Roma. Food served at a funeral feast must be eaten before sundown or given away to total strangers. Pregnant or menstruating women among the Vlach Roma and the other more traditionally minded groups cannot prepare food to be eaten by others, especially guests, and all foods must be washed and cooked in special containers used only for this purpose. Roma generally do not have set mealtimes. The biggest meal of the day is in the early evening when all the family is home. Food prepared by Gadjes is considered unclean. The inability of Roma to eat food prepared by non-Roma reinforces the cultural and social separateness of the Roma from majority-populations.


Until the 20th century a formal education was virtually unheard of in the Roma community. Traditionally parents taught their children the skills they needed to survive as Roma. In the modern world, however, even the traditional Roma occupations, as well as the newer ones they are entering, require literacy. In Eastern Europe under Communism a fair number of Roma were educated and some have become doctors, journalists, teachers, nurses, and technicians. The Vlach Roma and other traditionalist groups tend to see education as assimilating their children, and the schools are viewed as dangerous places and agents of pollution. In Spain the illiteracy rate amongst Roma is 15%, and in Hungary the illiteracy rate amongst Roma is 23%. High Roma illiteracy rates are common in almost all countries where Roma live.

Once children of both sexes reach puberty, they are usually taken out of school and the boys begin to work with their male elders. The Roma would like schools where their children can be taught their own language, culture, and history, preferably by Roma teachers or non-Roma who are sympathetic to and familiar with Roma culture. In Europe most schools aim at assimilating Roma children into the dominant culture of their country. Today, the Roma have a flag, an anthem, and an educated elite that is growing among the younger generation. The concept of the Romani nations, rather than isolated groups of traditional Roma, is emerging. Many young Roma want to help educate their fellows but mass education for Roma belongs to the 21st century. Roma want the right to define themselves in education, not to be defined by outsiders.

In addition to cultural issues, discrimination often limits the access of Roma to educational opportunities. Many Roma children who live in post-communist European Union (EU) states are forced into remedial schools from an early age. These schools often serve as a means of segregating Roma children from the children of the dominant ethnicity. The combination of poverty, Roma culture, and outside discrimination has created a situation in which the number of Roma who complete higher education is miniscule.


The Roma have a strong cultural heritage, which is expressed mainly in music and dance. The roots of Roma music go back to India and show traces of all the musical cultures to which the Roma have been exposed in their migrations. Roma music from certain countries has become world renowned. Foremost is the Flamenco of the Spanish Roma, who are called Cales. Developed in Andalusia, the former Moorish kingdom of Spain, Flamenco displays Roma, Moorish, and Spanish influences. The Roma Flamenco differs from the non-Roma Spanish Flamenco; it has always been performed and developed by a small number of interrelated families.

Equally well known is the Hungarian Roma music, played on violins and cimbaloms, which can be heard in many Hungarian restaurants, even in the United States and Canada. Russian Roma music has also become famous. Under the czars Roma choirs performed for the royal family and the nobility, while other musicians played for army officers and businessmen at restaurants and inns. In France the Sinti musician Django Reinhardt popularized Sinti swing, which became very popular worldwide. The tradition has been continued by other Sinti musicians. Roma music is also popular in Turkey. Roma musicians can be found serenading couples in many of the fashionable cafes of Istanbul. One import from Roma music is the Gypsy Kings, who play a mixture of traditional Flamenco and Salsa. More recently the rock group Gogol Bordello has gained international success. The group mixes traditional Roma melodies with punk rock, creating a new genre which is now known as Gypsy Punk

Roma dancers are also world famous. Usually it is women like Carmen Amaya who are best known, but many male Flamenco dancers, such as Vicente Escudero, have also emerged on the popular scene. In the 1990s, Flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes received wide acclaim in Europe and was labeled "the Demon of Dance." Music among the Roma has always been divided into the music of the professional musician class-clans and families whose vocation has always been entertainment- and the simpler folk music of the Roma in general, which until recently was never recorded or made available to outsiders. The songs are usually in Romani, and there are songs and dances for specific cultural events, like marriages, feasts, and other gatherings.

Among the Vlach Roma the fast step dance baso is performed by both men and women. It is a dance of respect, and at a feast, men will dance singly, calling out "I honor you (name of host)." Women can dance in groups or singly. There is also a folk dance called the kolo where Roma dance in a circle. Folksongs are traditional and exist in many versions. The melodies can be ancient from now-forgotten sources or might be taken from modern popular music and given Romani words.


Since their arrival in Europe Roma have been self-employed artisans, entertainers, and middle men dealing in various commodities. There have always been Roma horse trainers, animal dealers, rat catchers, and other lines of work too numerous to list. The Roma economy has been built around self employment and the perpetuation of old skills, plus the acquisition of new skills to adapt to new technological developments. In the past, and to a large extent today, this involves commercial nomadism. Even in slavery, in the principalities that later became modern Romania, each group of slaves had its own skill, from gold panners to ironsmiths, musicians, coppersmiths, brick makers, and bear trainers. Thus, work to the Roma not only served as a survival strategy but also defined to which group or class the individual Roma man belonged. Of course, musicians might trade a few horses and coppersmiths might temporarily switch to some other trade, as most Romas were multifaceted and able to turn their hand to different occupations as the economy demanded.

Roma men usually work in groups, either with relatives or with other Roma skilled in their profession. The profit from any work done is divided equally among all the partners who worked on the job, whether buying and selling automobiles or plating vats for a jam factory. Women also share the profits when they work in groups. An adult man or woman receives a full share of the profits, while unmarried members of the group receive half a share. Today, Roma have adapted to the modern marketplace and can be found dealing in real estate, selling diamonds, and buying and selling automobiles, trailers, antiques, clothing, and other items. Some are professional entertainers; others are scrap collectors. Wherever there is an economic niche, the Roma will find it and try to make a living as new work strategies become viable.

Since the early 1990s millions of Roma have migrated to Western Europe in search of work. Unemployment is a very serious problem amongst the Roma of Eastern and Central Europe; in Prague, one of the most prosperous cities of the post-communist world, the unemployment rate of Roma is estimated to be 70%. In contrast to previous movements of Roma, some of the current migration wave is made up of lone adult males. The destination of labor migrants often depended on which country they were leaving. For example, Roma labor migrants from Albania often moved to Greece. Roma from Romania often left for France or Italy in search of work. Roma men who work abroad often send home remittances to support their families.


While there are individual Roma who participate in mainstream athletic events, sports in general do not appeal to the Roma, although certain regional games can be found, such as Roma wrestling in Romania. Many Roma enjoy horse racing and will patronize local racetracks. Roma men and teenagers also like to play billiards, often for money with non-Roma. It is a status symbol among American Roma teenagers to be a good billiard player. Children play games, usually those of the surrounding culture. Nomadic Roma children make catapults and learn to hunt wild game. In Europe Roma participate in mainstream rather than Roma sports, and there are a few Roma soccer teams. Since they have always been a culture geared strongly toward survival, Roma have had little time or inclination to develop an ethnic sport.


Roma, especially children and teenagers, enjoy going to the movies. Roma do not care much for live theater, although some Romas have become actors, notably the late Yul Brynner, whose mother was Roma.

In a Roma home, the television, if there is one, is usually left on so that the children may watch it. Adults seldom have time for television. Roma are exposed to popular culture on television but most adults take no part in it. Since Roma have little to do with non-Roma, except for business, many form their ideas of non-Roma culture from what they see on television. Teenagers may adopt the slang they hear from teenagers on television or copy their way of dressing, but for the most part the surrounding mainstream culture contravenes Roma taboos.

Some families, tired of the local routine, will decide to travel around for a while just to meet relatives, attend a social function in some other city, or camp out in a camper van like the Roma used to do when they were nomadic. Local fairs like Appleby Fair in Britain also attract many Roma, not only those who still deal in horses. Some will go to sell seconds of fine china or to hawk other wares. Some go just to be there and to socialize and perhaps turn a little business their way.

In recent years European Roma have begun to enjoy Romani-language television, radio, news and Internet publications. However, illiteracy and poverty have limited access to these media outlets. In addition most Romani media is produced by highly educated Roma elites, leading to a disconnect between ordinary Roma and the Romani media.


While some individuals have excelled as painters or sculptors, and in other art forms, the majority of Roma practice few handicrafts. Some Roma men make belts or leather clothing and women may do elaborate embroidery work, while both sexes create artifacts, such as baskets, for sale.

The carving and fretwork designs seen on the Roma wagons in England became world famous and were later copied by European Roma in some countries. The original Romanichal caravans appeared around 1860 and were a Roma adaptation of the original English showman's wagon. These vardos, or caravans, were adorned with intricate carvings and fretwork designs, painted and even highlighted with gold leaf in some expensive versions. The last type to survive the automobile and the freeway was the bow top made from birch planks bent into a semicircle inside a wagon base, covered with canvas, and painted green to help hide it among the trees and away from the police. Today, some of the ornately carved versions are made for European collectors by Roma craftsmen, while some Romanichals build or buy one, not to travel with, but simply to own as a matter of nostalgia and prestige.

In Eastern Europe, Roma woodcarvers also make wooden bowls and trenchers. Others manufacture wooden flutes and other musical instruments. Among the Vlach Roma the Kalderash, or coppersmiths, make intricate copper objects of artistic merit, usually on order for some prestigious hotel or restaurant. Before the age of plastic, Roma also made wooden clothes pegs.

A new European Union push to foster Roma inclusion has led to renewed interest in traditional Roma crafts. Crafts are seen as a way of providing employment opportunities in Roma communities.


European Roma today are survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in which Roma, like Jews, were singled out as an ethnic group to be completely exterminated. At least a million Roma died in Nazi Germany and in the occupied countries. Others were annihilated by Nazi collaborationist regimes, such as Croatia under the Ustashi. Postwar Communism in Eastern Europe tried to assimilate the Roma into the general populations, and in all countries they became an unwanted, surplus population denied their identity as a people.

Since 1977 Roma have been recognized by the United Nations as a legitimate people with rights to their own identity, language, culture, lifestyle, and religion. The challenge now is to have the governments of the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe recognize these rights. In most of these countries, as reports by Helsinki Watch, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations have attested, the official government policy toward Roma is ethnocide—the destruction of their language, culture, and identity in order to assimilate them. In Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary, Roma have become the new scapegoats and the target of skinheads and other lawless elements of society. In Slovakia Roma have been forcefully expelled from city centers and sent to squalid ghettoes. In 2008 Roma communities in Naples, Italy were attacked by violent mobs and entire neighborhoods were burned to the ground. In other parts of Central and Eastern Europe Roma face routine violence and acts of discrimination. Part of the problem in Romania is that when Roma were slaves between the 15th and 19th centuries, they were stigmatized and regarded as inferior. The myth of the half-human, dangerous, dirty, uncivilized, and lazy Roma slave became part of the Romanian psyche, in much the same way that the myth of the racial inferiority of African Americans became part of the communal psyche in the southern United States. In other countries folk mythology reduced the Roma to the level of romantic misfits or backward savages who should be civilized and assimilated into the general population.

Large numbers of Roma have fled to Western Europe, where they have created a refugee problem. They are entitled to apply for asylum but many countries deport them for lack of documents or for false documents sold to them by underworld "people smugglers" who have helped them enter the country. The Roma in the Americas, Canada, and other countries outside Europe have much greater freedom and protection under the law, although still subject to ethnic stereotyping and discrimination and conflict with authorities over aspects of their lifestyle and economic practices.

Next to discrimination, poverty is the greatest challenged faced by most Roma. In 2006 the $4.30/day poverty rate amongst Roma was over 45% in most countries of Southeast Europe. High unemployment rates, high levels of discrimination, and low levels of education attainment all create a vicious circle that leads to the continuation of poverty for Roma.

Alcoholism and drug abuse exist among Roma, although drugs are taboo under the pollution code of the Vlach Roma and other groups. While Roma used to drink only at feasts and on special occasions such as a betrothal ceremony or a funeral, today it is not uncommon for them to turn to alcohol as a temporary escape from their problems. The disease of alcoholism is not understood among the Roma. If a Roma gets drunk, the blame tends to fall on the alcohol, not on the person. The Roma say Lya les e rakiya-"The whiskey took hold of him"- as if it were some kind of malevolent spirit that entered and possessed him. Although forbidden, drug use has also taken hold amongst many young Roma. Intravenous drug use is increasing the spread of disease, such as HIV and hepatitis.

Traditionally Roma have not been dangerous criminals. Their crimes are generally of a petty nature, consisting of confidence games, shoplifting, or other types of pilfering. Offenses like selling drugs, organized prostitution, arson, murder for hire, and loan sharking are all forbidden to them by their own code of laws. That said, abject poverty has led many Roma to commit such serious crimes. Crimes like these are thought to bring bad karma and place the criminal "out of balance."


In traditional Roma households the roles of men and women are strictly defined. The duty of men is to provide for the family. Women may also contribute to the household income but their primary duty is to cook, clean, and raise children. Many Roma girls leave school early to help their mothers with housework. This has led to an imbalance in the literacy rates and levels of educational attainment between many Roman males and females. Roma tradition dictates that girls remain virgins before marriage. The consequences for girls suspected of pre-marital sex can be quite severe. It is uncommon for males to be seriously punished for similar activity.

Most Roma view homosexuality as an extremely negative phenomenon; homosexuals are regarded as unclean. If outed, gay and lesbian Roma are usually banished from their community. In many Roma communities, women and young people are challenging traditional values that pertain to gender and sexuality. However, change is difficult, because most Roma are quite resistant to transforming their culture to conform to that of the Gadje.


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—revised by B. Lazarus