ETHNONYMS: Gypsy, or subgroup appellations: Kalderash, Machwaya
Identification. The Rom speaking a Vlach (Vlax) Gypsy dialect have representatives over most of the world including the United States, Canada, Mexico, and much of Central and South America. Rom means "human being," "man," and "husband," thus paralleling the use of the word "man" in English. "Rom" and "Gypsy" are used interchangeably Because for the Rom the English term carries none of the negative connotations it has for many non-Gypsies.
Location. The Rom are found in every state, and although some continue to be seminomadic, traveling throughout the country and into Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and occasionally to Europe, most families strive to control a territory focused on a pool of fortune-telling clientele. Most Rom are urban dwellers, found primarily in the larger metropolitan centers; fewer live in small towns and on busy main roads throughout rural America.
Demography. My enumeration of the Rom population in several states and large cities, and interviews with the Rom about their knowledge of where different families live, resulted in a figure of less than twenty thousand. The New York metropolitan area has the largest concentration, with perhaps as many as four hundred to five hundred families. Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities have lesser concentrations corresponding primarily to their population size.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Rom speak a dialect of a Language belonging to the Indic branch of the Indo-European language family. They refer to it adverbially as speaking Romanes, "in the Gypsy way"; in English the language is called "Gypsy." Linguists refer to it and other related but not always mutually intelligible dialects as "Romani." The dialect spoken by the Rom falls into a category of Vlach, or Romanian-influenced Gypsy dialects.
History and Cultural Relations
On the basis of linguistic evidence, the ancestors of the Rom and other Gypsy groups are thought to have left India sometime before a.d. 1000. Loan words in the Gypsy language indicate they passed through Persian- and Greek-speaking areas. The first records that can reasonably be thought to apply to Gypsies come from early-fourteenth-century Greece. After the arrival of Gypsies in Europe, some groups spread west and north, whereas the ancestors of the Rom appear to have stayed in the Balkans, especially in the Serbian and Romanian-speaking areas, until the middle of the nineteenth century, at which time they began another series of migrations, culminating in the distribution of Rom families all over the world. This major split, often referred to as the first and second waves of migrations, is also reflected in the Vlachnon-Vlach dialect division. Before coming to North America, most of the families had traveled widely; group designations reflect the countries with which they were associated, such as Rusuya, Grekuya, Arxentinuya, Meksikaya, and so on. The tribal name of Machwaya derives from the Serbian area from which they emigrated.
My research places the first arrival of Rom in the United States in 1881, but the real influx did not begin until about 1895. It was during this period, from 1895 until immigration was slowed down by World War I and halted by the literacy requirement of 1918, that the ancestors of most of the Rom families currently in the United States and Canada arrived here. The more recent Lovara Rom, who first arrived from Europe in 1973, are not discussed here, as they have not been here long enough yet to be considered "American Rom."
Owing to economic competition over fortune-telling Territory, Rom in the United States and Canada have evolved a scattered distribution roughly correlated with the density of the non-Gypsy population, especially that portion of it Perceived by the Rom to comprise the best clientele. Larger cities are divided into areas of influence in which certain families hold sway, sometimes for decades or until displaced by another family. Some smaller towns are said to be "owned" by a single family, and extended families often lay claim to a portion of a state with rural areas and a number of small towns. This is especially true in the southern states. "Ownership" may consist of informal arrangements with local law enforcement officials, possession of a fortune-telling license, influence with welfare authorities, or a patronage relationship with some influential local person.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . The economic Organization of the Rom, like that of most Gypsies, has been characterized by what in recent years has come to be called a "peripatetic adaptation," or sometimes "commercial nomadism." Although much less nomadic and more urbanized today, the adaptation of the Rom remains an ethnically organized, opportunistic exploitation of the human resource base by means of a wide variety of strategies. Non-Gypsies form the clientele; no similar economic relationship is sanctioned among the Rom. This adaptation is unusually stable in its overall relationship to non-Gypsy society, although the specific strategies utilized are readily accommodated to Regional differences and changing times. This very flexibility is highly valued by the Rom. The principal trades the Rom have engaged in over the years have alternated between women's fortune-telling and the men's sales and service activities. Today fortune-telling is the primary subsistence activity and influences population distribution and social relations. Whenever possible, the Rom try to operate as independent entrepreneurs, thus avoiding the proletarianization of their labor.
Industrial Arts. As independent traveling traders and service providers the Rom engaged little in primary productive activities or manufacturing. They were everywhere dependent on the surrounding population for their subsistence. In spite of increased sedentism, the only relationship the Rom have to industry is by means of semiskilled repair trades, formerly as copper- and tinsmiths, today as auto-body workers, electroplaters, metal burnishers, and so on.
Trade. Rom have always been alert to opportunities to engage in buying, selling, or trading whatever goods seem to be in demand at any particular time. Shrewd tradesmanship is part of the self-definition of a Gypsy. Men generally deal in larger merchandise, formerly horses, today cars and trailers; women tell fortunes or sell smaller items, such as decorative objects; and children engage in occasional productive activities such as shining shoes or hawking flowers on the streets.
Division of Labor. Sexual dichotomy among the Rom extends to types of work that are considered proper for men and women. Fortune-telling is women's work par excellence, although it's the men who control and protect the territory. Men's work is more variable, but at any particular time and place there is a range of pursuits that are considered properly "Gypsy." By the same token there are jobs, such as plumbing, that contravene the group's pollution taboos and that a Rom should not perform.
Land Tenure. There is no traditional form of land tenure because there is no traditional attachment to land. Fortune-telling locations and the rights to the local clientele are often bought and sold as businesses, however. Today, real estate also may be purchased either as an investment or as a base for service operations.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Rom population in North America is organized almost entirely on basis of kinship. Students of American Rom disagree in their interpretations of kinship. Gropper and Sutherland describe descent as cognatic or bilateral; Gropper, however, recognizes the patrilineal emphasis in rules of residence. In my view, descent ideology is patrilineal, as expressed frequently by the statement: "We always go by the father." In practice, rare exceptions occur. The patrilineally extended family is generally the largest functioning unit in the society. Patrilineally related males work together, pool their money for bride-price, defend Common fortune-telling territories against outside threats, and exhibit solidarity at public gatherings. Women's lineages are considered not to matter, as expressed by the statement referring to marriage: "The girls are thrown away." Above the Family are the lineage and the clan, which generally give the group its name; sometimes the names of lineage founders are used in addition to the clan name. Thus an individual may identify himself as being a Rom of the Kalderash tribe, Mineshti clan, Demitro lineage, the son of Zurka, known by the name of Wasso. Both the clan and the lineage are referred to by the term vitsa, which originates in the Romanian word meaning a "stem."
Kinship Terminology. Eskimo-type kinship terms are used. Most of the terminology derives from Indic roots, although some has been borrowed from Romanian and possibly from other European languages. It differs from common European kinship terms primarily by equating grandchildren with nieces and nephews and in emphasizing terms defining relationships among affines, the parties to marriage contracts.
Marriage. Within living memory, most marriages have been arranged by the families of the boy and the girl, the initiative being with the boy's parents. Formerly the young people were rarely consulted in the matter; today their wishes may be taken into consideration, especially if they are strongly opposed to the proposed match. Elopement, which may have been an earlier form of marriage, is occasionally resorted to as an alternative form. Marriage is viewed as a contract between the two families with bride-price as the cement to solidify the agreement. At the wedding, formerly an elaborate three-day series of ceremonies now collapsed to one, the bride is transferred to the groom's family, and money is collected from the guests to defray the costs borne by them. Over the generations, patterns of bride exchange have developed between certain patrilineages amounting to a loose form of alliance. The members of such lineage pairs often say that the frequent intermarriages practically make them into one vitsa. Marriages between cousins once removed are common, but may also occur between first cousins, especially cross cousins. After marriage the couple traditionally resides patrilocally until other brothers in the family get married, at which time the first one may move out to begin an independent nuclear household. The relationship to the husband's paternal household remains strong, however; meals may still be taken there and often the households are in close proximity by choice. Divorce requires the return of a portion of the Brideprice, the amount depending on the length of time the couple stayed together.
Domestic Unit. The primary social unit among the Rom is the patrilineally extended family. Formerly this constituted a camping unit, but today it is difficult for such a large number of people to obtain single or adjacent housing. As much as possible, however, the extended family attempts to function as a domestic unit—for example, by visiting daily, sharing meals, and otherwise considering one another's homes as Extensions of one's own household.
Inheritance. Typically at the time of death there used to be very little to inherit and a great reluctance to possess items belonging to the deceased; most personal belongings would have been burned, broken, or discarded to avoid possible visits by the spirit of the deceased. Today, increasing ownership of real estate and bank accounts is bringing more mainstream inheritance rules to bear on disposal of property.
Socialization. Children are raised in an extended family setting with all older females sharing in child-caring activities. Children are indulged, protected, and treasured. They grow up feeling secure in, but dependent on, the protection they receive from the extended family. But they often seem at a loss in new situations without the support of the relatives. Even adults consider long separation from the family to be the worst kind of deprivation that could occur.
Social Organization. The Rom function on a band level with family elders and influential "big men" as the only type of leadership. Rom society is organized primarily on the basis of kinship, with sex, age, ability, wealth, and family membership used to rank individuals. It is patrifocal in that all important decisions are ultimately made by the adult males, although the advice of women may be considered. Age is generally accorded high respect, but ability may sometimes count for more. Women defer to their men. Wealth is seen as proof of ability and luck and is highly esteemed. Prestige is based on a combination of wealth, ability, and good conduct.
Political Organization. Lacking formai leadership, Rom political organization consists of loose federations, or shifting alliances between lineages, which generally are united by Marriage ties. Charismatic individuals, those who have become wealthy or who have influential friends among non-Gypsies, may for a while possess certain power to influence others; however, their power is generally nontransferable. At the death of a "big man," his sons do not necessarily inherit his status. Each has to earn his own status.
Social Control. Social control is ultimately in the hands of one's peers and elders who happen to be in a position to command respect at the particular time. Most of the time, social control consists of discussion and evaluation, gossip, ridicule, and similar informal pressure tactics. In more serious cases a divano, a gathering of friends, relatives, and available local elders, may be called first to discuss and attempt to solve the problem in order to avoid the expense and trouble of resorting to a Gypsy court. If this fails, the Kris, an ad hoc court of arbitration, is convened, generally by the party that feels it has been wronged. The judges are chosen from among available respected elders, who are felt to be objective and are expected not to favor one side over another. Sanctions may consist of monetary fines or, more rarely, formal ostracism. Charges of contravention of pollution taboos, more frequently used in the past, are among the strongest forms of Social control. A person or family labeled unclean, marime, is effectively banned from further contact with other Rom until cleared by the Kris. Non-Gypsy law enforcement is also called upon as an adjunct to internal forms of conflict resolution, albeit mostly for the harassment of enemies.
Conflict. Conflicts—which may begin with individual disagreements over division of earnings, disputes over Brideprice or daughters-in-law, or competition over fortune-telling territory—are often expressed on another level as disagreements between families or lineages. Patrilineally related individuals are expected to band together to defend the Family against outsiders. Women whose natal lineages are in conflict with those of their husbands are sometimes put in an awkward position of having to choose between them.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. In addition to traditions that may have earlier roots, the religion of the Rom incorporates elements from Eastern European folk religions, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism. Today, although most consider themselves Catholic, large numbers have turned toward evangelical Protestant sects such as Pentecostalism. Beliefs are derived partly from indigenous traditions and partly from the official and folk religions of the countries among which the Rom have lived. God, O Del, and saints are venerated, and numerous spirits, some associated with natural elements such as wind or water, are recognized. Some are anthropomorphized; others more manalike in their expression. Luck, Bax, especially is considered an active supernatural force, closely bound with the notion of fate. Symbolic uncleanness is sometimes also reified as an incarnation of evil. Pollution, or marime taboos based on the symbolic impurity of the lower body, especially of women, dictates proper behavior between the sexes, older and younger people, food and laundry handling, and the arrangement of household furnishings. The same separation of clean from unclean also dictates the kinds of social and economic relations permissible between the Rom and non-Gypsies.
Religious Practitioners. No formal priests, shamans, or other religious specialists exist among the Rom. A few women are noted as interpreters of dreams; others may be feared as witches because of their age or ability to cast curses.
Ceremonies. Major ceremonies with religious components include saint's day feasts, baptisms, funerals, feasts of honor, weddings, and Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas celebrations. All celebrate the Rom as a people; by the giving of feasts, respect is demonstrated to both the supernaturals and other Rom.
Arts. Arts consist of music, including recent musical compositions and adaptations, dance, folk songs, legends, and family history. Oratory, especially at a Kris, may also be considered among the artistic expressions of the Rom. Folklore serves educational, evaluative, and prescriptive roles of major importance in the absence of writing and more formal education.
Medicine. There is some evidence that the Rom once possessed a rich body of folk medicines, remedies, and cures, most of which by now have fallen into disuse. There do not appear to have been any internally recognized medical specialists, although the older women served as multipurpose ethnopsychiatrists, herbalists, and curers for outside clients. Modern medicine is accepted, and in cases of serious illness the best physicians and hospitals are sought regardless of the cost or distance.
Death and Afterlife. Spirits of the dead are believed to survive death. The deceased are provided with money, a new suit of clothes, and travel necessities. Their spirits roam the earth for one year after death, retracing the steps traveled during life. The year after death is punctuated by a series of memorial feasts, with the last one after a year formally concluding the journey with a ceremony of "Opening the Road," presumably to heaven, raio, and the liberation of the spirit from any further earthly obligations. Anniversaries of death are also commemorated with food offerings, generally by an extra place setting at a table. There is no corresponding belief in hell. Death is considered as polluting, and the appearance of spirits of the dead is generally feared unless the one perceiving the ghost had an especially close and good relationship with the person while alive. Nevertheless, one's ancestors may be invoked to intercede on one's behalf at a time of great need. Those Rom who have recently become Pentecostals have renounced most of these beliefs and practices as "pagan."
Gropper, Rena C. (1975). Gypsies in the City: Culture patterns and Survival. Princeton: Darwin Press.
Miller, Carol J. (1968) "Macvaja Gypsy Marime." M.A. thesis, University of Washington, Seattle.
Pickett, David (1970). "The Gypsies: An International Community of Wandering Thieves." Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University.
Salo, Matt T., and Sheila Salo (1977). The Kalderas in Eastern Canada, Folk Culture Studies, no. 21. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.
Silverman, Carol T. (1979). "Expressive Behavior as Adaptive Strategy among American Gypsies." Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania.
Sutherland, Anne (1975). Gypsies: The Hidden Americans. New York: Free Press.
MATT T. SALO
So Romany gipsy, gipsy language. XIX. — Romany Romani, pl. and fem. of Romano adj., f. Rom.