Gypsy Americans

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by Evan Heimlich


The term Gypsy derives from Egyptian, reflecting a mistaken assumption of the origins of the people who refer to themselves as the Roma. Ethnic Gypsies are the descendants of diverse groups of people who were assembled in northern India as a military force to resist the eastward movement of Islam. Over the centuries, they moved westward into Europe and northern Africa, adapting their language and culture in their migrations. Gypsy Americans represent family groups from England (Romnichals), Eastern Europe (the Rom, subdivided into Kalderash, Lovari, and Machvaya), Romania (Ludar), and Germany. They sometimes entered the United States after residing in other parts of the western hemisphere for a period of time. An accurate estimate of their numbers is difficult to achieve. If counted in a census at all, it is typically by their country of origin. Estimates of the total population of ethnic Gypsies in the United States range from fewer than 100,000 to one million.


The Rom linguist W. R. Rishi gives the etymology of Rom from the Sanskrit Rama, with meanings that include "one who roams about." The number of Persian, Armenian, and Greek terms in the various Romani dialects reflect their migrations, just as those related to Sanskrit and Hindi point to their common origin. Although a Persian story has been cited as proof they came from a single caste of entertainers, more recent evidence, including blood-type research, points to a gathering of diverse peoples in the Punjab region of India to form an army and its support groups to counter Muslim invaders. In the eleventh century some of this group moved north through Kashmir and west into Persia. After some generations they pushed on to Armenia, then fled Turkish invaders by entering the Byzantine Empire. By the thirteenth century they reached the Balkan Peninsula; Serbian and Romanian terms came into their language. Thereafter they split into smaller groups that dispersed throughout Europe, absorbed cultural and linguistic influences of their host countries, and developed differences that persist among Gypsy subgroups today.

The Roma had reached Western Europe from regions dominated by the feared Ottoman Empire. Their language and appearance set them apart from the resident populations; they repeatedly suffered harassment or worse at the hands of the local majority. Such treatment likely encouraged their traditionally nomadic way of life. Eventually Europeans used "Gypsies" or related words to name not only a particular ethnic group of people, but also other groups of people, unrelated by blood, whose traveling lifestyles made them resemble ethnic Gypsies. For the most part, Gypsies kept to themselves as a people; however, as Matt Salo suggests in his introduction to Urban Gypsies, "The existence of a number of Gypsy-like peripatetic groups, some of which (such as British Travellers) have intermarried with Gypsies ... complicate our attempts at classification" of who should not count and who should count as Gypsies. Although purists tend to define the group narrowly, loose classifications of ethnic Gypsies include all nomads who live and identify themselves as Gypsies.

The two groups of Gypsy Americans about whom scholars know the most are the Rom and the Romnichals. Many of the Rom came to the New World from Russia or Eastern or Central Europe; the Romnichals came from Great Britain. Although these two groups have much in common, they also are divided by the cultural differences and prejudices between Great Britain and Eastern Europe. The Romnichals came to the United States earlier than the Rom, and ran successful horse-trading operations in New England. The Rom arrived in the United States during the late nineteenth century. It is uncertain how many Gypsies are in the United States because many Gypsies' entry was undocumented, and others were recorded by their country of origin and not as Gypsies. The Roma-sponsored Patrin website explains, "Many Roma themselves do not admit to their true ethnic origins for economic and social reasons." Most chillingly, the Nazis rounded up and killed one million Gypsies during World War II.

Almost all Gypsies in the United States originated from some part of Europe, although there are a few small groups from elsewhere, such as parts of Asia. Some "black Dutch," from Germany, the Netherlands, and Pennsylvania, intermarried with Romnichals and are counted as Anglo-Americans. Besides the Eastern Europeans who make up the large group of Rom, there are in the United States two other large groups of Gypsies: the Baschalde (from Slovakia, Hungary, and Carpagia), who may number close to 100,000; and the Romungre (from Hungary and Transylvania) who may number as many as 60,000. There are also some Horchanay, who are historically Muslims from the South Balkans, and a small population of Sinti Gypsies, who came from Northern EuropeGermany, Netherlands, France, Austria, Hungarywhere they, like other Gypsies, were targets of the Nazis. There are also Bosnian and Polish Gypsies present in the United States. Within the category of Rom Gypsies, there are several subgroups in the United States, such as the Kalderash and Machwaya. One of the most recent immigrations of a Gypsy group is that of the Lovara, which arrived in the 1990s. There are also a few small groups of Rumanian Ludar, who may be Gypsies, in addition to the population of Gypsy Americans who emigrated from the Gypsy stronghold within the nation of Romania.


Gypsies have come to the United States for reasons similar to those of other immigrants; however, since European powers have tended to oppose Gypsies, this hostility has hastened Gypsy emigrations. According to Sway, "Gypsy deportations from England, France, Portugal, and Spain created the genesis of Gypsy life in the New World." Gypsies' social marginality left them little institutional power in Europe. Sway adds that England deported some Gypsies to Barbados and Australia, and by the end of the seventeenth century, every European country with New World holdings followed the practice of deporting Gypsies to the Americas.

Suspicion between Gypsies and established institutions also spurred Gypsy emigration. Christian churches of Europe attacked Gypsy fortune-tellers, prompting deportations. Sending Gypsies home was not an optionno nation welcomed them since their origin in India was unknown to the Western world until the eighteenth century. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Eastern European emigrants spread throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere; within this mass movement came the biggest immigrant waves of Gypsies to the United States.

Although Europeans have historically treated Gypsies poorly, Gypsies tended to fare better in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe, where they suffered the extremes of racial prejudice, including enslavement. Still, the Roma hoped to escape social oppression in the New World. Of Gypsies deported to South American colonies, some migrated North. Some Gypsies were annexed into America with territory itself: for example, Napoleon transported hundreds of Gypsy men to Louisiana during the two-year period before selling the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. More recently, toward the end of the twentieth century, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has enabled Gypsies to emigrate more freely, at times with renewed harassment as incentive, bringing new waves of Eastern European Gypsies to the United States.


The traditional stereotype of the Gypsy is the wanderer, and some modern Gypsy Americans continue to travel in pursuit of their livelihoods. Rather than wander, they tend to move purposefully from one destination to another. Historically, some families have reportedly traveled in regular circuits, often returning to the same places; others have ranged more widely, following no set route. Awareness of the best cities, small towns, or rural areas as markets for their services has guided all travel. A group might camp for weeks, sometimes months, at especially productive urban areas, returning to these spots year after year.

Gypsy Americans might maintain a sequence of home bases; they often live in mobile homes, settling indefinitely in a trailer park. They may tear down walls or and enlarge the doorways of their homes to combine rooms or make them larger to create a wide open space suitable for the large social gatherings that occur in Rom homes. In Urban Gypsies, Carol Silverman noted that Gypsies frequently pass along the houses, apartments, or trailers that they modify to a succession of Gypsy families. While some Gypsy Americans travel to make their living, others pursue settled careers in a variety of occupations according to their education and opportunities.

The Gypsy population has been participating in American migrations from countryside into cities. Yet estimates tend to support that the Gypsy American population at any given time is evenly divided between urban and rural areas. Generally, as noted by Silverman, the urbanization of the Rom began as early as the end of the eighteenth century when various groups began to spend the winter months camping in vacant lots on the outskirts of cities, and intensified when "a large number of Rom flocked to the cities during the 1920s and 1930s to take advantage of various relief programs, and remained there because of gas rationing and because of increasing business opportunities within the city."

Because Gypsies tend to follow economic opportunities, the most populous cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, and Portland, have the largest concentrations of Gypsies. Currently, there are Romnichal strongholds of very conservative Gypsies who reside in Texarkana, southern Arkansas, and other predominantly rural regions. Gypsies also have joined American movement westward. Many live in California.


Gypsy Americans who can do so often travel to other parts of the Western Hemisphere and to Europe. Many repeatedly visit certain places as part of a set route, including places where their kinfolk lived for generations. Gypsy Americans largely consider Eastern Europe their peoples' home. "In 1933 at the first International Conference on Gypsy Affairs held in Bucharest, Romania," stated Sway, "the United Gypsies of Europe asked for a piece of land in Bucharest where Gypsies in trouble could settle. Later in 1937, Janus Kwiek, the 'Gypsy King of Poland,' asked Mussolini to grant the Gypsies a strip of land in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) so they might escape persecution in various host societies."

Many Americans have romanticized Gypsies as exotic foreigners. Some Americans draw on the supposedly romantic appeals of Gypsy traditionsespecially traditions of dancing and music-making, lives on the road, and maintaining a traveling culture. Often, established Americans maintain or adopt European prejudices against Gypsies and treat Gypsy immigrants poorly. Just as Europeans have often attributed the fortune-telling skills of Gypsies to "black magic," Gypsy traders have been accused of fencing stolen goods, and of stealing their goods themselves. Laws attempting to deter, prevent, and punish fortune-tellers and thieves in America have singled out Gypsy Americans. According to Sway, until 1930, Virginia legally barred Gypsies from telling fortunes. And in New Jersey in the middle 1980s, special regulations and licensing requirements applied to Gypsies who told fortunes. Gypsy households have been labeled as "dens of thieves" so that charges brought against one resident may apply to any and all. In Mississippi in the middle 1980s, such application of liability "jointly-and-severally" is law. There have also been cases in the Pacific Northwest. As recently as the 1970s, New Hampshire expelled some Gypsies from that state on the grounds merely that they were Gypsies.

The fearsome shadow of attempted genocide of Gypsies in Europe still menaces Gypsies. Gypsy Americans are concerned about worsening oppression of fellow Gypsies, most severely in Eastern Europe. This concern is understandable in light of the first two genocidal massacres: during World War I Turks killed Gypsies and Armenians; and during the Holocaust, Nazis massacred Gypsies alongside Jews. Because too few people know about the Gypsy victims of the Nazis, Gypsies advocate public recognition of that loss. They attempt to draw attention, too, to the current plight of Eastern European Gypsies. Though the collapse of Communist regimesespecially that of Ceauşescu, which conducted sterilizations and other genocidal persecutions of Gypsieshas alleviated some of the worst oppression, "ethnic cleansing" in Eastern Europe is a cause for Gypsy concern.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Gypsies have repeatedly shown the ability to adapt without surrendering the essence of their culture. Traditional Gypsy Americans continue to resist the inroads of acculturation, assimilation, and absorption in the United States. Even groups such as the Gitanos or Romnichals, despite having lost most of their original language, still maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity and exclusiveness. A major issue facing Gypsy Americans since the 1980s is a worldwide Christian Fundamentalist revival that has swept up Gypsies around the world. As masses of Gypsies practice versions of Pentecostal Christianity, currents of Gypsy culture may be undergoing a sea-change.

Gypsies maintain a powerful group identity, though. Their traveling itself sets them apart from other cultures, as does their common rejection of international borders. Another area of difference from mainstream America is attitude toward formal, public schools. Until recently, many Gypsies sent their children to schools only until the age of ten to keep them from being exposed to alien practices and teachings.

Prejudice against Gypsies has strengthened their isolation. One might suppose that economic interactions would dispel the insularity of Gypsies, if insular social techniques did not pull Gypsies together. These opposing tensions give Gypsies a flexible identity. Gypsy people may seem split between their business life, which focuses outwardly on non-Gypsies, and on the other hand, their social life, which focuses inwardly on only Gypsies. Nevertheless, as Silverman noted, some Gypsy Americans may present themselves as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, and as other local ethnics in order to obtain jobs, housing, and welfare.

Contemporary urban Rom usually live interspersed among the non-Gypsy population, establishing ofisi (fortune-telling parlors, one means of livelihood) in working areas or in their homes. Their businesses may make many Gypsies seem quite assimilated, and at other times the same Gypsies may seem very traditional. Gypsies have tended to maintain two distinct standards of public behavior, one among themselves, another among outsiders, and Sway pointed to a "form of body language and interactional style" that Gypsies often use when interacting with non-Gypsies. "A Gypsy's very survival among non-Gypsies often depends on his [or her] ability to conceal as well as exaggerate his Gypsiness at appropriate times," observed Silverman. For example, an appropriate time for a Gypsy to play to stereotype is while performing as a musician or fortune-teller for audiences who are known to value Gypsies' exoticism. On the other hand, Silverman added that "a large part of behaving appropriately as a Gypsy involves knowing when to conceal one's Gypsiness." By passing as someone from a less stigmatized group, one can circumvent anti-Gypsy prejudice. For many, noted Silverman, "the process of boundary crossing [is] a performance strategically enacted for survival."

Gypsies and non-Gypsy Americans have subjected each other to prejudices. To many Americans, Gypsy Americans seem to be sinister foreigners. To the Gypsies, Sway observed, "non-Gypsies seem cold, selfish, violent," as well as defiled or polluted. However, because Gypsies depend economically on non-Gypsies as customers for their services, they cannot afford to isolate themselves physically from non-Gypsies. Instead, social techniques enable Gypsies to maintain their cultural separateness from the people near whom they live, and with whom they do business. Basically, these techniques consist of taboos. A Gypsy court system enforces the taboos, to effectively limit social interactions with non-Gypsies. Gypsy Americans may bend their taboos by eating in a restaurant with non-Gypsies, and then attend to the taboos by remarking that some uncleanliness made them sick or unlucky.


Stereotypes of Gypsies have focused on their nomadism, fortune-telling, and their trading. Non-Gypsies have stereotyped Gypsies, their cultures, and their skills as exotically different at best, but often much more offensively. As a result, English-speakers say that to defraud, swindle, or cheat someone is to "gyp" them. This sensational image of Gypsies as criminals does not find support from statistical analysis of court records, since conviction rates of Gypsy Americans seem to be lower than rates of other ethnic Americans for rape and murder; and the conviction rate of Gypsies for theft is no higher than the rate for other Americans. However, Hancock pointed out in his The Pariah Syndrome that the association of Gypsies with crime goes deep and is sometimes justified since Gypsies have resorted to theft as a means of survival; but "much of it is not justified, however, and is the result of exploitation of a stereotype by a popular press which is less interested in the honest Gypsies."

Western stereotypes of Gypsies as criminals arose when Gypsies first entered Europe. Confusion reigned over Europe's attempts to know who the Gypsies were. Matt Salo stated in his introductory essay to Urban Gypsies that "many early [European] accounts describe Gypsy bands as conglomerations of various segments of the underclass of society," adding that Gypsies were widely thought to be "a motley assemblage of rogues and vagabonds." European Christians, especially, tended to believe that dark-skinned people were evil. Sway suggested that because the Gypsies were dark, strangely dressed, and spoke a language believed to be "a kind of gibberish used to deceive others" lent credence to the fear that they were spies for the Turks and enemies of Christendom.

Many Europeans and Americans have romanticized Gypsies in literature, music, and folklore; part of the strength of the Gypsy-figure's appeal was that s/he seemed free from the constraints of life in contemporary industrial society. This stereotypical figure's popularity has captured audiences and helped to conceal ethnic Gypsies. In addition to their supposed criminality and freedom, the Gypsies have been portrayed as beautiful, loose, loose-bodied, flexible, and insolentas in British novelist D. H. Lawrence's portrayal of a Gypsy man in The Virgin and the Gipsy, first published in 1931. Desire for the other tends to represent itself culturally as the other's desire; as Hancock notes, "Gypsy women have long been represented as sexual temptresses, and Gypsy men as a sexual threat to non-Gypsy women, in both song and story."

Conversely, the roles of non-Gypsies as customers for some Gypsy businesses have contributed to Gypsies' negative stereotypes of non-Gypsies. To fortune-tellers non-Gypsies tend to seem depraved. "Many regular customers are lonely, mal-adjusted, or both," wrote Sway. "They reveal aspects of gaje (non-Gypsy) life to the fortune-teller which sound deviant to her; in turn, she tells her family everything she has heard."

Until relatively recently, when some Gypsy activists and scholars have begun to try to present their people in a better light, stereotypes faced little or no opposition. Gypsies had little basis of trust for attempts to reveal how they "really" are, and lacked the resources to publish denials of specific claims. However, many Gypsy Americans now are actively trying to debunk oppressive stereotypes of Gypsies and promote a new public image. The film, King of the Gypsies, which was "suggested by" the best-selling book by Peter Maas, focuses on the squalor of Gypsy life from the perspective of a Gypsy-born boy who reviles Gypsies. Gypsies have protested the inaccurate and garish portrayals in this film. At the other end of the film spectrum is Latcho Drom a "musical journey from India to Iberia, a seamless anthology of Gypsy music as played by an assortment of professionals on a variety of stringed instrumentssitars, zithers, violins, guitarsagainst means of percussion that range from small drums to brass vases to paired spoons to castanets," wrote J. Hoberman (VillageVoice, July 26, 1994, p. 47). "The vocals are as wailing and soulful as the rhythms are hypnotic and infectious." Community scenes feature children in Istanbul; an old man sings of the fall of Ceauşescu; a woman sings a lament of Auschwitz. The film ends in Western Europe, with singers, players, and dancers performing in France and Spain.


Gypsies' patterns of kinship structures, traveling, and economics characterize them as an ancient people who have adapted well to modern society. Much scholarship on U.S. Gypsies treats only the Rom; and although other groups differ in some ways, Silverman states that the folk belief or folk religion of all ethnic Gypsies consists mainly of "the taboo system, together with the set of beliefs related to the dead and the supernatural."

Gypsy taboos separate Gypsieseach group of Gypsiesfrom non-Gypsies, and separate the contamination of the lower half of the adult Gypsy's body (especially the genitals and feet) from the purity of its upper half (especially the head and mouth). The waist divides an adult's body; in fact, the Romani word for waist, maskar, also means the spatial middle of anything. Since a Gypsy who becomes polluted can be expelled from the community, to avoid pollution, Gypsies try to avoid unpurified things that have touched a body's lower half. Accordingly, a Gypsy who touches his or her lower body should then wash his or her hands to purify them. Similarly, an object that feet have touched, such as shoes and floors, are impure and, by extension, things that touch the floor when someone drops them are impure as well. Gypsies mark the bottom end of bedcovers with a button or ribbon, to avoid accidentally putting the feet-end on their face.

To Gypsies, it seems non-Gypsies constantly contaminate themselves. Non-Gypsies might neglect to wash their hands after urinating in public restrooms, they may wash underwear together with face towels and even tablecloths, or dry their faces and feet with the same towel. According to Silverman, when non-Gypsies move into a home, "they often replace the entire kitchen area, especially countertops and sinks, to avoid ritual contamination from previous non-Gypsy occupants."

Taboos apply most fully to adult Gypsies who achieve that status when they marry. Childbearing potential fully activates taboos for men and especially for women. At birth, the infant is regarded as entirely contaminated or polluted, because s/he came from the lower center of the body. The mother, because of her intensive contact with the infant, is also considered impure. As in other traditional cultures, mother and child are isolated for a period of time and other female members will assume the household duties of washing and cooking. Between infancy and marriage, taboos apply less strictly to children. For adults, taboos, especially those that separate males and females, relax as they become respected elders.


Hancock generalized that for mobile Gypsies, methods of preparing food have been "contingent on circumstance." Such items as stew, unleavened bread, and fried foods are common, whereas leavened breads and broiled foods, are not. Cleanliness is paramount, though; and, "like Hindus and Muslims, Roma, in Europe more than in America, avoid using the left hand during meals, either to eat with or to pass things" (Ian Hancock, "Romani Foodways," The World and I, June 1991, p. 671; cited hereafter as Foodways).

Traditionally, Gypsies eat two meals a dayone upon rising and the other late in the afternoon. Gypsies take time from their "making a living in the gadji-kanó or the non-Gypsy milieu," in order to have a meal with other Gypsies and enjoy khethanipé being together (Foodways, p. 672). Gypsies tend to cook and eat foods of the cultures among which they historically lived: so for many Gypsy Americans traditional foods are Eastern European foods. Those who have adopted Eastern Orthodox Catholicism celebrate holidays closely related to the slava feast of southeastern Europe, and eat sarmaa (cabbage rolls), gushvada (cheese strudel), and a ritually sacrificed animal (often a lamb). Gypsies consider these and other strong-tasting foods baxtaló xabé, or lucky.

For all Gypsies, eating is important. Gypsies commonly greet an intimate by asking whether or not s/he ate that day, and what. Any weight loss is usually considered unhealthy. If food is lacking, it is associated with bad living, bad luck, poverty, or disease. Conversely, for men especially, weight gain traditionally means good health. The measure of a male's strength, power, or wealth is in his physical stature. Thus a Rom baro is a big man physically and politically. A growing awareness of the health risks of obesity tempers some Gypsies' eating.

Eating makes Gypsy social occasions festive, and indicates that those who eat together trust one another. Taboos attempt to bar anybody sickly, unlucky, or otherwise disgraced from joining a meal. Because of these taboos, it is more than impolite for one Gypsy to refuse an offer of food from another. Such refusal would suggest that the offerer is marimé, or polluted. Since Gypsies consider non-Gypsies unclean, in Gypsy homes they serve non-Gypsies from special dishes, utensils, and cups that are kept separate, or disposed of and replaced. Though some Gypsies will eat in certain restaurants, traditionally Gypsies cook for themselves.


Gypsies have brightly colored traditional costumes, often in brilliant reds and yellows. Women then wear dresses with full skirts and men wear baggy pants and loose-fitting shirts. A scarf often adorns a woman's hair or is used as a cumberbund. Women wear much jewelry and the men wear boots and large belts. A married Gypsy woman customarily must cover her hair with a diklo, a scarf that is knotted at the nape of the neck. However, many Gypsy women may go bareheaded except when attending traditional communal gatherings.


In addition to religious holidays, Gypsy funerals are the biggest community holidays. Groups of Gypsies travel and gather to mark the passing of one of their own. Marriages are also important gatherings.


Ideas about health and illness among the Rom are closely related to a world view (romania ), which includes notions of good and bad luck, purity and impurity, inclusion and exclusion. Sutherland, in an essay entitled "Health and Illness Among the Rom of California," observes that "these basic concepts affect everyday life in many ways including cultural rules about washing, food, clothes, the house, fasting, conducting rituals such as baptism and the slava, and diagnosing illness and prescribing home remedies." In Gypsy custom, ritual purification is the road to health. Much attention goes to avoiding diseases and curing them.

The most powerful Gypsy cure is a substance called coxai, or ghost vomit. According to Gypsy legends, Mamorio or "little grandmother" is a dirty, sickness-bringing ghost who eats people, then vomits on garbage piles. There, Gypsies find and gather what scientists call slime mold, and bake it with flour into rocks. Gypsies also use asafoetida, also referred to as devil's dung, which has a long association with healing and spiritualism in India; according to Sutherland, it has also been used in Western medicine as an antispasmodic, expectorant, and laxative.

Sutherland also recounts several Gypsy cures for common ailments. A salve of pork fat may be used to relieve itching. The juice of chopped onions sprinkled with sugar for a cold or the flu; brown sugar heated in a pan is also good for a child's cold; boiling the combined juice of oranges, lemons, water, and sugar, or mashing a clove of garlic in whiskey and drinking will also relieve a cold. For a mild headache, one might wrap slices of cold cooked potato or tea leaves around the head with a scarf; or for a migraine, put vinegar, or vinegar, garlic, and the juice of an unblemished new potato onto the scarf. For stomach trouble, drink a tea of the common nettle or of spearmint. For arthritis pain, wear copper necklaces or bracelets. For anxiety, sew a piece of fern into your clothes. Sutherland notes that elder Gypsies tend to "fear, understandably, that their grandchildren, who are turning more and more to American medicine, will lose the knowledge they have of herbs and plants, illnesses, and cures."

When a Gypsy falls sick, though, some Gypsy families turn to doctors, either in private practices or at clinics. As Sutherland notes in her essay in Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, "The Rom will often prefer to pay for private medical care with a collection rather than be cared for by a welfare doctor if they feel this care may be better." The Romnichals seem to have been historically prone to respiratory illnesses. In general, Gypsy culture seems to facilitate obesity, and thus heart trouble.


Most Gypsies are at least bilingual, speaking the language of the country in which they live as well as some branch of the Gypsy language, Romani. Sway observes that "since the Gypsy language has [almost] never been written, it has been easily influenced by the sounds of local languages." The Armenian language strongly influenced that of the Gypsies in their sojourns. Next, modern Greek contributed words to the vocabulary.

The language of the Gypsies was the key that unlocked the mystery of their supposed origin. Sway reports that the discovery that Gypsies originated in India was made by a scholar who noticed a close similarity between the language of the Hungarian Gypsies and the Sanskritized Malayalam of subcontinent Indians. This discovery, by a Hungarian theology student, Istvan Valyi, did not come until the middle of the eighteenth century. Matt Salo suggests that "from the realization that Gypsies indeed had their own language, the step to the recognition of their separate ethnicity followed automatically."

Matt Salo points to linguistic histories that help account for Gypsies who do not speak Romani: groups of Gypsies split when they left the Balkans, leaving behind others, including those who were enslaved. Fraser indicates that currently, some dialects of Romani are classified as Armenian, others as Asiatic (other than Armenian), and the rest as European. Groups from each of the language branches are now widespread. And, according to Fraser, the English word, "pal," (first recorded in 1681) is one of the few Romani words to have entered the English lexicon.

When non-Gypsies ask Gypsies speaking Romani to identify the foreign language, explains Silverman, "Gypsies usually answer Romanian, Greek, or Yugoslavian," to minimize curiosity and prejudice toward them. Among themselves, Gypsies are also said to use a sort of sign language, patrin marks meaningful to themselves but unintelligible to others. They seemingly used these symbols to describe conditions of camps for future campers, as well as to provide information about people in the area that might be useful for those practicing fortune-telling. Furthermore, Gypsies usually use their Gypsy name only among other Gypsies, and adopt an Americanized name for general and official uses. Particularly because many Gypsies pick common names, they are hard to trace.


P'aves Baxtalo/Baxtali ! ("pah-vis bach-tah-low/bach-tah-lee")May you be lucky (to a male/female).

Family and Community Dynamics

Traditionally Gypsies maintain large extended families. Clans of people numbering in the scores, hundreds, or even thousands gather for weddings, funerals, other feasts, or when an elder falls sick. Although Gypsy communities do not have kings as such, traditionally a group will represent a man as king to outsiders when it needs one to serve as a figurehead or representative. Often, too, a man and his family will tell hospital staffers that he is "King of the Gypsies" so that he will receive better treatmentthe title can help provide an excuse for the hospital to allow the large family to make prolonged visits.

In units bigger than a family and smaller than a tribe, Gypsy families often cluster to travel and make money, forming kumpanias multi-family businesses. During recent decades in the United States, on the other hand, Gypsies have been acculturating more closely to the American model by consolidating nuclear families. Currently, after the birth of their first child, some Gypsy couples may be able to move from the husband's parents' home into their own. This change has given more independence to newly wedded women as daughters-in-law.

Gypsy families and communities divide along gender lines. Men wield public authority over members of their community through the kris the Gypsy form of court. In its most extreme punishment, a kris expels and bars a Gypsy from the community. For most official, public duties with non-Gypsies, too, the men take control. Publicly, traditional Gypsy men treat women as subordinates.

The role of Gypsy women in this tradition is not limited to childbearing: she can influence and communicate with the supernatural world; she can pollute a Gypsy man so that a kris will expel him from the community; and in some cases she makes and manages most of a family's money. Successful fortune-tellers, all of whom are female, may provide the main income for their families. Men of their families will usually aid the fortune-telling business by helping in some support capacities, as long as they are not part of the "women's work" of talking to customers.


Gypsies of marriageable age may travel with their parents to meet prospective spouses and arrange a marriage. In making a good match, money, and the ability to earn more of it, tend to be factors more important than romance. A Gypsy woman who marries a non-Gypsy can expect her community to expel her permanently. A Gypsy man, however, may eventually get permission to return to his people with his non-Gypsy wife. Once married, a new daughter-in-law must subject herself to the commands of her husband's family, until her first pregnancy. With the birth of her first child, she fully enters womanhood.

Gypsy cultural practices attempt to prevent Gypsy children from learning non-Gypsy ways, and to facilitate raising them as Gypsies. Gypsy children, or at least post-adolescents, generally do not go to school, day-care centers, or babysitters who are not friends or relatives. Furthermore, Gypsy culture forbids them to play with non-Gypsies. Instead, they socialize with Gypsies of all ages. Formal schooling, as such, is minimal. Traditionally, Gypsies devalue education from outside their own culture. They educate their own children within extended families. An important reason Gypsies do not like to send their children to school is that they will have to violate Gypsy taboos: they will have to use public restrooms, and the boys and girls will come into contact too closely in classrooms and on playgrounds. Many Gypsy Americans send their children to schools until the age of ten or 11, at which time the parents permanently remove them from school.

Children are expected to watch and act like their elders. Rather than bar children from adult life, Gypsies often include them in conversations and business. Children learn the family business, often at home. Many Gypsies marry and become partners in family businesses by their late teens. For example, daughters, but not sons, of a fortune-teller train early to become fortune-tellers. Boys may train to sell cars.


Gypsy spirituality, part of the core culture of Gypsies, derives from Hindu and Zoroastrian concepts of kintala balance and harmony, as between good and evil. When that balance is upset, ancestors send signals to keep people on track. The mysticism of fortune-tellers and tarot readersthough such services to non-Gypsies are not the same as Gypsies' own spiritualityhas bases in Gypsy spirituality. Many Gypsies are Christians, with denominational allegiances that reflect their countries of origin.

Historically, toward the beginning of the second millennium b.c., Gypsies invented a story of their origins in Egypthence the name, "Gypsies"which gave many of them safe passage in a hostile Europe. The story claimed that they had been oppressed and forced into idol-worship in Egypt, and that the Pope had ordered them to roam, as penitence for their former lack of faith. This story also played on legends of a common heritage of Gypsies and Jews, which were partly based on actual overlap of these two ethnic cultures in marginal trades and ghettos. Sway indicated that the story of an Egyptian origin convinced Europeans until the early sixteenth century when the church became convinced these "penitents" were frauds. The church moved to isolate its followers from Gypsies: "As early as 1456 excommunication became the punishment for having one's fortune told by a Gypsy.... More effective than the policy of excom munication was the assertion by the Catholic Church that the Gypsies were a cursed people partly responsible for the execution of Christ."

Although European churches have a long history of condemning Gypsies, their magic, and their arranged marriages, most Rom Gypsy Americans are Eastern Orthodox. They celebrate the pomona feast for the dead, at which the feasters invite the dead to eat in heaven. Also, preparation for their slava feast requires thorough cleaning of the interior of the host's house, its furniture, and its inhabitants, as the host transforms a section of the house into a church. The feast ceremony begins with coffee for the guests, prayer and a candle for the saints.

Today, around the world, Christian fundamentalist revival movements have been sweeping through Rom, Romnichal, and other groups of Gypsies. Since the mid-1980s, through Assemblies of God, various American groups have formed Gypsy churches. In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, a church integrates traditional Gypsy faith with Christian Pentecostal ritual.

Gypsies have tended to syncretize or blend their ethnic Gypsy folk religion with more established religions, such as Christianity. Gypsy religious beliefs are mostly unrelated to the business of fortune-telling. Silverman pointed out that while Gypsies may disbelieve Gypsy "magic," and "often joke about how gullible non-Gypsies are," in some ways, others act as believers; fortune-tellers generally treat their reading room as sacred and may "consult elder Gypsy women who are known to be experts in dream interpretation, card reading, and folk healing". Gypsies use code-names to mention certain evil-spirits to other Gypsies; and Gypsies sometimes cast curses on other Gypsies (or ward them off). Also, stated Silverman, Gypsy fortune-tellers use diverse religious iconography to create impressions out of a belief "that good luck and power can come from the symbols of any religion."

Employment and Economic Traditions

Gypsy Americans have found customers for their enterprises among other poorer members of U.S. society, usually other ethnic minorities, such as Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and immigrants to America from Eastern and Central Europe.

Mobility and adaptation characterize Gypsy trades. From their beginnings, their traditional occupations have catered to other groups, and at the same time maintained Gypsies' separation. In their essay in Urban Gypsies, Matt and Sheila Salo explain that "the main features of all occupations were that they were independent pursuits, required little overhead, had a ubiquitous clientele, and could be pursued while traveling" in urban and rural areas. Moreover, Gypsies have adapted to different locales and periods. Silverman discusses a change in occupations in twentieth century America that parallels the urbanization of the Rom. After their arrival in the 1880s, the Rom followed nomadic European trades such as coppersmithing, refining, and dealing in horses for the men, and begging or fortune-telling for the women. They would camp in the country and interact mostly with the rural population, venturing into the cities only to sell their services and purchase necessities. As the automobile supplanted horse travel, the Rom became usedcar dealers and repairmen, occupations that they still pursue. When metalworking skills became less important, Gypsies learned new trades, including the selling of items such as watches and jewelry.

As Sutherland points out in Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, "In the kumpania men and women cooperate with each other in exploiting the economic resources of their area." Although jobs may be exploited by an individual, the Rom prefer to work in groups called wortacha, or partners. These groups always comprise members of the same sex, however, women often take along children of either sex. Wortacha may also include young unmarried Gypsies who learn the skills of the adults. Adults work as equals, dividing expenses and profits equally. As a token of respect for an elder, an extra amount may be given, but unmarried trainees receive only what others will give them. The Rom do not earn wages from another Rom. As a rule, Gypsies profit from non-Gypsies only. In the United States and other countries (including England and Wales), Gypsy Americans divide geographic territories to minimize competition between Gypsy businesses.

Gypsies, supremely mobile and profit-making traders, became dealers of vehicles. Romnichals took an early American role as horse traders, and achieved particular success in Boston. According to Matt and Sheila Salo, "During World War I, Gypsies brought teams of their horses to the Great Plains to help harvest crops. For a while at least, the label 'horse trader' or 'horse dealer' seemed almost synonymous with 'Gypsy.' The colorful wagons used by Romnichals to advertise their presence to any community they entered further reinforced this identification by the professionally painted side panels depicting idealized horses and the horse trading life." The pride of Romnichals in their ability to trade horses is reflected in the carved figures of horses on the tombstones of horse dealers, say Matt and Sheila Salo. Many of the Rom, who arrived in America after the horse trade's heyday, sell cars. Other mobile service contributions of the Gypsies have included driveway blacktopping, house painting, and tinsmithing. Gypsy tinkers, who were mostly Romanian-speaking Gypsies, were essential to various industries such as confectioneries, because they retinned large mixing bowls and other machinery on-site. They also worked in bakeries, laundries, and anywhere steam jackets operated.

By the 1930s the Rom group of Gypsy Americans virtually controlled the business of fortune-telling. Their advertisements and shop windows have their undeniable place on American boardwalks, roads, and streets. Gypsy mysticism, as represented in fortune-teller costumes and props such as the crystal ball and tarot deck, have impacted on American culture directly, and through their media representations and imitations, such as the likes of commercially produced Ouija boards. Gypsies have maintained a presence and influence in America's quasi-religious, commercially mystical functions.


Worldwide, Gypsies are most famous for their contributions as musicians. In the United States, Hungarian Slovak Gypsies, mostly violists, have played popular Hungarian music at immigrant weddings. Historically, Gypsies have contributed to music Americans play. Flamenco, which Gypsies are credited with creating in Spain, has its place in America, particularly in the Southwest. Django Rheinhardt, a well-known European Gypsy who contributed to American culture, is perhaps the all-time greatest jazz guitarist. Furthermore, Klezmer music of Jewish immigrants overlaps with music of Eastern European Gypsies, especially in oriental, flatted-seventh chords played on a violin or clarinet.

There are intriguing parallels between Gypsies and African Americans in European and American cultural history. The rhythmic innovations that Gypsies brought to Europe were not only Asiatic and Middle Eastern, but also African, at least North African; similarly, African Americans brought innovations of African music to America. Some Gypsies owned slaves or employed African American laborers and stevedores (loaders/unloaders). According to legend, some of these men had eloped with Gypsy daughters. When African American ex-slave minstrels first attempted to taste the freedom of the road in post-Reconstruction America, some claimed to adopt the ethnicity, or at least the title, of Gypsies (Konrad Bercovici, "The American Gypsy," Century Magazine, 103, 1922, pp. 507-519). In popular American musical traditions of jazz, blues, and rock, the Gypsy has remained a powerful referent.


In the United States, Rom Gypsies have dominated a niche for fortune-tellers, who are also known as palmists, readers, or advisers. "Fortune-telling actually includes elements of folk psychotherapy and folk healing," made into a business to serve non-Gypsies, wrote Silverman, who adds that one fortune-teller describes her relationship with her customers in this way: "All they need is confidence and strength and a friend and that's what I am." Some customers come only once, and others make themselves more valuable by returning. A reader will try to establish a steady relationship with the customer, whether in person, by telephone, or by mail. Readers will also try to use the customer's language, usually English or Spanish. Moreover, readers often adopt and advertise names for themselves that help them claim the ethnicity of their clientele; and/or, they choose an ethnicity renowned for mystical perception, such as an Asian, African, or Native American one. Fortune-tellers set up shop where they can make money. Often, they serve a working-class clientele composed of other ethnic minorities. They tend to choose visible locales where they can operate freely: New York supports a great many fortune-tellers, while Los Angeles (where more Gypsies sell real estate and cars) has relatively few because of strict laws governing fortune-telling. Daughters of successful fortune-tellers traditionally become fortune-tellers whether or not they are interested. Their family business is part of their household.

Politics and Government

Special attention from American government authorities has seldom benefitted Gypsies. Some states and districts maintain policies and statutes that prohibit fortune-tellers, require them to pay hundreds of dollars for annual licenses, or otherwise control activities in which Gypsies engage. Despite the unconstitutionality of such measures, some rules apply specifically to Gypsies by name. One excuse for this discrimination is the confusion between ethnic Gypsies and vagrants. Gypsy parents skeptical of non-Gypsy schooling have run afoul of truant officers. After a long history of avoidance of local authorities, Gypsies in the United States and elsewhere are becoming more politically active in defense of their civil and human rights; an international organization of Roma people has been recognized by the United Nations.

Individual and Group Contributions


Brian Vessey-Fitzgerald, who authored The Gypsies of England; Jane Carlisle, Thomas's wife; Vita Sackville West; David Birkenhead Smith; and scholar Ian Hancock.


Many Gypsy contributors to American culture have been performers. Among Romnichal (English Gypsies) who lived some in America, we can count Charlie Chaplin and Rita Hayworth. Ava Gardner, Michael Cain, and Sean Connery are reported to have Gypsy ancestry. Freddy Prinze (born Freddie Preutzel; 1954-1977), the late comedian and television star on Chico and the Man, was Hungarian Gypsy.

Organizations and Associations


Contact: Bill Duna.

Telephone: (612) 926-8281.

Gypsy Folk Ensemble.

Also performs for school assemblies.

Contact: Juli Nelson, Director.

Address: 3265 Motor Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90034.

Telephone: (818) 966-4751.

Gypsy Lore Society.

Scholars, educators, and others interested in the study of the Roma and analogous itinerant or nomadic groups. Works to disseminate information aimed at increasing understanding of Romani culture in its diverse forms. Publishes the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society.

Contact: Sheila Salo, Treasurer.

Address: 5607 Greenleaf Road, Cheverly, Maryland 20785.

Telephone: (301) 341-1261.

Fax: (301) 341-1261.

E-mail: [email protected] Online:

International Romani Union (IRU).

Works to foster unity among members; promotes human rights and obligations; advocates protection and preservation of Romani culture and language. Publishes the quarterly Buhazi, the bi-monthly Lacio Drom, the bi-weekly Nevipens Romani, the monthly Romano Nevipen, the monthly Rrom po Drom, and the quarterly newspaper Scharotl.

Contact: Dr. Ian F. Hancock, Executive Officer.

Address: P.O. Box 822, Manchaca, Texas 78652-0822.

Telephone: (512) 295-4858.

Fax: (512) 295-4772.

E-mail: [email protected]

Museums and Research Centers

Texas Romani Archives, University of Texas at Austin.

Address: Calhoun Hall 501, University of Texas 8-5100, Austin, Texas 78712.

Victor Weybright Archives of Gypsy Studies. Part of the Gypsy Lore Society (see above).

Sources for Additional Study

Fraser, Angus. The Gypsies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1992.

Gypsies and Travelers in North America: An Annotated Bibliography, compiled by William G. Lockwood and Sheila Salo. Cheverly, Maryland: The Gypsy Lore Society, 1994.

Hancock, Ian. The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Karoma Publishers, 1987.

Miller, Carol. "The American Rom and the Ideology of Defilement," in Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, edited by Farnham Rehfisch. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1975; pp. 41-54.

The Patrin Web Journal: Romani Culture and History, website (accessed September 7, 1999) at (last modified September 3, 1999).

Rishi, W. R. Roma: The Panjabi Emigrants in Europe, Central and Middle Asia, the USSR, and the Americas. Chandigarh, India. Roma Publishers, 1976 and 1996. Home Page, website (accessed September 7, 1999) at (last modified August 1998).

Salo, Matt and Sheila. "Romnichal Economic and Social Organization in Urban New England 1850-1930," Urban Gypsies (special issue of Urban Anthropology ), Volume 11, No. 3-4 (fall-winter) 1982.

Silverman, Carol. "Everyday Drama: Impression Management of Urban Gypsies," Urban Gypsies (special issue of Urban Anthropology ), Volume 11, No. 3-4 (fall-winter) 1982.

Sutherland, Anne. "The American Rom: A Case of Economic Adaptation," in Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, edited by Farnham Rehfisch. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1975; pp. 1-40.

. Gypsies: The Hidden Americans. London: Tavistock Publications, 1975.

. "Health and Illness Among the Rom of California," The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, February 1992.

Sway, Marlene. Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Urban Gypsies (special issue of Urban Anthropology ), introduction by Matt Salo, Volume 11, No. 3-4 (fall-winter), 1982.