FEATURE

Invisible No More

Romani Americans are challenging harmful assumptions about Gypsies.

Gregory Kwiek, a 29-year-old construction worker on Staten Island, N.Y., wishes his teachers had understood one important fact during his few and sporadic years of formal education: "We're not a lifestyle; we're an ethnic group."

Every Saturday, Kwiek leads a small group of children in activities that he and their parents hope will gird them against the same indignities he faced as a Romani, or Gypsy, student in the public schools.

"One of the children told me that her teacher said, 'Gypsies were a nomadic people who no longer exist,'" says Kwiek. "Just because you don't see us in caravans anymore, don't think we're not around. Why can't the history of our people and the contributions of the Roma be found in school textbooks like they are with other cultural groups? Then when the teacher says, 'Turn to page 23 and read about the Roma bringing metalwork to Eastern Europe,' that Gypsy child could see herself."

For his part, Kwiek uses songs, stories and conversation in Romani -- the ancient language he shares with an estimated one million other Roma living in the United States and Canada -- to affirm his pupils in the ways of their heritage. (For comparison's sake, Romani Americans outnumber the Amish and Cajuns, and Romani is more widely spoken in the U.S. than all Native American languages combined, according to Romani linguist Ian Hancock of the University of Texas at Austin.) Efforts like the Saturday school, supporters say, are especially important in light of recent global events affecting the Romani community.

Democratic revolution in Eastern Europe not only unleashed old anti-Roma hatreds that Communism had suppressed, but it also made thousands of Romani orphans available for adoption by American families. Many of these adoptive parents are seeking to educate themselves and their children about Romani culture. As the century closes, an increasing number of European Roma are requesting political asylum in the U.S. because of fighting in the Balkan region.

These and other developments are bringing Romani life in America into a new era, say some Romani activists. With the changes comes a new opportunity for others to learn about a culture that, for many Americans, exists only in the form of a few exotic and unsavory stereotypes.

"Let's face it," says Adam Merino, 18, a Romani senior at Concordia Christian Academy in Fort Wayne, Ind., "Any time Gypsies are mentioned in school, it's something negative. Like crystal balls and stuff, it's not taken seriously. Or if something's missing, it's like the teachers look at the Gypsy kids. The only time we get mentioned, if ever, is when they teach the Holocaust."

"Too often, stereotypes of Roma are inculcated through images and associations in literature, music and art," says Professor Hancock, who serves as Romani representative on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and head of the United Nations Praesidium of the International Romani Union, in addition to his academic pursuits. Among other efforts to bring Romani reality to light, he is directing a commission compiling the first Romani general encyclopedia.

Hancock asserts that children's literature, in particular, often reinforces misleading and prejudicial attitudes toward his people. For example, an illustration of a witchlike woman carrying a sack full of children accompanies the following lines from a poem entitled "The Gypsies Are Coming" in Shel Silverstein's popular collection Where the Sidewalk Ends: "The gypsies are coming, the old people say/to buy little children and take them away. … /And kiddies, when they come to buy, it won't do any good to cry."

A Disney magazine devoted to the recent movie Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its Gypsy character, Esmeralda, cautions young readers to beware of a condition known as "gypsyitis," described as being "footloose and fancy-free," with "an urge to run away from it all and dance among the dandelions." Despite their breezy appeal, these "symptoms" subtly link Romani identity with irresponsibility and disease, says Hancock, who brought the example to the attention of the magazine's editor. Additionally, the simplistic and often sinister presentation of Roma reaches a seasonal peak at Halloween, when retailers include "Gypsy" costumes in their stock of other-worldly disguises.

Although European and American authors and composers have written hundreds of poems, plays, operas and novels with Romani characters or themes -- Carmen is a well-known example -- the largely oral Romani narrative tradition has produced few writers to afford an "inside" view of the culture. To foster a more accurate understanding, Hancock advises, teachers can lead the way by rejecting the "literary Gypsy" portrayed in books and movies and recognizing the real history of the Roma.

"When you ask people what they know about Gypsies," he observes, "it will be based on what they have read, not whom they've interacted with. So when you talk about Roma in the Holocaust or Roma slaves, nobody can make that human connection, and we remain an abstraction. We've got to humanize Roma and move us away from the storybooks and films."

That human connection between Roma and gadje [non-Romas; singular gadjo] has historically been difficult to achieve. Subjected to slavery and genocide in Europe (see "In Context"), the Roma have felt the sting of being considered "pariahs" or outcasts in America, as well. In response, many have maintained a protective distance from mainstream society -- or a hidden presence within it. Individuals who are lighter-skinned, says Hancock, may "pass" as White. Those with darker skin often allow themselves to be mistaken for members of other ethnic groups.

"For example, I have a son everybody thinks is Chicano," Hancock says. "A lot of Roma pretend to be Native Americans because you don't usually find Native Americans in classrooms in most parts of the country, so a real Native American student isn't going to stand up and say, 'He isn't Native American.' It's a very sad thing that we have to tell our children, 'Hide who you are.' We are just reacting for self-protection."

A small but growing number of Romani leaders and individuals, however, believe that the future holds new possibilities.

 

A Truer Image

Paul Ziko, 18, works parttime at Sears in Fort Wayne, Ind., and attends meetings of the kris, or traditional court, of which his father, Nick, is a judge. Yet, unlike his father, Paul is among the vanguard of Roma -- estimated at less than one percent and rising -- who are graduating from high school and continuing their studies.

"My friend Adam and I are the only Roma I know who are going to get our diplomas this June and go to college. I want to teach history or maybe be a pastor." And his sister Sarah, 16, with her sights set on a college major of theater arts or guitar performance, is not far behind.

"Even 40 years ago, you could go door-to-door and mend pots and pans or post handbills, but the demand for those services is diminishing," says Nick Ziko, father of five and manager of the Sears hardware department. Ziko completed five years of formal schooling. His own children herald a change that some in the Romani community see as the best hope for their culture's survival.

"It's hard," admits Paul, "because you don't want to be treated differently in school, so you don't say anything, and people don't know you're Rom. But then you hear stuff like 'getting gypped' and 'sell you to the gypsies.' Once the other kids knew, though, they were pretty cool."

For Nick, the bleak memories of his own education help him both identify with his children's challenges and support their efforts to succeed. "Nobody ever came to my house when I was a kid to see why I wasn't in school," he notes. "They just figured I was a Gypsy; I wasn't going to learn."

While other U.S. minority groups have historically gone to great lengths to obtain equal educational opportunity, the Roma have often taken pains to avoid it, perceiving school as a place where their values are jeopardized. By choosing to educate their children through high school and beyond, the Zikos are quietly resisting age-old pressures to remain "a people apart."

"If only teachers would realize what a big deal it is to have a Gypsy child in their classroom," stresses Belinda Ziko, Nick's wife and mother of Paul, Sarah, 11- and 12-year-olds Steven and David, and 2-year-old Hannah.

Although precise numbers are unavailable, researchers estimate that the functional English-language literacy rate among Roma adults is a little less than 50 percent. Fewer read Romani, because the centuries-old spoken language was first transcribed phonetically 80 years ago and standardized only in the last nine.

Assimilation of non-Romani ways, says George Kaslov of New York City, U.S. Representative to the International Roma Federation, is unquestionably the gravest concern of Romani parents who choose to ignore truancy laws or to comply minimally with compulsory education statutes. One of the "ways" Romani parents fear, says Kaslov, is violence, which Romani culture opposes in its central ethical code. "Sadly," he notes, "the school is becoming an increasingly violent place."

Romani Diversity

Romani Americans share many ethnic and cultural traits by virtue of being Romani. Centuries of experience as a diaspora people, however, have given rise to cultural differences reflecting long-term residence in various regions prior to arrival in the U.S. These factors, in turn, have influenced Romani settlement patterns in this country. The three principal groupings of Romani Americans are the Vlax, the Bashaldé and the Romanichals.

 

The ancestors of the Vlax emigrated to North America from Romania. The Vlax in the U.S. comprise four main subgroups: the Kalderasha, Machvaya, Serbaya and Lovara. Communities of this widely distributed group today are found in southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Chicago and the Northeastern corridor from Boston to Washington.

 

The Bashaldé trace their European sojourn to Slovakia, Hungary and Carpathia. Today the American Bashaldé reside principally in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Chicago and Las Vegas.

 

The ancestral home of the Romanichals is the British Isles. Members of this group are found across the U.S., with concentrations in Arkansas, Texas and the Southeast.

 

A fourth group of Romani Americans consists of recent immigrants from various parts of Europe, including the Balkans and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc. The largest communities of European-born Romani live in the metropolitan Northeast.

Another reason Romani parents cite for withdrawing their children from the upper grades, according to Kaslov, is the onset of puberty and the fear of romantic involvement with non-Roma. Dating is strictly prohibited, and premarital sex is considered marimé (belonging to a detailed classification of taboos, sometimes translated as "defiled").

The rigorous marimé codes that govern virtually all aspects of Romani life from food preparation to sexual relations to interaction with gadje are similar in many respects to those found in the Hindu caste system, reflecting the ancestral origins of the Roma in India. The strict social orders observed among Orthodox Jews and within Amish communities also offer useful comparisons.

"At the heart of the marimé codes," says Ian Hancock, "is the concept of balance. When balance is upset, misfortune occurs. There is a parallel concept in Hinduism. Striving for balance permeates all aspects of Romani culture, even our historically strained relationship with gadje. We have a saying in Romani, "We cannot love what we do not know."

Over the centuries, misperceptions about the cultural patterns resulting from marimé codes have given rise to damaging stereotypes. For example, the familiar image of the "Gypsy fortune-teller," explains Hancock, derives from a means of livelihood that exists in some Romani natsiyí ("nations") but not all.

"There is a very large population of Romani Americans called Bashalde, who live mainly in the Chicago area, and they don't do fortune-telling at all," Hancock says. "Historically, the Bashalde are musicians."

Internal diversity is just one major aspect of Romani culture about which many Americans are ignorant, he asserts. Traditional Romani values such as pacifism and respect for elders are also omitted from one-dimensional portrayals of "the Gypsies." Such distorted images, in turn, contribute directly to Romani parents' wariness toward schools.

Hancock recalls an experience his own daughter had in elementary school. One day while reprimanding a boy in the class, the teacher said, "If you don't behave yourself, I'll sell you to the Gypsies."

"My daughter came home in tears," Hancock says. "She said, 'I thought Miss So-and-So liked me.' So I called the teacher and said, 'You are obviously not aware that Melina is a Romani herself.' And she said, 'What is that?' I said, 'A Gypsy.' She said, 'I didn't know that. I didn't know Gypsies were an ethnic group. I feel awful.'"

"The next day, the teacher says, 'Well, class, I have a surprise for you. We have a Gypsy in the class. Melina is a little Gypsy girl.' And from then on it was downhill. The kids teased her. They were constantly sticking their hands out, saying, 'Tell my fortune!' and 'Watch out! She's gonna steal something.' It was miserable for her. We had to change schools. This all has to change before Romani American parents are ever going to put their children into that sort of an environment."

 

A Different Future

For a variety of reasons, Romani parents and children may be reluctant to disclose the kind of cultural information that would allow teachers to address specific needs. In many cases, a teacher may not even realize that a particular child in the classroom is Romani. A combination of traits may simply set the child apart -- olive complexion, for example, or accented speech, or a mother's head-covering and long skirt, which are required for married women. The teacher's ignorance about certain behaviors -- such as a child's refusal to eat cupcakes brought by a classmate, because of marimé restrictions -- can lead to painful misinterpretation.

Some school officials and social service agencies, notes George Kaslov, have gone so far as to remove Romani children from their homes on the basis of irregular school attendance without taking cultural factors into consideration. "When that happens," Kaslov says, "no one wins." A little basic knowledge can at least help teachers accommodate the possibility that someone in the class may be Romani.

As Nick Ziko sees it, educators can create an environment for positive interaction simply by being more flexible. A basic belief in the potential of every child, he says, can go a long way toward reaching Romani families.

"Don't write them off if they're only in your class a couple times a week, or come for a while and then are absent again," Ziko advises. "Tell them they can do it, they can learn. Because they can't get a lot of school encouragement from home. I know it's a big job for teachers to counteract that mentality."

Prescriptions for improving educational opportunities for Romani children vary widely among those who share such a goal. "Build on the tradition of paramichi [stories] through storytelling, folklore, legend," suggests Gregory Kwiek, who conducts the Romani Saturday school on Staten Island. "Include Romani history in textbooks that already reflect a wide range of multicultural heritage."

Ian Hancock, who has studied the education of Roma throughout the world, advises starting small: "If we could get funding, it would be easy to put together a project that teachers could have in their classrooms to at least raise the awareness of Romani culture, like a traveling trunk of ethnic artifacts and videos for various age groups."

The purpose in shedding new light on the past, however, must be to illuminate the future. "When I was growing up," Gregory Kwiek recalls, "I was told I could not become a doctor. 'What Rom is a doctor?' they would say. Some of my community have internalized the negativity about ourselves. So you start thinking in 5th grade, 'What am I doing here? What's this going to do for me?' And you quit.

"With the children, I use stories to help them enter in. We play a game called 'What Could I Be?' Pretend you're a doctor, I say, and we imagine all the things a doctor can do -- or a professor or a lawyer. Then I show them books written by a Romani professor and pictures of a Rom doctor and lawyer. They need to believe it's possible."

 

An Open Door

Considering that the nation's last statute against the movement and enterprises of "roving bands of nomads, commonly called Gypsies" remained on New Jersey lawbooks until 1997 and that a number of police forces throughout the country maintain special "Gypsy crime divisions," the prospects for rapid revision of stereotypes about Romani Americans may seem remote. But optimists both inside and outside the community caution against easy assumptions. After all, one of the most promising tools of education and advocacy for the Roma worldwide has arrived without prediction: The Internet is becoming increasingly important to this diaspora people.

"The World Wide Web supports numbers of Roma sites which broadcast and exchange information," says Hancock, who created Romnet, an Internet list-serve, eight years ago. Through the Internet, Roma communicate with one another quickly and easily throughout the world.

"If a kris decides something in L.A. this morning, we all know about it immediately in New York City," adds Kaslov. For a historically wandering people, who used to leave patrin (literally, "leaf"), or trail signs and markers, to communicate with one another over long distances, the Internet has proven a natural extension.

"It has become our contemporary nation," asserts Gregory Kwiek. "Romani users of the Net are mixed -- old and young. Thousands of people use the chat rooms. We can talk to other Roma in Germany and Sweden in Romani, so mostly we write phonetically in the sounds of our own languages. That can sometimes get confusing, but I'm actually seeing the teenagers' spelling improve in English!"

Despite their stronghold on tradition and limited literacy, says Ian Hancock, it should come as no surprise that the Roma have adopted the Internet. "Part of Romani survival has always involved being one step ahead -- adaptation or incorporation. In a way, the Internet is like us: It's everywhere. It has no boundaries."

Still, he points out, not all Roma feel similarly about the new technology. "Just as there's not a chicken in every pot, there's not a computer in every household. The core group of Roma are very conservative -- the guardians of the culture -- and they view it as an invasion of privacy. But I see it as an economic source for us in the future. Right now, there is a young Rom in California who is using the Internet to set up a music agency to promote and record Romani musicians."

To George Kaslov, mastering information technology is paramount to achieving the rights he believes all Roma should exercise. With the advent of the Internet, he declares proudly, "My people are no longer invisible; we are coming above ground."

A World Culture

"By careful study of the Romani language, we are able to trace our roots," says Dr. Ian Hancock, professor of Romani studies and linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. "We originated in northern India, in the early 11th century, the same period in which the Hindi and Punjabi cultures emerged."

 

Although theories about the particular caste origin of the Roma vary, Hancock and a number of his colleagues favor linguistic evidence of a military history. "The most common word for someone who is not a Rom," he explains, "is gadjo, coming from a Sanskrit word -- gajjha -- meaning 'non-military person.'" Even today, non-Roma are referred to as "civilians" by Roma in parts of Europe.

 

With the disintegration of the Indian empire in the 11th century, Roma began to migrate north and northwest. For the next three centuries, they traversed what are now Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, where they mastered the art of metalworking, moving northward to southern Europe, then east to Armenia and Russia.

 

The Romani migration into eastern Europe during the medieval period was followed by 500 years of enslavement. In what is now Romania, the Roma arrived as free people but were pressed into slave labor within the feudal system once their artisan skills of metalcraft, carpentry and entertainment were recognized. It was not until 1864 that the Roma were officially emancipated.

 

Five centuries of servitude, Hancock and others say, left a mark of wariness toward the non-Roma world. As a result, many Roma stayed away from urban areas, preferring to travel in small groups. Some even denied their ethnic heritage for fear of further persecution. Both the traits of voluntary isolation from non-Roma communities and an unwillingness to identify themselves publicly remain widespread among Roma today.

 

It was as ship's cargo that the Roma arrived in the Americas, when two Romani women accused of being criminals accompanied Christopher Columbus' third voyage to the island of Hispaniola (comprising present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), where they were abandoned in 1498. From the 15th through the 18th centuries, other countries, such as Spain, Portugal and England, sent Roma to South and North America to provide slave labor for newly acquired colonies.

 

One of the largest migrations of Roma to the United States occurred in the late 19th century following the abolition of slavery in southeastern Europe. Nevertheless, U.S. immigration restrictions soon stemmed the tide of Romani immigrants. Half a century later, the Holocaust -- referred to by the Roma as Porraimos, "the Devouring" -- took anti-Gypsy sentiment to it most horrific extreme. The approximately 1 million Roma killed by the Nazis because of their rassenverfolgte -- "racially tainted heritage" -- included between 70 and 80 percent of the German Romani population. At Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, more than 21,000 Roma were killed -- some 4,500 on the single night of Aug. 31, 1944, now known as Zigeunernacht, or "Gypsy Night."

 

Today there are an estimated 10-12 million Roma worldwide, roughly half of them in Europe. In the U.S. and Canada, the Roma stand some 1 million strong. Their numbers increase daily as the rise of ethnic nationalism and racial persecution in Europe forces them to flee to safer shores.