There are many myths about gypsies and gypsy culture.  Myths often lead to misunderstandings and even fear.  Some facts about these fascinating people can eliminate myths, and lead to understanding and acceptance.

What Is A Gypsy?

Gypsies originated in northern India.  They were Caucasians with dark skin and dark hair.  Gypsy groups left India at least 1000 years ago, migrating throughout Europe and eventually worldwide.

A long-ago myth that gypsies came from Egypt is the reason for their name:  gypsy meaning “Egyptian.”  They are Europe’s largest ethnic minority group, although they also live in North America and throughout Asia.

There are different types of gypsies.  While the word generally refers to Roma gypsies, it is also used to describe Irish Travelers.  These two groups have different ethnic backgrounds but share a similar nomadic lifestyle.  Romanichal gypsies are also known as English Travelers.  They are a sub-group of Roma, living mainly in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries.  Bohemian gypsies migrated to Bohemia.  Many were killed during the Holocaust.

History and Culture of Roma Gypsies

As the most well-known group, the Romani people began to migrate after the 6th century.  As part of the genocide during World War II, many Roma gypsies were killed on sight, or sent to concentration camps.  They were considered a racially inferior group.  After the war, Romani women underwent forced sterilization in Czechoslovakia.  This forced sterilization continued for decades in various European countries.

There are approximately one million members of this ethnic group in the United States.  The first were sent as slaves to this continent in 1492.

While some Romani people retained the Hindu faith, and some became Muslim or developed their own religions, most Roma gypsies are Christian.  They tended to adopt the main religion of their new country.  In the United States, most Roma gypsies are Protestant Christians or Roman Catholics.

Traditionally, the extended family is the highest priority, and a community often consists of an extended family.  Both genders usually marry at a young age, and marriages are often arranged.  A married woman becomes part of her husband’s family.  Her role is to take care of her husband, children, and in-laws.  Growing older, and having children, both improve the status of a woman.  Families are very close, and the oldest man has the most authority.

Families and individuals are expected to obey the Romani Code.  The Code covers relationships within the community, behaviors, customs, and everyday life.  While some rules vary from group to group, others are common in all Romani groups.  The Code is passed on orally.

The conflict resolution court is known as the Kris.  It is only used to resolve issues involving Romanies, and only if the issues cannot be settled in an informal gathering.

Regardless of one’s religion, Hindu purity laws still apply.  The lower body, childbirth, death, and certain animals are all considered impure.  Roma gypsies do not believe in cremation.  When someone dies, he or she must be buried.

The word “Roma” means “people,” and it is the term most prefer.  Their nomadic lifestyle began by necessity.  As they faced discrimination and were often enslaved, continuously moving was a way to survive.  Because of this lifestyle and their closed culture, they were treated as outsiders.

During World War II, they were considered inferior, particularly by the Germans.  Roma dwarves and twins were used in experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.  Approximately 220,000 lost their lives during this period.

In the Romani culture, it is considered appropriate to display one’s good fortune.  Women enjoy brightly colored clothing and gold jewelry.  Homes have silver or gold ornaments, fresh flowers, and religious icons.

It is also considered appropriate to share one’s good fortune with others.  Guests are often given gifts as well as food.  The Romani people are generous and realize the importance of good social relations.

Most Roma gypsies are bilingual.  They speak a Romani dialect, and the language of the country where they reside.  They also borrow words from the country’s language and incorporate it into Romani.

In the past, Roma gypies travelled and set up camps.  They primarily interacted with the rural population in the area.  Men engaged in trades that fit the nomadic lifestyle, such as dealing horses and coppersmithing.  Women begged or engaged in fortune-telling.  Eventually, fortune-telling was almost entirely limited to the gypsies.

In the present, marginalization, exclusion, and discrimination still exist.  These issues are mainly based on old myths that have no basis in fact.  Rumors continue to claim gypsies are thieves, dishonest, and that they even steal children.  While there are modern gypsies who do engage in fortune-telling, most have the same types of jobs as other Americans.  Instead of finding Roma gypsies in caravans and camps, they can be found in their own homes and apartments.  Even gypsies who continue to practice their old traditions are not different from anyone else.

History and Culture of The Romanichal Gypsy

It is believed the Romanichal gypsies migrated to the old Kingdom of England during the 16th century.  Most of this group continued to reside in England, but some lived in Scotland and Southern Wales.  Some emigrated to other English-speaking countries, and many descendants of the original Romanichal gypsies now live in the United States.  Some speak a creole language, as well as English.

Like other ethnic minorities, the Romanichal people endured racism and persecution.  England started deporting these individuals in the mid-1500s.  They were transported from country to country and were eventually transported to the Americas and Australia.  However, a law appeared in 1562.  Individuals could become English subjects if they were born in Wales or England.  The catch was they were required to assimilate into the general population where they lived.  As this proved to be impossible, 106 individuals were eventually condemned to death, and 9 of the individuals were executed.  Discrimination against Romanichal gypsies continued, from both the authorities and the general public. 

During the 17th century, they were shipped to Southern plantations in America to work as slaves.  Some were even owned by former black slaves who had achieved their own freedom.

Free Romanichal gypsies travelled in horse-drawn carts or on foot.  They travelled to find work and set up camps.  They primarily did agricultural work, but also sold services or goods.  In the modern era, Romanichal people have worked in tree surgery, dealing scrap metal, dealing horses, paving asphalt, fortune-telling, and setting up travelling amusement fairs.  More recently, descendants of Romanichal gypsies can be found in a wide variety of professions.  Examples include boxers, British footballers, journalists, and nurses.

In the present, most families have houses or live in apartments.  Some still live in caravans, or trailers.  Traveler sites rarely have indoor bathrooms.  Showers, sinks, and toilets are in outdoor utility areas, as the lower body and bathing are considered unclean.  As it is also considered unclean to do laundry indoors, there are usually washing machines in these utility blocks.  Traditional Romanichal people who live in trailers have double walls to separate their bathrooms from their living areas.

While the nomadic lifestyle is not as common as it was in the past, purity traditions have not been abandoned.  Traditional Romanichal gypsies also do not share utensils, plates, or cups with another person.  This type of sharing does not occur even within families.  Running water is used to wash each item, after which it is soaked in boiling water, and dried with a special towel.  The towel can only be used for that one particular purpose.  Each item must be washed again before it is reused.  This tradition is also related to the stagnant water and dust that were common during the travelling era.  It protects against illness and disease.

Pregnancy and childbirth are viewed with superstition.  The woman cannot have physical contact with anyone and cannot resume relations with her own husband until after the child has been christened.  Her husband takes over the household chores during this period.  Her blood is considered powerful.  The newborn has a red string tied on his ankle until he reaches his first birthday.  The string symbolizes the baby’s tie to his mother’s blood.  When the new mother speaks, her words are considered powerful, too. 

While “jumping the broom” is a custom that is often attributed to other ethnic groups, it has its origins with the English Romanichal gypsies.  It was mainly practiced by couples who eloped.  The custom varied depending on location, but it was also practiced by couples who married by verbal agreement rather than a legal contract.

Unlike dark-skinned Roma gypsies, Romanichal gypsies often have light skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair.  This is because intermarriage between the gypsies and white Europeans was acceptable and common.  Due to their light features, many were able to avoid discrimination and genocide.  In Great Britain, though, racism against this group is still prevalent.  There is said to be more racism and discrimination against Romanichal gypsies than against any other ethnic group.  There are currently more Romanichals in the United States than in the United Kingdom.

History and Culture of The Bohemian Gypsy

Gypsies who migrated to France by way of Bohemia were known as Bohemians.  Originally, Bohemia was in Moravia, which later became part of the Czech Republic.

World War II took a toll on gypsies, including Bohemian gypsies.  The gypsies who lived in France were not safe, either.  Between 3,000 and 6,000 were sent to some of the most infamous concentration camps.  While most people know this period as the Holocaust, gypsies refer to it as ” Porajmos,” or “devouring.”  However, deportation to the camps was not the first step in eliminating the gypsies.  They had been forced to carry I.D. cards bearing their photographs and fingerprints since 1912.

Myths and misinformation led the general population to care little about the fate of this minority group.  They were portrayed as spies, criminals, and individuals who practiced black magic.  French authorities played a role in removing gypsies.  Harassment and other restrictive measures intensified, and thousands of gypsies were interned by French police.  Some were sent to concentration camps in Germany.

Bohemian gypsies spoke the Bohemian Romani dialect.  The dialect ceased to exist after World War II.  This was because there were few Bohemian gypsies left after the Holocaust.  Of all the Roma people living in Europe at the time, it is estimated that approximately 25% were killed. 

Decades ago, the word “Bohemian” came to mean a nomadic lifestyle.  When the term became a part of pop culture, it was not connected to the Bohemian gypsies.  Instead, it was simply a new way of life for young people who were not interested in traditional values and a traditional way of living.

Gypsy Life and Culture in the 21st Century

Prejudice and discrimination are not all in the past.  In England, for example, media reports that there is more discrimination against gypsies than against any other group.  They have a high suicide rate, and a low life-expectancy.  In Hungary, Roma men, women, and children have been subjected to hate crimes.  They are discriminated against in countries around the world, although they are Europe’s largest minority group. 

In the United States, most gypsies have assimilated.  In most cases, it is impossible to know who a member of this ethnic group is.  Still, most individuals who share this ancestry rarely talk about it.  They continue to experience prejudice and discrimination in schools, in the workplace, and even in their personal lives.

These issues continue because myths and rumors continue.  Rumors are still passed that gypsies steal from everyone, kill chickens, and take away other people’s children.  Instead of embracing diversity, too many people pass rumors down from generation to generation.

The term Antiziganism- or Antigypsyism- describes the racism, prejudice, hostility, and discrimination directed at this one ethnic minority.  In the United States, the Elsie Paroubek case in 1911 was an example.  When the five-year-old girl disappeared and was later found dead, rumors spread through the Czech-American community in Chicago that she had been stolen and killed by the gypsies.  As anti-gypsy prejudices were common in Czech society, even her father believed it.  In the present, popular culture and even Halloween costumes portray gypsies as different from other people, and to be feared, ridiculed, or hated. 

It is estimated up to a million individuals in the United States share this ancestry.  While most are not full-blooded Romani, their accomplishments are impressive.  Americans of Romani descent include musicians, actors, fashion designers, and writers.  They do not only engage in fortune-telling and palm-reading.

There have been many famous people of Romani descent.  Actor Michael Caine, Elvis Presley, Yul Brynner, Charlie Chaplin, and Pablo Picasso were all descended from the Romani people.  Perhaps it is time to eliminate myths and focus on accomplishments.  Perhaps it is time to celebrate diversity so individuals can proudly claim their heritage and practice their traditions without fear of discrimination.

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