Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Moving Beyond Gypsy Stereotypes

by Steve Watrous
Dr. Ian Hancock doesn't look like a Gypsy, and he doesn't like the label, but it's both his heritage and his academic specialty. He's spending a month [April 1998] in Milwaukee helping the public get beyond romanticized or prejudiced notions about the least understood ethnic group in the United States.

"Most Americans have only a vague idea about what Gypsies are--from movies and literature," Hancock said. "Some don't think we're a real ethnic group."

Hancock teaches Linguistics and English at the University of Texas in Austin, but he's here for the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice, a program of the Metro Milwaukee Lutheran Campus Ministry.

The term "Gypsy" is on the way out, Hancock said, and he'd like to speed the process. He speaks of "the Roma," and in the United States, of the Romani Americans.

His ancestors came from Hungary; Hancock grew up in Britain. He's fair-skinned with no noticeable accent and could pass for a non-Gypsy, although a gold tooth and a triangle of hair under his lower lip whisper mystery. His Romani name is O Yanko le Redzosko, and through his writing and speaking he has become one of the few spokespersons for his people.

Hancock is president of the International Roma Federation ... and serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He's working with television's History Channel on documentaries about the Roma and he even edited a Dr. Seuss book in the Romani language.

About one million Roma live in the United States but they are not traveling all the time. "Non-Romani populations are more mobile in the United States," Hancock said. That's a surprise to Romani visitors from Europe, he noted. Hancock has met Roma in Milwaukee and said they quietly inhabit all major U.S. cities.

"Most have a means of livelihood with autonomy and many are self-employed," he said. "We want freedom, especially with time. It's very important for us to maintain our social network, which is entirely within the Roma. We need to go to weddings, baptisms, saints' days and funerals."

Many Roma used to make a living buying and selling horses, and now used car lots are often run by Romani Americans. Some are fortune tellers, a high-prestige occupation in India but sometimes illegal in the United States.

Although the Roma came out of Hindu India 1,000 years ago, in the U.S. many connect with Christian churches. "Some go to evangelical born-again churches," Hancock said, and he knows one who is a Lutheran pastor. Their most important saints are Saint Anne and Saint George. Hancock is an Episcopalian.

They value family life, with special emphasis on children and the elderly. "We don't send them to old folks' homes," Hancock said. And children often aren't sent to mainstream schools.

"We have very strict rules, such as ritual cleanliness in meal preparation," he said. "Public school meals are not prepared right and parents know their children won't learn anything positive about the Roma." Much like Orthodox Jews, the Romani people set up their own schools to maintain tradition and avoid romantic relationships outside the group. But few Roma get to higher education and some are illiterate.

"The experience with the establishment over the centuries has not been a happy one," Hancock said. "The Roma fear authority and anything that smacks of officialdom." They won't fill out census forms, but some file tax returns. Many states had laws against "Gypsies"--even prohibiting them from owning homes or businesses--until the last law was removed in January.

When the Roma arrived in Europe around the year 1300, their dark skins and foreign customs brought discrimination. About half were enslaved in Romania until the 1860s. Like Jews, they excluded outsiders, which fanned suspicion.

Rumors arose against both groups, such as that they were stealing white babies for nefarious purposes. The Roma were blamed for the plague and came under attack from people like Martin Luther and Charles Darwin, according to Hancock.

The Nazis took this distrust to the extreme by sterilizing and then killing the Roma along with Jews and people with handicaps. Hancock estimates that one and a half million Roma were killed in World War II.

"Why?" he asks. "The Roma are inoffensive people. They have no claims on territory, never started wars and are not convicted of major crimes. Their only crime is theft, usually of food."

Hancock believes that some of the Nazi gold stashed in Swiss banks was stolen from Romani victims. He and others have lobbied Congress for support on this claim, with some success.

One of the most famous Roma is Charlie Chaplin. Many people thought he was Jewish because he criticized Hitler, explained Hancock, but Chaplin knew of the anti-Gypsy attacks in Germany. Other Roma in the arts include actors Yul Brenner, Bob Hoskins and Rita Hayworth, and jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt.

The majority of Romani Americans came from Russian and Serbia with another large group from Hungary and Slovakia. They have different customs and don't socialize with each other. "It's impossible to generalize about the Roma," Hancock said.

The International Roma Federation deals with the post-1990 immigration to the U.S. from eastern Europe. They're coming from Romania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia, Hancock said, and these tend to stay in the northeastern United States.

Romani parents tell their children not to announce who they are for fear of discrimination, Hancock said, and this secrecy obscures their place in world events. For example, the Islamic people killed in Bosnia are mostly Roma. Reports of Romanian orphans being adopted in the United States don't mention that they are mostly Roma. ("Roma" and "Romanian" are not from a common root word.)

Hancock is trying to break through this secrecy barrier. Of the 12 million Roma in the world, he is one of the few to speak publicly for them, whether at the United Nations or to Milwaukee church members. "We have to deal with the prejudice through education and sensitizing at the grass-roots level," he said.

This article originally appeared in the Shepherd Express News Digest - Volume 19, Issue 14, April 2, 1998 - © 1998. <>

Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission of the Shepherd Express editor, Joel McNally.

Posted 06 April 1999.

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