0. You shouldn’t call them “gypsies”
If you read the title of this list without raising an eyebrow, a political correctness fairy just died—and that’s not necessarily a good thing. For instance, try replacing the word “gypsies” with pretty much any other common racial slur and see if it still looks okay.
Yeah… not so much.
Of course, not all Romani have a problem with the word “gypsy,” but those who do really do. As far as they’re concerned, the fact that some Romani don’t only goes to show how normalized their marginalization in society remains. And they’ve got a point. Around the world, Romani people still face the same kind of shamelessly out-in-the-open, institutionalized racism that other races overcame years ago (in theory anyway).
Obviously a big reason for this is their invisibility; not only is their population a mystery (with estimates ranging between 2 and 20 million), but their traditionally itinerant way of life has often meant segregation from the mainstream. Simply put, “we” just don’t know who “they” are.
So here are 10 facts to get us started.
10. They are the “Children of India”
Speaking at the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival in 2016, Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj described the Romani as “India’s children.” She also called upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi to officially recognize them as part of the Indian diaspora, which could in theory lead to citizenship in the future.
It was a controversial statement. Unlike other members of the Indian diaspora, the Romani didn’t leave just two or three generations ago. According to genetic and historical evidence, they left the Indian subcontinent approximately 1,500 years ago.
Possibly escaping from famine or conflict, the ancestral Rom made their way across the Middle East, the Caucasus, and North Africa to Europe via the Byzantine Empire. Some splintered off and settled along the way, such as the Dom of Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, and the Lom of Armenia, while the core group trudged on. They were in Crete by 1322, Romania (Walachia) by 1385, and, by 1435, they were common in most European towns.
9. They speak a “secret language”
Another clue to their ancient Indian origin is their language, romanes or romani chib, which bears similarities to Punjabi, among other Sanskrit-based tongues. Some words are practically identical between Romani and Punjabi, such as dur and dura (‘far’) and pezal and paidala (‘on foot’).
Contrary to popular belief, the ethnonym “Romani” itself comes not from the group’s modern-day concentration in Romania, but from the ancient Romani word rom, meaning ‘man’, or ‘people’ in general. Non-Romani, meanwhile, or Romani who turn their backs on their roots (their romanipen), are commonly known as gadjé (singular: gadjo/gadji).
Dialects vary from place to place, influenced by native inhabitants; and, as with other migrant languages, some Romani words have been adopted by non-Romani speakers too—at least in Britain. Cushty (‘good’) and wonga (‘money’), for example, have both retained their original Romani meanings in English, while chav (‘boy’, ‘youth’) has become a slur for the working class.
As an oral, non-written language, there are no standard spellings in Romani, which means individual words can be spelled in dozens of different ways. But its preservation is of vital importance and speaking it has long been a way of expressing cultural identity. At times, it has also served as a kind of secret language, a way for the Romani to identify each other and discuss things in private without the gadjé listening in.
8. They’ve been persecuted for hundreds of years
When the Romani arrived in Romania (in the 14th century), they were forced into slavery to the state, as well as to monasteries and private citizens. And it wasn’t until the 19th century, when Lincoln freed black slaves in America, that they were finally granted their freedom.
But oppression continued regardless. In Austria and Hungary, for example, they were subject to travel bans, deportations, and restrictions on access to trades. Other European countries introduced laws to forcibly “integrate” the Romani, which in practice meant banning their language and taking their children into care. In Spain, the Romani were rounded up and sent to forced labor camps where they helped to build ships for the navy.
Much of this discrimination was based on fear, and on the Church denouncing them as heretics. Early on, the Holy Roman Empire placed signs around its borders warning Romani migrants not to cross.
Only in Russia, where the Romani enjoyed certain rights and privileges (albeit only briefly, under Lenin), was their integration ever close to successful.
7. They were all but wiped out by the Nazis
Widely seen as child-snatching vermin in Europe, the Romani were among the first to be herded out of Berlin—ostensibly to make way for the 1936 Olympics. And things only got worse from then on, as the Nazis displaced thousands to squalid ghettos and camps.
In 1939, an article published in the Journal of the National Socialist [Nazi] Union of Doctors compared “gypsies” to rats and fleas and called for their elimination “through biological means.” Later that year, 250 Romani children were killed at Buchenwald with the pesticide Zyklon-B. Others were subjected to unimaginable tortures and testing. According to one eyewitness at a concentration camp, two four-year-old twins were surgically attached at the backs with even their veins joined up to each other’s. They were in such excruciating pain that their mother had to kill them with morphine.
The plight of the Romani at the hands of the Nazis (or Kali Legiya, ‘Black Legion’, as they call them) is often deliberately overlooked to frame the Holocaust (or porrajmos, the ‘devouring’) as a uniquely Jewish ordeal. But as many as 1.5 million Romani were rounded up and killed by the Nazis—up to 80% of their pre-war population, according to Romani historians, and a far cry from the 25-50% more commonly touted as fact.
The trouble is the Romani population is notoriously difficult to quantify. We don’t even know how many there are living today, let alone before the Second World War. To make matters worse, many were simply killed on the spot, which means no official records exist. And those who were processed at camps were often lumped together with other non-Jewish minorities and listed simply as ‘emigrants’, ‘thieves’, or ‘remainder to be liquidated’.
As a result, few people realize the extent of the Romani genocide, or samudaripen (‘mass killing’). Whereas Germany has since paid out billions in reparations to Jewish survivor groups, including Israel, it wasn’t until 1981 that crimes against the Romani were even acknowledged as having taken place.
But maybe this is because…
6. It’s apparently still OK to hate them
The Romani remain one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world, especially in Europe, and the silence, as they say, is deafening.
As recently as 1975 in Sweden, for example, Romani women were forced to consent to sterilization—threatened with the loss of their children if they refused. And in some Eastern European countries, this went on until the ‘00s under the pretext of check-ups or abortions and without the victims’ knowledge. Other Romani women (e.g. in Greece and Ireland in 2013) have had their fair-haired, blue-eyed children snatched away into care on the (racist and erroneous) assumption that they stole them from white Europeans.
It’s important to note that policies like these don’t come out of nowhere. There’s a reason politicians hate the Romani; it’s because the public, by and large, hate them too. Hence when French PM Nicolas Sarkozy (himself the son of an Eastern European migrant) deported 1,000 Romani in 2010, his approval rating increased. And in Italy, where the government wants to get rid of them, there are populist plans to register every single Romani in the country.
Antiziganism (discrimination against the Romani) has been called “the last acceptable racism” in Europe. In the UK, nine out of 10 Romani children have suffered racial abuse and adults are denied entry to pubs and holiday camps. Shockingly, when a 15-year-old was kicked to death by a mob shouting “f**king gyppos,” the judge refused to treat it as a hate crime.
Many see the Romani as unhygienic, uneducated, disease-spreading trespassers, yet at the same time deny them basic sanitation, education, healthcare, and the right to buy land (even when the land is of no use to anyone else).
Given that 90% of the Romani in Europe are living in abject poverty—and are still demonized by politicians in pursuit of votes—it’s no wonder the American Romani tend to keep a low profile (for the most part).
5. They’re fighting back
Fortunately the Romani aren’t half as voiceless as the mainstream media make out. Emboldened by activist groups like the World Roma Organization, the European Roma Rights Centre, the Gypsy Lore Society, and the International Romani Union, they’ve won numerous lawsuits against racists in positions of power (like the Daily Mail) and continue to fight for their rights and self-definition.
They also have an annual World Romani Congress, a pride week, an International Romani Day (April 8th), and days of remembrance for the Nazi genocide. Their flag—horizontal green (earth) and blue (heaven) stripes—is emblazoned with a blood-red chakra wheel to symbolize their ties to India, their continual movement, and their tragically violent losses. Meanwhile, their anthem—Gyelem, gyelem (‘I went, I went’)—calls on the Romani to unite.
Famous Romani artists and entertainers like Django Reinhardt, Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Yul Brynner, Michael Caine, Tracey Ullman, and Tracey Emin have also raised awareness for the ethnic group—as have events like the Romani-run Appleby Horse Fair in northern England, which attracts tens of thousands of curious gadjé every year.
4. They don’t all live in caravans
The Appleby Horse Fair is also a chance to see the old British Romani (Romanichal) wagons, or vardos, up close. Despite featuring so heavily in romanticized images of the “gypsies,” these exquisitely crafted caravans are actually surprisingly rare.
In part, this is because they were traditionally burned when their owners died in order to release their spirits. But it’s also because there weren’t all that many to begin with.
The Romani have only been associated with vardos for 150 years or so. They didn’t start living in them until 1850 and even then very few could afford one. Most traveled from place to place as they always had done, on foot, sleeping in tents bent over saplings.
As motor vehicles became more prevalent during the twentieth century, vardos became less practical anyway. And their appearance at fairs and circuses declined with the fairs and circuses themselves.
3. They’re not all heathens and fortune tellers either
Another romantic—and altogether more offensive—racial stereotype is that all Romani are somehow involved in witchcraft. Throughout history they’ve been associated with fortune-telling (palmistry, crystal balls, tarot cards) and the creation of charms, amulets, and potions to heal, curse, recover stolen property, make people fall in love, and so on.
While fortune-telling (dukkerin) and sorcery have long been Romani trades, it was likely the gadjé who ascribed innate magical powers to the Romani people themselves. According to Sarah Petulengro, a British Romani fortune-teller whose mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were fortune-tellers before her, there’s nothing special about the Romani that predisposes them to psychic abilities. “Everyone has clairvoyance in them,” she says, “it’s just realizing you’ve got it and understanding it.”
In fact, the Romani may have taken up fortune-telling simply because it was a trade they could ply on the move—like grave-digging, basket-weaving, brick-making, bear-training, busking, and all the other traditional “Romani trades.” Fortune-telling appealed to Romani women in particular because it was one of the only ways they were allowed to make money.
They’re certainly not “heathens,” though; actually, the Romani have tended to follow the dominant religions of whatever countries they’re in. Hence Islam and Christianity are common, alongside their more ancient Shaktist veneration of Divine Mother archetypes like Kali, the Virgin Mary, Saint Anne (Mary’s mother, in both Christianity and Islam), and Saint Sara-la-Kali (the Romani patron saint).
2. Censuses don’t represent them
While nobody really knows how many Romani there are, they’re generally assumed to be the largest minority ethnic group in Europe—possibly more numerous than Jewish, African, and South Asian transplants put together.
But all we have are guesses: 6 million in the EU and double that in the whole of Europe, according to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights; more than 20 million in Eastern Europe alone, according to the World Bank in 2002; 2.3 million in Egypt; and up to one million each in the United States, Russia, and Brazil. Presumably smaller populations exist elsewhere in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia, but they’ve never been reliably counted.
The trouble is the Romani have learned to be extremely cautious about identifying themselves to the state—or anyone else for that matter. And they can hardly be blamed. But as a result census data may account for less than one percent of their actual population, and we know very little about their internal diversity.
Although we’re told there are numerous subgroups (e.g. the Roma, the Sinti, the Kale, the Manouches, and the Romanichal), they tend to be loosely defined. The Sinti, for example, may not even consider themselves Romani. Meanwhile, other subgroups are based not on ancestry or language/dialect but on historical occupations (e.g. the Ursari ‘bear-trainers’, the Lovari ‘horse-dealers’, and the Kalderash/Kelderare ‘cauldron-makers’), which doesn’t tell us much about them today.
1. You may have Romani roots
Given how far and wide (and for how long, historically) the Romani have migrated, many gadjé have Romani roots without even realizing it. Elvis Presley is one of the more famous examples, apparently descended from the (Sinti) Preselers of 18th-century Germany. Wherever you live, there’s a chance you’re descended from these nomads—and it’s not always easy to be sure.
DNA sequencing is one way to find out, but another is to study genealogical records… if they exist. Strikingly unusual first names are a good clue (e.g. Cinderella, Urania, Dangerfield, and Neptune), as are typical Romani surnames (e.g. Cooper, Smith, Boswell, and Lee, at least in anglophone countries). But they’re hardly conclusive.
Certain occupations give a much better idea. Your Romani ancestors would likely be listed as hawkers, pedlars, tinkers, tinmen, grinders, horse-dealers, and the like. And if, as a Caucasian, you find “Egyptians” in your family tree, you’re probably of Romani descent—especially if there’s evidence of an itinerant lifestyle too. The roaming Romani were frequently listed in records as “tent dwellers,” “strollers,” and “of no fixed abode.”
Finding out you’ve got Romani roots won’t necessarily make you a Romani, but it may well change your perspective. Because the truth of it is, despite the racial hatred and violent deportations, this endlessly persecuted and globally diffuse minority can no more “go back to where they came from” than Americans can “go back” to Europe, or any of us to the cradle of Africa.