Cultures

There are Gypsies in America? Where?

posted: 04/17/12
by: Caitlin Uttley
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Annie and the rest of her bridal party from "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding." About 1 million gypsies live in America.
TLC
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Glitter, outlandishly bright colors, rhinestones, oversized ruffled dresses, fake flowers and lots of hairspray and makeup -- is that what you think of when you hear the word "gypsy?" If so, you've probably been watching TLC's "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding." (Admit it, you love it!) But it's not every day you walk out onto the street and see a big, elaborate gypsy wedding taking place. In fact, you may have never seen a gypsy before -- or at least if you did, you didn't know it. That's because gypsy communities are notoriously hard to spot. In fact, they've often been dubbed "the hidden Americans" because they're so elusive.

So what exactly do we mean when we say "gypsy?" The name dates all the way back to the 1600s when Greeks mistakenly believed that they had arrived from Egypt, so they gave them a name that's a shorted form of "Egyptian." But in reality the people we call gypsies originated in the Indian subcontinent and then spread into the Middle East and Africa to Europe, and later the Americas, and so are not really Egyptian at all. Nonetheless, the name stuck. A more commonly accepted term today is Roma, but that doesn't just refer to one ethnic group -- it refers to any number of groups that are all culturally distinct, but trace their ancestry back to the group that migrated from the Indian subcontinent.

Americans who are said to have gypsy ancestry include Elvis Presley, Cher and Bill Clinton. Today there are up to a million gypsies living in the U.S. So where are they and why haven't you seen them? Keep reading to find out.

Believe it or not, gypsies were living in the U.S. even before it was a country. Records show that Roma immigrants were living in North America in colonial times, and some stories claim there were even gypsies aboard Columbus's ships on his second trip to the New World.

Some gypsies came to the U.S. voluntarily to escape persecution or to look for economic opportunity, but many were actually deported from places like England, Spain, France and Portugal. For centuries gypsies were treated by mainstream Europeans as social outcasts, and in some places laws forced gypsies who roamed in camps or who didn't have jobs to leave. Napoleon even deported hundreds of gypsies from France and sent them to French-held territory in North America, which in 1803 was sold to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Even though gypsies came to the U.S. as early as the late 1400s, the largest Roma migrations to the U.S. took place from the 1860s until around 1914. During the 1860s, enslavement of Roma in the Balkans was made illegal, so as more and people from that region migrated to the U.S., gypsies were able to go, too. More recent waves of immigration came following the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late-1980s.

There are many types of gypsies in the United States today. Some of the major groups include the Rom from Serbia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary; the Ludar from Romania; the Romnichels from England; the "Black Dutch" from Germany; and the Hungarian gypsies.

Today gypsy communities can be found all over the country. Some of the largest gypsy communities are in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Seattle and Portland. Historically, gypsies have specialized in jobs like metalworking, carpentry, music, dance and fortune telling, and cities provide greater opportunities to use these skills.

Some gypsy groups still travel from place to place with their families or in small communities, though not as many as used to. Where they go and how they travel varies. Finding work, changes in living accommodations, changing seasons and even plans to meet up with others are reasons gypsies move around. However, most gypsies today live in regular houses and apartments, so the stereotype of travelling gypsy caravans traversing the countryside is pretty inaccurate.

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While Nettie and her bridesmaids bring on the bling, not all gypsy brides follow suit. Some opt for the low-key approach.
TLC

For gypsies, keeping their culture alive is paramount. That's partially how gypsy communities all over the globe have maintained their traditions without assimilating fully into their host communities. Roma often adopt the religion, language and even names of the places they settle, but they stick mainly to their family and culture groups and hold fast to longstanding traditions.

Roma culture is all about family and community, and celebrations are a perfect opportunity to bring everyone together. The big, elaborate weddings you see on TV are a great example of how Roma celebrations are an extension of the hospitality and generosity of the host family, and their desire to share their blessings and good fortune with everyone they know.

Gypsy wedding celebrations can last three days and are often lavish and over-the-top. Remember, however, that what you see on TV reflects the personal taste of the bride, so not every gypsy wedding involves revealing clothing and lots of bling. Gypsy weddings often combine Orthodox rituals with traditional gypsy wedding customs. So, if you witnessed a gypsy wedding you might recognize the tradition of a bride in a white dress surrounded by her bridesmaids, but you might not recognize other traditions, like the father of the bride presenting his daughter with a necklace of gold coins. Baptisms and funerals are other reasons to bring everyone together in a big way, and people travel from miles around to attend.

Gypsies follow a conservative law code, or set of rules, based on purity and cleanliness. This code governs their conduct and lifestyle, and includes rules about how to prepare food, how to wash clothes and even how gypsies should interact with one another. For instance, touching a dog with your hand or washing men's and women's clothes together are considered unclean. Adherence to this set of rules is another way that gypsies have been able to maintain their distinct cultural identity no matter where they live.

Want to learn more about gypsies and their culture? The links on the next page will tell you more about this fascinating, elusive community. Better yet, go watch it for yourself on TLC's "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding"!

Related Articles

Sources

  • Belton, Brian. "Questioning Gypsy Identity: Ethnic Narratives in Britain and America." Rowman Altamira, 2005.
  • Clark, David Scott. "Encyclopedia of Law and Society, Volume 1." Sage, 2008.
  • The Economist. "Gypsies in America: From Open Road to Internet." March 26, 1998. (April 12, 2012). http://www.economist.com/node/158772
  • Gropper, Rena C., and Carol Miller. "Exploring New Worlds in American Romani Studies: Social and Cultural Attitudes Among the American Macvaia." Romani Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2001. (April 12, 2012). http://www.marston.co.uk/RSPP/LUPRSV011P02A00081.pdf
  • Hancock, Ian F. "Roma ." Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas Online.(April 12, 2012). http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/pxrfh
  • Heimlich, Evan. "Gypsy Americans." Everyculture.com. (April 12, 2012). http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Du-Ha/Gypsy-Americans.html
  • Li?geois, Jean-Pierre. "Roma, Gypsies, Travellers." Council of Europe, 1994.
  • Okely, Judith. "The Traveller-Gypsies." Cambridge University Press, 1983
  • Rroma.org. "Ritual Cleaness." (April 12, 2012). http://www.rroma.org/rroma-traditions/ritual-cleanness.html
  • Powell, John. "Encyclopedia of North American Immigration." Infobase Publishing, 2005.
  • Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. "'Gypsies' in the United States." (April 12, 2012). http://smithsonianeducation.org/migrations/gyp/gypstart.html
  • Sway, Marlene. "Gypsies." Encyclopedia of Chicago. (April 12, 2012). http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/559.html
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Sinti & Roma: Victims of the Nazi Era." (April 12, 2012). http://www.ushmm.org/education/resource/roma/roma.php
  • Webley, Kayla. "Hounded in Europe, Roma in the U.S. Keep a Low Profile." Time. Oct. 13, 2010. (April 12, 2012). http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2025316,00.html

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