The Western use of the term gypsy denotes an ethnic group believed to have migrated out from India approximately 1,200 years ago, spreading throughout Europe, the Americas, and other countries. Known by many names (Tattare in Sweden; Tsiganes, Getan, or Manus, in France; Tchingheane in Turkey; Zingare in Italy; Zincali in Spain; Zigeuner in Germany; Cigany in Hungary; Tsygane in Russia), this ethnic group often, but not always, identifies themselves as Rom (singular), Roma (plural), Romni (feminine singular), Rom (masculine singular), or Romani (adjective). The origin of the term Rom is believed to be a modification of the Sanskrit word Dom, a man of low caste who performs song and dance for a living.
Gypsies are what is termed a diaspora population (dispersed group living outside a homeland). Believed to have left India for reasons that are still unclear, it is speculated they were connected with military activity in India against the Turk, Afghani, and other military forces invaders leading to migration 1,200 years ago.
Current Gypsy population size is difficult to accurately establish due to absence of accurate census data, but estimates range from 8 to 10 million Gypsy people worldwide, who are residing in at least 40 different countries. During the past 1,200 years, this ethnic group has experienced a history of widespread mobility and marginality, while enduring momentous, continuous, and extreme prejudice, hostility, and violence against them by the people in the countries they moved into. The frequent moving within countries was motivated by either their choice or others’ force and depended upon the social climate of the host country at the time. They were the ultimate strangers, feared and used as scapegoats for whatever problems local peoples were coping with at the time that needed a concrete explanation—hence, blame the strangers.
Adaptation and segregation are key factors to understanding the Gypsy way of life. They tend to live simultaneously in two different worlds: the exterior imposed non-Gypsy world and the internal constructed Gypsy world. The differences between the two lifestyles reinforce prevailing Gypsy practices; unique Gypsy language usage, social customs, religious practices, and political and economic institutions are all effectively used to mark the boundaries that divide them from others. Ethnic boundaries in the nature of Fredrik Barth’s dichotomy of “we” versus “they” are established, reinforced through contrasts, and maintained to divide and separate. Unique identifying characteristics have been developed over time that reinforce the necessity for group separateness, and for the Gypsies these include the group-reinforcing tendencies of being biologically self-perpetuating, internally sharing specific cultural values, and using shared internal communication forms and other unique characteristics that function to enhance and maintain border divisions. These peoples then can identify themselves as being necessarily different from others, reinforcing the separation. It is useful to add Manning Nash’s (1978) description of an ethnic group as being a “self-conscious group within a nation state” with “boundary marking values” that include defining cultural regulators of “kinship” (family, partners, friends), “commensality” (food preferences and taboos) and “common cult” (religious practices), which form a strong barrier between a specific ethnic group and the larger society. The boundary-maintaining mechanisms then allow Gypsies a cohesive reinforced coexistence within the boundaries and also provides a means of distancing themselves from non-Gypsies (Gaje) through reflection, interpretation, and reinforcement of the absolute necessity of reinforcing the differences.
The Gypsy ethnic group is primarily an endogamous (in-marrying), kinship-bound group, with preferences for unique in group edible food selection, preparation, and consumption practices. They do not eat with others out of fear of pollution. Their religious practices center on standards required for maintaining the ethnic group solidarity, being regulated and reinforced by known rules of purity (marime) and pollution. Objects that come into contact with the upper body are not to come in contact with the lower body. Separate basins and soap are used to clean upper- and lower-body parts and materials that come into contact with each, thus building contact walls between Gypsies and non-Gypsies.
Two different systems of political control operate concurrently within Gypsy life. One is the non-Gypsy institution law, customs, and structure and the other is the traditional internal ethnic group political institutions, laws, customs, and structure. They are often at odds with one another, causing conflict between Gypsy and non-Gypsy. Internal Gypsy political institutions operate within what is known as the Kumpania (extended-family group within the same geographical location), which is controlled by the interpretation and application Romania (traditional Gypsy law). The laws are interpreted by Rom baro (internal leaders) and enforced by internal gossip systems. Varying states of purity (marime) and attempts to avoid polluting states regulate the rhythm of daily life. When internal mechanism processes fail to produce the necessary and desired political and legal result, leaders will occasionally turn to outside (Gaje) authority for reinforcement. An unruly person may be turned over to the police for theft.
Expulsion is the ultimate punishment for a group member’s violation of the rules that regulate internal harmony and control. Expulsion can be either for a defined time period or, in extreme cases, permanently. Failure to comply with the outside (Gaje) political and legal structure can also have consequences for members. Non-Gypsy legal systems and laws are frequently at odds with internal Gypsy regulatory laws, practices, and values. Claude Cahn, the editor of a cross-discipline series of articles on the Rom, explores issues of Rom human rights violations, equality issues, hate speech practices against them, educational system inadequacies for them, media stereotyping and misrepresentation, justice systems misinterpretations and failures, and racial issues in connection with Gypsies living in both Europe and the United States. Gypsy populations frequently have been the object of extreme prejudice, persecution, negative stereotyping, imprisonment, expulsion, and enslavement, the ultimate example being that of the Nazi death camps with the goal of total genocide.
In the United States, Gypsies frequently borrow one another’s social security numbers and American names, believing both to be the property of their entire kin group. This switching of identities creates legal dilemmas between the Gypsies and the exterior legal system practices. This common sharing of social security numbers allows Gypsies to follow their tradition of maintaining anonymity when in contact with Gaje and works to reinforce separation from non-Gypsy society. Incarceration in prison can cause a Gypsy tremendous hardship because of strictly enforced Gypsy purity (marime) and pollution practices and violations of these rules in connection with proper Gypsy relationships with food, body, cleanliness, and ritual separation from non-Gypsies.
Economically, Gypsies generally support themselves with low-status occupations that are often on the margins of the larger-society economic endeavors, with time-honored occupational traditions of fortune-telling, auto repair, used-car sales, migrant agricultural workers, peddlers, entertainers, hawkers, and metal workers. Explanation and interpretation of economic choices for minority groups are explored by Sway, using what is called the “middleman minority theory.” The theory investigates how marginal or minority group occupation practices are selected, established, and maintained by those involved. Sway looks at how employment practices function to strengthen avoidance of full assimilation of minority groups into the larger social structure. He demonstrates how Gypsy kumpania and vitsa (extended-family groups with authority under a specific chief) divide up specific geographical locations among groups and members of groups. They then can control the overlapping of Gypsy economic opportunity, while allowing adaptation to a hostile host environment.
This control also provides for necessary occupational roles to be fulfilled that are not desired or undertaken by the elite and middle classes of a society. The Gypsies, in other words, fill a vacuum in the existing work market.
Frequently, the status of being either nonliterate or marginally literate further reduces occupational opportunities, while concurrently enforcing inter-group cohesiveness and dependency. The traditional language of the Gypsy, Romani is a verbal not a written language. This increases the necessity for face-to-face communication and group dependency. Reinforcing this practice is the preference for internal enculturation of the children, rejecting extensive inclusion in formal government or religious educational institutions. This is not to imply that Gypsy children do not attend schools. They do attend when convenient, and particularly when receipt of government financial assistance is predicated on children’s school attendance. Questions need to be asked regarding length of stay, attendance, and level of achievement for the children. The Gypsies are known to prefer internal nonformal systems of education for their children, thereby reinforcing Gypsy values, practices, and beliefs. There are, of course, also Gypsies that are well educated and work within the economic structures of mainstream society.
Kinship structures are designed to enforce in group cohesiveness, with the extended family holding a position of primary importance. The Kalderas, or Coppersmith, of New York can be used as an example of kinship practices. The Kalderas migrated from several countries, primarily Russia, Serbia, and Greece. They share the Romani dialect and have almost identical cultural institutional values, beliefs, and practices. Membership is within a federation of patrilineal bands (vitsa) with heads of extended families serving on governing councils. Internal arranged marriage is preferred and occurs between vitsa groups. First cousin marriage is strongly frowned upon, further reinforcing cross-group, appropriate-mate selection and creating linkages between groups. Typically, the elders arrange marriages, with residence after marriage and until the arrival of the first child with the groom’s parents. This means that the couple is considered to be members of the groom’s vitsa, becoming a recognized adults within the ethnic community attached to being married. Age grade status is established, with specific privileges and responsibilities attached to each maturation level in the life cycle as defined by the ethnic group. Both consanguine (by blood) and affinal (by marriage) relatives are vital in forming the networks of dependency and reciprocal support necessary for daily existence. Vitsa (kin group) solidarity is dependent on both group cohesiveness and on lineage tracing, occurring along both the male and the female lines. The status of all vitsa members is affected by the behavior of each and every individual member, reinforcing solidarity of the group.
Elaborate funeral practices reinforce continuation of the descent system over time, with beliefs in ghosts and spirits of ancestors of deceased relatives interacting with persons still alive. Material goods of the deceased relatives can cease being used, destroyed, sold, or otherwise disposed of. Williams recounts how a form of solidarity continues between the dead and the living by recounting how two members of the French “Manus” Gypsy group were in the midst of an argument when one of the men went into a nearby trailer and returned with a gun. Upon seeing the gun, the other man in the argument turned and walked away. This could be misinterpreted as the fear of being wounded that caused the man to walk away, but in fact it was the gun itself, having been previously owned by a dead family member, that provoked the leaving. The leaving was a sign of respect for the dead person and not fear of the other man’s using the gun. The actual physical disappearance of the body of the dead person is reinforced by removal, destruction, disuse, transference, or sale of the deceased’s earthly material goods, but the spirit existence of the deceased family endures across time and is kept alive in the survivor’s thoughts. Material objects that belonged to a dead person and that are retained represent the deceased person and must be shown.
Gypsies frequently adopt the dominant religion of the nation, state, or country where they reside. In part, this is an adaptive measure, an attempt to avoid past experiences of religious persecution inflicted on the Gypsies for not being one religion or another: “In Spain, Italy, France, they become Roman Catholic; in England usually Protestant; and in southeast Europe they are either Muslim or Greek Orthodox” (Gropper, 1975, p. 109). Within their own religious practices, they greatly fear the influence of supernatural ghosts, spirits, and souls of the dead that can influence their lives. This can be seen as a departure from the dictates of traditional Christian religions that place much less emphasis on the dead influencing the living. Gypsies also have a belief in the “evil eye,” using various objects and rituals to deflect evil influences. In addition, the color red can be used to counteract the effects of the evil eye, along with a wide range of religious taboo practices and rituals aimed to influence unseen forces. Gypsies believe and also fear the ghosts of evil spirits that can make their children sick. In an attempt to “fool” the deviant ghost, they may rename a very sick child to divert attention. Gypsies also are known to believe in the magical use of numerology and the use of combination of herbs and charms to ward off evil spirits. This demonstrates how they maintain their own Gypsy religious beliefs and practices separately from those of the outside world.
Gypsy cultural practices are not static, and what is written here should be seen as ideal practices subject to individual person and group variation. Culture is a tapestry, with multiple threads that crisscross to create the design of ethnic group unification, choice, modification, adaptation, or separation, depending on the needs of the specific group, time, and place involved.
- Cahn, C. (Ed.). (2002). Roma rights. New York: International Debate Education Association.
- Gropper, R. C. (1975). Gypsies in the city. Princeton,
- NJ: Darwin Press. Lemon, A. (2000). Between two fires. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Nash, M. (1989) The cauldron of ethnicity in the modern world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Spradley, J., & McCurdy, D. (Eds.). (2003). Conformity and conflict. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Sway, M. (1988). Familiar strangers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Tong, D. (Ed.). (1998). Gypsies. New York: Garland.
- Williams, P. (2003). Gypsy world (C. Tihanyi, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.