Romani Americans

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Author: Evan Heimlich
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 9,584 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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Romani Americans

Evan Heimlich


Romani Americans are Americans with Gypsy, or Romani, ancestry. The term Gypsy derives from the word Egyptian, reflecting a mistaken assumption of the origins of the people who refer to themselves as Roma. According to one hypothesis, Roma trace their roots to a diverse group who were assembled in northern India as a military force to resist the eastward movement of Islam. Romani groups lived in what is the modern Indian state of Rajasthan in northwest India, before migrating west in what DNA and linguistic analysis suggests was about 1000 CE. Over the centuries, they moved into Europe and adapted their language and culture in their migrations, forming a diverse range of Romani subgroups, each with their own unique cultural histories and practices. More recent theorists, such as Wim Willems and Brian Belton, argue that the Romani identity is not in fact hereditary, but instead based on a set of cultural and lifestyle practices that have for centuries been adopted or abandoned by groups from all over the world in response to changing social and economic conditions that placed them at odds with the dominant social structures. Romani Americans represent family groups from England (Romnichals), eastern Europe (Roma, subdivided into Kalderash, Lovari, Machvaya, and others), Romania (Ludar), Spain (Gitanos), Germany, and many other European regions. While Romani people are widely spread throughout Europe, the areas with the most highly concentrated populations are eastern Europe and Spain.

Because Roma are so widely dispersed, and because the number of people who self-identify as Roma is fluid, there is no accurate population count. In the twenty-first century, various scholars and organizations have estimated their numbers to be between 9 and 14 million worldwide. The 2011 World Bank data for Romania, the country with the highest estimates of Roma, puts the country's entire population at over 21 million, 619,000 of which are Roma, though unofficial estimates suggest the true number may be upwards of 2 million. The majority of Romani settlements in Romania and throughout Europe are in impoverished urban areas. Some Roma tend not to assimilate into the societies and cultures of the regions in which they settle—either by choice or due to discrimination; they are often service workers in the regional economies, earning money as performers, fortune-tellers, peddlers, metal salvagers, and used car dealers. There is a high rate of poverty among Roma around the world today, with unemployment over 50 percent in many regions of Europe.

Although small groups of Roma arrived in North America as slaves in the seventeenth century, it was the abolition of Romani slavery in 1864 in southern Romania that led those predominantly living in eastern Europe to migrate throughout the rest of Europe and eventually to the United States. Many from this first wave of Romani immigration to the United States joined groups of Roma living in the South—particularly Louisiana—who had been shipped overseas from France and Spain as slave laborers during the colonial period. Although some Roma moved to rural areas for job opportunities, the Great Depression in the 1930s led many to settle in larger cities such as Chicago and New York City in pursuit of a variety of trades, such as animal husbandry, fortune-telling, and car repair and metallurgy. More recent waves of Romani immigration to the United States have occurred during periods of unrest in eastern Europe, such as the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the late twentieth century. Roma are still somewhat concealed in U.S. society, mainly by choice to avoid persecution or stereotyping, and have come to be referred to by some scholars as the “invisible minority” or “hidden Americans.”

An accurate estimate of the Roma population in the United States is difficult to achieve. If counted in a census at all, it is typically by their country of origin. Estimates of the total population of Roma in the United States range from fewer than 100,000 to one million. The Romani population is spread throughout the rural and urban United States, and the various groups of Roma typically remain within separate insular groups due to their disparate range of cultural practices and dialects. States with large numbers of Romani Americans include New York, Virginia, Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, California, Washington, and Oregon.


Early History The linguist W. R. Rishi traces the etymology of the word Rom to the Sanskrit word Rama, with meanings that include “one who roams about.” Page 2  |  Top of ArticleThe number of Persian, Armenian, and Greek terms in the various Romani dialects reflects their migrations, just as those related to Sanskrit and Hindi point to their common origin. Although a Persian story has been cited as proof they came from a single caste of entertainers, more recent evidence, including blood-type research, points to a gathering of diverse peoples in the Punjab region of India to form an army and its support groups to counter Muslim invaders. In the eleventh century some of this group moved north through Kashmir and west into Persia. After some generations they pushed on to Armenia, then fled Turkish invaders by entering the Byzantine Empire. By the thirteenth century they had reached the Balkan Peninsula; Serbian and Romanian terms came into their language. Thereafter they split into smaller groups that dispersed throughout Europe, absorbed cultural and linguistic influences from their host countries, and developed differences that persist among Romani subgroups today.

In the late fifteenth century Roma reached western Europe from regions dominated by the Ottoman Empire. Their language and appearance set them apart from the resident populations; they repeatedly suffered harassment or worse at the hands of the local majority, and they were often denied the right to own land. Such treatment likely encouraged their traditionally nomadic way of life; however, some groups were not nomadic. Eventually Europeans used “Gypsies” or related words to name not only a particular ethnic group of people, but also other groups of people, unrelated by blood, who maintained a nomadic way of life. For the most part, Roma kept to themselves as a people; however, as Matt Salo suggests in his introduction to Urban Gypsies, “The existence of a number of Gypsy-like peripatetic groups, some of which (such as British Travellers) have intermarried with Gypsies … complicate our attempts at classification” of who should count as Romani. Although purists tend to define the group narrowly, the definition of Roma most widely accepted among experts is any people who identify themselves as Romani.

Modern Era Almost all Roma in the United States originated from some part of Europe. Within the category of Roma, the most numerous subgroups are Kalderash and Machwaya. There are other large groups of Roma as well: Baschalde (from Slovakia, Hungary, and the Carpathians), who may number close to 100,000; and Romungre (from Hungary and Transylvania), who may number as many as 60,000. There are some Horahanae, who are Muslims from the South Balkans, and a small population of Sinti Gypsies, who came from northern Europe—Germany, Netherlands, France, Austria, and Hungary—where they, like other Roma, were targets of the Nazis. There are also Bosnian and Polish Roma in the United States. One of the most recent immigrations of a Roma group is that of the Lovara, who arrived in the 1990s. There are also a few small groups of Rumanian Ludar. Some “black Dutch,” from Germany, the Netherlands, and Pennsylvania, intermarried with Romnichals and are counted as Anglo-Americans.

The two groups of Romani Americans about whom scholars know the most are Roma and Romnichals. Many Roma came to the New World from Russia or eastern or central Europe; the Romnichals came from Great Britain. Although these two groups have much in common, they also are divided by cultural differences between Great Britain and eastern Europe. The Romnichals came to the United States several decades earlier than Roma, in the mid-nineteenth century, and ran successful horse-trading operations in New England. Roma arrived in the United States during the late nineteenth century. There are several reasons attributed to the uncertainty surrounding how many Roma are in the United States: many entered the country as undocumented immigrants, and those who were documented were recorded by their country of origin and not as Roma.

The Romani-sponsored Patrin website ( ) explains, “Many Roma themselves do not admit to their true ethnic origins for economic and social reasons,” a reference to the long tradition of exclusion and persecution that they suffered for centuries in Europe. Most disturbingly, the Nazis rounded up and killed an estimated 200,000 to 1,500,000 Roma during World War II in what is known in Romani as the Porrajmos, or “the Devouring.” Many Roma who were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp during the war, particularly Romani children, also became subjects of grotesque medical experiments by the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. Roman Mirga, a Polish Roma who escaped from Auschwitz, recorded his experience there in a manuscript that was later adapted by Alexander Ramati as a novel titled And the Violins Stopped Playing (1986) and as a motion picture of the same title in 1988. Nevertheless, acknowledgement of the atrocities committed against Roma has been slow in coming: the first official recognition by a German leader of the Nazis' Roma executions based on ethnic grounds occurred in 1982. Roma activists continue to draw attention to the current plight of eastern European Roma. Although the collapse of Communist regimes—especially that of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, which conducted forced sterilizations and other genocidal persecutions of Roma—has alleviated some of the worst oppression, “ethnic cleansing” in eastern Europe is a continuing cause for concern. The Czechoslavakian government also performed forced sterilization on Romani women until 1990, and there have been many criminal complaints of sterilization in eastern Europe since then. Roma continue to face expulsion from both eastern and western member countries of the European Union, most notably France, Germany, and Italy.

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Upon the collapse of Communism in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, European Roma sought greater opportunity to organize and establish political representation. In Romania, for example, the Partida Romilor, or “Party of the Roma,” was founded in 1990 following the overthrow of the Communist government during the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Throughout the 1990s, countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia implemented policies aimed at providing Roma with a sense of inclusion and the chance to participate in public political discourse. The 1996 formation of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) in Budapest, Hungary, marks the introduction of Roma activism on the world stage. Because of continued discrimination against Roma in Europe, including segregation, evictions, and basic social and economic neglect, Roma activism is integral in achieving any sort of equality.

With the advent of Romani activism, more media and cultural attention has been paid to the plight of Roma. Filmmaker Jasmine Dellal created the 2000 PBS documentary American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody's Land, shedding light on Romani experience by highlighting a Romani family living in Spokane, Washington. George Eli's Searching for the 4th Nail (2009) is perhaps the first documentary by a Romani American filmmaker. Recently Romani citizens have appeared in multiple reality television series, such as TLC's My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding and the National Geographic Channel's American Gypsies. Both shows have been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of the Roma. Roma have also made significant appearances in mainstream publications such as Al Jazeera, Time Magazine, and Miller-McCune, spotlighting Romani activism and daily life. Oksana Marafioti's 2012 memoir American Gypsy has been praised for its exploration of the Romani American immigrant experience.


Roma have come to the United States for reasons similar to those of other immigrants; however, since European powers have tended to discriminate against Romani people, this hostility has hastened Romani emigrations. In the late sixteenth century England deported some Roma to Barbados and Australia, and by the end of the seventeenth century, every European country with New World holdings followed the practice of deporting Roma to the Americas. Suspicion between Roma and established institutions also spurred Romani emigration. Christian churches of Europe attacked Romani fortune-tellers, prompting deportations. Near the end of the nineteenth century, eastern European Roma migrated westward; within this mass movement came the biggest immigrant waves of Roma to the United States.

Although all Europeans have historically treated Roma poorly, Roma tended to fare better in western Europe and the United States than in eastern Europe, where they suffered extremes of racial prejudice, including enslavement in southern Romania. Roma hoped to escape social oppression by immigrating to the New World. Some Roma deported to South America migrated to North America. Some Roma were annexed into America with territory itself: for example, Napoleon transported hundreds of Romani men to Louisiana during the two-year period before selling the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. More recently, toward the end of the twentieth century, the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe has enabled Roma to emigrate more freely, at times with renewed harassment as incentive, bringing new waves of eastern European Roma to the United States.

The traditional stereotype of the Gypsy is the nomad, and some modern Romani Americans continue to travel seasonally in pursuit of their livelihoods. Rather than wander, they move purposefully from one destination to another for work purposes. Historically, some families have reportedly traveled in regular circuits. Awareness of the best cities, small towns, or rural areas as markets for their services has guided all travel. A group might camp for weeks, sometimes months, at especially productive urban areas, returning to these spots year after year.

Nomadic Romani Americans might maintain a sequence of home bases; they often live in mobile homes, settling indefinitely in a trailer park. They may tear down walls and enlarge the doorways of their homes to combine rooms or make them larger to create a wide open space suitable for the large social gatherings that occur in Rom homes. In Urban Gypsies, Carol Silverman notes that Kalderash frequently pass along the houses, apartments, or trailers that they modify to a succession of Romani families. While some Romani Americans travel to make their living, others pursue settled careers in a variety of occupations according to their education and opportunities.

While largely hidden from view, Roma who announce their heritage face discrimination on many levels, especially economic. In order to escape worse oppression, early Roma sold themselves into slavery for the price of admission to the United States. Early trades for Roma included woodworking, metalworking, and horse training. Roma who immigrated to the United States after the turn of the twentieth century often sought occupations that enabled them to work independently and primarily on the move. These jobs were often connected to a particular group; Kalderash have a large number of fortune-tellers while Ludar primarily worked as showmen and animal trainers. More recently, many Roma make their living in car repair and reworking and selling scrap metal.

The Romani population has participated in American migrations from countryside into cities, yet estimates suggest that the Romani American population is evenly divided between urban and rural areas. Generally, as noted by Silverman, the urbanization of the Rom in the United States began as early as the

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end of the eighteenth century, when various groups began to spend the winter months camping in vacant lots on the outskirts of cities, and intensified when “a large number of Rom flocked to the cities during the 1920s and 1930s to take advantage of various relief programs, and remained there because of gas rationing and because of increasing business opportunities within the city.”

Many Americans have either romanticized Roma as exotic foreigners or criminalized them as thieves. Some Americans draw on the supposedly romantic appeal of Romani traditions of dancing, music-making, and living on the road. Americans have maintained or adopted European prejudices against Roma and treat Romani immigrants poorly. Just as Europeans have often attributed the fortune-telling skills of Roma to “black magic,” Romani traders have been accused of stealing and fencing stolen goods ever since their earliest migrations into Europe. As a result, English speakers may say that to defraud, swindle, or cheat someone is to “gyp” them. This sensational image of Roma as criminals is not supported by statistical analysis of court records, since conviction rates of Roma Americans for theft is no higher than the rate for other Americans. Nevertheless, laws attempting to deter, prevent, and punish fortune-tellers and thieves in the United States have singled out Romani Americans. In the early twentieth century, Virginia legally barred Roma from telling fortunes. In New Jersey in the mid-1980s, special regulations and licensing requirements applied to Roma who told fortunes. As recently as 2011, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida–based Romani American named Rose Marks and her family were accused of fraud by the United States government after it was revealed that they had earned some 25 million dollars telling fortunes. Romani households have long been labeled as “dens of thieves” so that charges brought against one resident may apply to any and all. As recently as the 1970s, New Hampshire expelled some Roma on the grounds merely that they were Gypsies.

Because Romani Americans tend to follow economic opportunities, they often reside in the most populous cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, and Portland. These urban centers have the largest concentrations of Romani American inhabitants. There are approximately 20,000 Roma living in Texas, with a concentration of Roma in Fort Worth. The Roma also joined the American movement westward, and as a result, many live in California. Virginia is another state with significant numbers of Romani Americans.


Most Roma are at least bilingual, speaking the language of the country in which they live as well as some branch of the Romani language, Romani or Romanes. There are a number of different dialects of Romani, Page 5  |  Top of Articleeach influenced by the languages of the countries where Roma historically resided. For example, Romani exhibits many characteristics of Greek origin, due to Roma migration throughout the Byzantine Empire prior to the tenth century. Furthermore, linguist Yaron Matras notes that British and American Roma often speak “Angloromani,” incorporating Romani words or phrases into English speech.

Silverman explains that when non-Roma ask Kalderash to identify their foreign language, they “usually answer Romanian, Greek, or Yugoslavian,” to pass as a less stigmatized ethnic group, and thus to minimize curiosity and prejudice toward Gypsies. Among themselves, some nomadic Roma are also said to use a sort of in-group sign language, patrin, to describe conditions of camps for future campers, as well as to provide information useful for fortune-telling. Furthermore, Roma usually use their Romani name only among other Roma and adopt an Americanized name for general and official uses. Particularly because many Roma pick common names, they are hard to trace.

Among younger generations of Romani Americans, especially those who have become more integrated into American society, there has been some decline in the use of Romani. Still, Roma have an expression—amari þhib si amari zor (“our language is our strength”)—that compels many Romani Americans to preserve the language. The most common varieties of Romani spoken in the United States (by Kalderash and Machwaya) are derived from the Vlach dialects of eastern Europe. Because Romani is primarily spoken and not written, there is no standardized spelling for most words.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Romani greetings and expressions include the following examples (with pronunciation): P'aves Baxtalo/Baxtali! (“pah-vis bach-tah-low/bach-tah-lee”)—May you be lucky; Sar san?—How are you?; Lačho deves (“La-cho day-vase”)—Good day; and Xa! (“kha!”)—Eat!


Romani spirituality, part of the core of Romani culture, may derive from Hindu and Zoroastrian concepts of kintala—balance and harmony, as between good and evil. When that balance is upset, ancestors send signals to keep people on track. The mysticism of fortune-tellers and tarot readers—though such services to non-Roma are not the same as Roma's own spirituality—has bases in Romani spirituality. Many Roma are Christians with denominational allegiances that reflect their countries of origin.

Most Romani Americans, especially Vlax Roma, are nominally Eastern Orthodox. They celebrate the pomona feast for the dead, at which the revelers invite the dead to eat in heaven. Also, preparation for their slava (patron saint's day) feast requires thorough cleaning of the interior of the host's house, its furniture, and its inhabitants, as the host transforms a section of the house into a sacred space. The feast ceremony begins with coffee for the guests, prayer, and a candle for the saints.

Roma have tended to syncretize or blend their Romani folk religion with institutional religions such as Christianity. Romani religious beliefs are mostly unrelated to the business of fortune-telling. Silverman points out that, while some Roma “often joke about how gullible non-Gypsies are,” others are believers; fortune-tellers generally treat their reading room as sacred and may “consult elder Gypsy women who are known to be experts in dream interpretation, card reading, and folk healing.” Roma use code-names to mention certain evil spirits to other Roma, and Roma sometimes cast curses on other Roma (or ward them off). Also, states Silverman, Roma fortune-tellers use diverse religious iconography because “good luck and power can come from the symbols of any religion.”

Recently, Christian fundamentalist revival movements have been sweeping through Romani, Romnichal, and other groups of Roma. Since the mid-1980s, through Assemblies of God, various American groups have formed Roma churches. In Fort Worth, Texas, and many other American cities, churches integrate traditional Romani faith with Christian Pentecostal ritual.


Roma are intensely proud of their heritage and traditions, collectively referred to as Romaniya, and have repeatedly shown the ability to adapt without surrendering the essence of their culture. Traditional Romani Americans continue to resist the inroads of acculturation, assimilation, and absorption in the United States. Even groups such as the Gitanos from Spain or Romnichals from England, despite having lost most of their original language, still maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity and exclusiveness. A major issue facing Romani Americans since the 1980s is a worldwide Christian fundamentalist revival that has swept up Roma around the world. As masses of Roma practice versions of Pentecostal Christianity, currents of Romani culture may be undergoing a sea-change.

Roma maintain a powerful group identity. Those who travel see this as setting them apart from other cultures. Those who do not travel point to their language, rituals, and kinship relations as core cultural elements. Another area of difference from mainstream America is their historic attitude toward formal, public schools. Until recently, some Roma sent their children to schools only until puberty to keep them from being exposed to alien practices and teachings. However, in the last two decades, an educated group of Roma has emerged in the United States as well as Europe.

Prejudice against Roma has strengthened their lack of assimilation. One might suppose that economic interactions would dispel the insularity of Roma, while insular social practices pull Roma together. These opposing tensions give Roma a flexible identity. Roma Page 6  |  Top of Articlenegotiate the split between their business life, which focuses outwardly on non-Roma, and their social life, which focuses inwardly on other Roma.

Contemporary urban Romani Americans usually live interspersed among the non-Roma population, establishing ofisi (fortune-telling parlors, one means of livelihood) in working areas or in their homes. Their businesses may make many Roma seem quite assimilated, and at other times the same Roma may seem very traditional. Roma have tended to maintain two distinct standards of public behavior, one among themselves, another among outsiders. “A Gypsy's very survival among non-Gypsies often depends on his [or her] ability to conceal as well as exaggerate his Gypsiness at appropriate times,” observes Silverman. For example, an appropriate time for Roma to play to stereotype is while performing as a musician or fortune-teller for audiences who are known to value Romani exoticism. On the other hand, Silverman adds that “a large part of behaving appropriately as a Gypsy involves knowing when to conceal one's Gypsiness.” By passing as someone from a less stigmatized group, a Rom can circumvent anti-Romani prejudice. Some Romani Americans may present themselves as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Armenians, Greeks, Indians, Native Americans, Arabs, and as other local ethnics in order to obtain jobs, housing, and welfare. For many, notes Silverman, “the process of boundary crossing [is] a performance strategically enacted for survival.”

Traditions and Customs Romani patterns of kinship structures, traveling, and economics characterize them as a historic people who have adapted well to modern society. Much scholarship on Roma in the United States treats only the Kalderash and Machwaya. Although other groups differ, Silverman states that the folk belief or folk religion of all ethnic Roma consists mainly of “the taboo system, together with the set of beliefs related to the dead and the supernatural.” In general, then, Roma customs are largely intertwined with their religious and spiritual beliefs. Taboos and practices stemming from their belief in the binary system of ritual purity/impurity play a major role in shaping Romani customs. The Romani words wuzho (clean, pure) and marimé (unclean, contaminated) are used to classify both people and objects.

Among the Kalderash and Machwaya, taboos separate Roma from non-Roma and also separate the contamination of the lower half of the adult Roma's body (especially the genitals and feet) from the purity of its upper half (especially the head and mouth). The waist divides an adult's body; in fact, the Romani word for waist, maskar, also means the spatial middle of anything. Because a Romani person who becomes marimé can be expelled from the community, to avoid pollution, Roma try to avoid unpurified things that have touched a body's lower half. Accordingly, a Romani person who touches his or her lower body should then wash his or her hands to purify them. Similarly, objects that feet have touched, such as shoes and floors, are impure and, by extension, things that touch the floor when someone drops them are impure as well. Roma mark the bottom end of bedcovers with a button or ribbon in order to avoid accidentally putting the feetend on their face.

To some Roma, the failure to adhere to such standards of cleanliness by non-Roma makes interaction with non-Roma or Roma who are considered unclean undesirable. Taboos attempt to bar anybody sickly, unlucky, or otherwise impure from joining a meal, and Roma may destroy or discard any cups or utensils used by someone considered marimé. According to Silverman, when Roma move into a home, “they often replace the entire kitchen area, especially countertops and sinks, to avoid ritual contamination from previous non-Gypsy occupants.”

Taboos apply most fully to adult Roma, who achieve that status when they marry. Childbearing potential fully activates taboos for men and especially for women. At birth, the infant is regarded as entirely contaminated or polluted, because he or she came from the lower center of the body. The mother, because of her intensive contact with the infant, is also considered impure. As in other traditional cultures, mother and child are isolated for a period of time and other female members will assume the household duties of washing and cooking. Between infancy and marriage, taboos apply less strictly to children. For adults, taboos, especially those that separate males and females, relax as they become respected elders.

Cuisine Hancock says in “Romani Foodways: The Indian Roots of Romani Culinary Culture” that for mobile Roma, methods of preparing food have been “contingent on circumstance.” Such items as stew, unleavened bread, and fried foods are common, whereas leavened breads and broiled foods are not. Cleanliness is paramount, though, and, “like Hindus and Muslims, Roma, in Europe more than in America, avoid using the left hand during meals, either to eat with or to pass things.”

Traditionally, Roma eat two meals a day—one upon rising and the other late in the afternoon. Roma take time to have a meal with other Roma and enjoy khethanipé—being together. Roma tend to cook and eat foods of the cultures among which they historically lived; therefore, for many Romani Americans traditional foods are eastern European foods. Those who have adopted Eastern Orthodox Catholicism celebrate holidays closely related to the slava feast of southeastern Europe and eat sarma (cabbage rolls), gushvada (cheese strudel), and a ritually sacrificed animal (often a lamb). Roma consider these and other strong-tasting foods baxtaló xabé, or lucky.

For Roma, eating is important. Roma commonly greet an intimate by asking whether or not he or she ate that day, and what. Any weight loss is usually considered unhealthy. If food is lacking, it is associated with Page 7  |  Top of Articlebad living, bad luck, poverty, or disease. Conversely, for men especially, weight gain traditionally means good health. The measure of a male's strength, power, or wealth is in his physical stature. Thus, a Rom baro is a big man, both physically and politically.

Eating makes Romani social occasions festive and indicates that those who eat together trust one another. It is more than impolite for one Roma to refuse an offer of food from another. Such refusal would suggest that the offerer is marimé. Although some Roma will eat in certain restaurants, traditionally Roma cook for themselves. Often more food is served than can be consumed by those present, in order to reserve a portion of the meal for unexpected visitors. While the eastern European roots of many Romani Americans are apparent in their food choices, they have also incorporated aspects of regional American cuisine into their diet. Spicy or strong-flavored ingredients such as black pepper, red pepper, garlic, onion, and vinegar are common to many Romani American recipes, as they are thought to bring good luck.

Traditional Dress Roma have brightly colored traditional costumes that differ according to subgroup. Kalderash women wear dresses with full skirts, and men wear baggy pants and loose-fitting shirts. A scarf often adorns a woman's hair or is used as a cummerbund. Women wear much jewelry, and the men wear boots and large belts. A married Romani woman customarily must cover her hair with a diklo, a scarf. However, many Romani women may go bare-headed except when attending traditional communal gatherings.

While Romani Americans sometimes wear traditional, colorful clothing at festivals and celebrations, it is more common for them to wear typical American clothing in public. However, because Romani culture favors open displays of wealth as a signifier of social status, Romani men will often wear business attire—collared shirts, vests, and jackets (though the wearing of ties is not as common)—and Romani women will frequently wear handmade gold jewelry as a sign of their social standing, a practice not uncommon among Americans of all ethnic background.

Holidays and Festivals Roma historically celebrate the holidays (religious or otherwise) of the region in which they settle. The Vlax Roma, one of the largest groups of Roma in the United States, celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter with an elaborate feast, often gathering members from the whole community. At Easter a large bowl is passed around with dyed Easter eggs, and each person chooses one. One eastern European ritual that is said to bring baxt, or good luck, is called chognimos: the visitor brings an egg, and the head of household holds his own egg, and the two slap their hands together to break the eggs. Roma from the Czech Republic refer to Christmas as Karachonya and take the holiday as a time to remember the deceased and find reconciliation among the living. Roma primarily from the Balkans celebrate Ederlezi (also spelled Herdeljezi), the Feast of St. George. This holiday is celebrated by both Muslims and Christians, marking the beginning of spring. “Ederlezi” is also the name of a very famous Romani song named for the holiday.

In addition to religious holidays and weddings, Romani funerals are one of the biggest community celebrations. Groups of Roma travel and gather to mark the passing of one of their own. Romani Americans tend to follow the Vlach tradition of embarking on a three-day period of mourning in which no one is allowed to bathe, shave, or prepare food while they remain in the presence of the deceased. Often, immediately after a Romani American passes away his or her relatives will open a window and light a candle in order to offer the soul a passage to heaven. After the three-day period of mourning an emotional funeral service is held, featuring music, dance, and gift-giving, in which items thought to be needed by the dead in the afterlife, including coins, clothing, good-luck charms, and alcohol, are placed in the grave along with the casket. Romani Americans tend to be buried alongside other members of their family or alongside other Roma if no family members have been buried in the area.

International Romani Day began on April 8, 1971, with the inaugural opening day of the World Romani Congress. The goal of Romani Day is to promote harmony among Roma and to celebrate Roma culture. This is also a day to recognize the hardships and persecution faced by Roma throughout history and today. Since 2000 a nonprofit Romani advocacy group, Voice of Roma, has hosted a May Herdeljezi festival in the San Francisco area aimed at preserving Roma heritage and educating the public about the plight of European Roma. International Roma Day has recently received increased attention from American groups and organizations outside of the Roma community. In 2013 Harvard University celebrated the holiday by hosting a conference on discrimination against Roma in Europe, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that “From music and art to science and literature, Romani people have contributed in ways large and small to the fabric of countless societies,” while decrying that “too often and in too many places, they are forced to live on the margins.”

Dances and Songs Music is an essential part of Romani culture and life and has provided Roma with a lasting legacy. Like religious practices, Romani music is heavily influenced by the folk music of the culture where Roma reside. Reflexively, Romani music has influenced many other cultures as well as classical composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms. Instruments used in traditional Romani music include the girnata (clarinet), the cimbalom (hammered dulcimer), the accordion, the violin, and the darbuka (hand drum). Roma-style guitar was made famous by the legendary Roma musician Django Reinhardt (1910–1953).

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Although Romani Americans are often considered an “invisible” segment of American society, there has been a significant rise in interest in Romani culture in the twenty-first century. Elements of Romani music can be found in numerous genres popular with Americans, including jazz, folk, and punk music. Several books and documentary films on Romani history and culture are now widely available. In what may be the best evidence of their mainstream appeal, Romani Americans became the subject of a reality-television show, the Learning Channel's My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, which premiered in 2012.

An offshoot of a British show called simply Big Fat Gypsy Weddings that premiered in 2010, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding follows non-Romani dressmaker Sondra Chelli as she prepares outfits to be worn by her Romanichal clients at celebrations including birthdays, baptisms, and weddings. For some, the show offers a revealing glimpse into the lives and traditions of Romani Americans. Many Roma, however, have objected to their portrayal; beyond the fact that show's title uses the pejorative term “Gypsy,” the dresses prepared by Chelli are almost universally gaudy and revealing, even those made for adolescent girls. Roma-rights groups have complained that such images play into the stereotype of the exotic, materialistic, and highly sexualized “Gypsy,” an image that contrasts sharply with their culture's conservatism, respect for the elderly, and sexual restraint. While My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding has served to counter the notion of Romani Americans as shadowy con artists who reject American society outright, critics argue that it does more harm than good by trading one damaging stereotype for another.

Romani dance is also heavily influenced by the region from which Roma hail, and vice versa. Roma from Bulgaria participate in belly dancing, while the Gitanos in Spain flamenco dance. Sometimes referred to as “the Queen of the Gypsies,” Carmen Amaya (1917–1963) was the most famous Gitana flamenco dancer of the twentieth century. She moved to the United States in 1936 to escape the Spanish Civil War. She appeared in a number of Hollywood films and performed at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and the White House, where she was the invited guest of both presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Romani music has long been performed throughout the United States. In the 1920s the automobile magnate Henry Ford became fascinated with the Hungarian Romani musical style of cimbalom, which features the instrument of the same name. His efforts at reviving old-fashioned dance music—a response to the jazz craze of the era—led him to feature cimbalom music at concerts throughout the United States, and a cimbalom is now housed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Romani American cimbalom virtuoso Alex Udvary, who has performed with symphonies all over the United States and is considered one of the ten best cimbalom players in the world, has lectured at the Henry Ford Museum about the history of cimbalom music.

According to Carol Silverman, other traditional Romani American musical styles include eastern European modal ballads, usually performed by a solo vocalist of Kalderash descent during family gatherings and community events (the recordings of Sammy “Singing Sam” Stevens are the most famous examples of this style); Muslim Romani Americans from Macedonia perform music in the Turkish-influenced čoček style, which typically features traditional instruments such as the clarinet and saxophone alongside more modern instruments such as keyboards and electric guitar and bass and emphasizes improvisation; Banat Roma from Vojvodina, Serbia, are known for their skill with the tamburica, a plucked lute with a long, guitar-like neck.

In recent decades, the “gypsy Jazz” of Django Reinhardt and other Roma jazz musicians of the 1930s has been incorporated into American folk, rock, and punk music. American “gypsy punk” and indie-rock bands such as Gogol Bordello, Beirut, Kultur Shock, and DeVotchKa incorporate traditional Romani violins and percussion, along with fast-paced guitar strumming inspired by Reinhardt's frenetic style, into their songs. Since 2005 the New York Gypsy Festival has capitalized on the growing appreciation for gypsy punk and folk music, featuring Romani-style music from bands all over the world. Other music festivals, such as the Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest and DjangoFest, as well as Voice of Roma's “Romani Routes” program, also provide opportunities for Roma and non-Roma alike to celebrate one of the most significant Romani contributions to world culture.

Health Care Issues and Practices Ideas about health and illness among Roma are closely related to a world view (romania) that includes notions of good and bad luck, purity and impurity, inclusion and exclusion. Anne Sutherland, in a 1992 essay titled “Health and Illness Among the Rom of California,” observes that “these basic concepts affect everyday life in many ways including cultural rules about washing, food, clothes, the house, fasting, conducting rituals such as baptism and the slava, and diagnosing illness and prescribing home remedies.” In Romani custom, ritual purification is the road to health. Much attention goes to avoiding diseases and curing them.

The most powerful Romani cure is a substance called coxai, or ghost vomit. According to Romani legends, Mamorio or “little grandmother,” is a dirty, sickness-bringing ghost who eats people, then vomits on garbage piles or in wooded areas. Roma find and gather coxai (what scientists call slime mold), on damp forest floors and bake it with flour into rocks. Roma also use asafoetida, a pungent spice native to India that is also referred to as “devil's dung,” which has a long association with healing and spiritualism in India; according to Sutherland, it has also been used in Western medicine as an antispasmodic, expectorant, and laxative.

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An early portrait of a Romani American family that had emigrated from Serbia. An early portrait of a Romani American family that had emigrated from Serbia. FREDERICK C. HOWE / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY / CORBIS

Sutherland also recounts several Roma cures for common ailments. A salve of pork fat may be used to relieve itching. The juice of chopped onions sprinkled with sugar is used to treat a cold or the flu; brown sugar heated in a pan is also good for a child's cold; boiling the combined juice of oranges, lemons, water, and sugar, or mashing a clove of garlic in whiskey and drinking it, will also relieve a cold. For a mild headache, one might wrap slices of cold cooked potato or tea leaves around the head with a scarf; or for a migraine, put vinegar, garlic, and the juice of an unblemished new potato onto the scarf. A treatment for stomach trouble is to drink a tea of the common nettle or of spearmint. For arthritis pain, wear copper necklaces or bracelets. For anxiety, sew a piece of fern into your clothes. Sutherland notes that elder Roma tend to “fear, understandably, that their grandchildren, who are turning more and more to American medicine, will lose the knowledge they have of herbs and plants, illnesses, and cures.”

When a member of the community falls sick, though, some Romani families turn to doctors, either in private practices or at clinics. As Sutherland notes in her essay in Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, “The Rom will often prefer to pay for private medical care with a collection rather than be cared for by a welfare doctor if they feel this care may be better.” In general, Romani cuisine seems to facilitate obesity, and thus heart trouble.


Traditionally Roma maintain large extended families. Clans of people numbering in the scores, hundreds, or even thousands gather for weddings, funerals, other feasts, or when an elder falls sick. Although Romani communities do not have kings as such, traditionally Kalderash, Machwaya, and Lovara will represent a man as king to outsiders when it needs one to serve as a figurehead or representative. Often, too, a man and his family will tell hospital staffers that he is “King of the Gypsies” so that he will receive better treatment—the title can help provide an excuse for the hospital to allow the large family to make prolonged visits.

Vlax Romani families often cluster to travel and make money, forming kumpanias—multifamily businesses. During recent decades in the United States, on the other hand, Romani have been acculturating more closely to the American model by forming nuclear families. After the birth of their first child, some Romani couples may move from the husband's parents' home

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A Roma child plays accordian with her father on the New York City Subway. A Roma child plays accordian with her father on the New York City Subway. DAVID GROSSMAN / ALAMY

into their own. This change has given more independence to newly wedded women as daughters-in-law.

Gender Roles Romani families and communities divide along gender lines. Vlax Romani men wield public authority over members of their community through the kris—the Romani form of court. In its most extreme punishment, a kris expels and bars a person from the community. For most official, public duties with non-Roma, too, the men take control. Publicly, traditional Romani men treat women as subordinates.

The role of Romani women, or Romnya (plural feminine), in this tradition is not limited to childbearing. She can influence and communicate with the supernatural world; she can pollute a Romani man so that a kris will expel him from the community; and in some cases she makes and manages most of a family's money. Romani women are also thought to have healing powers and are often charged with tending to the sick. Successful fortune-tellers, all of whom are female, may provide the main income for their families. Men of their families will usually aid the fortune-telling business by helping in some support capacities, as long as they are not part of the “women's work” of talking to customers.

Romani Americans tend to adhere to traditional gender roles, with men working outside the home and occupying positions of authority in the community while women are in charge of most household decisions and finances. In the early and mid-1900s several Romani subgroups in the United States, particularly the Machvaya of New York and California, required Romani women to travel in groups or with male escorts. Today there is a greater sense of autonomy among Vlax Romani women, as many have their own cars and even pursue careers outside of the home. However, some are disenfranchised within the patriarchal Romani culture and may be victims of domestic violence. Those who speak out against such marginalization may be shamed for abandoning the Roma way of life. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century a number of Romani American women, including Alexandra Oprea, Ethel Brooks, and Petra Gelbart, who come from various subgroups, have given speeches and organized events focused on Romani women.

Education Because of the existence of Romani cultural practices of purity as it pertains to Gadjo (non-Roma) pollution, the history of enslavement and harassment of Romani people by those in power, and the representation of “gypsies” in the rest of society, the relationship between Roma and established educational systems in North America and Europe have been complicated. Romani children are frequently homeschooled for these reasons. In addition to Roma being resistant to public education, many countries have denied Roma access to schooling.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005–2015) is a political commitment put together by European countries (Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Spain), as “The Decade” website asserts, in order to improve “priority areas of education, employment, health, and housing, and commits governments to take into account the other core issues of poverty, discrimination, and gender mainstreaming.” As a result, the Roma Education Fund (REF) was established to desegregate the Roma from the rest of European society and improve the outcome of education in central and southeastern Europe.

There have been no initiatives on that scale within the United States. Ian F. Hancock, Romani scholar and activist and former ambassador to the United Nations, was born in London and experienced a great deal of persecution for his Romani heritage. Hancock began the Romani Studies Department at the University of Texas–Austin, which holds the library of the International Romani Union and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC) and regularly offers classes in Romani studies. A report prepared by Page 11  |  Top of ArticleHancock for RADOC in 2007, “The Schooling of Romani Americans: An Overview,” reports that in the 1960s, several programs aimed at encouraging Romani Americans to attend public school began to appear in the United States, particularly on the West Coast. In 1972 a parochial school for Romani Americans was founded in Richmond, California, and other specialized schools were soon founded in Portland, Oregon (1978), and Seattle, Washington (1981), but these programs were short-lived due to a lack of funding and low attendance rates. Hancock explains that there is “no homogeneous Romani population but a number of sharply disparate groups differing from each other in numbers, in degree of acculturation, and in aspects of their language and priorities. All of these factors have a bearing on Romani education.” He goes on to suggest that “There is a thirst for education among young Romanies, but satisfying it means making it available in an accessible and attractive way.”


Mobility and adaptation characterize Romani trades. From their beginnings, their traditional occupations have catered to other groups and at the same time maintained Roma's separation. In their essay in Urban Gypsies, Matt and Sheila Salo explain that “the main features of all occupations were that they were independent pursuits, required little overhead, had a ubiquitous clientele, and could be pursued while traveling” in urban and rural areas. Moreover, Roma have adapted to different locales and periods. Silverman discusses a change in occupations in twentieth-century America that parallels the urbanization of the Vlax Roma. After their arrival in the 1880s, Roma followed nomadic European trades such as coppersmithing, refining, and dealing in horses for the men, and fortune-telling for the women. There have also been a great number of Romani animal trainers. Roma would camp in the country and interact mostly with the rural population, venturing into the cities only to sell their services and purchase necessities. As the automobile supplanted horse travel, the Rom became used-car dealers and repairmen, occupations that they still pursue. When metalworking skills became less important, Roma learned new trades, including the selling of items such as watches and jewelry.

As Sutherland points out in Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, “In the kumpania men and women cooperate with each other in exploiting the economic resources of their area.” Although jobs may be exploited by an individual, the Rom prefer to work in groups called wortacha, or partners. These groups are always made up of members of the same sex (although women often take along children of either sex). Wortacha may also include young unmarried Roma who learn the skills of the adults. Adults work as equals, dividing expenses and profits equally. As a token of respect for an elder, an extra amount may be given, but unmarried trainees receive only what others will give them. Roma do not earn wages from another Roma. As a rule, Roma profit from non-Roma only. In the United States and other countries (including England and Wales), Romani Americans divide geographic territories to minimize competition among Romani businesses.

Roma became dealers of vehicles in the middle of the twentieth century. One Roma subgroup in particular, the Romnichals, took an early American role as horse traders, achieving particular success in Boston. According to Matt and Sheila Salo, “During World War I, Romani Americans brought teams of their horses to the Great Plains to help harvest crops. For a while at least, the label ‘horse trader’ or ‘horse dealer’ seemed almost synonymous with ‘Gypsy.’ The colorful wagons used by Romnichals to advertise their presence to any community they entered further reinforced this identification by the professionally painted side panels depicting idealized horses and the horse trading life.” The pride of Romnichals in their ability to trade horses is reflected in the carved figures of horses on the tombstones of horse dealers. Many Roma who arrived in the United States after the horse trade's heyday became involved in selling cars. Other mobile service contributions of Roma have included driveway blacktopping, house painting, and tinsmithing. Roma tinkers, who were mostly Romanian-speaking Roma, were essential to various industries, such as confectioneries, because they re-tinned large mixing bowls and other machinery on-site. They also worked in bakeries, laundries, and anywhere steam jackets operated.

Roma do not earn wages from another Roma. As a rule, Roma profit from non-Roma only. In the United States and other countries (including England and Wales), Romani Americans divide geographic territories to minimize competition among Romani businesses.

Since the 1930s the Vlax group of Romani Americans has virtually controlled the business of fortune-telling. A fortune-teller, or reader, will try to establish a steady relationship with the customer, whether in person, by telephone, or by mail. Readers will also try to use the customer's language, usually English or Spanish. Moreover, readers often adopt and advertise names for themselves that help them claim the ethnicity of their clientele; or they choose an ethnicity renowned for mystical perception, such as Asian, African, or Native American. Their advertisements and shop windows have their undeniable place on American boardwalks, roads, and streets. Romani mysticism has had a notable impact on American culture, represented in fortune-teller costumes and props such as the crystal ball and tarot deck as well as imitations such as commercially produced Ouija boards. New York City supports a great many fortune-tellers, while Los Angeles (where more Roma sell real estate and cars) has relatively few because of strict laws Page 12  |  Top of Articlegoverning fortune-telling. Daughters of successful fortune-tellers often traditionally become fortune-tellers. Their family business is part of their household.

Since the late twentieth century, Romani Americans have become increasingly comfortable in accepting employment among non-Roma, and they no longer rely exclusively on traditional Roma occupations. Romani American men and women now find employment in a wide range of industries, including real estate, teaching, law, construction, health care, and management.


Special attention from U.S. government authorities has seldom benefited Roma Americans. Some states and districts maintain policies and statutes that prohibit fortune-tellers, require fortune-tellers to pay hundreds of dollars for annual licenses, or otherwise control activities in which Roma engage. Some rules apply specifically to Roma by name, despite the unconstitutionality of such measures, and police departments in areas with large Roma populations often have specialists in “Gypsy crime.” For example, Romani American activist Morgan Ahern, founder of the anti-racism organization Lolo Diklo, was one of many children taken from their parents when New York government authorities raided her home in 1955 and found her parents unfit due to their lifestyle and refusal to send her to public school. One excuse for this discrimination is the conflation of nomadic Roma with vagrants. After a long history of avoidance of local authorities, Roma in the United States and elsewhere are becoming more politically active in defense of their civil and human rights; the International Romani Union was recognized by the United Nations in 1978, and in 1997 President Bill Clinton appointed Ian Hancock, a Romani American representative to the United Nations, to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. In the twenty-first century, representatives of the U.S. government, including Ambassador Ian Kelly and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, have made pleas to the international community to provide greater opportunity for Roma to integrate into society. Romani Americans have also begun to challenge laws that they feel unfairly target Romani businesses and practices; in 2009, for instance, Maryland-based Romani American Nick Nefedro enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge a ban on fortune-telling, and the law was overturned by the Maryland Supreme Court in 2010.


Academia Ian Hancock (1942–) is a scholar of Roma studies and former Romani representative to the UN. Since 1972 he has been a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Literature Oksana Marafioti (1967–) is a Romani American writer who published the memoir American Gypsy in 2012.

Music Notable Romani American musicians include Eugene Hütz (1972–), lead singer of the Romani American punk rock band Gogol Bordello; Yuri Yunakov, saxophone master from Bulgaria and NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) National Heritage Fellowship winner; and Ismail Lumanovski (1984–), clarinet virtuoso and leader of the New York Gypsy All-Stars.

Scholar and musician Petra Gelbart is a Czech-born Roma musicologist who was a founding member of the band Via Romen and is head of the Initiative for Romani Music at New York University.

Stage and Screen Freddie Prinze (born Freddie Preutzel; 1954–1977), a comedian and actor who starred on the TV show Chico and the Man in the 1970s, was Hungarian Roma. His son, Freddie Prinze Jr. (1976–), is an actor who has appeared in movies such as I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Scooby-Doo (2002).


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Gypsy Lore Society

This organization consists of scholars, educators, and others interested in the study of the Roma and analogous itinerant or nomadic groups. It works to disseminate information aimed at increasing understanding of Romani culture in its diverse forms. Publishes Romani Studies.

Elena Marushiakova, President
5607 Greenleaf Road
Cheverly, Maryland 20785
Phone: (301) 341-1261

Voice of Roma

A nonprofit Roma advocacy group, whose website is considered the premiere source of information on North American Roma on the Internet.

P.O. Box 514
Sebastopol, California 95473
Phone: (707) 823-5858


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The Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC)

RADOC is the largest library archives of Roma worldwide.

Calhoun Hall
The University of Texas B5100
Austin, Texas 78712
Phone: (512)-232-7684
Fax: (512)-295-7733

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Victor Weybright Archives of Gypsy Studies

These are the archives of the Maryland-based Gypsy Lore Society.

Carmen Hendershott, Archivist
Phone: (212) 229-5308
Fax: (301) 341-1261


Gropper, Rena C., and Carol Miller. “Exploring New Worlds in American Romani Studies: Social and Cultural Attitudes among the American Macvaia.” Romani Studies 11, no. 2 (2001): 81–110.

Hancock, Ian. “American Roma: The Hidden Gypsy World.” Aperture 144 (1996): 14–26.

———, and Dileep Karanth. Danger! Educated Gypsy: Selected Essays. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2010.

Marafioti, Oksana. American Gypsy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Mayall, David. Gypsy Identities 1500–2000: From Egypcyans and Moon-Men to the Ethnic Romany. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Miller, Carol. “American Rom and the Ideology of Defilement.” In Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, edited by Farnham Rehfisch, 41–54. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Rishi, W. R. Roma: The Panjabi Emigrants in Europe, Central and Middle Asia, the USSR, and the Americas. Chandigarh, India: Roma Publishers, 1976 and 1996.

Silverman, Carol. Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sutherland, Anne. “The American Rom: A Case of Economic Adaptation.” In Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travellers, edited by Farnham Rehfisch, 1–40. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

———. Gypsies: The Hidden Americans. London: Tavistock Publications, 1975.

Sway, Marlene. Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300150