ONTD Political

Roma: The Hidden Americans

Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery off Highway 180 on the east side of Fort Worth is a typical rolling plot of grey tombstones strewn about in the dry, yellow grass characteristic of Texas winters.

Most of the graves are standard, except the distinct raised tombs which bear embedded photos of the deceased, dressed in their finest and smiling with cigarettes and their loved ones at their sides. These tombs are tagged with blooming pots of scarlet red poinsettias and empty Coke and Dr Pepper soda cans in place of candle adornments.

Evans is the name inscribed on each of these opulent tombs - the Roma clan that has made Fort Worth its home for more than a hundred years. Up the hill, closer to the Shannon Rose Hill Funeral Home, an Evans is having his tomb installed, while nearby members of the clan - or familia, a social structure comprising 20 to 200 members related by blood or marriage - rest on the stone benches of another's grave.

Two elders, a younger woman, and a middle-aged man named Tom Evans - who looks like a typical businessman on his day off - sip cans of soda and joke about their dead relatives who, as they say, might be "listening in" on their conversation.

They talk over one another, sometimes in English, other times in Romani, a language that is one of the healthiest immigrant dialects in the United States, carried throughout the generations with little threat of endangerment, according to Ian F Hancock, Romani activist and professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin.

When asked about the Roma population in Fort Worth, the eldest woman enunciates, "We are gypsies", peering out from a headscarf to take another sip of Coke.

"We are the same people as the gypsies in Europe. There is no difference," finishes the eldest man.

It's a family routine, explains Tom, as another relative drives up in an SUV and begins to unpack a picnic in the middle of the cemetery. He pulls out bags of potato chips, sandwich materials, sweet treats and more soda. On days off, Tom says his family likes to enjoy a soft drink amongst their dead, leaving the soda can behind as a memento.

For decades, the Evans were chronicled in the Dallas newspaper. Droves of clan members were reported at local hospitals, once in 1954 when their 75-year-old elder, Rosie Evans, suffered an injury, and again in 1970 for another clan member's cancer operation.

The Evans clan has long been known for leadership and literacy. In 1976, "lieutenant" Sam Evans, an advocate for the education of Roma children, told the Dallas Morning News: "People in the United States treat us pretty right ... I'm as American as I can be."

Texas Roma

Not far from the cemetery is the suburban neighbourhood of White Settlement, Fort Worth. Flat, generic and strewn with fuel stations, odd shops and intersecting residential streets, the region appears untouched by the gentrification of big box stores just beyond the overpass.

Parks of mobile homes are a frequent sight, some of which have been bought by Roma families. White Settlement is also home to the Greenhorns, a group of "Irish Travellers" - nomadic clans that, similar to the Roma reputation, move about the country doing house repairs and other odd jobs.

Along with Houston, the city of Fort Worth holds the largest population of Roma in the state of Texas, which is home to about 20,000 Romani Americans - most of which are Romanichal and Vlax - out of a national population of around one million.

The Vlax are typically Eastern Orthodox and celebrate both Christmas and Easter, while the Romanichals remain predominately Protestant.

A fair number of Roma from both groups have also become "born-again" Christians, a choice that has been met with disdain from those who consider the new faith an impedance on the cultural behaviour of the Roma, such as fortune telling and arranged marriages.

Although the United States is home to several other Romani populations, Hancock's prognosis is that differences in dialects keep the groups separate with very little social interaction.

Segregation breeds marginalisation

Rivalry among clans has been reported by the Dallas Morning News as far back as 1951, when six Roma clans swarmed into Dallas, threatening warfare after the shooting of a 15-year-old boy belonging to the Green tribe, allegedly shot by a member of the Evans.

Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, however, along with a subsequent rise of ethnic nationalism and race-related violence, an increasing number of Roma have migrated to the United States, but are still largely the least integrated ethnic group in America, along with Native Americans.

"In America it's more of a bureaucratic marginalisation. It's kind of a Kafka-esque process of racism on paper," says Sani Rifati, president of the California-based non-profit organisation Voice of Roma (VoR), which promotes and presents Romani cultural arts and traditions to contribute to the preservation and education of Romani identity and culture. "A Liberal Democrat will pitch tolerance, which is just really words in the air. In Europe, the racism is more out in the open."

In Hancock's opinion, segregation between Roma and the rest of America can be attributed to both sides. Though Roma do associate with the gadje (non-Roma) for basic economic needs, most of their traditions kept today in the United States - such as kris, or Romani tribunal, a custom of the Vlax that serves as a type of court within the community held several times a year in either Fort Worth or Houston - work to keep them on the fringe of society for fear that interference from non-Roma could potentially "taint" the Roma way.

"There is a good reason why Roma separate themselves from non-Roma, it's a form of protection," says Rifati. "If you look at the non-Roma communities throughout the world, they're not so kind to Roma," Rifati continues. "You have this form of protection with other groups like the Amish, who don't live with any Western values, or Orthodox Jews. In Roma culture the most important value is the family and the clan. If you don't protect that then you are completely lost."

But Hancock is concerned that if Romani Americans continue to dismiss the mainstream from accepting their lifestyle and identity, they will further disappear into the ethnic ambiguity and threaten the longevity of their culture.

Stereotypes and "untouchability"

Roma who reside in the United States have been unofficially coined "the hidden Americans", on account of their "invisibility" among other ethnic groups, due to their dark skin and hair, which can often be mistaken for Hispanic, southern European or American Indian.

The promotion of racism and the peripheral lifestyle of many Romani Americans is further encouraged "by adhering to the Hollywood 'Gypsy' stereotype and not understanding actual Roma", says Hancock. Of a similar opinion, Voice of Roma (VoR) makes nation-wide efforts to de-bunk the fairytale image of caravans, spirits, kings and queens.

Originally from Kosovo, Sani Rifati came to the United States in 1993 and found a country that, in his opinion, was based on individuals and lacked community involvement. Says Rifati: "In general, Americans are really ignorant about Roma."

"Everybody can be a Gypsy expert in America," he continues, "because they feel it's their freedom to speak on my behalf. And I say, let me take the first shot and I'll tell you who I am. But before we dance, let's have a dialogue. So that's another part of what we do here in America. We fight very tirelessly to have Gypsy art recognised, and not just as a circus."

Promoting "untouchability" even extends as far as education, as some Roma in Texas and the rest of the United States pull their children from schools once they've reached puberty. Most of the younger generations of American Roma do not use the Romani language, speaking more English and even Spanish in states such as Texas and California.

"In general, Roma are not fit for the educational system because of prejudices," says Rifati. "We have a very familiar phenomenon with Native Americans in the United States." Young and uneducated American Roma face high rates of suicide, with the outside world seemingly having little to offer.

"I had to fight the Serbian establishment because they didn't want to educate a 'gypsy' in their classroom," recalls Rifati. "I had to work five times harder than other Serbian students in order to get good grades."

RADOC and Voice of Roma

Apart from being a Romani-born activist, international spokesperson and scholar Ian F Hancock is an official ambassador to the United Nations and UNICEF, representing the world's 15 million Romanies. Having been raised in a traditional Romani family in London and experiencing discrimination, alienation and abuse from the law within his community, Hancock was given a unique opportunity to study within the doctoral programme at University College London, as part of then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson's dedication to affirmative action.

Hancock launched the first Romani Studies programme at the University of Texas at Austin, which has become the leading US centre for studies on Romani history, language and culture. As an extension of the programme, Hancock established the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC) at the university, which is the largest collection of Romani materials in the world, consisting of over 10,000 books, monographs, bound articles, prints, photos and documents.

Contrary to a popular belief that all Roma in Europe are uneducated, Sani Rifati holds a Masters in Chemistry and comes from a generation in former Yugoslavia that was allowed certain educational privileges. Finding work, however, was another battle.

When Rifati moved to the United States, he says he was quite ignorant about his own culture. But he thanks Hancock for helping him not only to better understand his culture, but to feel good about it too.

Voice of Roma has devoted 2011 to festivals that will raise funds to protect Roma refugees of former Yugoslavia. Rifati says: "We also have written expert testimony to stop the deportation from France, Germany and Italy. We're doing a lot of actions, while at the same time trying to preserve the Roma culture."


We've talked about Roma periodically here, usually in the context of the godawful extent of antiziganism in many parts of Europe.   It's so rare to see anyone talk about American Roma that this article caught my eye, and I thought it was worth sharing.   They're a group that goes under the radar despite having a substantial U.S. population, which makes it easy to not realize the Roma face some issues in America, too.
gracepersists 8th-Jun-2011 12:14 am (UTC)
It never occurred to me to contextualize American Roma with the experiences of Indigenous Americans. Fascinating.
sesmo 8th-Jun-2011 01:21 am (UTC)
Very interesting. Thanks for posting this. I'm always interested in stories about immigrants who stay on the margins v. those that integrate more fully into the community. I'd love to read some articles on some of the other Romani families who are more integrated or less. I'm also curious about the bureaucracy they'd be encountering. What requires it?
poddleduck 8th-Jun-2011 01:39 am (UTC)
My impression is that it's often just general ol' rules which unintentionally mesh very poorly with Roma traditions.

Most school systems would look very unfavorably upon pulling one's children out of classes once they start puberty, for example, which some Roma parents prefer to do. (And actually, as an educator I admit that one gets my hackles up - I get why, because schools pressure kids to assimilate in ways that Romani-Americans may be uncomfortable with, but it's definitely counter to my own cultural norms!)

It's not necessarily an issue of deliberate targeting - American culture does have some racist bullshit about Roma lurking, but it's relatively muted - but intolerance without intentional malice is still intolerance.
serendipity_15 8th-Jun-2011 04:11 am (UTC)
Most school systems would look very unfavorably upon pulling one's children out of classes once they start puberty, for example, which some Roma parents prefer to do. (And actually, as an educator I admit that one gets my hackles up - I get why, because schools pressure kids to assimilate in ways that Romani-Americans may be uncomfortable with, but it's definitely counter to my own cultural norms!)

Don't the Amish do the exact same thing?

Edited at 2011-06-08 04:11 am (UTC)
poddleduck 8th-Jun-2011 04:19 am (UTC)
They do. In at least some states there are exemptions built into the law to take into account these sorts of situations. I don't know if more traditional Roma communities benefit from them, though.
tmlforsyth 8th-Jun-2011 12:47 pm (UTC)
One possible solution is for the school system to offer visiting tutors that could educate Roma children within their area. An agreement could be reached with local leaders, so kids are not cut off form formal education.

Compromises can be achieved to help both parties, if the bureaucrats bend a little, though most governing bodies desire control.
poddleduck 8th-Jun-2011 01:39 pm (UTC)
There might still be issues, since the tutor might not be Romani or might be from the wrong group or whatever. But you're right, there are compromises they could reach.
windy_lea 8th-Jun-2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
I wonder if the communities could appoint a member of their group to be the tutor's or tutors' guidance, who would be there in a cultural capacity to make sure that they're delivering formal education without pushing their own cultural views. Alternatively, I wonder whether it would be at all possible for the communities to train teachers or tutors not from their group how to teach formal subjects in a way that doesn't conflict with the students cultural identity. One would hope that once consistent formal education is established, the community might have its own teachers.

I don't know enough about the communities in question, though >.>
serendipity_15 8th-Jun-2011 02:19 pm (UTC)
I believe that that's what the Amish do, their teachers are usually young unmarried Amish women so there is precedent for such a model.
windy_lea 8th-Jun-2011 11:18 pm (UTC)
Neat! I didn't know that.
serendipity_15 10th-Jun-2011 01:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, the Amish don't have mandatory education past 8th grade and after Wisconsin v. Yoder the Supreme Court agreed that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade because it violated the group's freedom of religion.

I wonder if an education model like the Amish have could work for the Roma here with either having strictly Roma teachers and/or Roma private schools.
windy_lea 12th-Jun-2011 08:19 am (UTC)
I wonder if an education model like the Amish have could work for the Roma here with either having strictly Roma teachers and/or Roma private schools.

I'd hope so. Everyone deserves an education.
mirhanda 8th-Jun-2011 01:39 am (UTC)
I just want to smack the reporter for saying "momento" when he meant "memento". Arg.
poddleduck 8th-Jun-2011 01:41 am (UTC)
I thought I caught all the dumb mistakes! There was another where "revelry" was used when "rivalry" was meant, which made the bit about Roma interclan violence pretty weird to read, let me tell you...
mirhanda 8th-Jun-2011 02:23 am (UTC)
Hahaha, that's great!
serendipity_15 8th-Jun-2011 04:05 am (UTC)
Thanks for the article, very interesting. I don't know much about the Roma in America, I just knew that there were some but I didn't realize that there were so many.
poddleduck 8th-Jun-2011 04:35 am (UTC)
Yeah, I was really surprised to find out there are so many Roma in the Americas. Quite a few Americans, I think, don't even realize they're an actual ethnic group.
windy_lea 8th-Jun-2011 01:55 pm (UTC)
I honestly had no idea that Roma or Irish Travellers had come here as groups. I mean the Americas have had immigrants from all walks of life, so I figured people with those heritages were here, but I didn't realize there were any groups specifically identifying as such and preserving the lifestyle here and now. I suppose I assumed I'd have heard about it by now. It's always good to become just that little bit less ignorant, though, so thanks for the article!
threaded_ghost 8th-Jun-2011 10:37 am (UTC)
Awesome article, though I thought it was Romani, not just Roma.
poddleduck 8th-Jun-2011 01:37 pm (UTC)
The Roma are a specific subgroup of Romani from central/eastern Europe - I believe they're far and away the most numerous. Although, now that I think about it, this article does kind of use the two terms interchangeably.
crossfire 8th-Jun-2011 02:54 pm (UTC)
This is a good article and you should feel good for posting it.
bluetooth16 8th-Jun-2011 05:55 pm (UTC)
I've been wondering about the Roma in America for a while now. Thanks for posting!
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