The Romani World: Researching a misunderstood people

Not so long ago, kids cheered the Gypsy Parisian dancer, Ezmerelda befriend a hunchback on the Disney screen. The red-tempered Carmen bewitched opera and bull-fighting fans, everywhere in the countless iterations of that Spanish tragedy. And then Hollywood got its hands on a group of American Romanichel, the U.S. branch of Irish Travelers, in the exploitative reality show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

In reality, the Roma, which is the correct term to use rather than Gypsy, have lived on society’s fringes the world over. But don’t expect them to look like a flamenco dancer. The Roma look and talk and dress just like the rest of us. They hold jobs, they vote, they pay taxes, they get mortgages, they earn degrees, they attend christenings, they pray, and eat, and mourn and celebrate, like the rest of us in cities and towns and villages, everywhere.

Romani poet, dancer, fortune teller, Jessica Reidy,

Despite the merging of Roma people among modern communities, their families have been kept apart from majority society, both intentionally and accidentally. Why? Why indeed. Is it the dark skin? The mystery? The Roma have an origin than most people don’t know about, and they also have no obvious home nation. There is no Romanistan, though activists have campaigned for such a place. The Roma DO have a creation tale, a journey of origin from a precise time and place, however. Just like the rest of us. They arose from a time of war, as refugees everywhere tend to.

Research points to the years between 1000-1026 (see The Telegraph article
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/9719058/European-Roma-descended-from-Indian-untouchables-genetic-study-shows.html ) as the first wave of Romani migration from Northwest India, most likely during the century’s Muslim/Hindu war. These Roma arrived in central Europe via the Middle East, and went on to Russia, Northern Europe and eventually settled every continent, though they are considered a nearly pariah population in every one of them.

I am not the best chronicler of this fascinating migration. A recent newsletter, ZEKE put out a short and beautifully illustrated narrative of the Romani history. Please take a look here.

ZEKE , Spring 2019


So why should you care about the Roma? For me, my fascination is that the story of the Roma has a continuous telling. Since Romani families are so often thrown out of towns and cities, they must pull up and re-establish their families all the time, especially if they are in a region vulnerable to nationalist violence. How does a person with this history know where they belong? When they are safe? If they can trust the local school, mayor, or any public service? Who is a legitimate friend? What career is safe? What future spouse can you trust your child to? These questions formed the basis for my new work, Radiance, about a Romani teenager’s forced separation from her family in the American midwest.

I look forward to readers’ views on how we, readers and writers, and voters, can improve life for marginalized people, like the Roma. But also for undocumented people, those who are homeless, mentally ill, or seeking political asylum. I hope in a small way, my fiction will contribute to the building of consciousness and the increased acceptance of minorities into the democracy we are privileged to live in.

Leave a Reply