April 8 is International Day of the Roma. Romani communities in Europe face a variety of challenges. Last month the European Court of Human Rights began hearings in the case of a Romani woman from Slovakia who says she was sterilized against her will. And France's decision to expel Romani immigrants living in temporary settlements was met with consternation by human rights activists.
But do similar issues surface in Romani communities outside of Europe? In the United States, the country's cultural diversity provides Roma with both benefits and drawbacks.
In the shadows
Cristiana Grigore studies at Vanderbilt University in the U.S. state of Tennessee - on a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. Grigore is Romanian. She is also Romani, or Roma, part of an ethnic group often referred to as Gypsies.
“Most of the Americans I have met don’t know much about the Romani people," she says. "They know about Gypsy, but not as a real ethnic group, real people. They see it more like a Halloween costume, a role that you play once a year.”
In the United States, Roma are often associated with a distant, even exotic, culture. University of Texas Professor Ian Hancock estimates as many as one million Roma live in the America. According to Hancock, there have been waves of Roma immigration since the early 1800s. Hancock, who previously served as a Romani representative at the UN, says that historically it has been easy for Roma to blend in while holding on to their traditions. Doing so, however, has not been without consequence.
“Here, being an immigrant country, you get people of all backgrounds, of all complexions and appearances," says Hancock. "And so Roma don’t stand out as in opposition to white, in the same way. Which has helped to foster the idea that Gypsy is a behavior and not an ethnicity.”
Hancock maintains the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas. The collection includes books, pictures and movies that he says encourage this distorted image of Roma.
“The media can get away with saying things about Roma that they wouldn’t dare say about other minority populations," he says. "This includes the entertainment industry even today.”
Faye Williams is a third-generation Romani-American who lives with her family in Texas. “Most people don’t even have a clue about our culture. They think, you know, it’s just people running around stealing little kids and chickens.”
Growing up, Williams was told not to tell people she was Romani. Despite the stereotypes though, she says the ability of her people to blend in has been a blessing rather than a curse. Especially when compared to Europe.
“I think it was the greatest thing in the world that happened to us, you know, when our folks come over here because [people] from all the countries was coming in. You know it was like a melting pot and so it was so easy to blend in and to move around and work and do that. We had it 100 times better than anybody overseas.”
But Cristiana Grigore says the United States’ cultural diversity is what prompted her to talk publicly about her Romani identity for the first time. She contrasts this to perceptions in her home country of Romania, where Roma still experience discrimination.
“Imagine it took me 20 years to talk about my ethnic identity, so imagine how strong the negative stereotypes are,” says the amateur ballet dancer, who adds that she has not experienced racism in the United States. In fact, she says her ethnic heritage has been an asset. “When I talk about me as a Gypsy people are like ‘Oh that’s so cool.’ You know, it’s like my life is suddenly more interesting.”
Some Romani-Americans, however, say discrimination is still a substantial burden in the U.S. - especially when it comes to the workplace and the stigma associated with some traditional Romani occupations.
Gene and Aaron Williams are cousins. They are pavement contractors, based in Texas, but they travel to other parts of the country to work as well. They say they frequently feel discriminated against based on their ethnicity.
Gene saved a recording of an advertisement run on local radio by a business competitor in 2008 in which the narrator says: “Watch out for the Gypsies that are running around town. They’ll take your money and run.”
Aaron says his own record of over more than 30 years as a contractor is stellar. Still, he says the ad demonstrates why he never tells clients he is Romani.
“It would be the same as if I told them I was a brownie or a leprechaun," said Aaron. "People don’t think that Gypsies exist or they think Gypsy is a lifestyle, that you want to be a crook so you have to move. No, it’s just our culture to move.”
According to Romani filmmaker George Eli, Roma feel targeted - especially by law enforcement. He has produced a documentary about his experience as a Romani in the United States. He says most of the women in his family are fortune tellers - one of whom became particularly upset when he filmed her.
“I said, 'Why? What did you do? Tell me what you did? It’s okay, tell me what you did.' I know she didn’t do nothing. [She said] 'We’re Rom, we’re Gypsies.' I said, 'Think about what you’re saying.' You know what she told me? ‘You’re crazy, you’re going to put us all in jail.’”
Retired Baltimore city police officer Jon Grow heads The National Association of Bunco Investigators, an organization that trains law enforcement on how to fight confidence crimes - scams that involve gaining the trust of an individual for the specific purpose of stealing money. He says his organization does not specifically target Roma. Nonetheless, he says, confidence crime suspects are frequently Romani.
“Our focus is on the crimes and the thieves that commit the crimes. In some of these offenses - specifically fortune telling, specifically home-repair frauds - a lot of the suspects happen to be Gypsies.”
Aaron Williams, the Romani-American contractor, thinks law enforcement is often biased.
“That’s how the cops treat us. They just come up with stuff out of the blue. It has nothing - we’re not doing one thing wrong. We’re actually a service to the community and it’s just racially-motivated.”
Grow provides training sessions are closed to media, but a flier for a recent training promised to provide “insight into the mindset of the societies” that commit so-called “Gypsy” and “traveler” crimes.
“It’s a separate society. It has evolved and maintained itself over the years by constantly adapting," says Grow. "And they have their own rules and they obey their own rules as opposed to our rules. Our laws are basically inconveniences to them.”
But University of Texas Professor Hancock maintains there are no crimes Roma commit that other populations do not. He says occupations like fortune-telling and traveling construction work may be explained by Romani history. Near the end of the 13th century Roma immigrated to Europe from India, where Hancock says fortune telling is a prestigious profession. By the 1500s many were enslaved in Romania. Other Roma populations were constantly on the move because of various types of discrimination.
“In a world where they were being moved on constantly and had to leave everything, drop everything and go," says Hancock, "you couldn’t have materials that you couldn’t pack up quickly and leave with.”
Aaron Williams says he is proud of his Romani heritage - and the products of his labor. But he is angry about treatment he feels would not be accepted against other groups. “You know we’re not aliens. We were obviously born on this planet somewhere. And I think we should have a right to be here.”
Some younger Romani-Americans are integrating more fully into American society than their parents did, balancing the pressure to assimilate against the desire to hold on to their culture.
Today is one of the most important days of Alex Eli’s life. A Romani, he is about to become engaged but this is not just any engagement. His family is throwing a party during which the elders from each side will negotiate a dowry.
“What they do is settle on a price. They settle a price of how much we have to pay for his daughter. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty expensive," says Alex. "I can put a down payment on a new house but whatever it’s no big deal. After they settle with the price, they pour the two glasses of drinks for my father and for my future father-in-law and they toast and they drink.”
At 18, Alex contends he is ready. “I’m very happy and I can’t wait to start my life.”
Alex is part of a younger generation of Roma that stays in school longer than their parents may have. He will be the first member of his immediate family to graduate from high school. It was his choice because he realized how important school was to him after he won an academic award in the eighth grade.
"Now I’m on a plaque for life in the middle school - plaque for life. That changed my ideology of being a gypsy. Then, when I went to high school freshman year, I didn’t want to leave, because there are so many cultures," he says. "There’s Jewish, there’s Russian, there’s Italian. There’s all different kinds of people and I realized, 'Yes you’re a Gypsy, but you don’t have to hang out with them all the time.'”
Alex’s father, George, featured his son in his film "Searching for the 4th Nail," a documentary about the quest to discover meaning as a Romani in America. George Eli says he kept Alex in school despite so-called “boundary laws” which teach Roma to keep a distance from non-Roma or “gadjze.” He believes this is a tradition that may have developed over time.
“The modern Rom of today, like myself, assumed that it’s a tradition, that this is just tradition, that this is who we are for 1,000 years to keep away. They didn’t know that our ancestors were doing it as survival mechanisms. That’s called, in my opinion...oppression through tradition. It started out as oppression and now it’s tradition.”
University of Texas Professor Hancock says, whatever the origin of boundary laws, maintaining them is very important to some Roma.
“The older generation feels that too much outside education dilutes the identity and can even be polluting in a spiritual sense. Too much involvement in the non-Romani world can debilitate you and can affect you socially.”
Alex’s great-uncle John agrees, insisting that as younger Roma integrate into American society, they lose Romani culture.
“Somebody told me once that we can be Gypsies, but we can be American Gypsies," says John. "You know, we don’t have to stay in the culture. We can be Americans and we can still call ourselves Gypsies. But, without the culture, we’re not Gypsies. That’s the only thing that’s holding us together.”
John dropped out of school in the 8th grade because his father said it was time to get married. Despite his own deep-seated fears about loss of culture, John realizes the importance of education for the next generation of Roma. "We don’t want to be old-fashioned Gypsies in the modern world. We want to keep up with the times.”
Gene Williams, the contractor, also worries about the effects of assimilation on their culture, but he wants his two children to have more opportunities than he did.
“I wanted to go to school my own self. I didn’t get to finish high school, you know, because I had to work and my parents moved around a lot, and I didn’t get to stay in one school," says Gene. "I went to the 10th grade, that’s as far as I got, but I want them to have more than I had, more opportunity.”
At Alex Eli’s engagement party, a middle ground between assimilation and cultural stability seems to have been found. The family takes a break from dancing to American pop music to focus on the evening’s most important task. The two families agree to a deal that Alex seems happy with.
“The price was unbelievable," says Alex. "It was $12,700, money given back from him $2,700, so we got her for $10,000. Great, successful price. Great deal, great situation. Now it’s time to have some fun.”
Alex can’t have too much fun, though. He’s a high school senior so he'll need to be back in class on Monday.