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Roma in America

Diverse, million-strong community values its cultural identity

By Carlos Aranaga | Staff Writer | 07 April 2009
Close-up of Nickels (AP Images)

John Nickels is a Roma activist in Wildwood, New Jersey, who speaks out against bias toward Americans of Roma origin.

Washington — On International Roma Day, attention will be on Europe, where the Romani people have survived centuries of marginalization and persecution. Even today European Roma strive for social parity and economic opportunity. Less widely known are U.S. Roma, whom the Census Bureau numbers at up to a million, dispersed around the U.S., with groupings in places including Texas, California and the Midwest.

Romani people trace their origin to Eastern and Central Europe, but have been negatively stereotyped in the United States and Europe, most often by popular media, as “Gypsies” with presumably anti-social behaviors. Preconceptions have led to prejudice and ethnic profiling, including discriminatory local laws.

International Roma Day celebrates Romani culture and raises awareness of the issues facing the Romani people. April 8 has been set aside for the yearly observance since the time of the fourth World Romani Congress, held in Poland in 1990. The United States on this day also calls for respect of the human rights of Roma.

Professor Ian Hancock of the University of Texas at Austin, a leading American Roma scholar, says there have been Roma in North America since colonial days, when small numbers were brought from Britain to work in the plantations of Virginia, Barbados and Jamaica. Large numbers of Roma immigrants began coming to America in the late 19th century, propelled by wars and social turmoil in Europe.

Emigration continues today, said Hancock, himself an immigrant of Romanichal origin. Romanichal is a Romani branch found in the United Kingdom.

Romani also is a term used to describe the dialects used by branches of the Roma people. The language is strongly influenced by local languages, which can make it difficult for Roma people from different regions to communicate with each other.

For traditional Roma, Hancock said, preserving their distinct cultural identity is a paramount concern, even as strong currents of assimilation sweep their youth into the broader cultural stream, as with other ethnic minorities and immigrants.

“There is a conflict of culture, a fear of losing your ‘Romani-ness’ and drifting away, which is not good,” Hancock said.

Nathan Mick is an American of Roma ancestry who has worked on Capitol Hill, represented the U.S. in diplomatic settings, and now is an economic development official in Garrard County, Kentucky. Mick speaks of the common elements of Roma culture shared by American Roma.

“There is a sense of community in Roma culture that impels us to stay close together, within tightly woven family relations, therefore there isn’t as much interaction between the different Roma communities, let alone with outsiders,” Mick said.

“Growing up, I wasn’t aware of everything in my heritage,” Mick said. “My father is non-Roma, my mother Romanichal. I grew up in Nebraska and travelled with them in the summer. It wasn’t until high school that I learned about the distinctions. Then I learned about Europe, especially the Holocaust.”

During World War II up to 700,000 Roma died in the Nazi genocide.

One U.S. group actively engaged in changing the lives of Romani is The Voice of Roma, in Sebastopol, California, a nonprofit group with a special connection to Roma living as displaced persons in Kosovo. The Voice of Roma has a Kosovo office to implement economic development, humanitarian and education projects. In the United States, the group presents Romani cultural arts and traditions in a way that counters both romanticized and negative “Gypsy” stereotypes.

Czech-born Petra Gelbart, a Harvard ethnomusicologist and Voice of Roma volunteer who focuses on women’s issues, has roots in German, Slovak and Czech-Moravian Roma groups.

“We aim to help them gain more voice and agency in terms of economic activity, education, and better standing in the community,” Gelbart said.

The group’s “Threads that Connect Us” project helps Roma create textiles to make them more self-sufficient.

The Voice of Roma organizes cultural events year-round. “I sing and play the accordion,” said Gelbart, who will perform in May. For International Roma Day 2009, concerts, dance workshops, film discussions and Roma food festivals are slated at venues in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Arcata in northern California.

According to Voice of Roma president Sani Rifati, the impact of their cultural outreach has been “amazing.”

“Getting out to the junior highs, middle schools, high schools and the colleges is really worth it. The cultural stereotypes that are out there are really crippling us. This helps.”

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