About the Roma: Romani Americans Then and Now

Dr. Ian Hancock's Romani Family in Europe. Photo courtesy of Dr. Hancock and the University of Texas at Austin. For original article, click the photo.

As noted in Blog Post One and Two, the more I learned about the Romani Americans, the more confused I became. Everywhere I looked, I found contradictory information about those who “traveled” across the Southeastern United States – both past and present.

One particular contradiction that bothered me was the fact that Dr. Ian Hancock, renowned Romani expert, said Romani are not Travelers even though the one Romani who agreed to allow me to post his interview (albeit anonymously – and coming soon) preferred to be called a Romany Traveler and did indeed “travel.” I was grateful when Dr. Hancock tried to clear up the confusion by describing the characteristics of the different Romani American groups. I hope you’ll enjoy his detailed explanation:

1. The Vlax

The Vlax Romanies are easily the largest Romani group, constituting perhaps two thirds of the overall Romani American population. All descend from ancestors held in slavery in the Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. The impact of over five centuries of enslavement has very deeply affected the identity and character of the contemporary Vlax-speaking Romanies.

Being socially–and for most groups physically–isolated as slaves for almost their entire existence in the West, Vlax Romani language and culture, while extensively influenced by Romanian, have at the same time remained conservative in comparison with those of other groups. Vlax Romanies too, regard the use of the ethnonym Rom as applying exclusively to themselves, despite the fact that its use as a self-ascription is found among non-Vlax populations as well, e.g. the Bashalde.

Perhaps because the condition of slavery placed the Romanies in a category clearly distinct from the rest of society, and perhaps because isolation lent itself to the conservation of traditional Romani cultural practices, Vlax Romanies in America are far stricter in maintaining social distance from the non-Romanies than are members of other groups. American Vlax Romanies in fact, because they came here soon after abolition and, following their arrival having been able to maintain Romani culture practically unhindered-albeit invisibly-are considered rather old-fashioned by Vlax visitors from Europe.

The Vlax population is itself further divided into eastern and western groups, the Russian Romanies, most of whom are Kalderasha, and the Serbian Romanies, most of whom are Machvaya. There are groups identifying themselves differently, but these are by far the largest. The Russian Kalderasha tend to be less assimilated and more mobile than the Machvaya, who include individuals following mainstream professions among their number; both groups regard the Machvaya as the more prestigious. Kalderashitska (the Kalderash Vlax dialect) and Machvanitska/Machvanska are easily mutually intelligible. The speech of the recently-arrived Lovara, also Vlax, differs considerably from the long-established American varieties of Vlax.

2. The Romanichals

The Romanichals, Romichals or English Travelers, no longer speak inflected Romani, but an ethnolectal variety of English nevertheless referred to as Romani or Romnis which may contain from a few dozen to a few hundred (mostly) Romani-derived words. For this reason, they count among the native English speaking population, and special provision for teaching English as a Second Language would not be a factor if schools for them were to be established.

While the majority of Romanichals are physically indistinguishable from the general Anglo-American population, they nevertheless maintain a strong sense of separateness from the gaujas or non-Romanies, and can maintain pollution taboos with some strictness.

3. The Bashalde

The Bashalde, or Hungarian-Slovak Roma as they refer to themselves, arrived in America as part of the larger late-19th century immigration of non-Romanies from central Europe, who came here among other reasons to work in the steel mills in the northeastern part of the country. The migration may well have been prompted by the vyrovnanie or settlement of 1867 which was supposed to have created an egalitarian Austro-Hungarian society but which in fact led to an overbearing determination on the part of Hungary to “Hungarianize” the surrounding populations, especially the Slovaks.

Roma, as usual, got caught in the middle, and the situation became intolerable for them. The Bashalde (the word means musicians) found employment in the mills and in the ethnic cafes, clubs and restaurants as entertainers. Though that world has long since gone, many continue to work as musicians. Bashaldo Romani is of a Central type, and perhaps only 60% mutually intelligible with Vlax Romani. It is no longer spoken by people below middle age.

Because of assimilationist policies directed at Romanies in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bashalde Romani Americans maintain pollution taboos to a lesser extent than other groups, and the rate of out-marriage appears to be somewhat higher.

4. The Xoraxane (Xoraxaya)

Established mainly in the Bronx where they have established two mosques, the Xoraxane are an Islamic population originating in Macedonia and surrounding areas of the Balkans, several hundred families of whom came to America beginning in the late 1960s. Several thousand other Xoraxane Roma have come later as part of a Bosnian refugee program initiated by the city of Saint Louis, Missouri, and are settled there. They maintain minimal ties with other Romani American populations, include engineers and teachers among their number, and have established soccer and other social clubs.

5. The Russian/Serbian Lovara

Some two thousand or more who belong to this group live today in the Chicago area. They descend from Russian Roma who fled to Yugoslavia during the First World War, travelling back and forth into Hungary and intermarrying with Lovara from that country. After deciding to leave Europe a group of families arrived in Montreal on a Russian ship from France but were targeted for deportation, and so in 1973 moved to St. Louis and then on to Chicago to find relatives. Since that time those families have been joined by numbers of other relatives from Europe, who continue to arrive.

6. The New Wave Romanies

These include Romanies representing many different European groups, all of whom have come to North America in the past 10 or 15 years. They have an imperfect command of English, and speak a number of different dialects of Romani. Many of them speak no Romani at all, especially the Romungre from Hungary and those from certain groups in Romania such as the Catani. They tend to be concentrated in New York and Chicago. There is little social contact within these groups, and with American Romani groups, although alliances are beginning to be formed in New York. Their priorities at the present time are less directed at establishing special schools than at getting established in homes and jobs in their new country.

___________________________________________________________

To learn more about the Romani people in America and beyond, I highly recommend Dr. Hancock’s research – much of which can be found in his published works.

Start with these books, authored or co-authored by Dr. Ian Hancock:

• Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution (1987)

• We Are the Romani People: Volume 28 (2002)

• A History of the Romani People (2005)

• Danger! Educated Gypsy: Selected Essays (2010)

Also, here’s a wonderful article about Dr. Hancock and his continuing efforts to improve cross-cultural understanding between Romani and non-Romani people. http://www.utexas.edu/features/archive/2003/romani.html

For more about Dr. Hancock’s personal experience as a Rom, view this interview: http://radoc.net/radoc.phpdoc=art_k_interview_cornell_hancock_interview&lang=en&presentation=true

Finally, click to see this excellent video clip about the history of Romani people from the website gypsytown.com: http://www.gypsytown.com/rom-gypsy-history.php

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