About the Roma: Interview with Romani-American Traveler

Marzahn, the first internment camp for Roma (Gypsies) in the Third Reich. Germany, date uncertain. Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed Dec. 31, 2011 online. Click image to access original article.

When I started to write Into the Free, I didn’t know much about the Romani people. I was fascinated to learn about those who had migrated to the Southeastern United States and I wanted to meet some Roma who continue to call this area home today. I discovered immediately that most were extremely mistrusting of non-Romani people (that would include me) and had no interest in sharing their stories with “Gadje.”

Luckily, one of my friends did have a story to tell, for she had fallen in love with a Romani Traveler. Even though she is not Romani, the two are now happily married with children. Her husband graciously agreed to post this interview. He will be referred to here as RT because he prefers to remain anonymous. Town names have been omitted or changed in order to protect his identity.

JC: I have read that the original Romani people date back to the 1400s in India and were exiled and mistreated across the world. Is this what you believe to be true?

 RT: Most travelers are not educated. Many in the past could not read or write, therefore our history is documented mostly by non-travelers.  I do know many were persecuted during the Holocaust. From what I have been told my ancestors immigrated (to the US) from Romania.

JC: When researching the book, I learned that Romani people prefer not to be called “gypsies.” I struggled with whether or not to use this term in the book, but the fact is that townspeople during that time period would have called the group of travelers nothing other than gypsies.

In the novel, the two main Romani characters refer to themselves as Romany and also as travelers, but for references by other characters I chose to use the word “Gypsy.” I believe most people don’t realize it is offensive and actually find the term romantic and exotic.

Discuss why this term is derogatory and what you want people to know about using that word. 

RT: This term is derogatory because it contains negative connotations.  Although it may be romanticized and exotic by some, most non-travelers use the term in a derogatory way.  The term “gypped” is derived from “gypsy,” which obviously is a negative word.  Although it is common for travelers to use that word amongst themselves in a joking way, it is totally unacceptable for a non-traveler to call a traveler a gypsy and travelers take offense to it.

JC: What do you want people to know about the Romani-American Travelers? What are some common misperceptions that you want to clarify? 

RT: I feel the biggest misperception is that all travelers are liars, thieves, and con artists, which is not true.  Just as in any people group there are good and bad travelers.  There are instant negative thoughts when most people hear the word “gypsy.”

JC: It seems that Romani travelers live and work in many communities today, even though no one knows they are Romani. Where do travelers live today?

RT: Many have more permanent houses in the south — Louisiana and Texas are popular locations — (and) then spend summers in the north (in areas) such as Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, Ohio.  The location a traveler chooses is generally determined by the work they do and the need for that service.  Many paint silver on tin roofs, so areas with farms featuring large barns and silos are a popular choice. 

JC: Why do you keep your culture a secret?

RT: For many reasons, but the top two are simply because we have been taught for generations to do so.  Another is because as children many of us were made fun of by non-travelers and simply learned to keep it a secret. 

JC: Are you still afraid of persecution, even in America?

RT: No, but there is a general fear of governmental authority, especially the IRS but also police.  Even when business is conducted properly there is a sense of being caught doing something wrong.  I don’t know how to explain why that is but from my observation many minorities experience the same anxiety. 

JC: Discuss a bit about the modern-day treatment of your people in other parts of the world

RT: After spending time in Italy, I realized how horrible conditions are in other countries for travelers.  I believe it is a cycle.  Travelers are looked upon as outcasts, therefore they are beggars and thieves, and therefore they are treated as outcasts.  It is very difficult to be seen differently because to do so would mean leaving the “clan” which is not likely.  This culture has an extremely strong sense of loyalty.

JC: What is the faith of most Romani? Discuss a bit about the role of religion within that culture. 

RT: Most that we know are Christian. Typically they are more comfortable in churches where they feel accepted.  Many travelers in the US attend Romani churches, which are usually non-denominational churches whose leadership are travelers, although you do not have to be a traveler to go to them. There is actually a national organization for these churches.  I do not attend one of them but many in my family do.

JC: Tell me about your life as a Romani traveler. Where were you born?

RT: I was born in Texas.

JC: Where did you grow up?

RT: From birth to around the time I was 10 or 11, we spent time in too many places to name.  Around that age one of my four sisters married someone from the Baton Rouge area so we began to spend winters there.  We continued to travel during the summer until I was around 14, when my father became too ill to do so.  We then built a house and settled in Louisiana. 

JC: What did your parents do for a living?

RT: Many things, my father painted home exteriors, my mom pedaled, which means we drove around and sold numerous items. 

JC: And you?

RT: When I turned 15 I went to work at a plumbing company, which was completely uncharacteristic for a traveler but I needed to help the family since my father was ill. 

JC: Did you all go to school, and if so – how many schools did you attend if you were traveling so much? 

RT: I went to school until 10th grade.  We went to school in whatever town we were in at the time, then transferred when we needed to.

JC: Explain what it means to “travel.”

RT: When I was young it meant what it is, we would travel which was the way travelers make a living.  We went to an area that money could be made. 

JC: How does this work today?

RT: Today it is much different.  Many travelers live in homes and travel only in the summer. 

JC: Do you stay in rental homes for short stays and then move to another location?

RT: Some rent but most use travel trailers, renting space in campgrounds for the summer.  Typically a traveler will stay in the same town all summer. 

JC: Is it true that many will buy more than one home and move from one to the other at regular times of the year?

RT: No.

JC: Do you use more than one name? 

RT: Only an outlaw will use another name. Basically all traveler men own their own business and have ads in the yellow pages.  When they travel, since the invention of the cell phone, they still respond to calls from customers, taking care of return service by subcontracting when they are out of town. 

JC: Give us a peek into that secret world. 

RT: The world of travelers is mostly secret for social reasons now.  To be honest most travelers view themselves as “better” than non-travelers, even if they don’t admit that.  That being said they do not feel that it is the business of non-travelers to know anything about them. 

JC: Are you worried about giving this interview, even though you will remain anonymous?

RT: Somewhat. Simply because travelers are such a loyal culture, I would not want them to feel I am telling their secrets. 

JC: Do your friends know that you are Romani?

RT: Yes, most do.  To be honest I am not very involved in my culture, mostly because I choose to live a stationary life and have a business that is far from the norm of travelers. Also my wife is not a traveler. 

JC: What do you tell your children about their heritage? 

RT: I am open to them knowing anything they are interested in, yet I do not spend a lot of time talking about it.  Perhaps in the future I will.

JC: Is it true that Romani prefer to stay separated a bit from mainstream society, and that marriage outside of the Romani heritage is frowned upon? Or is that no longer true?

RT: That is very true. 

JC: You married a girl who was not Romani. How did your family feel about this?

RT: They do not like you marrying outside but they also would never shun a family member for anything.

JC: Is there anything else you want readers to know about Romani travelers and how you feel about that identity? 

RT: As I said earlier, travelers have no desire for non-travelers to know anything about them. However, since I am involved more with non-travelers than travelers, I understand the curiosity that people have. My goal is simply to remove the negative thoughts many have about travelers. 

The Romani Traveler culture has some characteristics that mainstream America would view as “wrong” but all things are relative. I would personally like to see education become a greater priority for travelers and I put a huge emphasis on that for my children, but who am I to say that is the “right” thing. 

To most travelers the ability to read and write and even more so to do math is plenty of education, which would be frowned upon by mainstream America.  Keep in mind, however, travelers typically are very self-sufficient and are not asking the government for much.  Travelers have an uncanny ability to make do and even prosper using the most simple of professions.  

JC: Thank you for your honesty. I have learned that most Romani people are reluctant to share any information with non-Romani people. I admire your efforts to increase understanding across these cultures, and I greatly appreciate your time.

Note: As noted in the interview with “RT,” the Romani people suffered tremendously during The Holocaust. Roma refer to The Holocaust as Porrajmos, which means “the Devouring.” While reports vary, it is estimated that approximately 1 million Roma were killed by the Nazis because of their rassenverfolgte — “racially tainted heritage.” This included between 70 and 80 percent of the German Romani population. At Auschwitz-Birkenau alone, more than 21,000 Roma were killed — some 4,500 on the single night of Aug. 31, 1944, now known as Zigeunernacht, or “Gypsy Night.” This extermination began as early as 1933 in German concentration camps and continued throughout WWII. (Source: http://www.tolerance.org/supplement/world-culture)

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