Meet the Gypsies of Spain

Susan-with-lace-cropped-31-222x300I’m excited to introduce you to a new friend of mine, Susan Nadathur, whose debut novel, City of Sorrows, was just released. You’re one of the first to learn about this beautiful new story set in the Gypsy communities of Spain, and this might just be the first interview posted publicly regarding the book.

JC: Susan, You have a fascinating life. You grew up in a quaint New England community but after graduate school became an ex-Pat and relocated to Spain. There, you fell in love with a man from India, and together, after years of some pretty amazing adventures, you decided to move among the Gypsies of Spain whom you describe as some of the most generous, humble people you’ve ever met. Tell us briefly how you ended up “running away with the Gypsies.”

SN: I often wonder where this journey began. I think God always knew, even though He was not so good about sharing the details with me. But, looking back on my life, the road seems clear. For example, if as a child I had not been bullied, picked on and humiliated, I would not have developed the keen sense of empathy I have for people who are marginalized. And without that compassion, I would not have been profoundly affected by a racist remark targeted at my Indian friend in Spain who was confused for a Gypsy way back when I was a twenty-two-year-old expat living in Seville.

“Gypsies and Moors are not served here,” a Spaniard said before refusing my friend a cup of coffee. That one statement, spat out decades ago in a bar in Seville, became the catalyst for a story of love and loss in the vibrant world of Gypsy Spain—a world I would never have penetrated if I had not felt the sting of isolation, humiliation, and rejection that gave me the unique, unspoken connection to this group of persecuted people.

Several years later, that story finally germinated. I started to write the novel which has become CITY OF SORROWS. But, in order to do justice to the project, I had to return to Spain. And this time, I had to meet and get to know the people whose culture I was writing about. Spanish Gypsies.

The only problem was, I knew that most of the Gypsies in Seville lived in poor, dangerous sectors of the city. My husband knew that too. As well as my pastor. The only way I was going to convince both my husband and pastor that I would be safe in these marginalized areas was by connecting with a Christian church that had ministries in the Gypsy community. Well, to make a long story short, I ended up in a  Pentecostal Gypsy church called Dios Con Nosotros (God with Us), in one of the most sordid sectors of the city (Las Tres Mil Viviendas). And not once did I ever feel unsafe. The congregation embraced me, though kept me at a distance whenever I asked questions about their culture. Too many years of marginalization and oppression had made them wary of foreigners.

But as the weeks went by, and they began to trust me, my experiences began to change. I was invited into homes, into people’s lives. Finally, I was asked to leave the apartment I had rented in Seville and invited to live with Pastor Pepe Serrano and his family in their home on the outskirts of Seville. Once I moved into Pastor Pepe’s home, I no longer had to ask questions. I only had to live as part of a family to understand the people I had been led to write about.

Pepe-Pura-and-Susan-Cropped1-300x242Looking back now, I remember what Pastor Pepe said to me that day I first entered his church.

“God has not brought you here to research your book,” Pastor Pepe said. “He has brought you here to work on you.”

I guess God always knew the plans he had for me. There was a reason I was me.

JC: You are not only fluent in Spanish, you have created a successful business teaching Spanish to medical professionals and have published several books on this topic. It’s clear you have spent your life working to promote cross-cultural understanding. What do you consider the most positive aspect of modern Gypsy life in Spain? What are their struggles?

SN: I think the most positive aspect of modern Gypsy life in Spain right now is the transformation that is occurring because of Spanish Gypsy evangelism. Negative behaviors historically associated with Gypsies, such as vagrancy, theft, violence, revenge and tribal feuding, are being modified and corrected with conversions to Christ.

From “gypping” someone out of their money, to truancy and laziness, to admonishment for being unhygienic, to retaliation and revenge, the standard image of the Spanish Gypsy is cloaked in negative stereotyping. The Gypsy has come to symbolize everything that modern-day, industrialized societies reject as immoral and inefficient. But that image is changing from the only place where change is meaningful – from within.

A remarkable phenomenon is occurring that is changing the face of the Spanish Gypsy: Pentecostal evangelism. As thousands of Gypsies convert to Christ, their slogan has become:


Antes los gitanos iban con cuchillos y quimeras.

Ahora llevamos la Biblia, la palabra verdadera.

Before the Gypsies went with knives and quarrels into battle.

Now we take the Bible, God’s True and Holy Word.

For more on this subject, here’s a link to an article I wrote for EMQ Online titled “Waiting on Dibel: The Growth of Pentecostalism among Spanish Gypsies.”

  • “Waiting on Dibel: The Growth of Pentecostalism among Spanish Gypsies” was originally published in the April 2011 issue of EMQ ( Reprinted with permission. Not to be reproduced or republished without permission.

As far as their struggles, Spanish Gypsies have much to overcome. Poverty is rampant, Work inconsistent (A large number of Spanish Gypsies make their living as itinerant street vendors, a way of life that has been severely affected by the economic crisis that has plagued Spain since 2008). Drugs and crime threaten the world in which many Gypsies live. And attitudes toward education sometimes limit them from exploring options outside of what is familiar to them as a group of people living as part of, while at the same time separated from Spanish culture. And of course, there still exists a subtle level of (sometimes self-imposed) social marginalization from mainstream Spanish society as well as the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. You will still see the beggar sitting in front of a church, or the fortune teller stalking the outside of the Cathedral for unsuspecting foreigners ready to part with their money for a Tarot spread or palm reading. But, the positive news is that change is coming, slowly but surely to the Spanish Gypsies.

CITYofSORROWSfinaldigitalCOVER-660x1024JC: Because you are a writer, you have documented some of the stories you’ve witnessed during your adventures. Tell us a bit about this project and how your real life influences your fiction.

SN: CITY OF SORROWS (release date December 2012) is the story of a young Spanish Gypsy, Diego Vargas, and his journey from the shackles of grief to the obsession of revenge, to the miracle that is love after loss. Young Diego lives with his family on the Southside of Seville, in what is basically a Gypsy ghetto. Just turned nineteen, he is recently married, madly in love, expecting his first child, and completely unaware that his life is about to come crashing down around him. On a dark road outside the city of Seville, Diego must find the courage to face death, the strength to survive it, and the power to hold onto his humanity while both his mind and his will scream against it.

The seeds for this novel were sown many years ago, when I first lived in Spain. But for a long time, those seeds remained dormant. When I finally sat down to write the book, I was all revved up and ready to whip this story into shape. Just “write what you know,” I thought. Well, yes and no. I had NO idea what I had gotten myself into. Surprise, surprise, sitting down to write a novel actually meant acquiring some new skills. Like characterization, plotting, pacing and so many other things I had simply taken for granted.

After writing what was basically a fictionalized account of my life with my Indian friend in Seville, I soon realized that if I wanted this story be of interest to anyone except my immediate family, I had better start studying the craft, and then, start rewriting. As I went through the process of a second draft, I started seeing some subtle changes. My protagonist, who had some pretty obvious character traits of that Indian friend I had met in Spain, started taking a back seat to his fictional best friend, Diego Vargas. And then it seemed as if Diego wanted to write his own story. When that happened, I convinced a lot of people that I needed to abandon my home for a while and go live with the Gypsies in Seville. There was no way Diego was going to hijack the story without me doing my research.

Many of the scenes in the novel are based on my experiences living among the Gypsies. I have tried to be faithful to the reality of their world without either glamorizing it or condemning it. Like in real life, my novel has both good and bad Gypsies. Good and bad Spaniards. And yes, there is a strong Indian presence offered through one of the supporting characters, Rajiv Kumaran. Rajiv is Diego’s philosophical friend from India, the man who helps him to work his way out of the darkness of despair and into the light. And yes, I admit it, Rajiv does have a strong likeness to that Indian friend from Spain who later became my husband.

JC: Finally, I’m intrigued by your efforts to help young adults cope with bullying by celebrating their differences. You even offer a blogsite for such teens. Tell us about these efforts.

SN: I have always enjoyed young people, especially those who don’t quite “fit in.” I currently volunteer at the local high school in Lajas, Puerto Rico, where I live. I work with the students both individually and in a group setting, where I encourage them to express themselves in writing. Many of these students feel isolated or “different” from their more popular peers. They all have been labeled something, from “Goth” to “Nerd” to other more offensive titles. And up until recently, they have, for the most part, kept silent. I have been working with them to help them find their voices.

The students and I have formed a group called Vox Occulta which translates to “hidden voice.” The students have written poems, stories, and rap songs about their lives, learning about themselves in the process. Many of these stories are posted on my blog

These young people have made a mark on my life. And like the Gypsies, they have influenced my writing. My next novel-in-progress is for young adults. You can’t spend so much time with young people without being influenced by them. They are a wonderful addition to my life.


SUSAN NADATHUR is a widely-traveled writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed “outsider” from Connecticut who lives on-and-off in Spain with an extended family of Gypsies in Seville. A registered nurse with a Masters degree in Spanish, Susan teaches language and cultural diversity workshops to childbirth and healthcare professionals, and has authored several books on Spanish language acquisition and cross-cultural communication. City of Sorrows (Azahar Books, 2012) is her debut novel. She lives with her husband, a philosophical scientist from India, and their daughter in Lajas, Puerto  Rico. Visit the author online at

Interview with a Romany Insider

JC: I’m fascinated to learn you have direct ties to the Romany Travelers. You and I grew up together in the same town, and you’re now one of several people from home who have contacted me to tell me about family connections with the Travelers (others have confessed a Romany identity). Tell us how you came to know the travelers. Did you always know they were there? How did you become friends with them, and when did you begin to spend time in their Louisiana “camp?”

RT: I did always know they were there as my family became friends with them before I was born. I visited their camp in Covington as a small child, though I don’t personally remember this. When my parents separated, my father actually moved to their Slidell camp and I visited there a couple times a year after that. That would have been around 1980 or so.

JC: Describe the camp for us. What are some of your best memories from those visits?

RT: Their camp looks very much like a trailer park. They have several double wide mobile homes, as well as single wides and travel trailers. There’s a circular drive with the trailers set up around the perimeter. What I remember most about my visits is that I always felt like I was visiting family. They have always felt like aunts, uncles, and cousins to me. It’s virtually impossible to visit one family without visiting two or three or more. I have “snuck in” just to see my dad (he lives at the back of the property), but when someone found out later I had been there, they let me know I should have come to see them too.

JC: What did these Roma do for work? Did they travel, or was their “camp” a permanent one? Tell us about their lifestyle.

RT: This particular family owns carnival concessions and that is how my family came to know them as my family is third generation showmen. They travel from late spring to mid fall and the camp is considered their “winter quarters.” So, in essence, they have two “camps” if you will. The winter quarters are permanent and they all have travel trailers they use during the fair season and move week to week.

JC: We often think of our grandmothers without considering who they were as young women. Your grandmother led an interesting life, running away to marry a carnival man who traveled with the Gypsies, but you weren’t aware of her secrets until her sister spilled the beans. Tell us about her unique adventures and how that confession affected the way you view your grandmother?

RT: My grandmother was a very private person. She rarely talked about her life at all, married or before. I knew she grew up on a farm in North Dakota, but had no idea her parents had actually immigrated from Russia until the same sister mentioned that to us. We knew she was of German descent, but had no idea the family had lived in Russia prior to establishing their homestead in North Dakota. I wish I knew more about her family, but other than meeting a couple of her sisters, one of whom I’m named after, and a brother, we didn’t have contact with her family. If anything, the confession of her sister made me see my grandmother as a bit more rebellious than I ever gave her credit for being. She was always such a proper lady, I couldn’t imagine her running away to marry a carnival/circus man.

JC: Your brother, whom I also grew up with, married a Rom. Was this considered unusual? How did the two families react?

RT: It was considered unusual, but also not surprising since my brother truly grew up with his bride. He was maybe 3 at the time my father moved to the camp, so he literally was around them almost since birth in a way that I was not. He also worked more with them after he graduated from high school. I grew up on the midway as a child, then gravitated to a more “normal” life after my parents’ separation. My brother did not grow up on the midway, but gravitated to that life after school.

JC: Tell us about your brother’s life now that he is in the Romany circle.

RT: They have completely adopted him into their ranks. He looks like them physically. And you’d never be able to tell he isn’t one of them. He now owns his own carnival and makes his living in that way. He and his family travel up north in the Minnesota area during the summer and early fall.

JC: Another Romany Traveler I interviewed admitted the Roma prefer to stay a bit separated from outsiders. Have you ever felt judged or ostracized by the Travelers you know? Has your brother ever experienced such treatment?

RT: No, I’ve never felt that at all. While I personally have not been as absorbed into their inner circles as my brother for obvious reasons, I’ve never felt judgment from them. I have always known I was not “one” of them, but never felt uncomfortable because of it. I did have a huge crush when I was about 13 or so on one of their young men and that was quickly squashed, but that would be about the extent of it.

JC: What do you most admire about the Romany culture? What do you want others to know and understand about this minority group?

RT: What I admire most about them is their sense of family. They are so family oriented. Everyone is a “cousin.” They take care of their own. I also admire their joy of life. They are always ready to have a good time. Everything can turn into a party.

JC: One of my greatest fears in publishing this novel was offending the Travelers (and other subcultures mentioned in the book). I went to great extremes to capture these characters authentically. What do you think of River and the travelers who are portrayed in Into the Free?

RT: I saw nothing in your book that would offend the Travelers I know. I enjoyed the character of River, but honestly know no Romany man who was as well read as he was. The ones I know, while intelligent, are street smart, not book smart. And other than my preteen crush, I have had no romantic interludes with their men, so I cannot concur on how one truly would show his interest in a woman of his choosing. To be honest, I’ve never seen courtship among them. I would see people my age one season and the next time I saw them, they’d be married. Arranged marriages do still happen, but I have no idea the manner in which they happen. Even my brother’s marriage was a surprise to me. I got a call one day saying they would be married two days later. It seemed that quick to me. I later learned they had been “seeing” each other for nearly a year, but it wasn’t what you or I would traditionally call dating.

JC: Is there any significant difference in the way the younger generation is growing up? Have the cultures melded together now to the point we all live similar lifestyles?

RT: I don’t have any children. I have two nieces and a nephew and they are half Gypsy. They are growing up totally immersed in that lifestyle. Their grandmother, my sister in law’s mother, takes care of them often. She moved in with them when the oldest was maybe a year old. They attend school, but I don’t think they are encouraged to develop close ties with their schoolmates. Their cousins are their friends and playmates. JC: On a side note, Millie notes in church that the preacher believes many people are going to Hell. He includes “Mormons” in this list. What is your reaction to that passage and what would you like people to know about The Church of Latter Day Saints

RT: I have to say I agree with Millie’s response. I have many friends who are Mormon and attended their church when I was younger. Though I now consider myself non-denominational, I have great respect for their culture. Sadly, I sat in a Sunday service in a Mormon church when I was 15 and heard a very similar sermon. The bishop basically said anyone not sitting in that room that morning would be going to hell. That was the last time I attended church there. My faith is great, but I often find myself having issues with organized religion.

JC: Thanks so very much, RT. I really appreciate you helping improve cross-cultural relations and helping readers learn to offer more compassion and kindness to those on the fringes of our society.

RT: You are more than welcome Julie!

About the Roma: Who Are The Romani People?

Emil Mitchell, center. Photo courtesy of the Lauderdale County Archives and Leslie Joyner (

The Roma are believed to have originated in India. Known for their musical talents, King Shangul of India sent a large group of these entertainers (as many as 10,000) to the Persian leader, Shah Bahram Gur. There, they formed their own state on the banks of the Tigris River, but they were eventually imprisoned by the Byzantines who moved them into the current countries of Greece and Turkey. This took place approximately between 430 and 850 AD, while other Romani people remained in the northwestern regions of India.

Most research suggests a second migration took place from India in the 11th century, when many Romani left the region perhaps as mercenaries against the invading Turko-Persian Ghaznivid soldiers. Whether they left to fight these Muslim insurgents or to escape them is debatable, but it is generally believed that they were part of the Rajput Warriors (a ruling class of India) who were determined to defend their country even if that meant traveling to other countries to help deter invaders.

Over time, they migrated north through modern-day Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan, and westward into the Mediterranean, Balkans, and Europe. As they migrated, they developed exceptional metal-working skills and became known for this important trade. As the first “people of color” in Europe, they were mistaken as Egyptians and thus called, “Gypsies.”

These people have survived generations of slavery, mistreatment, and abuse, including mass-extermination during the Nazi Holocaust, but they continue to thrive today across the world. Despite countless obstacles, most have managed to maintain their language, their music, and their traditions – although theses are often kept hidden from non-Romani society.

Records indicate that many Roma were first sent to “The New World” during the colonial period, particularly to Spanish Louisiana. Once again, many were eventually enslaved on Southern Plantations and an Afro-Romani population still lives in the South today.

The members of the Mitchell family who were buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi, supposedly migrated from modern-day Brazil where Portugal had exiled it’s Romani population. From there, they roamed northward to the Southeastern US where many remain today across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

For more information about the Romani people buried in Meridian, Mississippi’s Rose Hill Cemetery, visit and Item #394 Romani Royalty at Rose Hill Cemetery: King Emil Mitchell, Queen Kelly Mitchell and Family (also available as an e-book). And stay tuned for interviews with Meridian historians (coming soon).



About the Roma: Which American President Has Romani Roots?

Image courtesy of BeeMedia

For a list of famous Romani around the world, visit You’ll find authors, musicians, teachers, athletes, even presidents! I’ve selected a few from that list that may surprise you.

Yul Brynner – An undoubtedly controversial person, his origins have been a mystery for many. He is believed to have had both Romany and Jewish ancestry, by his mother Marousia Blagovidova, whose father was a Russian Jew and her mother a Russian Gypsy. It was among Roma that he began his adventurous life, playing guitar in Romany circles and working as a trapezist in circus. He was elected Honorary President of the Roma, an office that he kept until his death.

Sir Charles Chaplin  – Born Charles Spencer Chaplin, his parents were music hall artists. It is usually assumed that he was Jewish, an assertion that seems not to be true. He felt strongly identified with the Jews and manifested his defense of the Jewish people, but there is not any documented source to assert with certainty if he had Jewish ancestry. On the other side, it is known that his mother, Hannah Smith, was Romanichel, and his father probably was too. He was knighted in 1975.

Sir Michael Caine: Born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, it was a tradition of his Romanichel family to call Maurice the firstborn son. As an actor, he was awarded twice with the Oscar (1986 and 1999). He was knighted in the year 2000 for his contribution to performing arts.

And finally…guess which US President claims Romani roots?

Answer: Bill Clinton


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:

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.

For more about Dr. Hancock’s personal experience as a Rom, view this interview:

Finally, click to see this excellent video clip about the history of Romani people from the website

About the Roma: A Rose by Any Other Name…

Image from Equine Ranch in a post about Rare Horse Breeds and the Gypsy Vanner (horse). Click on photo for original post.

As discussed in the last blog post, the term “Gypsy” is a derogatory term and should not be used when describing the Romani people. So what terms should you use when speaking about these people? In general, it seems that most Romani people agree on the following terminology:

Rom: person, man, husband, (singular)

Roma (Rroma): people, (plural)

Romani: an adjective, as in Romani language, Romani people, Romani culture, etc. (similar to American, African, French)

Romani/Romanes: the spoken language of the Roma (derives from Punjabi region of India)

Gadje: non-Roma, outsiders (also male: gadjo; female; gadji)

Gadjikane: an adjective meaning non-Romani (foreign or outsiders), as in gadjikane music

(Adapted from: )

Stay tuned for interviews with Romani Americans and much more.