About the Roma: Who Are The Romani People?

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

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 www.kitandkinofthesouth.org 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: Are There Really Kings and Queens?

If you visit Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi, you’ll find the marker for Kelly Mitchell is inscribed with the words, “Queen of the Gypsies.” She was identified in that way by her husband (whose marker says “King”), and local historians say that many Romani people still visit Kelly’s grave to leave coins, trinkets, and gifts for their queen.

However, Dr. Ian Hancock, Professor at The University of Texas at Austin,  argues that there is no royal structure for the Roma and that the Mitchells would have not been an actual King and Queen. When I asked him why they have been reported as such throughout history, he kindly explained.

“In our language, the words for ‘king’ and ‘queen’ are thagar and thagarni.  They are not applied to any role within Romani culture, but to non-Romani kings and queens. The word for a leader is a baro. One can imagine Roma coming into a town, and being approached by the locals, perhaps the police chief, who asks to speak to the leader. He’ll ask the leader what is his title, and be told ‘baro’, which isn’t English, or perhaps be told ‘king’ since from the Romani point of view that is the English word for the top person. It began as a translation problem, but was quickly romanticized because of the literary ‘Gypsy’ image. From a king, the jump to a queen and a princess is easy. But these are not Romani concepts.”

Learn More about the Romani people by exploring some of the following online links:

The Romani Archives and Documentation center (RADOC) http://www.radoc.net/

Voice of Roma: www.voiceofroma.com

American Gypsy (Documentary): www.americangypsy.com

Photographs by Rana Halprin – Roma from California to Italy, over the past 25 years www.photomythology.com

Little Dust Productions (film by Roma about Roma) www.littledust.com

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

About the Roma: A Note Regarding The Term “Gypsy”

In my novel, Into the Free, I struggled with the use of the word “Gypsy,” but I also didn’t know what else to call this group of characters in my book. The locals in Depression-era Mississippi certainly would have referred to them as gypsies (the lowercase ‘g’ was selected during the editorial phase of the book), and most Americans don’t realize the term is considered derogatory and offensive to many Romani people. Of course, I’m not a Rom, so I certainly didn’t have the right to decide what to call this group of people. I needed to go to the source.

I was honored when a lifelong friend’s husband agreed to be interviewed regarding his experience as a Romani American. You’ll see in the interview (coming soon) that he and his family prefer to be called Romany Travelers. While he was not familiar with the Mitchell family buried in Meridian, Mississippi’s Rose Hill cemetery, historians in Meridian report the Mitchells were also Romani and that they were travelers. So those are the terms I opted to use in the novel when the “gypsies” refer to themselves: Romany and Travelers.

In the book, Romani was changed to the spelling “Romany” during the editorial phase of publication, and traveler was spelled with one /l/ as opposed to the European spelling “traveller.”

Dr. Ian Hancock with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Photo courtesy of Dr. Hancock and the University of Texas at Austin

With so many contradictions on word use and spellings, I needed some expert advice. Ian Hancock, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, is not only a world-renowned expert in Romani studies, he is also the Roma ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, a member of the International Romani Parliament, and the White House appointed Romani delegate to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. 

Under Dr. Hancock’s direction, UT at Austin oversees an extensive collection of Romani-related materials and is recognized as the premier center for the study of this unique culture. They also offer coursework in Romani language, history, and culture. So, when I wanted to find more information about Romani Americans, I was honored when Dr. Hancock responded to my request. (Learn more about Dr. Hancock’s visit with the Dalai Lama: http://www.radoc.net/radoc.php?doc=meeting_dalai_lama&lang=es&presentation=true)

Dr. Hancock suggested that Romani (with an /i/) is the proper spelling, even in America, and that most Romani do not consider themselves Travelers – whether spelled with one /l/ or two.

It seemed that every time I found a fact about this fascinating culture, conflicting information was discovered next. But that difficulty in nailing down some solid details only increased my appreciation for the complexity of the Romani culture and my recognition for how difficult it must be for them to maintain a sense of unity when they have so many different subcultures across the world.

If there’s anything I have learned while trying to identify what it means to be a Rom, it’s that there seems to be no one answer. Perhaps that’s the overall message that we all need to hear…that Romani people are just like any other group of people – they are each individuals with different ideas, opinions, talents, skills, and ambitions. And, just as any minority group, they should not be lumped into one stereotypical category.

I will never claim to understand the Romani culture, and I am certain I’ve gotten many things wrong in my book. Still, I have spent countless hours researching and learning as much as I could, and I hope I managed to portray my Romani(y)/G(g)ypsy/Travel(l)er characters in a positive light as I wrote Into the Free.

*NOTE* Many posts regarding Romani Americans, the Choctaw Nation, the early American Rodeo, and other themes from Into the Free will follow this one. Subscribe to Julie’s Journal to learn more about the facts behind the fiction.