American Rom, 1987
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Few Americans realize that there is a thriving Rom (literally "man" or "husband") population here in the United States. The greatest Rom population in America belongs to the group of nomadic Rom. The Rom speak of dialects that are, on the whole, mutually intelligible. They are divided into tribes, the most numerous of which in America are the Mačvaja and the Kalderash. They are further divided into bands known as vitsi.
The Rom first travelled to America in colonial times when the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese exiled them to the new world. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been a continuous trickle of Rom immigration to America, either directly from Europe or through Mexico and Canada, where immigration restrictions are more lenient. The greatest part of the current North American Rom population is comprised of descendants of Balkan, Eastern and Central European Rom who crossed the Atlantic during the waves of immigration at the turn of the 20th century. It is sometimes impossible to designate a "country of origin" for a nomadic Rom as he may have traveled and lived in several different countries.
The Rom population of the United States is difficult to estimate because the Rom are not reported in official census statistics. Because of long-standing prejudice and persecution, plus their desire to keep their culture hidden, the Rom have developed the skills of "passing." Passing involves speaking and dressing like a non-Rom, adopting non-government papers. They deliberately conceal their ethnicity to avoid harassment by truant officers, landlords, police, and the welfare department.
The largest Rom population is in New York City, where there are over 1,000 fortune telling establishments. Every large American city hosts the Rom. Far from hampering Rom life, the social conditions in America favor it. The United States is a mobile society, both physically and mentally. What better place for a Rom? The freedom of movement is an attraction, as is the availability of work. Furthermore, the United States does not require settlement registration and multiple nationality documents as do many European countries. In general, Rom life in the United States is filled with fewer difficulties than in other countries.
During the 19th century, the Rom in America continued to follow their European life with little modification. They lived in caravans and traveled the countryside dealing in horses, plating copper and tin, telling fortunes, and running carnivals. During the 1920s, increased industrialization began to affect the Rom severely. The first occupation to disappear was horse trading (with the introduction of the automobile), followed by coppersmithing (with the introduction of stainless steel). The Rom then bought cars and trailers and became experts in the used car and the body- and fender-repairing businesses. By the end of the Second World Wr, carnivals began to fail and the Rom moved into the cities where fortune-telling was more profitable. In the cities, the Rom opened storefront fortune-telling parlors ("ofisi") and also discovered welfare, which remains an important source of income.
There has been a tendency to regard the urbanization of the Rom as a sign of lost ethnicity. For years, scholars have predicted the assimilation and disappearance of the Rom in America. Although the changes in such areas as place of habitation, occupations, area of travel, dress, means of travel, and languages learned in addition to Romanes, have been correctly observed, the significance of these changes has been misread. These scholars failed to realize that these areas of Rom life have been changing for centuries and will continue to change. This is precisely the Rom's tactic for survival. They are masters of adaptation. Whatever the city or country, the Rom has an intuitive ability to perceive, learn, and practice the appropriate externals of daily life without compromising his Rom ethnicity. When it comes to their value system and religion, with its concomitant social structures and taboos, little has changed for centuries.
In the area of occupations, for example, the switch from tinkering to sale and repair of cars represents virtually no change for the Rom because work is viewed as nothing more than a means to earn money from the world of non-Rom. The Rom rarely earn money from each other. Those who argue the the Rom have been assimilated because of the loss of traditional occupation for the sake of tradition; they only require that occupation be lucrative while not compromising basic values such as mobility and independence. Thus, a Rom would rarely be the employee of a non-Rom; he or she prefers to be self-employed. Tinkering is not only a "folk art," but a convenient livelihood. The Rom became tinkerers at a time when tinkering was profitable and in demand, not only because it represented something "Rom."
Similarly, fortune-telling has been traditionally retained as a women's occupation because it is portable and profitable. Young girls learn the trade from their mothers and older siblings through constant exposure. There is little formal training but much observation and practice.
Fortune tellers are called "Readers and Advisers" in the United States because predicting the future for money is illegal. Fortune-telling is a psychological art that requires quick character evaluation based on the appearance and manner of a customer. Shrewd Rom women know much about the fears and desires of their customers. Readers advertise in local newspapers and magazines through the distribution of printed handbills. Women usually provide the family's income and usually keep the money; men work when they want to and request money from their wives. This is the most usual pattern among the American Rom; in non-Rom groups, the men may serve as breadwinners. In cities where fortune-telling or its advertising are strictly prohibited, male occupations become dominant. For example, currently in Los Angeles, women hardly tell fortunes, and the men engage in real estate and in the used car business.
In terms of language, we cannot judge the Rom assimilation by their knowledge of English. What is important is that they maintain Romanes as the means of communication within the Rom world. They can learn as many other languages as needed. In fact, the more the better; multi-lingualism has always been a significant asset for the Rom.
Another misconception about the urbanization of American Rom is that they are miserable today because they live cooped up in cities. It is a romantic stereotype that where former Rom traveled freely and joyfully in picturesque caravans and camped under the stars, today they suffer from being relegated to urban streets. In actuality, both of these statements are naively simplistic. Rom moved to the cities because fortune-telling and welfare were profitable there. Furthermore, Rom life is a sequence of groupings and regroupings; hence, the Rom never consider their dwellings permanent.
Actually, the Rom find it more difficult to function in rural or upper class areas because the Rom way of life is not well-tolerated in this environment, and business is poor if not altogether illegal. In the United States, busy urban streets offer the Rom more freedom and the greatest business advantages. In other countries, the Rom have sought less exposure to the public eye, and thus may prefer to live in areas less appealing to the local population.
The Rom do not live in compact communities; they live in storefronts scattered around major shopping districts. In New York City, there is an unwritten agreement that fortune telling parlors should be at least three blocks apart to prevent cut-throat competition. The interiors of their homes are often lavish and opulent, decorated with satins, velvets and brocades, with plush carpets, many couches, marbled mirrors, chandeliers, huge lamps, and statues. A Rom is very proud of his home, which is the center of Rom life as well as a status symbol. Likewise, large expensive cars, plentiful food, and opulent jewelry, clothing, shoes, and hats are visible status symbols.
One parameter of Rom ethnicity is nomadism, if not as actual behavior, then as ideal behavior. The option to travel is constantly present in the minds of the American Rom although they may remain sedentary for long periods of time. Travel is necessary to find brides for their sons, to attend Rom celebrations, to be near sick relatives, and to find profitable fortune-telling locations. They think nothing of traveling 600 miles to attend a Rom wedding ("abjaw"). Many Rom travel to warm climates for the winter. Travel is also a viable means of problem solving, that is, by physically removing oneself from the source of conflict. The advent of the automobile has made traveling faster and more comfortable than caravan travel. Not only is the automobile travel better in these ways, it is also "the American Way." A Rom may explain his nomadism to an outsider in commonplace American terms, such as, "I just came back from vacation." For a Rom, however, work and vacation are virtually the same; a Rom takes his life style and culture with him wherever he is.
Rom nomadism is unique because it operates on a worldwide scale and is woven into both Eastern and Western, urban and rural, and industrial and agricultural societies. The Rom are not a displaced people in America. They have no national "homeland" so they are not typical immigrants. They are simultaneously "at home" in America while never really "belonging." In fact, they neither expect nor desire to belong to the larger culture.
The Rom view the world of the "gajo" (pronounced "gazho"), or non-Rom, is different and incompatible with their own; they maintain a strict separation from the "gajo" in all social matters. The only contact with non-Rom is in the economic sphere. The role of language is very important in maintaining the boundary between Rom and "gajo." The Rom know that Romanes is their exclusive property and they can say anything without fear of its being understood by the "gajo."
The separation between the Rom and "gajo" orders the Rom world view and provides a kind of cognitive map of Rom reality. The separation is grounded in the taboo system that defines the outside world as ritually unclean ("marhime"). If a Rom moves into a non-Rom apartment, it must be carefully scoured. The Rom prefer to follow other Rom tenants, although they concede that some Rom are dirtier than Americans. Not only do the Rom refuse to eat in non-Rom homes, but they only eat in restaurants that are "Rom-approved," that is, recommended for the cleanliness by other Rom. Even then, they prefer to use paper cups rather than drink out of a cup used by "gaje."
The center of cleanliness is the head (especially the mouth) and anything that is to touch it, whether food or clothing, and is selectively screened. The area below the waist is unclean. Thus, the Rom have different towels and soaps for the two body regions. A person is presentable in the morning only after washing his face. When staying in motels, they bring their own pillows and prefer to use paper towels.
There are also strict rules for the washing of clothing. Underclothes are washed in separate tubs from outer garments. Men's and women's clothing are washed separately and never allowed to touch. Headscarves may not be ironed on body towels. Similarly, because dishes and soaps cannot touch a "marhime" sink, they are washed in special basins.
The bathroom and washing areas are "marhime." It is considered highly improper for a woman to excuse herself to go to the bathroom in the presence of men. Anything to do with sex, pregnancy, or the lower body, is forbidden as a topic of conversation. Young girls make excuses to switch the television channel when watching a slightly off-color program with their parents or even with siblings.
Food preparation is strictly supervised. The Rom prefer to buy meat from recommended butchers. Separate utensils and plates are reserved for "gaje" customers and visitors. The floor is treated much like the ground in a campsite; any food or utensil that touches the floor should be thrown out (or sterilized) and the floor is swept three to four times a day.
A large concern of the taboo system is the uncleanliness of the female and her threat to male ritual purity. Women must be covered from their waists to their calves. They may wear pants only in the privacy of their homes; for the Rom public (Roma, that is, Rom outside the family) they wear long skirts. A woman may deliberately make a man "marhime" by lifting her skirt over his head; a man can also become "marhime" by engaging in sexual relations with a non-Rom woman. A defiled man is virtually excommunicated from the Rom life he cannot eat or socialize with other Rom. This separation is enforced by the will of public opinion and can be reversed only through an official meeting of respected men (the "kris").
"Marhime" rules are the basis of division of the sexes in Rom society. At all public occasions, men and women are separate they sit, talk, eat, and dance seprately (the only exception is an elder respected woman who may be asked to sit with the men). A woman does not walk directly across a group of seated men because she would be crossing male territory and because her lower parts would be higher than the men's upper bodies. A woman rarely sits on the same couch as a man, even her husband. As soon as Roma arrive in the Rom home, the women withdraw to the kitchen, ready to serve the men. Men eat first, followed by elder married women, and finally by children and new brides.
With these elaborate rituals, it is not surprising that the Rom view non-Rom as careless and dirty. They also regard the "gaje" as promiscuous, for the Rom value chastity before marriage and fidelity after marriage, at least for the women.
The separation of girls' and boys' lives is a natural extension of the strict separation between male and female spheres. Boys spend much more time out of the house than girls, accompanying their fathers in business or leisure. Girls remain at home to cook, clean, shop, and tell fortunes. Children do not regularly attend school, for contact with the "gaje" is to be avoided.
Marriages take place at an early age (fourteen years old in some "vitsi"), and from birth children are prepared to fulfill their obligations to marry and raise children. Children ar a man's wealth, especially sons, for sons remain close to their parents and bring their wives into the male's family. Marriages with non-Rom rarely occur, and when they do, it is a man who marries a non-Rom girl, not the reversfe. She usually gives up her non-Rom life, learns to tell fortunes, speak Romanes, and leads the life of a Romani (married Rom woman). Her status remains low until she has children.
Marriages are arranged by the parents, sometimes with the children's consent. A girl is raised with an eye to her potential worth as a bride, because the boy's family initiates the search for a bride, and competition may be stiff. The boy's family pays a brideprice (anywhere from $2000 to $10,000) for the girl, although a small portion is returned as a gift to the marital couple to help pay for the wedding. The brideprice is an economic exchange between the two families: the girl's parents are compensated for the loss of a breadwinner, and the boy's parents pay for her lifetime worth as a provider. A girl's price is determined by her skills in fortune-telling and homemaking, her family's reputation, her appearance, personality, demeanor, and by the current market.
The only alternative to an arranged marriage is elopement, which may end in a legitimate economic settlement between the two families or else may cause long family feuds. Dating is unheard of, because any pre-marital contact between the sexes is prohibited. At public events, girls and boys socialize separately, and rarely speak to each other except in passing or on the sly. Brides are expected to be virgins, which isn't too hard if one marries at fifteen years of age. There is a test and a celebration of virginity after the wedding night.
When a girl marries, she leaves her own family, becomes part of her husband's family sphere, and adopts his "vitsa." She virtually marries his whole family and is called "bori" (bride, wife, married-in-person, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law) by all of them.
Before giving her daughter away, a mother is very careful to check the reputation of the boy's family, especially the mother-in-law ("sokra"), because the girl will be taking orders from the "sokra" from then on. The "bori's" status is very low; she is expected to work hard, serve the men, and eat last. Her status grows when she has children and proves her earning power. After a year or so, she and her husband may establish their own household. At least one son, however, will remain with the parents.
A marriage may break up if the boy's parents are not satisfied with their new "bori" she may be lazy, dirty, or not have produced children. Alternatively, the girl herself may be dissatisfied and run home to her parents. Usually, half the brideprice is returned. At any age, a girl has asylum with her parents and they will defend her in public. She may be a virtual stranger to them, having left home at the age of fourteen, but the right of birth is a strong tie.
Rom marriages are not usually contacted through the American legal or religious system. They are common-law, made official only through Rom custom and celebration. Weddings are community events; there is rarely a written invitation. Word spreads quickly through the Rom communication network, facilitated by the telephone.
As Cadillacs begin to gather outside the hall, huge quantities of food are being prepared inside. In addition to catered food, the boy's family prepares roast lambs and pigs, spicy rolled cabbage ("juto sarme"), sweet noodle pudding ("piroga"), and other Rom specialties. The Rom begin to arrive from all over the country, dressed in the latest mod fashions, but with the Rom flair of colorful chiffons and opulent gold jewelry for women and cowboy styles and expensive hats for men. Men and women sit at separate ends of the hall, while teenagers dance disco-style to American rock music and in the Rom way ("Romanes"). Every Rom girl learns to dance a fast 2/4 dance with syncopated stamps, arm movements, and clapping ("basso"), and sing Rom songs, for she may be called upon to perform in front of the men. Musical talent is highly valued in in-group contexts.
The focal point of the wedding occurs when the bride changes into a white gown, lets her hair down, and dances the Kolo (circle). In this line dance she is led around the room by various members of her husband's family, especially her mother-in-law, who holds and dances with the bridal veil. From the moment the mother-in-law places the veil on the bride's head, the "bori" must wear a headscarf ("diklo") to show she is a married woman.
Another important part of the wedding ritual is the collection of the dowry ("daro"). As the men sit eating, an appointed master-of-ceremonies goes around to each "baro Rom" (respected, literally "big man") and floridly asks for a contribution. He speaks in formulaic language, extolling the virtues of the couple and the reputation of the Rom. He stuffs the money into a huge round bread that has been hollowed out and gives each Rom a glass of beer and a colored scarf. Each man gives anywhere from $15 to $100, depending on how close he is to the parents of the couple. Later, the "daro" is counted and the final amount is announced, often totalling a few thousand dollars. The money is ostensibly a gift to the bridal couple, but it actually goes to the boy's father who has paid for the entire wedding.
The events of the public life of the Rom weddings ("abjaw") and funeral feasts ("pomana"), saint's days ("slava"), baptisms ("bolimos"), and feasts of respect ("pakiv") are the focal points of social activities within the closed Rom world. At such celebrations, people scattered over wide distances see each other, exchange news, information, and gossip, renew contacts, and arrange for future marriages. The Rom are very people-oriented; little else besides health, happiness, and luck and money matter to them. They are undisturbed by the effects of time and distance; months or years can pass without altering a relationship. They rarely adhere to schedules, never plan ahead, but prefer to do things on the spur of the moment, whether it is cooking a meal, hiring a hall for a wedding, or taking a trip.
The texture of their lives turns on talk; the telephone is continually ringing in a Rom house, and phone bills often exceed $300 a month. Communication within the Rom world is a vital and efficient force in Rom life. News of a death can spread across the country in a matter of hours, with hundreds of Rom gathering in a few days.
Because of the public nature of Rom life, great importance is invested in a person's reputation and status. Food is an important status marker and a symbol of hospitality and sharing. A family spends much money "putting up a beautiful table" for a holiday celebration such as a "slava." This may involve spending hundreds of dollars on fruit that is out of season. The focus of any celebration is the table, which is set opulently for the public to admire.
This is especially true at funeral feasts, when the family of the deceased spends an entire day arranging a huge table in a rented hall. The Rom believe in spirits of the dead ("mule") and are careful to treat the dead with utmost respect. Similarly, a sick person is vulnerable to the spirits and should never be left alone. Funeral feasts occur at three days, nine days, six weeks, six months, and one year after death. In addition, early in the morning of every major holiday, the family prepares a table of food, "amendas ando was" (literally, "we give from the hand) in honor of the dead. Meat, nuts, candy, and fruits are eaten, incense is burned, and prayers uttered.
On occasions of the latter, "pomani" (a full set of expensive clothing), is given to a person representing the deceased. He or she is treated with utmost respect at the feast. Accepting clothes is considered an honor, but it is sometimes feared because of the contact with spirits of the dead.
Rom women who can interpret dreams and expertly read from cards are considered powerful. Other Romani often seek advice from them. When these women utter curses ("amraja"), they are potent. For example, during a recent family feud, an old woman put an "amraja" on an apartment; after that, no Rom family would dare move in.
Power resides in certain men, on the other hand, not for intuitive ability, but for practical knowledge in dealing with the "gaje" world. However, these so-called "kings" hold no absolute authority with the community. In fact, there is no such thing as absolute power in the Rom world. Family loyalties determine power alliances, which are usually temporary. A council of family heads ("kris") makes decisions regarding "marhime" cases and territorial rights for fortune telling, and the force of public opinion enforces their decisions. The "kris" is a fluid body; it is assembled anew with different members for each case.
The Rom themselves perpetuate misconceptions such as "The King of the Gypsies." This title has been deliberately used to inflate the power and romanticisms of the Rom. The "king" is really a public relations man who serves as a go-between for governmental authorities and the Rom. He secures apartments, fortune-telling parlors, and arranges for welfare and medical care.
For centuries, the Rom have concealed their culture, remained separate, and in the process retained their "Romness." In spite of the fact that scholars have for years predicted the decline of Rom culture, the Rom seem to be thriving in America. Through adaptation to varying environments, they have accommodated to American life while retaining their core of ethnicity: they change and yet remain Rom. Perhaps this ability to adapt is their key to cultural survival.
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, February 1987.