The Hidden Americans
By Lois Hoffman
Gypsy. When that one word is mentioned, negative connotations may come to mind of a group of people who travel the country in wagons, men playing violins and women dancing in brightly colored dresses and trying to con an innocent young man.
This depiction could be a part of what gypsies were, but there is just a sampling of a culture that has been around for 1,000 years. The name “gypsy” actually dates back to the 1600s when the Greeks believed that they had arrived from Egypt and so gave them a name shortened from “Egyptian.” The ones that we call gypsies actually originated in the Indian subcontinent, then spread to the Middle East and Africa and later to Europe and to America. Thus, they are not Egyptian at all but the name stuck.
Today they are either referred to as gypsies or the Romani people. It is estimated that there are one million living in the United States with many of them concentrated in southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, and cities like Chicago and St. Louis.
Their biggest migration to the United States was from the 1860s until around 1914. They populated the larger cities because they could find work in carpentry, metal work, music, dance and fortune telling. Even today, they are very much a part of the Chicago landscape and, as recently, as the 1970s and ’80s, they frequented two main areas of Chicago and gypsy caravans could still be seen going down Lincoln St. Until just recently, Little Bucharest Restaurant held an annual outdoor gypsy festival on the grounds of St. Alphonsus Church. Whole pigs and lambs were roasted over an open fire and there was plenty of guitar and violin music, upholding the gypsy lore of people dancing and singing around campfires in brightly-colored costumes.
They are still very much a part of our communities and may even be your neighbor, although you probably would never guess it. Some gypsy caravans still travel because of finding work or because of family, but most live in homes and dress less flamboyant these days. On the outside they fit into mainstream society, although most still follow the old gypsy traditions and ways in the confines of their homes.
Roma culture is all about family and community. Keeping their culture and heritage alive is important to them, thus they hold onto long-standing traditions. Just like they are portrayed on television, they have big elaborate weddings that can last three days. Baptisms and funerals bring them together in a big way, with sometimes up to 1,000 in attendance.
They are proud that they have never lost their heritage. Some elements of their belief system may seem strange to some, but the rules have been around since they became a culture. They follow a conservative law code, or set of rules based on purity and cleanliness. Legend has it that all gypsy tribes still appoint a “king” who serves as judge, financier, mayor and matchmaker.
Each tribe’s “code” sets conduct and lifestyle rules that run the gamut from large money decisions down to everyday tasks on how to prepare food and even wash their clothes. Marriages are typically arranged by the parents and new couples live with the husband’s family for the first year or until the first child is born.
They consider the upper half of the body pure and the lower half (feet and genethliac) to be contaminated. If they touch the lower body they must wash their hands. A gypsy woman who gives birth is totally contaminated, so much so that she and the children are isolated for a temporary amount of time. If one of them “pollutes” his or her self, they may be ostracized for up to a year or expelled from the community. Men’s and women’s clothes cannot be washed together and if they touch a dog they must wash their hands.
Family watches the kids and the kids only attend public school until they are 10 or 12 years old many times. After this age, they believe that everything they need to know can be taught by the older members of the tribe.
Gypsy women serve the men although the women are respected for their money-making ability. All fortune tellers are women and fortune telling is a big part of their lifestyle. This also makes females a key role in the “family” business.
Gypsies have been and still are a colorful part of our heritage. What we need to remember is that their image has changed. Anymore they are not the roaming bands of con artists nor the women in lowcut blouses dancing seductively around the campfires. Instead, they now try to blend into our society rather than to try and be the exception.
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