How Gypsies Work

The European Union is grappling with its iterant gypsy population.
The European Union is grappling with its iterant gypsy population.
Jose R. Platon/Getty Images

In recent years, a handful of European Union countries have battled a peculiar illegal immigration issue. It's not that side effects like discrimination, prejudice and governmental distrust are unique to toughening immigration practices in Europe, but the targeted minority population might seem out of the ordinary, particularly to people in the United States. The people in question are the 10 to 12 million gypsies scattered around the 27-nation collective, and the immigration -- and subsequent deportation -- controversy is just one of the endless battles the ethnic minority has fought ever since literally fighting its way out of northern India a thousand years ago [source: Castle].

The word "gypsy" often connotes images of fortune tellers, caravans and beggars. Their portrayal in literature, film and popular culture is generally unflattering, depicting the people as roving bands of ne'r do wells who lie, steal and cheat -- and play the violin beautifully. At a distance, gypsies are perceived as exotic, while nearby, they're often deemed a nuisance [source: Sigona]. Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" contains many passages of anti-gypsy vitriol, with the author writing at one point, "The gypsy…is truly worthless, no political development, nor any discipline, and you could not rely on him for anything" [source: Hemingway].


Partially for that reason, they've been kicked around the Asian and European continents, with some hopping over the Atlantic to settle in the United States. Especially in Europe, poor health, low economic status and faltering educational achievement have followed them along the way, causing the gypsies to be perceived as undesirable candidates for nations to accept with open arms. Many fled Bulgaria and Hungary to wealthier E.U. countries seeking better opportunities, but their visas only allow them stick around member nations for three months at a time, after which they're forced to either continue their nomadic lifestyle or remain illegally [source: Garcia]. Anti-gypsyism is prevalent enough that certain governments have even referred to this immigration issue as the "gypsy problem" [source: Sigona]. And though the E.U. officially forged a plan to assist the large minority in April 2011, people in Italy and France have been destroying gypsy camps and kicking out their residents in the meantime [source: Garcia].

A swirl of confusion about who these people truly are still abounds, fueling the xenophobia and hostility often directed toward them. Even the term "gypsy" is an enduring misnomer, derived from the mistaken notion that they emigrated to Europe from Egypt [source: Goldston]. Today, gypsies are officially referred to as the Roma, tipping the hat toward their foster home of Romania. So is Romania really where the Roma originated? Not by a geographical long shot. For centuries, no one knew the origins of this mysterious people, not even the Roma themselves.

Untraceable: History of the Roma

Where did the Roma come from?
Where did the Roma come from?
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though they spread across Europe relatively quickly, reaching as far West as England by 1514, it took centuries to piece together the Romani past [source: McDowell]. The Roma never kept genealogical records, allowing a nefarious mythology about the mysterious wanderers with their colorful caravans to substitute for fact. As a result, by the time a Hungarian theologian studying in Holland took an interest in unraveling the roots of the Romani language in 1760, the gypsies had become a people with a collective history that's nearly untraceable [source: Hancock].

Romani vocabulary, dappled with Sanskrit, led a series of scholars back to northern India, and genetic testing has further confirmed that the Roma emerged not in Romania, and certainly not in Egypt, but in India [source: Brownlee]. Scholars have debated the date and cause for the gypsies' exit out of India, with some postulating a migration as early as 700 AD, though many agree that it happened a few centuries later [source: Fonseca].


During the 11th century, Mohammad of Ghazni wanted to spread Islam to northern India by force, raiding the region from 1000 to 1027 AD [source: Hancock]. To ward off the Muslim warriors, the local Hindus organized an army referred to as Rajputs, which was defeated by the Ghaznavids and taken captive. Then along came the Persian Seljuks who conquered the Ghaznavids and took the Rajputs out of northern India into modern Turkey as their empire expanded [source: Hancock]. By 1300, the Rajputs had coalesced into a multi-ethnic group and crossed from Asia into the Balkans, which remains their adopted homeland. These displaced warriors are widely thought to be the gypsies' predecessors.

The gypsies themselves, however, only believe one fact about their history with absolute certainty: They came from India [source: Roma Foundation]. Lacking a homeland and a documented history makes it difficult to connect the dots among all of the tribes, and writers who have spent time with Roma around the world often mention the people's general disinterest in the past. For gypsy tribes, their ethnic history merely extends across the memory span of their oldest member [source: Fonseca].

As the Roma moved into Western Europe, they weren't received with open arms. Beginning in the early 15th century, thousands of Roma were forced into slavery for more than 400 years in regions of modern-day Romania [source: Fonseca]. Elsewhere, the darker Romani complexion, mottled dialects and non-Christianity attracted xenophobic discrimination, which persists even today, despite the fact that many present-day gypsies are Christian. Refused service in stores, the Roma sometimes resorted to thievery, and refused employment, they often relied on entertainment-related jobs, such as music and fortune telling, to make ends meet [source: Hancock]. The Roma likewise met the gadje, or non-Roma, with suspicion as well, resisting cultural assimilation and remaining on the shunned outskirts of mainstream society.

The most egregious example of Roma persecution occurred during World War II. In 1937, the Nazis amended the Nuremburg Laws to include "gypsies" as classified second-class citizens and ordered them sent to concentration camps [source: Fordham]. While the Jews suffered the greatest number of casualties during the Holocaust, the Nazis also gassed Roma families by the thousands. By the end of the War, an estimated 500,000 European Romani had been executed, and gypsies refer to the extermination as porraimos, or "the great devouring" [source: Godwin]. Yet as a horrifying testament to the cross-cultural revulsion directed toward the gypsies, their Holocaust experience was never addressed during the Nuremburg trials. Since World War II, only one Nazi was ever officially punished for crimes against gypsies [source: Fonseca].

The Roma Way of Life: Gypsy Work and Family Life

A modern gypsy family at the Appleby Horse Fair.
A modern gypsy family at the Appleby Horse Fair.
Christopher Fulong/Getty Images

Perhaps more than any other ethnic group on the globe, gypsies have been equally romanticized as wandering free spirits, unhinged from the monotony of mainstream society, and demonized as societal eyesores who lie, cheat and steal. But the Roma reality exists at neither of these extremes.

Sociologically, the Roma qualify as a middlemen minority, which contributes to their ambiguous identity and precarious relationships with other ethnic groups [source: Fonseca]. Their nomadic tendencies cause the gypsies to be ranked among the minority wherever they reside, ethnically isolated and communally disconnected. And while gypsies have been known for their primary trades of metallurgy, music and animal husbandry, they haven't earned respect for it due to racism -- a similar discrimination that experienced by Jewish and black minorities [source: Fonseca]. During their 400-year enslavement in modern-day Romania, different groups of Roma were defined by their job duties, some of which have persisted among slave descendants for generations. For example, one copper-making clan now specializes in scrap metal [source: National Geographic].


At the same time, the gypsies also leveraged their outsider status to their advantage as entertainers. Perhaps best known for their musical talent, traveling gypsies could attract audiences by portraying themselves as exotic people from Egypt or elsewhere. Dressing themselves in bright clothing and practicing fortunetelling, the Roma quickly attracted the ire of the Roman Catholic Church, but also the allure of the forbidden.

To earn a living today, gypsies might weave furniture, make bricks, resell clothing and goods, or trade horses, but employment is typically a side note in their existence. Sources repeatedly underscore the difficulty that the Roma have in obtaining regular work because employers often don't want to hire them. Even in Eastern European countries where the communist regime allocated factory jobs for gypsies, their employment evaporated first after the iron curtain fell in 1989 [source: Godwin]. Indeed, many European gypsies subsist on begging and neighbors repeatedly complain of stealing. While those accusations may be overblown, even Roma will warn outsiders not to trust other Roma [source: Godwin].

After centuries of persecution and enslavement, Roma are understandably hesitant to open their homes to non-Roma , or gadje, and penetrating gypsy culture in general is a tall order. The families band together in clan systems, cordoned off from mainstream society. The familial structure is often strictly paternalistic, with women tending to home and children, while men may or may not work. Arranged marriage among adolescent brides and grooms remains common. In the United States, gypsy families may still practice arranged marriage in order to preserve the Roma ethnicity [source: Godwin]. Daughters and daughters-in-law, sometimes as young as 12 years old, complete arduous housework, cleaning and cooking under the watchful eye of the mother and grandmother. The men, meanwhile, may or may not work, but they're nevertheless responsible for maintaining gypsy clan order (village leaders are called bulibashas) and assembling tribunals to settle any disputes [source: Fonseca].

While the gypsies can be lauded for remaining fiercely independent and protective of their unique culture, that isolation has also reaped certain negative consequences. Unstable employment, teen marriage and rigid gender roles might be hallmarks of the Roma way, but they're also Roma risk factors.

The Facts of Roma Life: Health, Education and Exile

Many gypsies live in poverty, and a majority of children are illiterate.
Many gypsies live in poverty, and a majority of children are illiterate.

Life is hard for the Roma, and not solely because they're cast as societal outsiders. The gypsy lifestyle, which is typically poverty level, can take a toll on their health and education. Complicating matters, these two factors also perpetuate the Roma's vagabond tradition, since no village, town or country seems to want gypsies, who are perceived as being potentially sick and illiterate, roaming their streets.

Compared to the general population in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ireland and Czech Republic, the Roma die roughly six to 10 years earlier [source: Horton]. Infant mortality rates are also double and triple those of the surrounding ethnic groups [source: Horton]. Medical researchers haven't identified the root of these longevity gaps, but poverty, meager nutrition and lack of medical access are certainly contributing factors. Gypsy clans may also resist medical treatment in favor of their own homeopathic remedies. As a result, however, treatable illnesses such as tuberculosis have been thought of as fatal among many Roma [source: Horton].


Primary and secondary education are also major obstacles for the Roma. Illiteracy runs rampant in Roma community, with up to 75 percent of gypsy girls unable to read [source: Fonseca]. This de-emphasis on learning goes along with the constant travel and varying Romani language, but even for settled gypsy communities, schooling is rarely a priority. Rarely will gypsy teens complete high school [source: Fonseca].

Suffering from poor health and unable to read, many Roma clans have become embroiled in generational cycles of poverty. Those issues, along with criminal activity and violence associated with gypsy groups, have provoked immigration crackdowns and restrictive visa policies for the Roma in the European Union [source: Garcia]. At the same time, a minority among this minority -- Romani activists -- have started jostling for rights and improved quality of life for their people.

Future of the Roma: Ending Anti-Gypsy Discrimination

A Romani girl at an annual gypsy pilgrimage in France.
A Romani girl at an annual gypsy pilgrimage in France.
Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

Gypsy expert and author Isabel Fonseca once wrote that the Roma "have no heroes…no myths of origin, of a great liberation, of the founding of a 'nation,' of a promised land" [source: Fonseca]. Nevertheless, since the 1970s, there has been a stirring among the Roma for identity and validity, and while they have since achieved official recognition as a discrete ethnic group, the sprawling gypsy diaspora remains restless against governmental and societal establishments.

Years of persecution have highlighted the dismal truth that lacking an ethnic identity and homeland has its disadvantages. At the same time, gypsies would be wrong to attribute all of their misfortune to the wrongdoing of others. Time and again, the wayward actions of some Romani, such as stealing from neighboring gardens and pillaging for scraps, have reinforced the negative stereotyping [source: Fonseca]. As long as that type of tension continues, Roma will likely have a hard time putting down roots, as plenty desire to do despite their nomadic natures. Aside from Romania, which offers the most generous support system for the beleaguered people, a majority of European Union nations prefer to keep their gates closed. Rather than allow gypsies to stay put, they are continually told to continue wandering.


Romani activists nevertheless have made some positive steps toward improving the perception of gypsies. With support from the Indian government, the first World Romani Congress was convened in 1971. Attended by gypsies from 14 countries, who chose a flag and an anthem, the Congress was an uncommonly unified gathering that's characteristic of modern Romani movements for tribal aid and minority rights. Since the Romani Congress had the backing of a legitimate, recognized country, it provided a stepping stone for the United Nations to officially recognize the Roma as an official ethnic group in 1978 [source: Fonseca].

Although cultural assimilation might be the one-way street toward Roma peacefully integrating into mainstream society after nearly 1,000 years of resistance, it does come at a price. Their language of Romani, which shape shifts across longitudinal lines, has already shown signs of wear and tear. The more successfully Roma mix and mingle among local communities, the more their Romani speech has diminished. Communism also discouraged Eastern European gypsies from speaking Romani, and as a result, possibly half of Romanian Roma have lost their iconic language [source: Godwin]. For that reason, some Roma activists have argued for systematizing Romani to help ensure its long-term survival.

With or without increased settlement assistance from the European Union, gypsies aren't in danger of disappearing anytime soon. An estimated 8 to 10 million live on the continent, making it one of Europe's largest and fastest-growing minorities [source: Hancock]. Gypsies in the United States have arguably fared better than their counterparts across the Atlantic, yet the Roma are still concentrated in the Balkans where they first arrived after being released from military captivity by the Seljuks in Turkey. It might seem illogical to stick close to the site of their most violent oppression, but gypsies tend to defy non-gypsy gadje convention. And why? Because they're Roma, and they always have.

How Gypsies Work: Author's Note

Cristen Conger, Staff Writer
Cristen Conger, Staff Writer
HowStuffWorks 2009

Before I began researching for How Gypsies Work, I knew two things about the Roma people: many live in Eastern Europe, and they don’t have an easily traceable, textbook-style history. Moreover, the Roma are some of the most negatively stereotyped people on the planet, often portrayed as lying, thieving, nomadic bands. But their story, as with most ethnic histories, isn’t so one-dimensional. Originally taken captive out of northern India in the 11th century, the Roma have never resettled anywhere and even now face deportation out of some European Union countries. For me, the most fascinating theme that ran throughout my gypsy research and writing was how the Roma seem to shrug off the centuries of persistent persecution and embrace the unconventional culture they’ve adopted. Stitching together a cohesive chronicle of Roma sprinkled around the world was certainly challenging, yet it also gave me the opportunity to present a more balanced image of a much-maligned group.


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Gypsies: Cheat Sheet

Greek gypsies wear traditional clothing in this photo from 1930.
Greek gypsies wear traditional clothing in this photo from 1930.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stuff you need to know:

  • The Roma people originally came from India, where they were removed by military force in the 11th century.
  • The term “gypsy” derives the mistaken notion that they emigrated to Europe from Egypt.
  • An estimated 500,000 European Romani in the Holocaust during World War II.
  • Although the European Union officially forged a plan to assist its 10 to 12 million Roma in April 2011, Italian and French governments have been destroying Gypsy camps and deporting their residents in the meantime.

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