Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.

Who is a Gypsy?

Editor's Note: The Romany & Traveller Family History Society in Britain has released this article about the Vlax Romani population. For more information contact the address at the end of this article.

Romani organizations everywhere receive a small but regular stream of letters from people claiming to be Roma, or who claim Romani descent, asking for information on the organization, and sometimes asking how they might add their support to the cause. All help is welcomed, but it is clearly not enough in itself for an individual to present himself as a Gypsy in a letter without substantiation. 

This raises the question of what is a Gypsy, and how may an individual legitimately claim that ethnicity. There are at least two aspects to legitimizing ethnic identity: 

    (a) what the individual sincerely believes himself to be, based on upbringing, cultural and/or linguistic heritage and membership in an ethnic community, and 

    (b) how other members of the ethnic community in question perceive that individual. In other words, while you may regard yourself as a Gypsy, do other Gypsies similarly regard you as a Gypsy? 

When a Vlax Rom moves into a community and establishes contact with the local Romani population, he is first of all questioned as to his family background. In fact such a newcomer upon first meeting is asked not sar san (how are you) but kasko san (whose are you) and kas zhanes (who do you know). Members of the community will then place telephone calls around the country to verify the identity of the new person, and to ascertain that he is not in trouble, or being excluded (gonimé or bolimé).

There are very many people who have one or more Romani ancestors, but for whom contact with the community has been lost through out-marriage, or the decision to withhold ethnic continuation from the next generation. Strictly, since descent is patrilineal, a Romani woman marrying a gadjo (non-Romani man) becomes a member of that man's family, and is hence out of the community. Children of such unions are not considered Roma by Roma. A non-Romani woman marrying a Rom becomes the daughter of her Romani family and her children have the choice of joining the ethnic community, given the right social circumstances. 

Belonging to a Romani ethnic community, and being able legitimately to identify oneself as a Rom or Romni, means interacting socially and frequently within that community, and maintaining certain cultural behaviors, in particular those dealing with ritual pollution, food preparation, male/female relationships and so on. For Romani- speaking Gypsy populations, use of the language is essential. Among some Australian, American or European Romani groups for example, you will be excluded from certain functions if you cannot participate using the Romani language. It also means recognizing yourself as a person of color, i.e. as non-white, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. 

If you genuinely know yourself and are known by others to be a Gypsy, and want to be recognized as such by the Romani organization to which you are applying for membership, you will need to supply as much genealogical evidence as possible, in particular the names of individuals within the Romani community who can vouch for you. If you suspect that you have a Romani forebear but know little more than that, organizations such as the Romany & Traveller Family History Society in Britain (6, St. James Walk, South Chailey, East Sussex, BN8 4BU) exist which can help you to trace your family's roots, especially if they trace back to the Romanichal community


Posted 15 January 1997.


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