Roma (a.k.a. Rroma, Gypsies, Romanies, Gitanos, Tziganes, Sinti, etc.)
☼ Frequently Asked Questions ☼
Q: Where does the ethnic group commonly known as ‘Gypsies’ come from? What language do they speak?
A: The ancestors of today’s 12-15 million Romanies came from India about 1000 years ago, and their descendants eventually migrated to six continents. The Romani language is most closely related to Punjabi and Hindi, and is still spoken by millions of Roma and Sinti. The terms ‘Roma,’‘Romani/Rromany,’ etc. have no relation to Rome or to Romania, except by coincidence: Romania has the largest number of Roma of any country, in part because Roma were enslaved there for five centuries, ending in the 1860’s.
Q: How can I tell who is a Rom/Gypsy? Do they have a religion? Can anyone be a Gypsy?
A: False claims to “Gypsiness” usually perpetuate inaccurate (e.g., “freedom”) and undesirable (e.g., “wild”) stereotypes. A Rom (masc. sing.) or Romni (fem. sing.) is a person who was born into, or is descended from, a Romani-speaking community. Some Romani groups (and many Roma/Sinti in younger generations everywhere) have virtually lost their Indic language but share important cultural characteristics with other Romanies. Most – though not all – Roma can easily be distinguished from the surrounding population by their darker skin and/or hair, and sometimes by dress, accent, or association with “visible” Roma. Some Romani people adhere to a set of beliefs and practices that originated in India or elsewhere and deal with ritual purity, but the everyday application of this system is on the decline. Most Roma have either syncretized or replaced their “own” religious beliefs with some form of the dominant religion in their area of residence.
Q: Are Roma nomadic?
A: The overwhelming majority of Romani people in the world is not nomadic, and most communities have been settled for hundreds of years. Some groups do, however, try to maintain a semi-nomadic or itinerant lifestyle as is dictated by their traditional occupations. Others have been driven out from their countries by unemployment and/or violence.
Q: How has Nazi and other racist ideology affected Romani people?
A: It is estimated that the numbers of Roma and Sinti murdered in the Holocaust (half a million or more) are comparable in proportion to the devastation of Jewish communities. Some Romani women have been forcibly sterilized in the name of “inferior population control,” a practice that began in Nazi Germany and continued in the former Czechoslovakia until very recently. With no state, no organized aggression, and few sufficiently educated representatives, Roma have almost no political power. Attacks on Roma are very common in Eastern Europe, and hundreds of Roma have been killed by neo-Nazis and others since 1989 (Kosovar Rroma are in the most catastrophic situation, with thousands of houses destroyed, over 100,000 refugees, and little international attention). Racial segregation abounds: in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, a large percentage of Romani children is placed into schools for children with mental retardation or separate classes. Even if a “Gypsy” manages to gain the necessary skills, discrimination in employment is so rampant that most Roma in Eastern Europe find it difficult or impossible to get a job.
Q: What occupations do Romanies have?
A: Although most of the world’s “Gypsies” are poor, Roma are as diverse as Jews in their subgroups, family values, and jobs. In addition to many semi-skilled and unskilled laborers, one can encounter journalists, teachers, health care professionals, social workers, businessmen, and others in the rising Romani middle class.
Q: Where do Romani people live?
A: The majority of Roma reside in Eastern Europe, where they normally constitute 3-11 % of a country’s population. Several million Romanies are also dispersed in Western Europe (notably Spain) and Australia as long-time inhabitants or recent refugees, as well as in the Americas. The number of Romanies in the U.S. is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. These Roma are in large part descended from slaves (see Q. 1). American Roma tend to have traditional Romani occupations, although some engage in mainstream employment and higher education.
© 2012 Petra Gelbart