In the Shadows

American Gypsies Are a Persecuted Minority That Is Starting to Fight Back

The one million Roma in the U.S. are used to living in the shadows, but lately activists are actively promoting a sense of ethnic identity.

Kristin Raeesi

In October, a young blond girl was taken by Greek police in a sweep of a Roma camp near the central town of Farsala, and the couple she was found with were charged with abducting a minor. Her picture was plastered in news outlets across the world: hair in braids, dirty fingers clenched, a fearful look in her blue eyes. Dubbed the “Blond Angel” in headlines, four-year-old Maria was assumed to be a victim of kidnapping or child trafficking until it was discovered she was, in fact, Romani. Her moniker in headlines quickly transformed to “Mystery Gypsy.”

Just days after Maria made headlines, a similar situation occurred in Ireland when two blond-haired, blue-eyed children were taken from their dark-skinned families. DNA tests proved both children belonged to their parents.

Across the Atlantic, the approximately one million American Roma lay low, fearful of the bigotry, marginalization and violence that have plagued their European counterparts and ancestors for a thousand years (the discrimination extends even to what they’re called by outsiders—“Gypsy” is a frowned-upon term among Roma activists).

As soon as she saw the news, Seattle-resident Shon Paramush called her friend Morgan Ahern, a Romani activist. “If I were in Europe, they would take Savina,” said the distressed dark-haired, dark-skinned Romani mother of a blond-haired, blue-eyed 2-year-old daughter. “Yes, they would,” Ahern replied.

“Every Roma was outraged by [the Marie story], that’s why we try to be invisible in this country,” says Ahern, who also lives in Washington. She notes that many American Roma try to “pass” for other ethnicities when they’re outside their families. “That’s a real privilege we have in this country, being invisible, but it’s a double-edged sword because when you’re invisible it’s hard to unite people for political action.”

Assimilation makes sense to American Roma who don’t wish to suffer the same persecution their European counterparts face daily. There, an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma compose the largest and poorest minority group in the world, with a recent survey showing 90 percent subsisting under the poverty line.

In the U.S., they’re scattered: coming from a multitude of countries, speaking many dialects, practicing disparate traditions, and observing various levels of traditionalism. But few Americans realize that there are Roma living in their midst, or that they’ve been here since the beginning—three Roma are said to have accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. And the Roma count a number of high-profile figures in their ranks. Guitarist Django Reinhardt was Romani, and some theorize such disparate icons as Charlie Chaplin, Michael Caine, Elvis Presley, and even former President Bill Clinton come from Roma roots.

Undocumented by the U.S. Census, American Roma may keep their heritage under wraps, but when it does emerge, they’ve faced discrimination from friends, landlords, waiters, classmates, strangers, cops, store clerks, and professors. Many were raised with warnings not to tell others of their ethnic identity, and so they remain a hidden ingredient in America’s melting pot.

“American Roma come from many different sub-groups, so it is hard for them to organize when they may have little culturally in common,” says Dr. Carol Silverman, head of the anthropology department at the University of Oregon. But in the past decade, a new crop of activists has emerged, and they’re forming advocacy organizations and school programs to aid their underserved communities, determined to set the record straight on their cultural identity. But each headline-making event or raid can set their work back. Dr. Silverman calls the recent news from Europe “devastating for American Roma.”

Maria’s story hit especially close to home for Morgan Ahern, who says she was seven years old when she and all Romani children her age and older were taken from their Brooklyn community by authorities of the State of New York and put into institutions and foster homes. It was 1955, and her parents--Roma who had escaped the Holocaust in Europe--were accused of child abuse because of their itinerant lifestyle. It was a program she likens to the forced assimilation of Native Americans through government-run boarding schools. She lost her native Romani dialect, she says, after it was beaten out of her at Catholic institutions.

In the early 80s, while teaching women’s studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ahern bumped into a woman crossing the street. “I think I’m your mother,” the woman said. She was right.

In 1985, Ahern launched her Roma-heritage organization, Lolo Diklo, which is now a roving educational museum based on Vashon, an island off Seattle. Not long after she settled there, a friend proposed she rent the cottage on her property. But the offer was rescinded just before Ahern was due to move in. The friend’s husband refused to “let a dirty gypsy on his property,” Ahern says she was told.

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Since then, the islanders have come to know that derogatory remarks won’t fly with the now-retired 66-year-old Ahern, who gives anyone who uses the term “gypped” a talking to. “No one says anything insulting to me,” Ahern says. But the Maria incident was a reminder of the pervasive discrimination. “It’s as if people were gleeful finally they could prove gypsies could steal babies, when, in all the centuries of that stereotype, there's not one recorded proof it has happened once,” she says.

“Should you need to have a lighter skinned person vouch for you? Does that have to be the standard?” asks Kristin Raeesi, a 34-year-old Romani activist and grant writer at the University of Alaska. Though Raeesi has a dark complexion, her newborn son, with his blue eyes and light brown hair, and Raeesi’s younger sister, who sports light hair and bright green eyes, are proof of the diversity found in Roma populations and even within families. “The blond angel found must have been snatched by horrible dark people,” Raeesi says scathingly.

Growing up in a Wyoming town of 600 people, Raeesi was instructed to hide her Romani background and claim a more “acceptable,” as she puts it, heritage. This lesson was solidified the only time she ever heard her culture mentioned in school, when a grade school teacher read Shel Silverstein’s poem, “The Gypsies Are Coming” to the class. It begins:

“The gypsies are coming, the old people say,

To buy little children and take them away.”

After that she kept her mouth shut. “When you don’t see yourself represented in the school and you don’t see yourself even in dominant society, TV shows, or movies—maybe one reference here or there and it was always something negative—you hide,” she remembers. Today, she is out of the closet. “I know it sounds corny but I feel like I’m OK with myself—finally—it’s only taken me 30-plus years to get there.”

In college, Raeesi took a Balkan music class at the University of Wyoming and spoke publicly about her heritage for the first time. But shortly into the term, an anthropologist guest lecturer called the Roma a dirty and culture-less people. Raeesi couldn’t contain herself. “Stop talking,” she yelled, standing up in front of the class, near tears, and berating the woman for using her standing to discriminate. “If I hadn’t been in the class, people would have said, 'I guess they really are dirty,'” Raeesi says.

The clichés of gold-draped gypsies in caravans reading fortunes and swindling outsiders have dogged Roma since they arrived in Europe as refugees from India in the Middle Ages. Considered heretics for their practice of fortune telling and palm reading, they adopted a nomadic lifestyle to avoid persecution, and practiced trades they could take on the go. A thousand years later, millions still live across Europe in shanty towns, often targeted by police, denied social services, and even segregated within schools. Though many no longer practice traditional occupations or travel nomadically, the stereotypes persist.

A reputation of thievery and crime brings with it closer monitoring and sometimes direct targeting of Roma communities, even in the U.S., where the profiling is not nearly as harsh as in Europe. The 2001 Police magazine article titled “Gypsies: Kings of Con” asserts that Gypsies “look upon the rest of society simply as their ‘prey’,” and “there is no sin in stealing if you are a Gypsy.” Five years later, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed a group of 800 or so detectives across the U.S. who call themselves “The National Association of Bunco Investigators” and who specifically patrol neighborhoods for “Gypsy crime,” mainly described as scams and fraud.

Activists’ allegations about racial profiling are an issue of semantics, says Dennis Marlock, special investigator with the Milwaukee Police Department, who created a stir with his book License To Steal: Traveling Con Artists: Their Games, Their Rules—Your Money. The crimes are not inherent to Roma as a whole, Marlock says, but the work of a organized criminal group of Roma who call themselves Gypsies. He equates them to the Sicilian Mafia, a criminal group within the population of Sicilians. “It’s not law enforcement that created negative connotatio. If we’re guilty of bringing that to the public, then I'm guilty,” he says. He later addresses the Roma activists who have come out against him: “It's not me causing you problems, it’s your criminal element.” He recalls calling a meeting when “American Gypsies were flooding in by the carload” to Milwaukee. “This is America, if you claim fortune telling as what you do, fine, but if you’re gonna be ripping [people] off ... you’re going to see a lot of me,” he told them, and then asked for volunteers who submitted to being fingerprinted and photographed.

Raeesi knows the stereotypes she’s up against each time her heritage comes up. “When you identify yourself, you may not be starting from zero—you’re starting back from zero. First of all, we don’t live in wagons, we don’t all travel, we don’t all tell fortunes. Some do, but a lot of us have university and college educations.” These aren’t the stories people are used to, she says.

And mainstream media and entertainment depictions offer little diversity. “Americans tend to have a fantasy view of 'Gypsies’ from popular culture that is both romantic and criminal,” says Dr. Silverman, noting that the depictions have been on the rise since the 70s. Representations of Roma as promiscuous, untrustworthy, and uneducated on shows like TLC’s My Big, Fat American Gypsy Wedding, which has aired for the past two years, followed by Gypsy Sisters, and National Geographic’s American Gypsies in 2012, have infuriated activists.

The issue, Raeesi says, is the narrow segment chosen for mainstream representation. It’s something that would never fly with another minority group, she points out, noting that for any one negative depiction of others, many successful, educated public figures serve as counterweights. Not so for the Roma. “For Romani people you have these reputations, but what is the counter?” Raeesi asks “What would make people say, ‘They’re not all like that’?”

The lack of diversity in pop culture portrayals can have real-world consequences. When TLC’s show first aired, Glenda Bailey-Mershon, a North Carolina Romani writer who tutors young Romani students, says they told her they were widely harassed. “That is a factor in young people not wanting to go to school,” she says. The entertainment industry may say depictions are harmless, but she says they don’t understand what power they hold. “Remembering that American TV is broadcast all over the world—and this show began in Great Britain—in places where our people have more problems, it can be the difference between getting beaten up and even losing your life.”

When 39-year-old author Oksana Marafioti first heard about the upcoming TLC show, she was excited enough about the opportunity to change mainstream perceptions that she auditioned. Meeting producers in Los Angeles, Marafioti, who used to work as a cinematographer in the movie business, told them she and her Romani peers were college educated. “They were like, ‘Yeah, but do you have gypsy weddings or get togethers where people wear traditional clothes or play violins?’”

Growing up California, Marafioti had similar misconceptions about her culture. Her parents had been part of a traveling multi-generational variety show in the Soviet Union, but her father, more inclined to play Jimi Hendrix than traditional Romani music, ended up bringing the family to America. “My parents didn’t want to always be careful—they wanted to forget who they were and live how they wanted.” They arrived in Hollywood when she was 15, and she found that being Gypsy made her cool. Kids would say things like, “I thought you guys all lived in caravans,” and not knowing much about her heritage, she believed it. “I was almost living the stereotype and thinking it was the truth because that’s what I was hearing.”

Negating those stereotypes is why, Marafioti says, she chose being Romani as the subject of her 2012 book, American Gypsy: A Memoir . It was a nerve-wracking undertaking for someone who rarely revealed her ethnicity beforehand, but she hoped to just change one mind into thinking, “Well look, they’re just like everyone else,” Marafioti says. “I want for people to understand behind the word Gypsy there’s an actual human being and there’s a diversity in human life.”

Her effort is apparently contagious. When she recently told her oldest son to be careful about letting people know his Romani roots, the 14-year-old struck back: “He says, ‘No, Mom, this is who I am, this is what I’m going to say.' He’s very convinced that he deserves to be able to be what he wants to be,” she says, bemused and then pauses. “Maybe he’s too young and just doesn’t understand.”

Some of Marafioti’s fears came true. In 2012, when she was on tour for her memoir in California, a couple began to follow her. At two or three of her readings, she says, they heckled her. They believed, she says, that she belonged to “a subhuman category” and that “we’re prone to criminal activity, early pregnancy, and a lack of education is due to our inability to learn properly.” Not long after, Marafioti had another follower: a man who sent her threatening notes. “Gypsies must die,” she said he wrote in one.

“People are actually not thinking of us like we’re human beings, and when you consider someone less than you, you can justify anything,” says Marafioti.

At a recent cocktail party, a woman stuck out her hand and asked Glenda Bailey-Mershon if she would read her fortune. For Bailey-Mershon, who grew up in Appalachia as a descendant of Romani slaves brought to America in the 1700s, her light hair and complexion didn’t raise many eyebrows. But for anyone curious enough to ask, she cited a mixed Native American ancestry. Today, the 64-year-old writer takes any opportunity to answer questions about the Roma.

Over the past two decades, Roma activism has been on the rise. Women especially have been claiming leadership roles. Bailey-Mershon and Raeesi are founding members of the Foundation for Roma Education and Equality (FREE), a new organization that plans to form a free school program, both online and in physical locations, for Romani teens looking to get their GED. It will tie in classes on history and culture, and maybe even a language program. “We’ve never been taught our own history,” Raeesi says. They're also advocating for Roma inclusion in Holocaust remembrance programs, where they're often ignored, even though the Nazis exterminated an estimated half a million European Roma.

FREE has completed a three-student test program which began in January 2012, and plans to launch another version next fall in the neighborhood of FREE’s president, Sonya Jasaroska, who lives in a tight-knit community of more than 300 Macedonian Roma in the Bronx that formed in the early 70s.

It wasn't until a 2002 trip back to Macedonia that Jasaroska, 37, delved into activism for Roma rights. Her family sat down at a restaurant, and though it was completely empty, the waiter refused to serve them. “This table’s reserved,” he told them of every table in the establishment. “I don’t need your Gypsy money,” he said. When Jasaroska put up a fight, he offered to move them into a back room. “I said, fuck you, fuck your restaurant, you can go to hell, I’m not giving you a cent.” After other racist incidents, she decided to stay in the Roma area of town where it felt more comfortable.

Today Jasaroska, who said she once “hid and hated” her heritage, is eager to tell people about her background if they ask. “I wait for them to make a stereotypical comment and then I school them,” she says. And it rarely fails: “They say, ‘Are you a fortune teller? Are you a musician? Do you steal kids?’” Then she explains the role of discrimination in how these stereotypes came to be. She hopes speaking out will give the kids in her community a sense of pride she never had growing up. “We’re still learning the ropes,” Jasaroska says. “When you’re not educated and don’t know what your options are, you’re going to sit back and be quiet.”

Now the population of educated Roma is bigger than ever, and they’re ready to speak up when cases like Maria’s make the news. It’s time, Jasaroska says, that Roma make a fuss. “This is the land of the free, home of the brave, where you have equality, and if we keep quiet as Americans and Roma, then shame on us.”