Gypsies And Travelers Research Paper

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The label Gypsy refers to diverse groups—each with its own history, culture, and name—who live in scattered communities throughout Europe and North America and in parts of Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. (In Europe, the label Roma is commonly used.) The English word ‘Gypsy’ is derived from ‘Egyptian,’ based on the false assumption that they had come from Egypt. From linguistic evidence, however, it is apparent that Gypsies originated in India. They began migrating westward in the tenth century, spreading across Europe and absorbing aspects (e.g., religion, language) of the host cultures they lived among. Eventually, they formed the groups found today. The Indic structure of the major dialects of Romani spoken by Gypsies has been heavily influenced by European languages, Greek, Armenian, Persian, and possibly Arabic.

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Traveler is the term commonly used to refer to indigenous groups who share economic and structural features with Gypsies. They practice (or once practiced) similar peripatetic occupations and occupy a similar minority position vis-a-vis the majority populations of the countries in which they live. In Ireland and Scotland, for example, indigenous groups once known as ‘tinkers’ and ‘tinklers,’ but who refer to themselves as Travelers or Traveling People, have occupied a niche very similar to Gypsies for at least 300 years. Similar indigenous Travelers found in other European countries include the Resande in Sweden and Woonwagenbewoners in The Netherlands. Other indigenous groups are found in South Asia, they include the Kanjar in Pakistan and northern India and the Ghorbat in Afghanistan. Like Gypsies, members of some Traveler groups have since migrated to other countries. Irish and Scottish Travelers, for example, now also live in the United States, having first emigrated there in the mid-1800s. The designation Traveler is also sometimes used as a broad term to encompass both indigenous Travelers and Gypsy populations.

1. Identity

All Gypsies and Travelers see themselves in opposition to outsiders who they typically categorize with a single label. Many Gypsies, for example, use the term gadje (non-Roma in the Romani language); Irish Travelers call members of the majority Irish population buffers. Most Gypsies follow, to varying degrees, a system of purity rules which govern women’s behavior and how food, eating utensils, clothing, washing containers, and the body are handled. Most believe that the body is ritually unclean from the waist down and, consequently, that anything associated with the lower body is polluting. Individuals and groups who do not follow purity rules are by definition ‘polluted’ or ritually unclean, which is one factor reinforcing the boundaries between Gypsies and non-Gypsies. Of course, Gypsies and Travelers also distinguish their own group from similar groups, usually on the basis of kin ties (or lack thereof), differences in dialect, and other criteria such as socioeconomic status, occupation, and length of settlement (i.e., before 1945 or during the communist era for East European groups).

Language also acts as a marker of ethnic identity. While Gypsies speak the language of the majority population of the countries in which they live, most also speak a form of Romani. Most indigenous Travelers likewise have specialized argots which they typically use to disguise their communications in the presence of outsiders (e.g., during economic transactions). Other markers of group identity, such as items of material culture, skills, or traditions, are also used to create and reinforce a symbolic separation between themselves and outsiders. Roma in Hungary, for example, assert that it is their ‘Gypsy work’—their wit, speech, and ability to hustle—that allows them to survive, rather than the income they make from the wage labor the State forces them to engage in. Irish Travelers pride themselves in their ‘cleverness’—their ability to live by their wits—and see this as something which differentiates them from other Irish. It has been suggested that ‘disreputable’ behavior of Spanish Gitanos—their flaunting of accepted social norms about appropriate public comportment (e.g., loudness, violations of street etiquette)—is a deliberate strategy intended to offend non-Gypsies and keep them at a distance. Other groups use their involvement in horse trading or their distinctive music and celebrations to symbolically draw boundaries between themselves and outsiders.

When possible, Gypsies and Travelers limit their interaction with members of the majority population to economic transactions and brief, necessary encounters with institutional representatives such as legal, social service, or medical personnel. Most academics who have studied these groups have documented their antiestablishment attitudes and efforts to remain outside the direct supervision of the State. Socialization among Gypsies and Travelers instills in most children a strong sense of ethnic pride, and few express a desire to abandon their identity or group. This pride is reflected in and reinforced by high rates of group endogamy. Nevertheless, attrition in the form of ‘passing’ into mainstream society as well as intermarriage with non-Gypsies or non-Travelers does occur. Some groups have been subjected to long-term state-sponsored assimilation programs, which have included forced settlement among non-Gypsies, wage labor, and education.

As the quintessential Other, Gypsies and Travelers have historically captured the imagination of artists and writers and figure prominently in the arts and literature of many countries. In Russia, for example, writers such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Blok included Roma in their works. Likewise, Travelers (‘tinkers’) have figured prominently in the work of such literary figures as Irish playwright J. M. Synge.

2. Economic Organization

The traditional economy of Gypsies and Travelers was based on petty trade and the provision of craft products, specialized services, and entertainment to customers and clients in the majority populations they lived among. In many countries, they serviced a scattered rural population, conveniently bringing goods and services to their customers’ doors. Others provided services which had to be performed on site. Rom wipe-tinners, for example, traveled the United States retinning expensive mixing bowls and massive, relatively immobile counter tops, holding tanks, tubs, troughs, sinks, and separators used in institutional cafeterias, dairies, and commercial bakeries. Blacktopping (or tarmac laying), a common occupation of Gypsies and Travelers in North America, Ireland, and Great Britain today, likewise must be done on site. Sometimes, Gypsies and Travelers provide unique products or services that cannot be acquired from anyone else. The Kanjar of Pakistan, for example, sold handmade terracotta toys, while the Qalandar entertained their clients with trained monkeys and bears. Fortune telling remains a profitable specialization for many American Rom. Because Gypsies and Travelers often accepted payment in kind (e.g., farm produce, fuel), the services they provided were especially attractive to poorer clients.

Occupational flexibility, the ability to do several income-earning activities at the same time, and to change occupations quickly as demand dictates, is a key aspect of the traditional economy. When the Ludar arrived in the United States from Bosnia, for example, they brought trained bears and monkeys, but they also peddled small goods, dealt in horses, told fortunes, and made rustic furniture. Since the 1950s, they have focused on laying blacktop, tarring roofs, and working carnival concessions. Irish Travelers once swept chimneys, made tin containers, bought and sold donkeys and horses, peddled small goods (e.g., brushes, needles, boot polish, religious pictures), told fortunes, and performed agricultural labor. As these rural-based occupations became obsolete, they moved to urban areas and began laying tarmac, selling carpeting from door-to-door, collecting and recycling scrap metal, and selling second-hand furniture, car parts, and other merchandise from the roadside.

Many Gypsy and Traveler populations—or significant segments of them—are still peripatetic, exploiting narrowly-defined markets within the host economy. Families are successful because their overhead is minimal, they are willing to accept a narrow profit margin from multiple sources, and generally lack interest in material accumulation and capital expansion. They also use wage-free household labor. Typically, household income is produced by all family members—men and women, young and old. When larger work units are needed, they are drawn from the kin network or else the lowest socioeconomic stratum of the host society (e.g., the homeless).

While nomadism remains an important feature of many groups—and is the image instantly evoked by the very words ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Traveler’—substantial numbers today are sedentary for all or much of the year. Some Western European groups are also sedentary. Spanish Gitanos, for example, have been sedentary for centuries. Although many Gypsies and Travelers in Ireland and Great Britain remain nomadic, the pressure from government to settle is strong. In Eastern Europe, Gypsies were long ago forced into wage labor—generally low-status, unskilled jobs—and have been sedentary for generations. In North America today, only a few families in each Gypsy and Traveler group are predominantly nomadic. Most own or rent homes, and maintain a mixed pattern of settlement and travel.

3. Social And Political Organization

It is difficult to generalize about the social organization of Gypsy and Traveler groups. Many groups reckon descent bilaterally and have no formalized or corporate kin groups. Individuals have equal rights and obligations towards both maternal and paternal kin. At marriage, a couple can choose to affiliate with either spouse’s family, and later, may periodically live on their own or affiliate with nonkin. Other groups— such as the Rom and Ludar in the United States—trace descent through the male line, have named patrilineages, and practice preferential patrilocal residence at marriage, at least until the birth of a young couple’s first child. Descent in most South Asian groups is also patrilineal.

Residential groupings larger than the household, whether they are travel clusters or stationary enclaves within cities, are fluid. Kinship is the fundamental basis for association, but group composition and size is continually being renegotiated in response to changing economic opportunities and a host of social and legal concerns. Groups split apart due to personal animosities, the desire for change, the need to scatter in order to find new clients, or as a result of punitive actions (e.g., evictions) by local authorities. Likewise, they coalesce for many reasons. Scattered kin come together to celebrate life crisis events such as marriages and funerals, to protect a valuable economic territory from the encroachment of other groups, to defend a kinsman from insult or attack, and, sometimes, to make evictions by local authorities more difficult.

Political organization is also diverse. The most formalized mechanisms of social control and political leadership are found among some Gypsy groups and South Asian Travelers. American Rom, for example, have a Rom Baro (big man) who speaks for his extended family and controls economic activities in the territory they claim. Important disputes are adjudicated by a kris,an ad hoc Gypsy court, composed of popularly-nominated, male family heads who act as ‘judges’ and representatives from each kin grouping within the vicinity who act as witnesses and jury. The kris seeks consensus; its proceedings are spontaneous and often volatile; and the fines or punishments it metes out are morally, not legally, binding. Other American Gypsy groups such as the Romnichel, however, lack both the Rom Baro and the kris. Various South Asian groups have loosely structured panchayat councils. These are informal meetings convened primarily to settle disputes, with respected elders acting as arbitrators. Both the kris and the panchayat are mechanisms for airing grievances, alleviating tension, asserting (and sometimes reassessing) group values, arriving at a compromise, and restoring order.

Researchers working with diverse groups of Gypsies and Travelers in Europe, North America, and South Asia have noted the importance members attach to assembly, both at annual events like seasonal fairs and at periodic events like religious pilgrimages, marriages, and funerals. During assemblies, group solidarity is reinforced through informal social interaction (including music, song, and drinking), marriage negotiations, religious ceremonies, and dispute settlements. Such gatherings demonstrate and reinforce a common identity that overrides, at least temporarily, localized kinship and political alliances. English Gypsies appear to recognize the important role fairs play in their collective life. When authorities tried to close Appleby Fair in 1965 and to prevent them from assembling at Epsom in 1967, they united in protest.

Unless prevented from doing so by the state, Gypsies and Travelers seem to respond eagerly to opportunities for assembly and social engagement. Their gatherings also have an emotional intensity— evident in the total absorption of buleria performances, flamenco, and ‘deep song’ as performed by Spanish Gitanos and in the drinking and aggressive interpersonal interactional style of many groups—that is striking to the researchers who have observed them. It is as if what these Gypsy and Traveler groups lack in formal organization or structure they make up for by periodic assembly and intense emotional engagement.

4. Harassment And Assimilation

Gypsies and Travelers have sometimes enjoyed the liberties of other citizens. Under Ottoman rule, for example, Gypsies had the same citizenship rights as anyone else as long as they paid the taxes required of their religious group: Christian Roma paid higher taxes than Muslim Roma. Much more frequently, however, they have been persecuted. In Europe, Gypsies and Travelers have been subject to punitive legislation for many centuries. Individuals as well as entire groups have been denied entry, forcibly settled, had their trades outlawed, forced to adopt wage labor, had their children taken and adopted by non-Gypsy families, been sterilized, imprisoned, enslaved, or deported. In Moldavia and Wallachia—Romania’s two historic provinces—Gypsies were sold into slavery as early as the fifteenth century; legal emancipation for Romany slaves or robi finally came in 1864. During the Holocaust a half to more than a million Gypsies were exterminated. Deep-seated anti-Gypsy prejudice continues today throughout Eastern Europe and parts of Western Europe, periodically erupting in physical assaults by local residents and the police.

In the second half of the twentieth century, many Western European governments and private agencies became involved in programs ostensibly aimed at providing Gypsies and Travelers with ‘choice,’ ‘options,’ or ‘self-determination.’ Many of these movements came about as modernization in the host society eliminated the need for the rural-based trades and services nomadic groups had provided, forcing them to seek new clients. In Ireland and Great Britain, for example, Travelers and Gypsies converged on cities looking for work, camping along motorways, next to housing estates, and on rapidly diminishing amounts of open land. This led to a public outcry and their definition as a ‘social problem.’ Public policy has fluctuated over the years. Liberal programs (i.e., providing campsites and mobile classrooms for nomadic families, creating culturally-sensitive curricula) have vied with more straightforward attempts to assimilate Gypsies and Travelers through housing, laws prohibiting camping, and conventional vocational training education. In recent years, however, Gypsies and Travelers have become more politically active. Many organizations have emerged to articulate their concerns and lobby government for the same rights as any other minority. Cooperation across national boundaries with other Gypsy and Traveler groups is also becoming more common.

In Eastern Europe, government policy had focused more on forced assimilation, including aggressively settling Gypsy families that were nomadic, dispersing those who had lived in settled enclaves, enrolling children in school, licensing or banning specific trades, forcing adults to accept wage labor, and officially denying their existence as ethnic minorities. Many Gypsies were able, nevertheless, to preserve their separate identity in spite of official communist policy. The collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989 brought new hope to the approximately five million Gypsies in the region who responded by organizing a plethora of cultural groups and political parties to articulate and represent their diverse interests. Some common goals include achieving full recognition and civil rights as distinct ethnic minorities, having schools use Romani as a second language of instruction, and getting state-supported social and economic programs to create opportunities and address poor living conditions. In Macedonia, Gypsies called upon the United Nations to establish a Romany state to be called ‘Romanestan.’ Most groups efforts, however, have been hampered by internal leadership problems, the multiplicity of competing Gypsy organizations within each country, and, ultimately, their reliance on the State to accord their organizations and demands legitimacy. Anti-Gypsy sentiment in Europe remains strong. Attacks on Gypsies in the 1990s targeted both long-term residents of settled communities in Eastern Europe and recent immigrants fleeing to Western countries from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia.


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