Gypsy immigration

2011-02-14 12:56:46

Gypsies, because of their itinerant lifestyle both in Europe and in North America, are among the most difficult immigrants to understand or characterize. Although most of the dozen or so Gypsy groups that inhabit North America trace their ancestry back to northern India and Pakistan, across the centuries, their paths and cultures diverged, and each considers itself a distinct ethnic group. The U.S. census of 2000 did not include a specific category for ethnic origins not associated with country of origin, but estimates place the number of U.S. Gypsies at more than 100,000. According to the Canadian census of 2001, 2,590 Canadians claimed “Gypsy (Roma)” descent, though the actual number is significantly higher. Because they emigrated from many countries across a long period of time, and each group had its preferred means of livelihood, Gypsies are found in most parts of the United States and Canada in both urban and rural areas. The largest concentrations are probably in Los Angeles and Chicago in the United States and Toronto and Montreal in Canada.
Gypsies first migrated from India through Persia and the Byzantine Empire under uncertain circumstances sometime before the 10th century. They entered the Balkan Peninsula with the Ottoman expansion of the 14th century. By 1505, they had reached as far north and west as Scotland. Occasionally they were welcomed, but usually their traveling lifestyle led to suspicion and frequently to persecution wherever they were. With no centralized government or settled institutions, Gypsies as a group fragmented, becoming broadly identified with the various regions of their travels. Spanish Gypsies are often referred to as “calos” or “gitanos”; Romanian, as “Ludar”; eastern European, as “Roma”; and English, as “Romnichels.” Hungarian-Slovak Gypsies are more settled and usually referred to simply as “Gypsies.” These divisions were almost always maintained in the New World.
The term Gypsy was taken from the word Egyptian, as Europeans in the Middle Ages believed them to have originated there. Although many scholars and some European Gypsies prefer the designation Rom (plural, Roma) or Romany most American and Canadian groups still refer to themselves as “Gypsies.” The terms Gypsy and Rom are outside attempts to classify all the nomadic or seminomadic groups originating in southern Asia in a single category, despite the fact that many managed to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness in Europe during the modern era. Further confusing the situation are a number of peripatetic groups—German, Scots, Irish, American, and others—who largely adopted Gypsy culture but were not related by blood to the first Gypsy immigrants. Gypsies traditionally organized themselves into extended family clans; engaged in itinerant trades including tinkering, smithing, and music performance; and frequently moved, avoiding both government service and taxation. As a result, they were oppressed in most countries, sometimes even enslaved or forced to settle, or having their children removed and put into institutions. During World War II (1939–45), Nazi Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, murdered more than 250,000 Gypsies in an attempt to exterminate the group. Unlike most rooted ethnic groups, Gypsies embraced many religious faiths, though they practiced each within their own cultural traditions. In the first decade of the 21st century, Gypsies still routinely suffered racial prejudice, especially in eastern Europe, where their unemployment rates were routinely five to 10 times higher than the national average.
The first Gypsies came to the New World as a result of deportations from England, France, Portugal, and Spain during the 17th and 18th centuries. Significant numbers of Romnichels immigrated to the United States around 1850, where they found a steady livelihood in the horse trade prior to World War I (1914–18). Many Gypsies, including the Roma, the Ludar, the Baschalde, and the Romungre, arrived as part of the new immigration after 1880, their numbers subsumed in immigration figures for the various states from which they came. The Roma came mainly from Serbia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary and have been the group most studied. Many Roma specialized in coppersmithing and therefore migrated to urban areas to repair industrial equipment. In the cities, they also developed fortune-telling as a business. The Ludar came mainly from northwestern Bosnia and worked in traveling circuses and other animal shows. The Baschalde came from Slovakia and Hungary, and the Romungre from Hungary and Transylvania (Romania). As a result of the wars in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, Gypsies found themselves persecuted by every side and often targeted for genocide. In 1999, the United States pledged to take up to 20,000 Kosovar refugees, many of whom were Gypsies.
Most Gypsies in Canada are Roma, though they include several tribes or subgroups, including the Kalderash and the Lowara. Few records exist, but they probably began to immigrate around 1900. Clearly some Roma entered the United States from Winnipeg and Montreal as early as 1903. Gypsies migrated in Canada and found a better reception in the west, where there were large numbers of Slavic peoples who had come from eastern Europe and the Balkans. A few homesteads were established in Alberta, but they often became absentee landlords as they traveled. By the 1920s, most Gypsies were moving to the cities, where they frequently inhabited empty stores, setting up fortune-telling or other small businesses in the front and living in the back. By the 1990s, there was a growing Gypsy population of 400–500 in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1997, television reports of a successful Roma family in Canada led several hundred Czech Gypsies to immigrate to Canada, which did not require visas from Czech citizens, and then to apply for asylum. With as many as 5,000 Gypsies considering immigration, in November 1997, the Canadian government instituted visa requirements, making it more difficult for Gypsies to enter Canada. The mayor of one Czech town agreed to help pay their airfare, in return for their apartment rights and renunciation of their permanent residence status, reinforcing accusations of Czech racism. Although most of the original immigrants were granted refugee status or otherwise allowed to remain, further Gypsy immigration was limited.
See also Austro-Hungarian immigration.