Dr. Ian Hancock doesn't look like a Gypsy,
and he doesn't like the label, but it's both his heritage and his academic
specialty. He's spending a month [April 1998] in Milwaukee helping the
public get beyond romanticized or prejudiced notions about the least understood
ethnic group in the United States.
"Most Americans have only a vague idea about what Gypsies are--from
movies and literature," Hancock said. "Some don't think we're a real ethnic
Hancock teaches Linguistics and English at the University of Texas in
Austin, but he's here for the Gamaliel Chair in Peace and Justice, a program
of the Metro Milwaukee Lutheran Campus Ministry.
The term "Gypsy" is on the way out, Hancock said, and he'd like to speed
the process. He speaks of "the Roma," and in the United States, of the
His ancestors came from Hungary; Hancock grew up
in Britain. He's fair-skinned with no noticeable accent and could pass
for a non-Gypsy, although a gold tooth and a triangle of hair under his
lower lip whisper mystery. His Romani name is O Yanko le Redzosko, and
through his writing and speaking he has become one of the few spokespersons
for his people.
Hancock is president of the International Roma Federation ... and serves
on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He's working with television's
History Channel on documentaries about the Roma and he even edited a Dr.
Seuss book in the Romani language.
About one million Roma live in the United States
but they are not traveling all the time. "Non-Romani populations are more
mobile in the United States," Hancock said. That's a surprise to Romani
visitors from Europe, he noted. Hancock has met Roma in Milwaukee and said
they quietly inhabit all major U.S. cities.
"Most have a means of livelihood with autonomy and many are self-employed,"
he said. "We want freedom, especially with time. It's very important for
us to maintain our social network, which is entirely within the Roma. We
need to go to weddings, baptisms, saints' days and funerals."
Many Roma used to make a living buying and selling horses, and now used
car lots are often run by Romani Americans. Some are fortune tellers, a
high-prestige occupation in India but sometimes illegal in the United States.
Although the Roma came out of Hindu India 1,000
years ago, in the U.S. many connect with Christian churches. "Some go to
evangelical born-again churches," Hancock said, and he knows one who is
a Lutheran pastor. Their most important saints are Saint Anne and Saint
George. Hancock is an Episcopalian.
They value family life, with special emphasis on children and the elderly.
"We don't send them to old folks' homes," Hancock said. And children often
aren't sent to mainstream schools.
"We have very strict rules, such as ritual cleanliness in meal preparation,"
he said. "Public school meals are not prepared right and parents know their
children won't learn anything positive about the Roma." Much like Orthodox
Jews, the Romani people set up their own schools to maintain tradition
and avoid romantic relationships outside the group. But few Roma get to
higher education and some are illiterate.
"The experience with the establishment over the centuries has not been
a happy one," Hancock said. "The Roma fear authority and anything that
smacks of officialdom." They won't fill out census forms, but some file
tax returns. Many states had laws against "Gypsies"--even prohibiting them
from owning homes or businesses--until the last law was removed in January.
When the Roma arrived in Europe around the year
1300, their dark skins and foreign customs brought discrimination. About
half were enslaved in Romania until the 1860s. Like Jews, they excluded
outsiders, which fanned suspicion.
Rumors arose against both groups, such as that they were stealing white
babies for nefarious purposes. The Roma were blamed for the plague and
came under attack from people like Martin Luther and Charles Darwin, according
The Nazis took this distrust to the extreme by sterilizing and then
killing the Roma along with Jews and people with handicaps. Hancock estimates
that one and a half million Roma were killed in World War II.
"Why?" he asks. "The Roma are inoffensive people. They have no claims
on territory, never started wars and are not convicted of major crimes.
Their only crime is theft, usually of food."
Hancock believes that some of the Nazi gold stashed in Swiss banks was
stolen from Romani victims. He and others have lobbied Congress for support
on this claim, with some success.
One of the most famous Roma is Charlie Chaplin.
Many people thought he was Jewish because he criticized Hitler, explained
Hancock, but Chaplin knew of the anti-Gypsy attacks in Germany. Other Roma
in the arts include actors Yul Brenner, Bob Hoskins and Rita Hayworth,
and jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt.
The majority of Romani Americans came from Russian and Serbia with another
large group from Hungary and Slovakia. They have different customs and
don't socialize with each other. "It's impossible to generalize about the
Roma," Hancock said.
The International Roma Federation deals with the post-1990 immigration
to the U.S. from eastern Europe. They're coming from Romania, Poland, Hungary,
the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia, Hancock said, and these tend to
stay in the northeastern United States.
Romani parents tell their children not to announce who they are for
fear of discrimination, Hancock said, and this secrecy obscures their place
in world events. For example, the Islamic people killed in Bosnia are mostly
Roma. Reports of Romanian orphans being adopted in the United States don't
mention that they are mostly Roma. ("Roma" and "Romanian" are not from
a common root word.)
Hancock is trying to break through this secrecy
barrier. Of the 12 million Roma in the world, he is one of the few to speak
publicly for them, whether at the United Nations or to Milwaukee church
members. "We have to deal with the prejudice through education and sensitizing
at the grass-roots level," he said.