Myth: Roma are nomadic and have no fixed address.
Fact: In Eastern Europe, the vast majority of Roma are sedentary. In the former Communist countries, Roma were settled and turned into an urbanized sub-proletariat. Large numbers of Roma have been sedentary for generations in Hungary, Slovakia, Rumania, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. In Western Europe, Roma have traditionally followed commercial nomadism but many are now settled. In Spain, Roma have been settled since the 16th century. The concept that Roma are nomadic is a myth that does not stand up to the historical reality.
Myth: Roma or "Gypsies" are just anybody who travels around in a caravan doing odd jobs.
Fact: Roma belong to a distinct ethnic group that originated in Northwest India in the 11th century AD. They speak a Sanskrit-based language called Romani that exists today in many dialects in different countries. Some Roma do not speak Romani but still continue to identify themselves as Roma. Roma constitute an exclusive society where the family and clan form the core of personal identity. A person must be born into a particular group of Roma to be considered a legitimate member of the community. People who intermarry with Roma can eventually be accepted and considered as members of the particular family or group into which they married if they learn the Romani language and customs.
Myth: Roma are lazy and unwilling to work.
Fact: Historically, Roma have the tradition of self-employment in most countries. Traditionally, each Romani family or clan had a trade which was followed by the group as a whole. Some were entertainers, others horse traders, others did metal work and others made bricks, baskets or sieves. Some were farmers, blacksmiths, animal trainers, gold panners, makers of musical instruments or middlemen who bought and resold various commodities. As society changed, Roma found new ways of becoming self-sufficient. In some countries, Roma recycle scrap or do spray painting and home repairs. Many are middlemen who buy and sell various items, from gold and diamonds to textiles and automobiles, trucks and travel trailers. Others have started some business enterprise, from owning a coin-operated laundry to operating a small construction company. In the former Communist countries, large numbers of Roma are tradesmen or work as agricultural labourers. They were turned into an urban sub-proletariat by the former Communist governments and no longer work for themselves.
Myth: Roma are dirty and do not wash often.
Fact: Roma have strong traditions and taboos concerning cleanliness. While North Americans and Western Europeans have only the concepts of clean and dirty, Roma have the concepts of clean, dirty and polluted. These taboos against pollution govern the daily lives of traditional Roma. Clothing worn above the waist must be washed separately from clothing worn below the waist. Food that falls on the floor becomes polluted and cannot be eaten. Roma must wash their hands immediately after touching any substance considered polluting, like their shoes. Some defiling substances cannot be touched by humans. Roma take showers standing up because the water must flow from the head down. They do not sit in the bathtub. Today, large numbers of Roma have preserved the cleanliness and pollution taboos of their Hindu ancestors, which they continue to follow. This tends to make many Roma hesitant to mix with the outside world around them, which they see as potentially polluting. A Roma person who becomes polluted, even accidentally, can spread this pollution to other Roma and must be formally cleansed at a special gathering of elders called a kris in order to be reinstated into the Romani community. Not all Roma follow these customs with the intensity of Canadian or American Vlach Roma, but all Roma follow them to some degree depending on the level of assimilation.
Myth: Roma have inherited some genetic ability to do magic and work spells and the women can predict the future.
Fact: Roma have no more magical or occult powers than anyone else. This myth developed because for centuries Romani women have worked as fortune-tellers and practitioners of herbal lore and holistic medicine in Europe. Some Romani women are psychics just like non-Romani people who have psychic abilities but Roma as a group have no special powers to work magic or spells.
Myth: Roma are Rumanians and that's where the words Roma and Romani come from.
Fact: Roma originated in India. However, large numbers of Roma were slaves in Rumania from the 15th century until 1865 when they were emancipated by law. Large numbers of Roma then left Rumania and relocated themselves all over Europe, in North, Central and South America and elsewhere. They are referred to as Vlach Roma or Wallachian Roma. The words Roma and Romani have no connection with Rumania, and Roma are not Rumanian by origin.
Myth: Roma are colourful, romantic people who lead lives of carefree abandon.
Fact: This fiction had been perpetrated by novelists, filmmakers and in operas and stage productions. It has no basis in reality. All cultures have romantic and colourful aspects when exploited by artists as vehicles of escapism.
Myth: Roma choose to live as parasites and do not want to become useful members of society.
Fact: The vast majority of Roma live in Eastern Europe and are trying hard to become useful members of society. It is historical hatred of Roma by the general populations and persecution by skinheads and neo-Nazis that is preventing this. In other countries, Roma also work and contribute to society.
Copyright © Ronald Lee , October, 1998.
Heritage Toronto article describes myths and facts a century ago
This Heritage Toronto article describes how Roma immigrants experienced prejudice and myths about their lifestyle back in 1911.