People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Gypsy Americans

About the Gypsy Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Gypsy-American and more.


Where They Came From: Although their name is an English corruption of the word Egyptian, evidence indicates that Gypsies--or "Romanies," as they call themselves--are descendants of tribes that fled from India before the armies of Alexander the Great. They settled for a time in the Middle East, but before the end of the 15th century they had established themselves in Europe.

Why They Left: Despised because of their dark skins, unintelligible language, and "exotic" ways, Gypsies suffered constant persecution in Europe. The English monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I legalized the killing of Gypsies, and most European countries also followed suit. In the 20th century, Nazis classified Gypsies as an "inferior subhuman race" and exterminated nearly a half million of them in gas chambers. Unwelcome wherever they have settled, Gypsies have been on the move for centuries.

Where They Settled: Gypsy slavery was legal in Europe until 1856, and the first Gypsies to come to America were probably slaves the French brought to Louisiana. Later, Gypsies immigrated freely from whatever country seemed most convenient.

Until some time after W.W. I, Gypsy Americans followed a nomadic life in the U.S. Gradually, stable populations grew up in New Mexico, California, Florida, Oregon, and Maine. Today most Gypsy Americans are settled in large cities throughout the country.

Numbers: Since the U.S. government identifies Gypsy Americans by nation of origin rather than as an ethnic group, their population is not officially recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau. However, UNESCO and the Gypsies themselves estimate their numbers in the U.S. at 200,000. In New York City alone there are 12,000.

Their Story in America: Although the Gypsies brought with them some skills such as metalworking and horse training, most Gypsy Americans are small-time tradesmen existing on the edge of poverty. In large cities, many families live and set up operations in dingy storefronts called ofisas, where the women of the family tell fortunes and expertly practice the bajour, a confidence game in which a customer's money is stolen by sleight of hand. Consequently, Gypsy Americans have a reputation as criminals, and many police departments maintain "Gypsy files" and assign undercover agents to watch them, whether they are engaged in criminal activities or not.

Gypsies do not consider themselves Americans, but American customs are slowly filtering into their lives. Bureaucratic red tape, television programs that dispense hours of information on non-Gypsy life, and compulsory school education are all slowly forcing Gypsy Americans closer to the American mainstream.

Famous Gypsy Americans: In the U.S., though Gypsy music and dancing are popular, few Gypsies have risen to national prominence. Probably the most famous American of reputed Gypsy ancestry was "Diamond Jim" Brady, the 19th-century financier who amassed a fortune in the railroad supply and equipment business.

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