Hounded in Europe, Roma in the U.S. Keep a Low Profile

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Katherine Kiviat / Redux

An American Roma (Gypsy) family celebrates the festival of St. Guadalupe at their Manhattan apartment.

This week hundreds of Roma in Italy watched as their long-established homes in Milan were bulldozed to the ground. The act of racism came just weeks after France evicted Roma from their camps and forced them to board flights bound for Romania and Bulgaria, where they experience seemingly inescapable poverty and hate. Europe's largest and most widespread minority continues to experience school segregation in Slovakia, and targeted acts of violence, including murder, in Hungary. Yet their life in the U.S., while hardly perfect, has been a quiet success.

In the U.S. the Roma, more commonly known as Gypsies, own successful family-run businesses, have their own internal legal system and hold onto what they can of their culture by coming together to celebrate christenings and holidays. But if you haven't seen this thriving community of emigres, that isn't an oversight. While touches of Roma culture are visible through their popular music, as a means of survival, in many ways the Roma have purposefully hidden themselves from sight. "The Roma world is thriving," says Ian Hancock, a Roma who serves as director of the Roma Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's just not visible to the outside world."

Roma presence in the U.S. is nothing new. In fact, three Roma are said to have made the voyage as unwilling emigrants to the Americas aboard a ship with Christopher Columbus in his second journey to the New World in 1498. Today, estimates put the number of Roma in the U.S. at about one million. The largest wave came to the U.S. following the abolishment of Roma slavery in the Balkans in 1864. The more recent influx of Roma emigration has been steady since the 1989 collapse of Communism in eastern Europe.

These American Roma are not homogenous. They speak different languages and come from different countries. While they have common ties of being Roma, a Hungarian Roma may have little in common their neighbors the Czech Roma. When the groups come to the U.S. they don't settle as one. Instead, they form pockets based on language, nationality or some other identifier. But while the divide may have hampered their identity, it may have helped them fold into society. "They're simply not present enough in the U.S. for anyone to hate them very much," Kushen said.

But making a life in the West hasn't been easy. "We are people with an Asian culture — our language, our roots, our culture, our bloodline is Asian, but we live in the West," Hancock told TIME. "It's like a square peg in a round hole." Some states had laws that forbade the Roma from living as one with their fellow Americans. One law in New Jersey, enacted in 1917 and repealed in 1998, allowed Gypsies to be regulated more harshly than other groups by allowing local governments to craft laws and ordinances that specified where Gypsies could rent property, where they could entertain and what goods they could sell. Facing such discrimination, the Roma learned to hide and blend in. "Traditionally, nothing good has come from being identified Roma because the prejudice is so high," says Robert Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center. "There's never been any profit."

Part of that prejudice comes from the pervasive stereotype that casts Roma as nomads, beggars, scammers and thieves. "People are looking for Esmeralda and wagons and horses and tambourines, but of course, they never see them because they don't exist," Hancock says. The real Roma may be your next door neighbors who are telling you they are Greek or Lebanese. "We're all taught as kids that you don't tell people you're Roma," he says. The distinction amounts to assimilating rather than integrating. Fearful of the racism they experience in Europe, Roma may work to shirk part of their identity. Once a Roma has achieved a degree of success, they may choose to no longer identify themselves as Roma, Kushen said, opting instead to identify with the country they herald from, be it Slovakia, Romania or France. But that means Roma new to the U.S. may struggle to find a community, and may see few visible role models of success.

Whether more Roma will come to the U.S. in light of the deportations in Europe is anyone's guess. But as filmmaker Jasmine Dellal, who directed the film American Gypsy, says, "People are willing to try very hard when they cannot find a roof for their family or food for their kids — especially if they live somewhere where it is acceptable to think of Gypsies as inferior pariahs who don't deserve the same considerations as other human beings."

Today, those that make their way to the U.S. are typically undocumented, do not speak English and have trouble finding steady legal employment. The first obstacle is the money for a plane ticket. As the poorest, most unemployed and least educated people in Europe, unless they have family already in the U.S. coming up with the money to cross the ocean may be impossible. Once in the U.S. they face deportation unless they can successfully gain political asylum due to the racist attacks they endure in their country of origin, but that is a lengthy legal process that doesn't always end in their favor. "It's too bad that it is so difficult," says Jakab Orsos, former director of the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York. "These large cities in the U.S. can offer a wonderful, perfect silence for the Gypsies."