Ethnographic Interview with a Hungarian Romani Woman: "Just Because I'm Caucasian Does Not Mean I'm White"

By Liliana √örsula June

The Hungarian Romani originated from South Asia, and in the 14th century, they went to the Balkans to work in agriculture industries. The Romani are considered an Indo-Aryan ethnic group. The earliest documentation of Romani in Hungary is 1416. On a global scale, the Romani are a stigmatized group that have faced centuries of persecution and have been banished from many of their native countries. By the 18th century, it was illegal to be Romani, and their communities were either forced to assimilate or pushed to the fringe of society. The native Romani dialect was forced out of their communities, and the primary tongue for Romani became Hungarian. Traditionally, the Romani indulged in their crafts of fortune telling, palm and tobacco reading, and jewelry and fabric making. However, these crafts became subject to stereotype and were coined the work of “gypsies.” It was legal to discriminate against the Romani in schools and places of employment; therefore, these crafts became the lifeline of their culture.

During World War II, being Romani became even more dangerous when they were subject to persecution by the government. Like many European Jewish people, they were murdered in concentration camps if there was the slightest suspicion they were Romani or if they were accused of having Romani friends. The Romani were also subject to forced sterilization and enslavement during the Holocaust. The abuse of Romani people is called Antiziganism, which is engrained in European, Latin, and American culture. Many historians consider the Romani to be, by far, the most persecuted ethnic group since the 1300s. 

In Italy, the Romani had to be fingerprinted by the government up until 2008, and there have been reported cases of Romani women and children being victims of public hate crimes with no intervention or justice whatsoever. Their travel is exceptionally regulated, and it is legal to not allow them entry in many countries, even if they have proper visas. Latin America is home to hundreds of millions of Romani, with a very concentrated population in Colombia and Mexico, known as Gitanos. Latin America is home to many Romani due to their banishment from Spain and Portugal. The marginalization and impoverishment of their communities has led to their invisibility, though much of Latin American music has Gitano influence.

Very few studies have been done on assimilated Romani children in schools. Educators may very easily have Romani children as students but would never know it and would not consider them “ethnic” because of their sometimes-European appearance. Because of this, the ethnographic study of Romani individuals is important for all educators, especially those interested in bilingual or special education.

Ava is a Chicago-born, 23-year-old Hungarian Romani woman who grew up in Chicago and attended school within the Chicago Public School system for 14 years. Her family has deep ties to their culture, despite being American natives for four generations. For these past four generations, Ava’s family has exclusively married within their own ethnicity. “It’s the norm. Though it sounds crazy to Americans, marrying within your blood line is very real,” Ava explains. Hungarian Romani choose to raise families within their ethnic group due to the avoidance of culture clash of customs and language.

“Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to say that I was [Romani],” Ava admitted. “I am one of the first [in my family] to openly say it.” This is due to dreaded persecution and stigma. Ava’s family committed to the protection of their children by shielding them from judgment and ethnic persecution. They feared her teachers would be cruel to her and she would have trouble maintaining personal relationships. American society is willfully uninformed on Romani culture (most people do not know that “gypsy” is a slur that is not to be used to describe Romani individuals). Ava distinctively remembers a male student in her fourth-grade class who openly called himself a “gypsy,” and she immediately felt worried for him. Her class laughed at him, and he was called a fortune teller and a nomad. Ava did not even include her ethnicity on the 2020 census (according to the 2010 Hungarian census, the Romani make up 3.2% of the population) or when she was applying for colleges.

Ava has only openly begun discussing her culture and family with her closest friends for two years, and she will only be open about her Romani roots with those she trusts, mostly because when she discusses her culture, she likes to have ample time to educate them on the reality of Romani people in America. Ava does this because many have the same question: “What is Romani?” And when she explains that it is the proper term for her ethnic group that was formerly labeled as gypsies, many ask, "What is a gypsy?" Socially, the term “gypsy” is used to describe a thief, liar, and swindler or one with a nomadic lifestyle. Pop culture has turned the word “gypsy” into a synonym for wanderlust, mystical, and free spirited. The stigmatization of the Romani people led this term to become misappropriated, and now, totally reformed as an ethnic slur.

The next million-dollar question Ava often gets asked is “What language do you speak?”, to which the answer is, “I don’t know.” Ava’s language does not have a written alphabet, and there is no formal education of her language in existence. It is strictly an auditory language that, tragically, is dying. There are eighteen Romani dialects spoken in Northern Europe alone. Upon further research, it was discovered that her dialect is called Hungarian Sinti. However, to her, the name of the language, its symbols, and linguistic patterns are not of utmost importance like they are in other languages. According to Ava, there is no way to even look up the spelling for Hungarian Sinti words because the dialects vary so much. Dialects do not only vary based on region but by family as well. The secrecy of the language has also led to Romani invisibility in the United States.

As a CPS student, Ava felt that she was an outsider from a socio-cultural standpoint. Her parents were the first in her family to graduate high school. In her upbringing, she was surrounded by “white” students who had immense economic advantage and privilege, while Ava, who is blonde and blue eyed, has limited resources in that regard. While Ava’s race is technically Caucasian, she does not consider herself to be “white” due to her culture. On a global scale, Romani children have limited access to a formal education. In England, the average Romani adult has the education level of an American fourth grader. Despite this, education means something different to the Romani. The majority of Romani are literate in their assimilated language but not in their native dialects. If one has a high school education and a job, that is success. “I’m sure that if I had been raised in a white household, I would have gone to college,” Ava says, though she also says that not going to college was a personal choice. When faced with a problem at school, there was very little Ava’s family could do for her because of their education level, which at times felt like alienation from her peers.

Ava’s Buba’s (grandmother’s) oral language was well spoken and eloquent, yet written language was often guessed or incorrect. Ava thought this was normal until she, herself, became more assimilated into American culture and befriended other students whose parents were college educated. “That’s when some of the shame set in,” she says, but she still recognizes that education was an important pillar in her upbringing, specifically for her parents.

On the topic of parents, Ava’s Romani upbringing was unique because of her parents’ drive to protect them from shame and stigma, not only by non-Romani, but within their own culture. “We call them the ‘wild gypsies,’” she says, which is what Americanized Romani call the Romani people who engage in socially inappropriate behavior, such as excessive partying, promiscuity, and/or illegal activity. Ava’s family, like many Romani, is devoutly Catholic, and their identity is very engrained with Christian values. Unlike other members of Ava’s community, Ava had an obligation to finish school, be abstinent, and modestly date, but she recognizes that her family still had far less taboos than the average American family.

Ava is highly critical of the way Romani people are portrayed in pop culture and the use of the word “gypsy.” Shows like TLC’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding make a mockery of Ava’s culture and further alienate Romani people from the rest of society. “They are showing the worst of the worst,” she said. Ava also criticized the New York brand “Gypsy Sport” for their derogatory use of the word. She also added that Gypsy Sport’s mission statement is “sustainable streetwear and non-binary aesthetics,” which shows the brand’s ignorance of Romani culture. She adds that the romanization of the word “gypsy” has severely compromised the Romani identity. For non-Romani, to be called a “gypsy” is a compliment to their aesthetic, but to someone who is Romani, it is the worst thing you could say. Ava used to work at a “make-your-own” perfume shop, and often women would create their scents and name them "gypsy - - - " and it was very frustrating for her. “They sound so stupid,” she says.

Chicago’s South Side has a large Romani population. Growing up in Chicago Public Schools, often her closest friends were the first to insult Romani culture, and because her culture was kept secret from the public, she bore witness to many sad stereotypes. “They hate gypsies down there,” she claims. Ava recognizes that there are Chicagoan Romani who “scam” people, but it was “awkward” nonetheless. Once, Ava was in a car with a handful of friends on the South Side of Chicago. They saw a group of Romani people (who Ava described as wild gypsies) get into a nice car, and Ava’s friends rolled their windows down and yelled “F**k gypsies! We kill gypsies!” She was beyond embarrassed on behalf of her friends and her community members.

Overall, Ava’s linguistic and cultural diversity affected not only her learning but also her life experiences, both positively and negatively. She is proud of her culture and upbringing and is interested in continuing to research her Hungarian Sinti dialect to honor her roots. Like many small ethnic groups, unwritten languages tend to die, and it is likely it will die with her if she chooses to marry outside her ethnicity. Coming to terms with her identity and openly speaking about it was an enormous step forward and considered radical by her community. This interview with Ava is a treasure that should be honored because experiences like this are truly rare.

While Ava’s experience could be unique to her and her family, the purpose of this interview was to unmask a rarely-talked-about culture. As bilingual educators, we will encounter Latino Romani Gitano students without knowing. Unless we open our eyes to this possibility, we will miss out on the opportunity to understand our students to the fullest capacity. In Colombia, it is common for parents to seek out Romani Gitano advice for young children. Parents are known to seek out their children’s fortunes or take their child to see Gitanos to cure their illnesses through their holistic and spiritual practices. It is engrained into Latino non-Romani culture to take interest in Romani Gitano craft, such as tobacco reading and palm reading, but sadly, outside of their craft, the Romani are still granted little respect. No child should be raised feeling they cannot speak out about their ethnicity due to persecution. No educator should be comfortable not understanding the background of each and every one of their students.



Liliana Úrsula June is a graduate student at National Louis University seeking to earn a Master of Arts in early childhood education, along with a bilingual endorsement in Spanish. She is a Chicago native from Colombian and German-American descent. Liliana Úrsula June is pleased to share her research on Romani children in the Chicago Public School system with ITBE in this month's LINK newsletter.
 

 
 
Works Cited

Roma. (n.d.). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://minorityrights.org/minorities/roma-8/


Roma persecution - Antiziganism - intensifies in Europe. (2009, May 02). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.amnestyusa.org/roma-persecution-antiziganism-intensifies-in-europe/

The Roma Gypsies of Colombia. (n.d.). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.latinolife.co.uk/node/289

Northern Romani dialects. (2020, June 26). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Romani_dialects

Ava: Ethnographic Experience [Online interview]. (2020, July 14).

Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. (n.d.). 'It's hard to be a Gypsy in my town'. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/buffett/hungary/roma-village/ 
 
 

 
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