"Gypsy" is actually a derogatory (insulting) word. The group of people it refers to are more accurately called Roma, and the language they speak is Romanes, or Romani. There are four Roma tribes, or nations (the Kalderash, the Machavaya, the Lovari, and the Churari), plus many other smaller groups (such as the Sinti, the Luri, and the Xoraxai). Most Roma refer to themselves by their tribal name or by "Rom" or "Roma", meaning "Man" and "People."
There are approximately 12 million Roma living in several nations around the
world, but it is hard to get an exact number since they are not usually included in
official census counts. Roma tend to live in their own communities, separate from
the gajikané (foreign) society around them. Centuries of discrimination and ethnic
hatred have made them suspicious of outsiders, and they fear that integrating into gajikané society will cause them to lose their unique cultural identity.
Over the centuries, Roma have spread into many different countries worldwide and have adapted to varying degrees to their different cultural environments. For this reason, there is no universal Roma culture, and there are many differences; what is "true Roma" to one group may be "gadjé," or foreign, to another. However, there are some things characteristic of all Roma, for example: loyalty to family, belief in predestiny, and adaptibility to changing conditions.
Although the words "Roma" and "Romani" look like they are related to "Rome" and "Roman," the Roma did not come from Italy. Scholars have traced the Roma's ethnic heritage to India through clues in the language. Romani is an Indo-Aryan language whose origin is ancient Punjabi, or Hindi, an Indian language. Today there are many spoken dialects of Romani, but no standardized written language.
There were several waves of migrations in the Roma's history. They first left India about 1000 years ago, probably due to a war that the Hindu peoples were fighting with the Muslims. The ethnically mixed army spread out along the territorial limits of Islam, so they moved into Persia (today's Iran) and reached southeastern Europe around 1300. The next major migration occurred in the 19th and early 20th century, when Roma moved from Europe to the Americas after the abolition of Romani slavery.
Roma women in the stories and movies usually wear a long colorful skirt, a flower in their hair, and lots of gold jewelry. This is actually not far from the truth. A Roma woman will grow her hair long, and it is usually worn braided until she is married. Once she is married, she will cover her hair with a diklo, or head scarf, that she will always wear when she is in public.
Roma women wear long skirts because of strong ideas about cleanliness and uncleanliness. The lower half of a woman's body is associated with menstruation, and is therefore viewed as
shameful and unclean. A woman must keep this part of her body (including legs) covered at all times, and the bottom of her skirt must never touch any man other than her husband.
A Roma woman will wear lots of jewelry, not just because it looks pretty, but also because it is worth money. Most Roma do not have bank accounts or safe-deposit boxes, so they feel more comfortable converting their wealth into gold and carrying it themselves, as jewelry, hair, or clothing decorations.
Roma men have no typical costume. Since the head is viewed as the body's focal point, many men will grow a mustache and/or wear a large hat to accentuate it. Both men and women wear bright colors. Do the clothes of Carmen and her friends fit these patterns?
Music and dance
Traditionally, Roma have been known in every country as entertainers, whether they were acrobats, bear trainers, musicians, or dancers. Roma musicianship in particular has had a wide influence, reaching classical artists such as Liszt, Brahms, Dvorak, and of course Bizet. The Roma trace their unique musical styles to Middle Eastern music, Jewish klezmer music, flamenco, and jazz. The Gipsy Kings are perhaps the most famous Roma musical performers. Other musical and non-musical performers claim that they were descended from Roma, among them Yul Brynner, Rita Hayworth, and Bob Hoskins. Carmen's skill at singing and dancing is quite true to her character.
Another negative stereotype of the Roma is one of the old woman, reading palms or tarot cards and charging an exorbitant fee. It is true that the Roma practice this, but only for the gadje and as a source of livelihood, never among themselves. Although she might have believed in predestiny, as many Roma do, Carmen and her friends would most likely not have been telling their own fortunes.
Attitudes towards gadjikane society
Roma are fearful of being corrupted by gadjikane society; they are afraid that immersion in non-Roma society will lead to a loss of traditionally strong family and community ties. Centuries of anti-Roma discrimination and hatred have made most Roma suspicious of outsiders. Roma are expected to marry within the tribe to maintain ethnic and social purity, but occasionally someone will marry outside the group. If a Roma male marries a gadji (female foreigner), she may be accepted if she adopts the Roma way of life. It is more difficult if a Roma woman wishes to marry a gadjo; women are viewed as the guarantors for the survival of the group, and having children with someone from outside the group dilutes the ethnic purity. In many instances, children of a mixed marriage are considered Roma only if the father is Roma.
Another mistaken impression of Roma is that they are immoral; this image is personified by Carmen, a seductive, manipulative woman with several lovers. Actually, Roma adhere to a strict code of sexual conduct; women are expected to remain virgins until they are married, and adultery is forbidden. Traditionally, a girl was married between the ages of nine and fourteen, but gadjikane influence has changed this in recent years. In light of this, how would Carmen's friends and family feel about her love affair with Don José? About her attitude towards men?
Throughout European history, the Roma have been reviled and persecuted, usually without any kind of governmental or legal protection. The Nazi purge is the most infamous: 1.5 million Roma perished in the Holocaust (the Romani word is Porrajmos). Today the Roma are still the subject of negative portrayals in the popular media and ethnic discrimination.