Gypsies, Stereotypes, Offense, and Truth

Posted on July 31, 2017


Back in the days when parents still told their children fairy tales and scary stories at bedtime, the old saw about Gypsies stealing children was a staple (one famous example was Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Esmeralda had been kidnapped by Gypsies as a child).  I had never given the idea much credence, so imagine my surprise to learn that in 2013, Greek police discovered a little girl living with unrelated Gypsies, and no good explanation.  Investigation showed that the Gypsy couple had registered 14 children (six of them allegedly born within 10 months!) with state authorities, although only four were found in the home.  The alleged reason for this was to collect additional state benefits.  As it eventually turned out, the mother of the child was identified as a Bulgarian Roma woman, who confirmed that she left her child in Greece aged 7 months.  The Greek Roma couple is off the hook for abduction, but Greek police are still looking into other aspects of the case, including registering apparently non-existent children for state benefits.

Well, this story got me curious:  just how much fact was behind the old child-stealing Gypsy stereotype?  After looking around, I found a few other cases:  a 1907 case in Illinois in which an 8-year-old was rescued after being abducted by Gypsies; a 2008 case in Italy, in which a Gypsy teen tried to abduct a baby; a 2012 case in Ukraine in which a Gypsy woman tried to kidnap a baby; and a muddled 2010 case in Arizona in which a Gypsy family was discovered to be raising a child who had been abducted.  “We took her in and loved her and raised her as our own, because in our culture that’s what we do,” said one family member (but they had also hidden her from authorities).  The worst of all was the 2010 case of a gang of Romanian Gypsies who had abducted 181 children for purposes of begging, apparently disfiguring some of them to draw more handouts.  So… yes, there seems to be some nugget of truth to the stereotype, unfortunately.  It’s not the first Gypsy stereotype I have had confirmed.

Traveling and working in the former Soviet Union, I quickly became acquainted with Gypsies – tsigani  in Russian – and, sorry to say, the interactions were highly stereotypical and never pleasant.  It was – every time – women and children begging, the men nowhere to be seen; the babies were listless, the older children dirty and ragged and sometimes disfigured, like the children in the Romanian case.  Often, the children would follow and pull on my colleagues (I never allowed this… it can be a pickpocketing tactic).  When it eventually became clear that I was departing the area without giving them anything, their little faces would contort in fury and they would curse me in one of the Roma languages (which I do not know).  Charming!

I later had occasion to work with an OSCE official (Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe).  The subject of Gypsies came up, and I honestly expressed my disapproval.  They do not assimilate; they resist learning the local language; they resist sending their children to school; they resist regular employment, or learning those things that will make them employable.  What’s left is begging, government handouts and illegal activities.

A Roma camp outside Paris, 2013. Photo Credit: Mail Online

The official attempted to educate me.  “‘Gypsies’ is an offensive term,” he said.  “They are called Roma.”  He went on to explain a lot about their culture, and that the Roma cannot “go home” as many locals would like, because they emigrated from (probably) northern India hundreds or perhaps even over a thousand years ago.  They get little work because the local cultures do not accept them, so they are isolated and live in poverty.  The local governments do little to help them.  And so on.  He argued that they do not deserve their negative stereotype.

Well, the stereotype was all I had seen of them.  I know there are Roma who get educated, get jobs, buy homes and raise families like their neighbors, but I have never actually met one.*   So here’s the next best thing:  an excellent and informative article by Roxy Freeman, about her experience growing up as a Gypsy (her word), and her subsequent decision to get a college education and move toward mainstream British society.  What I have learned from Ms. Freeman’s perspective is that most Gypsies probably just want to live as they always have and don’t intend any harm to others, and are largely oblivious to, or dismissive of, why others see them negatively; and yet, that actually contributes to their failure to integrate and their rejection by local societies.

Ms. Freeman is articulate and compelling, but certain aspects of her account only confirm some my first impressions.  She never went to school.  She labored as a child, her earnings going straight to her parents.  She admits that Gypsies have a high illiteracy rate, and that “traditional” Gypsy families have generally poor opportunities, are expected to marry young, to have large families, and to follow in their parents’ footsteps.  She speaks of her struggle to be admitted to college without any formal education at all; and of belatedly discovering her ignorance of innumerable basic facts, even of her own people’s history (for example, she had no knowledge of Hitler, or his genocide of Gypsies along with Jews).

Ms. Freeman’s Gypsy upbringing brought her to adulthood with almost no tools to participate in society at large.  Her sole salvation, frankly, was the fact that her mother was an “upper-class American” who “literally ran away with a Gypsy – my father.”  Her mother taught her to read, and helped her obtain books.  If not for that, Ms. Freeman may well have grown up completely illiterate.  Reading her eloquent essay, I can only think what a waste that would have been – and what a waste it is for countless Gypsy children whose mothers aren’t upper-class, educated Americans.  Those children grow up and remain firmly in the bubble of ignorance that Ms. Freeman inhabited for her first couple of decades, never able to quite grasp why there is friction between themselves  and society at large, how to communicate or even that there may be a need to communicate, or how to even think about resolving the problem.

Meanwhile, there are people like me, who grew up hearing romantic tales of travelling Gypsies, their exotic camps, their music and dance and fortune-telling and magic (Freeman confirms all but the fortune-telling and magic part).  My vision of Gypsies was Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, or Georges Bizet’s fiery Carmen, or maybe Cher’s song Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.  But my first bubble-bursting encounter with real Gypsies was with beggars, many of them dirty, unkempt, aggressive, unschooled children who could not speak the local language.  So was my second and third and all other encounters, in several different countries.  So what does someone with my experience typically think, then?  Negative things, and since there was no common language between us, there was certainly no way to communicate any finer points to dispel our mutual ignorance of each other.

The ill-fated title character of Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen."

The ill-fated title character of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”

Gina Lollobrigida as Victor Hugo's Esmeralda in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Gina Lollobrigida as Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Voices like Ms. Freeman’s could go a long way toward understanding, but so long as Gypsy culture celebrates freedom from society, they will never be part of society.  And therein lies the crux of the problem.


* I also found a Russian site which included a photo gallery of “Gypsy Intelligentsia,” mostly artists and scientists.  Interestingly, all of them were educated during the Soviet period, save one violinist who had been associated with Tolstoy.