The one million Roma in the U.S. are used to living in the shadows, but lately activists are actively promoting a sense of ethnic identity
In the U.S., they’re scattered: coming from a multitude of countries, speaking many dialects, practicing disparate traditions, and observing various levels of traditionalism. But few Americans realize that there are Roma living in their midst, or that they’ve been here since the beginning—three Roma are said to have accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. And the Roma count a number of high-profile figures in their ranks. Guitarist Django Reinhardt was Romani, and some theorize such disparate icons as Charlie Chaplin, Michael Caine, Elvis Presley, and even former President Bill Clinton come from Roma roots.
Undocumented by the U.S. Census, American Roma may keep their heritage under wraps, but when it does emerge, they’ve faced discrimination from friends, landlords, waiters, classmates, strangers, cops, store clerks, and professors. Many were raised with warnings not to tell others of their ethnic identity, and so they remain a hidden ingredient in America’s melting pot.
“American Roma come from many different sub-groups, so it is hard for them to organize when they may have little culturally in common,” says Dr. Carol Silverman, head of the anthropology department at the University of Oregon. But in the past decade, a new crop of activists has emerged, and they’re forming advocacy organizations and school programs to aid their underserved communities, determined to set the record straight on their cultural identity. But each headline-making event or raid can set their work back. Dr. Silverman calls the recent news from Europe “devastating for American Roma.”