Gypsies Are Banding Together to Fight Age-Old Stereotypes

Times Staff Writer

Last month, two stories appeared in the Los Angeles Times, sections apart. They told of Gypsies, generations and worlds apart.

One story was of Sigmund Strochlitz, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, and his memory of haunting music that came from a group of inmates. He recalled the day in 1944 when the music stopped. That was the day 4,000 Gypsies were exterminated.

The other story was about today and suburban Los Angeles and German Vargas, a Northridge man who was swindled out of $58,000 in life savings. The thief, Los Angeles police said, was a Gypsy fortuneteller.

Between those extremes there is a reality.


A Misunderstood People

It is of a clannish, somewhat mysterious, certainly suspicious, definitely misunderstood people, their representatives say, a people whose status has been damned by a criminal element.

Where are Los Angeles’ estimated 50,000 Gypsies? “All over,” one of their spokesmen said. “The largest concentration of Roma (their emerging preferred term for “Gypsies”) I’ve seen was at the Rancho Park golf course. They also hold meetings at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.”

Who are California’s 200,000 Roma?


Fortunetellers, of course, by tradition. But also car salesmen such as George Adams of Oxnard. Machine tool makers. A retired cardiologist. Realtors. Officers with the California Highway Patrol. And at least one died in Vietnam.

Fatima Stevens of Anaheim tells fortunes--but as a cultural extension, a sideline, husband John says. He deals in real estate.

So does his father, Vine Stevens of Glendale, who is an executive of the U.S. Romani Council. Steered from Boston and Los Angeles, this new small group has begun a determined campaign for what promises to be the nation’s next political and social readjustment--Gypsy rights.

Ethnic Seclusion


“I even know a Rom who is a cantor with a degree in Hebrew.” This spokesman is Gypsy. He has a doctorate from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

And how do Roma live? Largely in ethnic reclusion. One observer has said that compared to Gypsies, the Mafia is an open society. Their distrust of the gadjo (non-Gypsy) is fierce and their derision complete. Centuries of persecution have taught them to deny being Gypsy. It hides their identity and flimflams the gadjo . Perfect. They tell outsiders they are Greek or Mexican or Italian.

The Detroit News, April, 1985: “It’s Gypsy Season . . . So Don’t Get Gypped.”

That headline, a Gypsy leader, their counsel and a scholar suggest, would never have been published had it referred, for example, to Jews.


The slur and the racism would be identical.

Yet that Detroit headline inspired no public outrage, no editorial apologies or retraction.

And therein, they state, is the small but important justification for their work.

Said the counsel, Barry Fisher, a Century City lawyer: “They (Gypsies) are the last group in the United States that the press can get away with discriminating against. But for better or worse, it’s going to change.”


Said the leader, John Merino of Ventura, a baro , a respected elder of the Gypsy nation: “Los Angeles has the largest Gypsy community in the United States.” But few, he said, fit any part of the Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley stereotype of Gypsies as romantic, swindling, chicken-stealing, fortunetelling, spell-casting nomads. “They (Gypsies) find that (stereotype) offensive and derogatory. So they are starting to come out of the closet to be recognized as property owners, as professionals, as policemen, as (military) veterans entitled to respect.”

Said the scholar, Ian Hancock, a British Gypsy and professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, Austin: “It is a sad reflection on the state of justice in the United States that, despite its unconstitutionality, Gypsies remain the only ethnic minority against whom laws still operate and who are specifically named in those laws . . . a list of which fills 34 pages.

“Texas law refers to ‘Prostitutes, Gypsies and vagabonds’ in the same breath. . . . “

Follow Other Minorities


Enough is far too much, agrees this triumvirate.

So now, state Fisher, Merino and Hancock, Gypsies must follow Jews, blacks, Italians, Latinos and American Indians in diluting defamation and discrimination by exposure and assimilation . . . and without reducing their culture and heritage.

“My mother said, I never should, play with the Gypsies in the wood.” --Old nursery rhyme

Nobody, least of all Gypsy leaders, deny their villains, their confidence tricks, their welfare scams. Newspapers and police files provide confirmation.


“Gypsy Raid Opens Far-reaching Case,” announced a July headline. The story concerned an alleged $2-million fencing operation in Spokane, Wash.

“Gypsy Burglary Gang Seized in West L.A.” So was about $700,000 in jewelry, cash, coins and silver.

Although Gypsies are almost never involved in crimes of violence (“We’ll talk you out of your gold, but we won’t steal it with a gun,” Merino claimed), there is new evidence of some trafficking in drugs.

Then how many rogues are there among the permanent Gypsy population of Los Angeles? “None of ‘em. It’s the people (Gypsies) from out of state that are coming in and causing the trouble.


“The Rom nation today is steadfast. They (Gypsies) are not roaming around as they used to. And we want to be recognized for that, respected and not judged by the past and the actions of a few.”

In his soon-to-be-published book, “Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution,” Hancock addresses the identical point: “Stealing, in particular, is seen as a Gypsy trait. Specialists . . . have even implied that it is a genetic characteristic.

“Certainly some Gypsies steal, just as some Eskimos or Berbers or Englishmen steal. Others don’t. It is social behavior and it is not transmitted biologically. To believe that such a thing (biological transmission) is possible reflects not only prejudice, but an ignorance of scientific fact.”

Barry Fisher, a constitutional lawyer and chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s committee on religious freedom, is a gadjo . But he has represented individual Gypsies and the U.S. Romani Council for almost three years and often on a pro bono basis.


‘Well-Off’ Landowner

John Merino is an executive of the Romani Council and, most important, a recognized and respected liaison between his Rom (Gypsy people) and agencies and programs of the non-Gypsy world. Unlike many Gypsies, Merino, 61, the California-born son of a Yugoslavian coppersmith and horse trader, graduated from high school. He describes himself as a “well-off” landowner with multiple rental properties and development holdings in California and Oregon.

Ian Hancock, 44, is a Romani intellectual, a member of the International Romani Union and its representative to the United Nations in New York.

Attorney. Businessman. Professor. There are also a Washington car salesman, an Illinois real estate broker, a Los Angeles minister, a Minnesota musician, an Ohio building contractor, an educator in New Mexico, a psychiatrist in Boston and a neurosurgeon in Chicago, Gypsies all, who are among several dozen persons currently lobbying for the civil and political rights of an estimated 1 million Gypsies in America.


Noticeable Clout

Their machine is small. There is no office of the U.S. Romani Council and the secretary, Grattan Puxon, keeps its files in his Culver City home. He draws no salary. Yet the council’s clout is becoming noticeable.

--Last month in Washington, the U.S. Romani Council and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council joined ceremonies and prayers in a Day of Remembrance for 500,000 European Gypsies who died in Nazi concentration camps. Although 50 years late, it was a milestone in public recognition of the Gypsy loss. “We have not done enough to make others listen to your voice of sadness,” said Elie Wiesel, chairman of the Holocaust Council. “Your anguish must be recorded.”

--From that Day of Remembrance came plans for this month’s closed meeting of Gypsy leaders in Baton Rouge, La. “We’ll spend a couple of days discussing ways to strengthen the Romani ties,” explained Hancock. “We have to make a move towards overcoming the differences that separate the various (Gypsy) nations in the United States so that we can work towards ethnic unity.”


--Hancock has compiled a 30-person list of “concerned academics and some politicians” who receive regular mailings propagandizing the Gypsy cause. He is constantly collecting and monitoring slurs. Such as the advertisement for a New York company selling a Gypsy costume for Halloween and a newspaper quiz where a facetious answer was: “Sell your sister (brother) and her cat (his dog) to the Gypsies.” Many of these incidents are now being challenged by lawyers’ letters, and although there has been no litigation, said Hancock, “they (advertisers and media) will know better next time.”

--In the belief that notability translates to respectability, Harry Bryer of Toledo, a lay genealogist and Gypsy historian, is building a directory of prominent persons known to be Gypsy. Topping that register is the late Yul Brynner, who actively promoted his Gypsy ancestry and in 1979 was honorary president of the 2nd World Romany Congress (26 nations represented) in Geneva.

Bryer has established that Charlie Chaplin’s mother was Gypsy. So was Michael Caine’s grandfather.

--Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gypsy fortuneteller Fatima Stevens (represented by attorney Fisher) who had sued the city of Azuza claiming that its ban on fortunetellers violated her constitutional right of free speech. The ruling ended longstanding bans on fortunetelling in other South Bay cities.


Ordinance Amended

--Less than a month later, Monterey Park quickly amended a new ordinance licensing fortunetellers after being told that its wording contained a racist reference. The measure described the business as forecasting by various means, including “Gypsy cunning.”

--The North American Chapter of the Gypsy Lore Society has formed a Romani Anti-Defamation League, and its findings will be explored at a panel discussion at the organization’s 1987 annual meeting in Los Angeles.

According to secretary Puxon, the U.S. Romani Council would like to work with California school districts in establishing “reception classes” to ease poorly educated Gypsy children into the mainstream of modern schooling. Merino says work is under way to establish a Romani cultural center in Los Angeles.


With so many needs, priorities come hard.

But, the activists say, early and firm efforts should be made to petition against those American cities and states that still maintain law enforcement units devoted to Gypsy crime.

As examples, Hancock cites the Michigan State Police Gypsy Criminal Activity Task Force and the Illinois State Police Gypsy Activity Project. Also, the “Gypsy Detail” of the Los Angeles Police Department.

“This kind of legalized discrimination is leveled at no other ethnic minority, although there are presumably Italian, Navajo and Irish criminals as well preying upon the American public,” he said.


Little Achieved

Hancock said representatives of such units automatically become ready and expert sources for the media, law enforcement magazines, lecture circuits and television documentaries. Yet their writings and presentations, he said, achieve little beyond perpetuating the image of Gypsies as criminals.

Such as this 1981 description from a police officer writing in Centurion, a law enforcement magazine: “The label of ‘Gypsy’ refers to any family-oriented band of nomads who may be from any country in the world . . . the only measure of respect a Gypsy woman can get is based on her abilities as a thief.”

Detective Sgt. Jose Alcantara is one of two officers permanently assigned to the LAPD’s so-called Gypsy Detail. He has spent 18 years investigating and prosecuting Gypsy pickpockets, fortunetellers, burglars and door-to-door swindlers ready to “fix” everything from driveways to car fenders.


Alcantara emphatically denies being racist.

He said he does use “Gypsy” in police reports and official communications--"but as a description, just as I would use the term black , Latin or Oriental .”

He acknowledged that his police work involves discrimination--"discrimination against law breakers.”

Police Parlance


He is aware that his view of Gypsies is biased against the law breaker--"that’s my problem, the only ones I come in contact with are the criminal element. I’m not a pastor in a church.”

Even the term Gypsy Detail , Alcantara said, is an informal reference that’s more police parlance than a written, departmental description. “The people who refer to us as the Gypsy Detail,” he added, “are the Gypsies.”

One quick fix to the overall problem, the experts agree, would be to dump the very word Gypsy.

For as long as there remain learned dictionaries (The Oxford English Dictionary for one) defining “Gipsy, Gypsy . . . a cunning rogue,” there remains an easy basis for stereotype and defamation.


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language presents “gyp, gypped . . . to swindle, cheat or defraud (Probably short for Gypsy).”

Said Puxon: “We want to get ‘Gypsy’ out of the public mind because of its derogatory connotation. They are ‘Rom.’ That simply means a people that came from Northern India with their own culture and customs.”

On the other hand, Hancock asks, what’s really in a name?

“I remember what my grandfather used to tell me: ‘If the sign on the pub says ‘No Gypsies Served,’ or the sign on the pub says ‘No Rom Served,’ it really doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. I don’t get my beer.


“So it’s not just the word that has to change. It’s the attitude of the people.”

Gypsies are a genuine Fourth World nation.

“Third World people have countries,” Hancock explained. “Fourth World people do not. Eskimos. American Indians. Palistinians. Basque. Laplanders. And Roma.”

They have been stateless since their movement from Northern India (Romani is derived from Sanskrit with traces of Byzantine Greek) in the 9th Century. Pushed west by Middle Eastern wars, the Roma fanned across ancient and modern Europe. To Russia. Hungary. Bulgaria. Serbia. Switzerland. Germany.


In each country there was persecution. Slavery. Expulsion. Forced assimilation. Gypsies were hunted for sport in medieval Germany. And in 20th-Century Germany, they were the first to die (as early as 1936) in the Nazi death camps.

Preceded by Reputation

They came in force to the United States at the end of the last century as refugees. They were preceded by an international reputation as caravan dwellers, chicken thieves, tinkers and balladeers. They brought no written history, no major skills, no literacy and no language common to other immigrants. So they drew into themselves, for there was peace within a subculture that few Americans understood.

And without access to lawyers, the media, public conscience and the body politic, the misunderstanding snowballed.


“They’re a people who are shrouded in mystery due to our (non-Gypsy) desire to have a people of mystery and mystique around us,” attorney Fisher said. “And people who, to a large degree, have played along with that role.

“They are people who have been able to preserve their language and culture . . . and their fear and distrust have contributed to that preservation. So now there’s a concern about change, about the penalties and the loss from assimilation.”

There are many specialists who see California’s sedentary Gypsy population (fewer than 5% are now considered nomadic) as a people living on a margin; citizens caught between a stigmal existence and the seduction of an American culture that doesn’t easily accept them.

Merino certainly knows the old world. Twice a month, maybe more, he chairs a kris , a tribunal that adjudicates Gypsy disputes. Sometimes at the Beverly Wilshire, sometimes at the downtown Holiday Inn, but always speaking Romani, these courts handle such civil matters as runaway lovers, stolen virginity (in Chicago, the recent option was marriage or a $1,000 fine) or misuse of vocational training funds established to train young Roma.


The ultimate punishment is blackballing. “That would keep him from any Gypsy ceremonies, weddings, things like that,” Merino said. “He’d become a gadjo .”

High Illiteracy Rate

Yet by clutching these orthodox ways, Merino knows, too many of his people are clinging to poverty. More than 75% of adult Gypsies in Los Angeles, he says, are illiterate. Teen brides are still sold into arranged marriages. Children continue to be kept out of school for fear they will stray from traditional mores.

But not in John Stevens’ household.


“I finished high school, my wife and I are legally married, and my (three) kids are going through college,” he said. “That means there are traditional Gypsies who consider us non-Gypsies.”

What it truly means, he says, is that the Stevenses are 1986 California Roma, men and women and children who have merged with the non-Gypsy world without losing their culture.

“A lot of the Gypsies that are here (Los Angeles) are native Californians,” Stevens said. “My father is native Californian. So I consider myself American first and Gypsy second.

“And I’m hoping that more Gypsies become educated so that they can participate, become successful businessmen and be Americans first.”


Mixed Feelings

Fisher recognizes both camps. He also recognizes a potential for cultural loss should the Rom find new status.

“On one hand I relate and appreciate the culture and the people and their very rich contribution,” he said. “On the other, I believe in justice, civil rights and am attracted to their cause.

“But at times, to make strides for their cause may be detrimental to their culture. So I have mixed feelings.”


There is no doubt that polarization, the division between traditional Gypsies and the reformists, is hampering programs of the U.S. Romani Council. Further, Hancock said, there is the almost traditional friction between its factions. The Serbian Gypsies, the Machvaya. The Russians, the Rusurya. The British, the Romanichals. The Hungarian and Czechoslovakian, the Romungre.

There is a need, Gypsies say, to reeducate the media--yet there remains no easy access to Romani leaders and families. Unlisted telephone numbers are universal. They interview reluctantly. Some are loath to have their photographs appear in a newspaper, said one specialist, because they fear “that the photographs will wind up in police files.”

Revision Attacked

There is a loud voice for change--yet revision is attacked by isolated traditionalists if it appears to defy Gypsy tenets, such as the ancient Gypsy belief that stealing is a God-given privilege.


During the crucifixion, legend dictates, Gypsies stole a fourth spike that was to be used to pierce Jesus’ heart. In gratitude, it is claimed by a relatively few devout believers, Jesus gave Gypsies the right to steal.

That’s particularly hard on Sam Mitchell’s cause.

He is a Los Angeles Rom, a born-again lay preacher who has formed the Gypsy Christian Fellowship. Although most Gypsies are devoted to Catholicism, there seems to be a solid Gypsy following for Mitchell’s traveling church. He claims congregations ranging “from 50 or 60 to a few hundred.

“But when I teach against the swindle, when I teach that we have to be honest and that is God’s will to be done . . . I get flak from the people who believe in the Gypsy tradition of survival by stealing by Divine right.”


Even among the totally committed there is hesitation.

Hancock lives in Austin with a population of 350,000 that includes 35 Gypsies. He is open about being a Romanichal, a British Gypsy. Yet he has told his three children, two in grade school, one in high school, not to acknowledge being Gypsy.

“It would be putting too much of a burden on them,” he said.