Let’s End Prejudice Against ‘Gypsies’

Barry A. Fisher, of the Century City firm of Fleishman, Fisher & Moest, is a lawyer specializing in constitutional and human rights law

The word “Gypsy” evokes powerful, Janus-faced imagery--romantic and carefree on one hand, conniving and criminal on the other. So it is with the recently released “Traveller,” replete with exoticism and tales of thievery .

The title, according to John Anderson’s review in The Times, “refer[s] to the ‘gypsies’ of the British Isles,” who “like the better-known Romany Gypsies, . . . liv[e] an outlaw existence . . . mak[ing] their living running con games [and] selling dubious goods” (“Colorful ‘Traveller’ Winds Its Way Among Con Artists,” Calendar, April 25). The movie depicts families of “Travellers” who ultimately pull a con on supposedly even more conniving and dangerous Romani “Gypsies.”

The Times’ review unquestioningly accepts these notions about “Gypsies” and “Travellers” as fact. But they are not fact, far from it. That The Times and the film itself can openly play on these beliefs reflects a long history of persecution and discrimination that continues to permeate the general culture. It is hard to think of any other ethnic group for which this can be said.


Who are the people the film and the reviewer are talking about? “Travellers,” “tinkers” and “Gypsies” are colorful terms that mesh interrelated but different peoples, who are often lumped together and indiscriminately treated as the same.

The Romani people, derogatorily called “Gypsies,” are an ethnicity, often treated as a race, that originated in northern India. Its members migrated, moving mostly west, a thousand years ago. They are a people who have preserved, despite great adversities, rich traditions, culture and a unique Sanskrit-related language. The Nazis, as they did the Jews, dubbed them acriminal race of subhumans and marked them for extermination.

The India-originated Romani people reached the British Isles in about the 15th century, where they encountered nomadic people who spoke Celtic dialects. Some intermarriage and intermix of culture and language followed. Groupings that remained relatively isolated from the Celtic culture are now known as Romnichel. Similar phenomena occurred elsewhere in Europe. In Germanic areas, for instance, the peoples analogous to the Romnichel are called Sinti.

“Tinkers”--whose name derives from their supposed occupation as tinsmiths--now often called “Travellers” or “Travelling People,” are believed by some scholars to be traceable as a more or less distinct group in Ireland as far back as the 5th century. The Romnichel are sometimes included within a broad category of Traveller cultures found in various parts of the British Isles.

Romani peoples began to come to what is now the United States in about the 17th century. Beginning in the early 1800s, many Romnichel followed. They are now found in this country in all walks of life and social strata. The movie business is no exception. A Romnichel friend of mine is a script writer whose family came to this country in 1851. Actor Bob Hoskins, who is of Romnichel background, directed a film on the subject, “Raggedy Rawney,” that he is reported to have said is based on a story passed down in his family.

Mainstream American media--typified by both this film and its reception in The Times--treat “Gypsies” as well as “Travellers” as cardboard stereotypes: either as inborn criminals or as romantic wanderers. They are perhaps America’s last minority to be fair game for such open and casual attacks. Police departments still have resident “Gypsy experts.” Recently, Romani groups have begun to organize and speak out against discrimination. Evidently, there is a long way yet to go.


Many thousands of Romani and Romnichel live in the Los Angeles area, and many more thousands live elsewhere in the United States. They have been here for generations. They live quietly. Some are wealthy; many own businesses. They are not--as The Times’ reviewer and the film assert--living an “outlaw existence.” It’s time Hollywood and The Times treat them with respect.