The Romani people are traditionally known for their nomadic lifestyles, and their travels throughout areas of Europe. Historians now agree that the Roma culture and people originated from North West India, emigrating around the eleventh century into what is now Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Here, they split into two groups, one going south to the African continent and the other West into Europe. Reportedly, Europeans who first met Romani peoples greeted them warmly, with aristocrats providing travelling groups with papers to travel freely from country to country.
Travelling Across Europe
By the sixteenth century, the Romani had settled in the Balkans, and from here spread across the rest of Europe. They traditionally travelled in caravans, setting up tents wherever they settled. The jobs they performed were customarily those of handiwork – repairing household items, and carpentry, as well as trade and entertainment. Music plays a vital role in Romani culture, and many Romani people were singers or played instruments for pay. Many Roma faced discrimination wherever they went because they were seen as thieves and the goodwill they once were warmly shown soon ended. The Romani have for centuries faced prejudice, attacks and ill-spirited stereotypes against their cultures and practices. Despite Romani groups usually assimilating the culture of those places in which they have settled, their continuing of their own cultural practices and traditions began to be seen as an attack or threat to a traditional European way of life. Their refusal to fully assimilate caused societies to blame them for thievery, begging, kidnapping, prostitution and witchcraft – stereotypes lasted against contemporary Romani groups.
Now, their most concentrated settlements are in Central and Eastern Europe, Southern France and Spain. Since the nineteenth century, they have spread further than Europe and into the Americas.
Migration to the Americas
Today there are an estimated one million Roma in the United States, due to large migrations in the nineteenth century. Small groups began emigrating to Virginia and French Louisiana, with larger numbers following in the 1860s. Some Romani people were sent to the New World as slaves, as many throughout history had been slaves in Europe. Widely practiced in medieval Europe, travelling and settled Roma became enslaved, as legislation declared that any Roma living in, or who had emigrated to, what is now Romania were to be slaves. Slavery was abolished in these regions gradually in the mid-nineteenth century. However, in the late nineteenth century, Romani immigration was forbidden outside Europe in English-speaking countries, one other effect of prejudice against their cultures and practices
The traditionally nomadic people have faced incredible discrimination throughout their migrations, from the eleventh century when they left India to today, where stereotypes and slurs are still used casually against them. During the Holocaust, Romani were often killed on site or sent to concentration camps to be killed in the gas chambers. Their travelling lifestyle has subjected them to people’s fear and misunderstanding, and they are often seen as unwanted and unneeded – in Czechoslovakia when they were deemed as ‘socially degraded stratum’ causing the sterilization of Romani women to control the population. Many Romani today have settled in areas, changing the traditional nature of their jobs in keeping with the times. Despite stereotypes and discrimination, Romani people have a strong pride in their cultures, their traditions and their history, aiming to fight for the representation and equality they are still looking for in the twenty-first century.