Romani Americans (Roma)

By: Ian F. Hancock

Type: Overview Entry

Published: December 1, 1995

Updated: February 2, 2022

There are about 20,000 Romani Americans (Roma) in Texas, out of a national population of about one million. Romani people, commonly known by the pejorative term Gypsies, have been in the Americas since 1498, when Columbus brought some on his third voyage to the West Indies. Their subsequent forced transportation brought most Roma across the Atlantic. To understand why Roma were shipped to the American colonies, it is necessary first of all to examine the circumstances of their presence in Europe. They arrived in the Balkans from India in the middle of the thirteenth century because of the spread of Islam into the Byzantine Empire; the ancestors of the Roma had in fact left India in the first place during the first quarter of the eleventh century as troops resisting Islamic incursions. Roma were at first associated with the Muslim threat. Being non-White, having no country, alien in language, dress and religion, they were quickly and easily targeted as scapegoats. Nevertheless their artisan skills, particularly in metalworking, made them indispensable to the Balkan economy; as they started to move away from southeastern Europe to escape the increasingly rigorous demands upon them, legislation began to be put into effect making them the property of their employers. By the early fourteenth century, they had become slaves in Moldavia and Wallachia (present-day Romania). Slavery was not fully abolished there until 1864, after which date an ongoing migration out of the area to America and elsewhere began. Roma originating in this part of Europe are known collectively as Vlax (x as ch in German Achtung), and are divided into a number of distinct groups, depending upon their occupational or regional background in the Balkans. The two biggest groups in Texas (as well as in the rest of the country) are the Kalderasha and the Machwaya, who have been in the United States for about a century. Those who moved on into the rest of Europe had reached all of the countries in the North and the West by A.D. 1500. There, strict laws came into effect rooted in fear of the foreign intruders; Roma were the first people of color to come into Europe in large numbers-their descendants there today number about eight million. Having no country of their own, denied access to housing and schooling, they were in every sense outsiders, a fact that is having serious consequences today.

During the colonial period, western European nations dealt with their "Gypsy problem" by transporting them in large numbers overseas; the Spanish shipped Roma to their American colonies (including Spanish Louisiana) as part of their solución americana; the French sent numbers to the Antilles, and the Scots, English, and Dutch to North America and the Caribbean. Cromwell shipped Romanichal (i.e., Roma from Britain) as slaves to the southern plantations; there is documentation of Roma being owned by freed Blacks in Jamaica, and in both Cuba and Louisiana today there are Afro-Romani populations resulting from intermarriage between freed African and Roma enslaved people. Other well-represented Romani populations in America include the Bashaldé or "musician" Roma who immigrated after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Xoraxaya or Muslim Roma from Turkey and southeastern Europe, the Lovara, a Vlax group mainly from Poland, and a number of smaller groups. There is little social contact among these various Romani populations in this country, due mainly to considerable differences in dialects of the Romani language. Since the collapse of Communism and the resulting sharp increase in ethnic nationalism, incidents of anti-Roma have become common in Europe. As a result, a small but growing number of (mainly illegal) Romani immigrants are coming into the United States.

Being of Indian descent, Roma have retained an Indian cultural and linguistic heritage as well; Romani is widely spoken, and is certainly one of the healthiest immigrant languages in the country, transmitted from generation to generation with little danger of dying out in the foreseeable future. This is because language is a principal factor of Romani ethnic identity, and because certain cultural events require its exclusive use. If one cannot speak the language, he simply cannot participate. One such event among the Vlax is the kris or Romani Tribunal, a kind of internal "court" which deals with problems within the community. Such courts take place several times a year, usually in Houston or Fort Worth, and have their origins in the Indian panchayat. Also of Indian origin, and fundamental to Romani existence, is the concept of untouchability or ritual pollution. In Romani there are right and wrong ways to prepare food, for example, or wash clothes, or interact with other people, especially non-Roma (called gadjé, singular gadjó), who have the potential to "pollute." For this reason more than any other, Roma life is maintained quite separate from the non-Roma world, and parents are reluctant to send their children to school, especially after puberty, because of this.

Unlike the situation in Europe, where Roma are much in evidence, Roma in the United States have been called the "hidden Americans" because they remain by choice largely invisible. There are two reasons for this: first, the United States is made up of minority groups of all complexions, and so it is easy for Roma to present themselves as American Indians, Hispanics, or southern Europeans, and they usually do this rather than identify themselves as Roma. Second, most Americans know very little about actual Roma but a great deal about the Hollywood "gypsy" (with a small "g"), and since people fitting the romantic Roma image are not actually encountered in real life, the real population goes unnoticed.

In Texas, the two main Romani populations are Vlax and Romanichal. Their main centers are Houston and Fort Worth, though significant numbers of families live in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso. Nearly every large town has some Romani residents.

Various occupations are represented among the Romani Texans; some are traditional, such as stove and boiler repair or fortune-telling, but other Roma include musicians, teachers, university professors, and a documentary filmmaker. Their principal festivals are, for the Vlax who are Eastern Orthodox, Christmas (Kri_uno) and Easter (Patrad_i), celebrated by the old calendar, and various slavi or saints' days. For the Romanichals, many of whom are now Born-Again Christians, the main Protestant holy days are observed. Born-Again Christianity has also made considerable inroads into the Vlax community, and there are Roma churches throughout Texas. This has caused some conflict with those who maintain the older traditions, who see the new church as opposing and ultimately destroying various aspects of cultural behavior such as arranged marriages, dowries, and fortune telling. An effort was made in the 1970s to establish a mobile Romani-language school in Texas that would travel between Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth to bring literacy in English and Romani to the community, but changes in the national administration curtailed those plans. Today, the University of Texas is the only institution of higher education in the country that regularly offers a course in Romani language, history, and culture, and it attracts scholars from as far away as India. The university also has an extensive collection of Roma-related materials; both the famous Rupert Croft-Cooke collection and the library of the International Romani Union are located on its campus, making it a world center for Romani Studies.

Rena C. Gropper, Gypsies in the City: Culture Patterns and Survival (Princeton, New Jersey: Darwin Press, 1975). Ian F. Hancock, The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Karoma, 1987). Anne Sutherland, Gypsies: The Hidden Americans (New York: Free Press, 1975).

  • Peoples
  • Roma (Gypsies)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ian F. Hancock, “Romani Americans (Roma),” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995
February 2, 2022