Gypsies Trying To Change Stereotyped Image -- Some Practice Their Ancient Culture Secretly

Inside some churches, born-again Christians joyfully sing the Lord's praises in Romani, the language of Gypsies. Behind the doors of some middle-class homes, families of Gypsies faithfully maintain the traditions of centuries past.

But this is a private life. For some it's a secret life, hidden from co-workers and associates.

An estimated 1 million of the world's 5 million Gypsies live in the United States, most unrecognized as Gypsies and quite happy to keep it that way. A long history of persecution has taught them to distrust outsiders. Half a million of them died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

But a growing number are speaking up, demanding that Gypsies be seen as something other than happy-go-lucky wanderers or thieves.

"Americans use the word Gypsy with either a negative connotation or a romantic connotation, never realizing that Gypsies are a real people with real problems," says Jud Nirenberg of Washington, D.C., who is part Gypsy and works with organizations promoting Gypsy rights.

Gypsies call themselves Roma and prefer it to the English word, which is based on the mistaken belief that they came from Egypt. Roma originated in northwest India. Their language, related to Hindi, and beliefs reflect that background.

After a long migration, many Gypsies ended up in eastern Europe, and some later made their way to the United States. The biggest concentrations in this country are in Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, Texas and the Northeast as well as in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, says Ian Hancock, president of the International Roma Federation and representative at the United Nations for Gypsies worldwide.

New persecution in Europe

Some of the urgency for Gypsies to speak out stems from their horror at the renewed persecution of Gypsies in eastern Europe since the fall of communism.

Some of that urgency also springs from a growing feeling that for Gypsies to improve their lives in the United States they need to gain some understanding, respect and even political clout. Many point jealously to the Jews as an example to be followed.

One stumbling block is that many Gypsies are poorly educated, even illiterate. Even now many keep their children out of school or take them out before they become interested in the opposite sex.

"Jewish people educated themselves without giving up their way of life, where we didn't have the opportunity," says John Nickels, owner of an amusement park in Wildwood, N.J. "It was not considered important, and that's why we're paying the price today."

Nickels now wishes his father had not taken him out of school after the fourth grade. But, he adds, "I did the same thing, I just let my kids go further." They went up to the eighth grade.

Hancock says the reason parents take their children out of school is, "put bluntly, the fear of cultural contamination." Gypsies do not want their children influenced by a culture they believe promotes drug use, low morals and violence.

Add to this that Gypsy children have had a rough time in public schools. "Sometimes it's just teasing about crystal balls, sometimes it's quite hostile," Hancock says.

Gypsies consider that by the time children are in their teens they are better off working with their parents to learn a trade and earn money for the family. They see little value in studying the history and ideas of an alien Western civilization.

The problem at the core is that schools promote assimilation and intermarriage.

Frank Leo of Edison, N.J., said children are taken out of school in their early teens because "they start fooling around with other kids and it spoils our custom." With great ceremony, some fathers still arrange marriages for their children, often when they are still teenagers, with the girl's family getting a bride price.

Many Gypsies live a split-culture existence, says Hancock, an English professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "You're a Rom when you're home. When you're not, you try to pass." Some, including Hancock, have two names.

Hancock knows a Gypsy who is a commercial airline pilot and others who are lawyers in Philadelphia and Atlanta. "These guys are absolutely terrified" of being identified as Gypsies, Hancock says.

Gypsies live middle-class lives, and most no longer need to travel the country looking for work, he says. They often blend in by being mistaken for people of Mexican, Greek or Italian heritage. Most are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, faiths adopted when their ancestors lived in eastern Europe.

But, in recent years, many Gypsies across the country have been turning to Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity. Leo's brother, Steve, preaches in Romani to a congregation of 200 to 300 in Elizabeth, N.J.

The most visible Gypsies in many communities are the fortunetellers, who often live with large families behind their storefront parlors. They tend to be some of the least assimilated.

Most Gypsies keep outsiders at arm's length.

"There is a feeling that they will turn on you, that they will let you down," Hancock says. "As far back as I can remember I thought that too, not to trust the gadje."

A person is either Romani or gadje. The clear separation between Gypsy and non-Gypsy is reflected in the language, still spoken in families that have been here for generations.

Bridging the gap

A few, like Michael Marks of Wichita, Kan., are trying to bridge the gap.

"We are our worst enemies - by not inviting people to our parties, none of us taking the responsibility to run for any office, to get involved in any community service like I'm doing now," he says.

Marks is running for mayor of Wichita as an underdog third-party candidate and believes he is the first Gypsy ever to seek public office in the United States. "It's a historical event for my people," Marks said.

Marks has chaired ethnic festivals and held fund-raisers for political candidates.

At Christmas the family decorated his parents' home with glittering lights and invited the public to an open house. They served cookies and hot chocolate and handed out pamphlets with information about Roma.

Marks helps run his family's three metal-recycling businesses, but when something needs to be written down he calls for his secretary. Pulled out of school after the second grade, he can read but not write.

Seeing the value of an education, Marks, 39, kept his children in school and hopes his 10 grandchildren will go to college.

Marks says Gypsies should accept that mixed marriages are inevitable and take other steps to preserve their culture. He has dreams of building a cultural center and museum on property his family owns in downtown Wichita.

Another Marks family, this one in Spokane, Wash., has taken a different tack toward ending discrimination.

The families of Grover and James Marks filed a $40 million lawsuit contending their civil rights were violated when police raided their homes in 1986 looking for stolen property. Officers ripped gold-plated false fingernails from women's hands and removed a little girl's earrings. The state Supreme Court later ruled the search illegal.

"The typical Romani response is to disappear," Hancock says. "Jimmy Marks has stood his ground and shown the rest of the community that they don't have to put up with police abuse.

"We're turning a corner here."