Their long journey from the Old World to the New World, from India to Fort Worth has been a colorful one but also one beset by tribulation.
The very word conjures images of horse-drawn caravans, golden earrings, trained bears, exuberant celebrations around campfires, and, of course, fortune-telling and the nomadic lifestyle that has made the word gypsy synonymous with wanderer. (Less benignly, the verb gyp comes from the noun gypsy.)
Gypsies. The stuff of Shakespeare (Othello), Hugo (Les Miserables), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Ian Fleming (From Russia with Love); the stuff of myth: Gypsies are condemned forever to wander the Earth as the cursed descendants of Cain.
Gypsies. The word Gypsy derives from the word Egypt and stems from the belief (a belief perhaps encouraged by early Gypsies themselves) that Gypsies originated in Egypt. But Gypsies no more came from Egypt than American Indians came from India. In fact, it is the Gypsies who came from India!
Gypsies, originally a Hindu low caste, left India a thousand years ago, give or take, and migrated first into the Middle East and then into Europe and north Africa and eventually the United States.
And forget the term Gypsy. The preferred term is Roma or Romani (although the Roma also did not originate in Rome or Romania).
Roma indeed traditionally were great travelers—one way or the other. Columbus is said to have brought two Roma women—Catalina and Maria—to the Caribbean on his third voyage in 1498. The Spanish crown had freed the two women—convicted murderers—on condition that they immigrate to the New World.
Like many other outgroups, during the centuries of their migration, Roma—speaking a strange language, practicing strange customs—faced harsh treatment by ingroups: Roma were, at best, marginalized, scapegoated, and stereotyped as abductors of children, seducers of ingroup menfolk, and thieves. The label of “con artists” has been difficult for Roma to outlive. Members of ingroups have claimed that Roma rationalize stealing from gadje (non-Roma) as compensation for centuries of persecution by gadje. There is even the Roma crucifixion legend: God spoke to a Gypsy blacksmith in a dream, telling the blacksmith to make four nails for the crucifixion of Jesus but to hand over to Roman authorities only three because the fourth nail was intended to pierce the heart of Jesus. The blacksmith obeyed. In return, God granted the descendants of the blacksmith the right to steal from gadje without breaking the Eighth Commandment.
Such a legend, of course, might be created and perpetuated by an ingroup as well as an outgroup.
In past centuries Roma were, at worst, deported, enslaved, exterminated. During World War II the number of Roma killed by Nazi genocide has been estimated at 200,000 to 1.5 million.
Roma, like other ethnic groups, migrated to America to find a better life. And here they fared better, in part by keeping, for the most part, a low profile and by keeping their distance from gadje. In fact, the Roma have been called the “hidden Americans.” Two factors have helped Roma to hide in plain sight. (1) Because the United States has minority groups of all complexions, Roma can present themselves as Hispanic, Native American, southern European, etc. rather than identify themselves as Roma. (2) Most Americans are much more familiar with the Hollywood Gypsy stereotype than with authentic Roma, and because modern Roma usually do not match that stereotype, they go undetected.
Sani Rifati, president of Voice of Roma, which promotes Romani cultural preservation, said in 2011: “There is a good reason why Roma separate themselves from non-Roma; it’s a form of protection. If you look at the non-Roma communities throughout the world, they’re not so kind to Roma. You have this form of protection with other groups like the Amish, who don’t live with any Western values, or Orthodox Jews. In Roma culture the most important value is the family and the clan. If you don’t protect that then you are completely lost.”
Today, of the American Roma, there are two major subgroups, both Christian: The Vlax typically are Eastern Orthodox; the Romanichals are Protestant. But being of Indian descent, many Roma have retained some Indian/Hindu customs, including the Romani language and Hindu purity laws: Certain parts of the body, certain animals, certain life processes (childbirth, death) are considered impure.
Traditionally a Roma groom’s family paid a “bride price” to the bride’s family; marriages were often arranged, sometimes in childhood.
Texas Monthly wrote in 1997:
“They [Roma] practiced ancient rituals designed to appease the ghosts and spirits they said were hovering over their lives. They wouldn’t comb their hair on Fridays, which they called the Devil’s Day, and made sure to leave the clothes of their dead—neatly folded—in the nicest spot in the forest. They wore coral shells to protect themselves from what they called the Evil Eye, and they refused to go near bodies of water after dark, believing the waters to be inhabited by the spirits of the drowned.”
More from Texas Monthly in 1997:
“For centuries Gypsies have believed that the gadje are mahrime (“unclean”) and that their germs cause many diseases. Spending too much time in the presence of the gadje puts a Gypsy at risk of contamination. If Gypsies move into a home previously occupied by the gadje, they will diligently clean the entire place with bleach, repaint it, and replace the carpets and drapes. There are elderly Gypsies who are so uncomfortable about eating at a gadje-owned restaurant that they bring their own silverware. They will never use public restrooms except to wash their hands—and even then they still can be seen using paper towels to turn on the water faucets.”
But assimilation inevitably erodes the customs of an ethnic group. Although traditional Roma trades have been fortune-teller (drabardi), musician, metalworker, carnival worker, today in America Roma are more likely to hold mainstream jobs. You may buy your next car or house from a Roma.
And increasingly Roma live in a permanent residence. But even after Roma stopped wandering and traded horses for house payments, some of the traditions continued. Perhaps the Roma tradition that has best resisted dilution by assimilation is their emphasis on family and on the extended family—the clan. A clan is composed of families related by blood or marriage, but the clan families share the same surname—an “American” surname adopted to blend in. A clan traditionally has been ruled by a king or a queen.
Another surviving tradition is Roma courts, known as kris. Kris adjudicate important issues, such as divorce and violations of purity laws. For example, two of the most powerful Roma clans in Texas are the Evans clan and the Mitchell clan. The two clans had long competed for status and had feuded, ala the Hatfields and McCoys, over perceived affronts and even, ala the Montagues and Capulets, over star-crossed lovers. In 1991 Joey Mitchell, son of Mitchell clan leader Buckey Mitchell, was accused to violating Roma law by becoming involved with a not-yet-divorced Roma woman. A kris was convened in Dallas to determine punishment for Joey Mitchell. A thousand Roma attended. Walter Evans of Houston was kris prosecutor and demanded that Joey Mitchell pay the offended family a globa (fine) of $2,500. That sentence was imposed, but the Evans clan claimed that Mitchell ignored the sentence. As a consequence Mitchell was blackballed—banned from Roma social life. As a consequence of the blackball, the Evans clan said, the Mitchell clan retaliated with threats and violence to the Evans clan. The feud continued.
Fort Worth and Houston have the largest Roma populations in Texas, which is home to about twenty thousand Roma out of a U.S. Roma population of one million. Fort Worth has long had a large Evans clan.
The “hidden Americans” have not always been so hidden. The Evans clan first made headlines in Fort Worth in 1951. In Brownsville the Green clan had claimed that a teenager of the Evans clan had shot a teenager of the Green clan. The Green clan claimed that the Evans boy shot the Green boy because the Evans boy was jealous of the Green boy’s new car. The Evans clan claimed the shooting was an accident. The Green clan demanded that the Evans clan pay half the hospital bill of the Green teenager. The Green clan claimed that the Evans clan refused. Five hundred members of at least six clans gathered in Dallas as the boy underwent surgery there.
“If that boy dies,” one Roma told Dallas police, “there is going to be a lot of shooting going on in Dallas.”
Meanwhile in Fort Worth, other clans had gathered to try to negotiate a peace treaty between the Green and Evans clans. Police responded to a “trailer court clash” and arrested seven Evans clan members in a “drunken brawl.” The Evanses claimed that they had been robbed by members of a clan allied with the Green clan, who in turn claimed that they had been robbed by the Evans clan.
In the 1950s some Evans clan members lived and worked in four “fortune-telling houses” in south downtown, the old Hell’s Half Acre. In a raid in 1958 police arrested thirteen downtown Evaneses for vagrancy. The Star-Telegram said state law identified all Gypsies as vagrants. Police said members of the public had complained that Gypsy fortune-tellers had “gypped” them. A police vice sergeant said a favorite “trick” of Gypsy fortune-tellers was to ask a customer for some “lucky charm” he or she had, put it inside the customer’s billfold, and then “bless” it. The Gypsy would then send the customer home with instructions not to look in the billfold until the next morning.
The next morning, the sergeant said, the customer would find that his money was gone from his billfold.
Joe S. Evans, king of the local Evans clan, was among those arrested in 1958. He protested the raid, saying, “This ain’t Germany. And this ain’t Russia. . . . How can we be vagrants if we own property?”
With the Roma emphasis on family and clan, in recent decades the Fort Worth Evanses were most often in the news when they gathered to hold a vigil when a member was in crisis.
For example, in 1954 members of the Evans clan gathered at a Dallas hospital, just as they had in 1951 after the Green-Evans shooting. This time the clan was “waiting and praying” for their queen, Rosa Evans of Fort Worth. Rosa was the mother of Joe S. Evans, listed here as a “skull reader” (phrenologist). At the time, Joe was reluctant to refer to his mother as “queen” of the clan.
Likewise, in 1956 clan members gathered at a Dallas hospital when Nickie Joe Evans was seriously injured. Clip is from the February 5 Dallas Morning News.
In 1964 the clan gathered in Austin after a teenage Evans clan prince shot himself and died. This article refers to the clan as having traveled around Texas for twenty-five years. Clip is from the October 30 Dallas Morning News.
In 1970 the Evans clan gathered in Temple when Yoani Yogi Evans faced cancer surgery. Clan King Joe S. Evans said it is “part of our belief” to gather when a clan member faces a crisis. Clip is from the November 12 Dallas Morning News.
In 1975 Mary Evans, heir-apparent to Queen Rosa, who was again seriously ill, herself died. A clan adviser, Mary Evans had lived in Fort Worth all her life. Clip is from the February 5 Dallas Morning News.
A year later Queen Rosa herself died. Hundreds of members of the Evans clan gathered for a vigil at Meissner-Brown Funeral Home. Rosa’s son, King Joe, was now comfortable with referring to his mother as “a true queen.” He predicted that the Evans and Mitchell clans would not elect a new queen. “The younger generation has different ideas.” Joe estimated that his mother, born in Oklahoma, had been queen seventy-five years. Evans’s family had immigrated to America in the late nineteenth century, settling first in Chicago.
King Joe talked to the Star-Telegram about his people: “There is no country they come from. They have no alphabet. They have no special religion. My parents and I are American-born. But, yes, we do have a language that has been handed down for centuries. My children learned it right along with English. It’s a mixture of twenty different languages. It can be spoken, but it can’t be written.”
Upon Queen Rosa’s death King Joe spoke of how the Roma were being assimilated into mainstream American culture: “We live in a different world. Tradition and old-fashioned ways are going out. . . . In the past, when we roamed the country and lived in tents, no one learned to read and write. Now that we are settled, most of our men are used car dealers and our wives work as fortune-tellers. We own our own homes and now the younger ones are getting an education.” Clip is from the September 13 Sarasota Herald Tribune.
King Joe himself had certainly been assimilated. He wore a business suit, tie, and fedora and drove a Rolls-Royce. His children attended public schools, could read and write. As king, Joe collected a monthly $100 “tax” from all the Gypsy families in town. Some people said that if a Gypsy crossed Joe, Joe would simply go to the police and claim that the offender had robbed Joe. Rather than risk being arrested by the gadje, the offender often would leave town.
On the other hand, in 1960 when a man claimed that a local Gypsy had robbed him of $2,000, King Joe reimbursed the man out of his own pocket.
King Joe owned ten fortune-telling parlors, some of them on East Lancaster Avenue.
In fact, Tarrant Appraisal District still lists the owner of this 1925 house at 1423 Hemphill Street, wherein psychic advisor and palm reader Maria receives clients, as King Joe S. Evans. (Joe S. Evans would be about 116 years old now.)
Ironically, in Fort Worth there is one place where these “hidden Americans” are the least-hidden members of the population: Rose Hill Cemetery on the East Side.
At Rose Hill the two dozen or so large upright monuments of the Evans clan are a major element of the “skyline” of the cemetery.
And most of the Evans monuments feature a photo of the deceased.
After a clan death, especially that of a clan leader, Roma traditionally celebrate with food, drink, merriment, and storytelling. Roma may picnic in the cemetery near the graves of family members. Some Evans graves at Rose Hill are decorated with empty soda cans left instead of candles or flowers as mementos.
After his injuries in 1956 (see clip above), Nickie Joe rallied and lived another thirty-five years.
Clan Prince Miller Evans, who took his own life at age fifteen (see clip above), would be retired today.
After his surgery in 1970 (see clip above), Yoani Yogi Evans died on August 21, 1971. The 1968 city directory listed him as a carnival worker.
Rosa, queen of the Evans clan.
Mary, the heir-apparent who died before her queen did.
George “Boots” Evans was Queen Rosa’s grandson and a spokesman for the Evans family council.
Sam Evans lived on the East Side, worked as a clothing jobber, was a lieutenant (troubleshooter) of the clan. In an interview in 1976 he said, “We try to work and make a living and take care of family like anyone else. . . . I’m as American as I can be.”
In 1976 Roma were not as assimilated as they are now. Sam Evans at the time estimated that 200,000 Roma lived in the United States—95 percent of them illiterate. However, the Evans clan was a leader in making sure that Roma children were educated.
Some Evans monuments are personalized with not only photos but also with “last words.”
But the Evanses are not the only Roma clan in Rose Hill. Surrounded by Evans tombstones is this triplex mausoleum of members of the rival Mitchell clan. Mitchell clan leader Buckey and wife Patsy are still living. Son Joey died fourteen years after the feud-feeding kris in Dallas.
“Hidden Americans”? Not at Rose Hill.
A poem entitled “Hidden Americans” by Sojourner Ahebee describes a Roma gathering in a Fort Worth cemetery:The family comes in increments. Black Hondas and bicycles arrive like slow dinner guests. We laugh about our dead and crunch on potato chips to console the silence of the deceased, and when the buried have had enough of our talk, and we enough of salt and vinegar on the tongue, we leave them our soda cans: mementos heavy with our breath, our grief and our music. We place the cans around the tombstones ’cause flowers die and we’ve no time to mourn them too. [. . .] Mama’s taught me to tell no one I’m a Roma but to never forget I am one.