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Gypsies Are Banding Together to Fight Age-Old Stereotypes

October 05, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Then how many rogues are there among the permanent Gypsy population of Los Angeles? "None of 'em. It's the people (Gypsies) from out of state that are coming in and causing the trouble.

"The Rom nation today is steadfast. They (Gypsies) are not roaming around as they used to. And we want to be recognized for that, respected and not judged by the past and the actions of a few."

In his soon-to-be-published book, "Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution," Hancock addresses the identical point: "Stealing, in particular, is seen as a Gypsy trait. Specialists . . . have even implied that it is a genetic characteristic.

"Certainly some Gypsies steal, just as some Eskimos or Berbers or Englishmen steal. Others don't. It is social behavior and it is not transmitted biologically. To believe that such a thing (biological transmission) is possible reflects not only prejudice, but an ignorance of scientific fact."

Barry Fisher, a constitutional lawyer and chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s committee on religious freedom, is a gadjo . But he has represented individual Gypsies and the U.S. Romani Council for almost three years and often on a pro bono basis.

'Well-Off' Landowner

John Merino is an executive of the Romani Council and, most important, a recognized and respected liaison between his Rom (Gypsy people) and agencies and programs of the non-Gypsy world. Unlike many Gypsies, Merino, 61, the California-born son of a Yugoslavian coppersmith and horse trader, graduated from high school. He describes himself as a "well-off" landowner with multiple rental properties and development holdings in California and Oregon.

Ian Hancock, 44, is a Romani intellectual, a member of the International Romani Union and its representative to the United Nations in New York.

Attorney. Businessman. Professor. There are also a Washington car salesman, an Illinois real estate broker, a Los Angeles minister, a Minnesota musician, an Ohio building contractor, an educator in New Mexico, a psychiatrist in Boston and a neurosurgeon in Chicago, Gypsies all, who are among several dozen persons currently lobbying for the civil and political rights of an estimated 1 million Gypsies in America.

Noticeable Clout

Their machine is small. There is no office of the U.S. Romani Council and the secretary, Grattan Puxon, keeps its files in his Culver City home. He draws no salary. Yet the council's clout is becoming noticeable.

--Last month in Washington, the U.S. Romani Council and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council joined ceremonies and prayers in a Day of Remembrance for 500,000 European Gypsies who died in Nazi concentration camps. Although 50 years late, it was a milestone in public recognition of the Gypsy loss. "We have not done enough to make others listen to your voice of sadness," said Elie Wiesel, chairman of the Holocaust Council. "Your anguish must be recorded."

--From that Day of Remembrance came plans for this month's closed meeting of Gypsy leaders in Baton Rouge, La. "We'll spend a couple of days discussing ways to strengthen the Romani ties," explained Hancock. "We have to make a move towards overcoming the differences that separate the various (Gypsy) nations in the United States so that we can work towards ethnic unity."

--Hancock has compiled a 30-person list of "concerned academics and some politicians" who receive regular mailings propagandizing the Gypsy cause. He is constantly collecting and monitoring slurs. Such as the advertisement for a New York company selling a Gypsy costume for Halloween and a newspaper quiz where a facetious answer was: "Sell your sister (brother) and her cat (his dog) to the Gypsies." Many of these incidents are now being challenged by lawyers' letters, and although there has been no litigation, said Hancock, "they (advertisers and media) will know better next time."

--In the belief that notability translates to respectability, Harry Bryer of Toledo, a lay genealogist and Gypsy historian, is building a directory of prominent persons known to be Gypsy. Topping that register is the late Yul Brynner, who actively promoted his Gypsy ancestry and in 1979 was honorary president of the 2nd World Romany Congress (26 nations represented) in Geneva.

Bryer has established that Charlie Chaplin's mother was Gypsy. So was Michael Caine's grandfather.

--Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gypsy fortuneteller Fatima Stevens (represented by attorney Fisher) who had sued the city of Azuza claiming that its ban on fortunetellers violated her constitutional right of free speech. The ruling ended longstanding bans on fortunetelling in other South Bay cities.

Ordinance Amended

--Less than a month later, Monterey Park quickly amended a new ordinance licensing fortunetellers after being told that its wording contained a racist reference. The measure described the business as forecasting by various means, including "Gypsy cunning."

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