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American Gypsies Facts

Photo: Learning tradition

Learning Tradition (View larger version)

Photograph by National Geographic Channels/ Shadow Stick Productions


"Gypsy" stereotypes abound. Often portrayed in movies as a swindling, traveling, hooped-earring woman holding a crystal ball, the reality is very different. The Romani, as they are known historically, have a rich cultural heritage with their own language, education, laws, courts and customs that have remained shrouded in secrecy. They marry almost exclusively within the Romani community, and some groups settle disputes within a Romani court. Children are often homeschooled in America. They rarely seek medical or other help from non-Romani. In American Gypsies, National Geographic Channel documents for the first time one Romani family—the Johns family of New York—and their effort to preserve age-old customs amid the vices of the city. The Romani people have a long and rich cultural heritage, with great diversity in the practice of traditions.  Below is more information on the customs practiced by the Johns family:


  • Most Romani law is passed down verbally. While there are books, there is no official code of law or constitution.

  • Some Romani groups have the institution of the kris, an internal court system. The eldest male of each family is the head of that family, and therefore assigned to the kris.
  • A Romani court can decree that someone is a bolla, or exile, from the community for failure to honor laws and traditions, or some other offense.This is the most severe punishment handed out by the kris.
  • Someone who marries outside of Romani culture can also be labeled a mahrime and exiled.


  • Traditionally, a Romani man is expected to marry a Romani woman when they are in their late teens.
  • Typically, the father of the groom will arrange introductions to several potential Romani women and their fathers. But traditionally, dating is strictly forbidden.
  • Some groups require a bride-price, in which case the fathers of the bride and groom will negotiate to set the price based on the status of the two families, and the standing of the future bride.
  • After the marriage, the bride usually becomes a part of the groom’s family and lives with his parents
  • The bride may be expected to work for the groom’s family. In the Johns family, this means working as a psychic.


  • Romani children are traditionally allowed limited access to non-Romani culture as a way to protect them from outside influence. (When Amanda and Vivian Johns, Bobby’s daughters, take an acting class, the whole family is in an uproar.)
  • Children typically receive just a basic education, and are frequently home schooled. In American Gypsies, we see the struggles of then 12-year-old Vivian, who has trouble reading.


  • Today, Romani people can be found in nearly any job. More traditional occupations include metal-working, music and dance, and fortune-telling.
  • In the Johns family, each of the five brothers, including Bobby, has his own psychic shop.
  • The location and appearance of a psychic shop is very important.
  • Romani law in New York City mandates that psychic shops must be at least three blocks from each other to decrease competition between stores. A fight ensues in American Gypsies when a competing psychic shop is put up only two and a half blocks from one of the Johns’ shops.


  • A pakiv is a party thrown in honor of someone. It can be for a godfather, or just someone who is well respected in the community.
  • A balime is a baptism, involving a ceremony with the godfather, who must wear a red tie and white shirt and purchase a gold coin and cross for his godson.
  • A pumano is a ceremony that honors the dead. At the feast, the best friend of the deceased wears the same outfit as his buried friend.