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The first Roma may have arrived to America with the third voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1498. Since then, there have been different waves of Roma migration originating from Europe. As a result, the Roma population in countries of North and South America is very diverse in of its sub-group and nationality. There is little reliable data regarding the size of Roma populations – only in few countries (Colombia, Brazil and Canada and the USA), does the national census allow Roma ethnicity to be declared. It is estimated that there are between 1,500,000 – 4,000,000 Roma in the Americas. Roma remain a largely invisible, often assimilated minority throughout the continent. It is not widely known that Juscelino Kubitschek, the President of Brazil (1956-1961), was raised by his Czech, Romani, immigrant mother Julia, a teacher, although Roma activists recall his inviting their people to his palace during his presidency. Today, however, emerging processes of political activism and mobilization aiming at seeking recognition in some countries has led to a growing public and political presence. Nowadays we find in Roma NGOs a group of individuals of all kinds of professions, including lawyers, doctors, psychologists, anthropologists, musicians, actors and other professions.

The arrival of the first Roma in the Americas in the 16th Century Common Era (CE) was often the result persecution in Europe, or deportation as indentured labour. By the end of the 16th Century CE, there were numerous cases of deportations of Rom (Kalon) from Portugal to Brazil. Spain similarly, tried to rid itself of its Romani population. When assimilation was resisted they were sent to Africa or to America.

The Example of Romani People in Argentina

Approximately 300,000 Roma live in Argentina. The first to arrive were Spanish Kalé who came from Spain at different times and speak only Spanish dialects rather than Romani. Grammatical Romani is spoken by Greek, Moldavian and Russian Kalderash, some Lovari families, and some Chilean Xoraxane Roma. They began to arrive in Argentina from Europe, around 1880-1890. At a similar time, more Kalé came from Spain, Ludari and other groups came from Serbia and Romania, who speak Romanian dialects, rather than Romani, amongst themselves and have spread throughout the Americas. In the second decade of the 20th Century CE some Kalderash from Russia settled and later on in the 1960’s, another new wave of Spanish Kalé from Spain. From the 1990’s until today, Romanian, Brazilian and Colombian Rom have also been arriving in Argentina. These groups are spread throughout the cities and many of the small towns of the country.

The main religions now are Pentecostalism and Catholicism. Different groups tend to specialize in differing professions such as, car trading (including new and second-hand cars), metalworking, the repairing of hydraulic machinery, the construction industry as small contractors mostly. One can also find taxi and bus drivers, truckers, photographers, mechanics, bulk sellers, people who sell textile products and others. On their side, Romani women are often involved in trading or fortunetelling, but some are housewives. Unemployment is low, although it does exist and despite the fact that formal education is rejected by the majority of the groups, Romani groups are not at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy and are not as poor as the local and migrant Native-American, indigenous people and mestizo slum-dwellers (who are more than 12% of the population).

In the last two decades Romani individuals from Argentina have moved to the USA, Spain or France, where many have relatives. The crisis of the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa (before his resignation in 2001), brought about fear of a return of military dictatorship. However, nowadays, many Roma have been returning, while still in contact with family and friends in the countries that they chose to emigrate to earlier.

How did the Romani Organisations in Latin America start?

The first Romani organization in the Americas was launched in the 1920s, in the United States, where a kind of Romani cooperative called E Tsoxa e Lolí grew. This organization was incorporated in New York under the title “The Red Dress Gypsy Association” was created, to protect the professional metalworking Roma were doing in New York City. Amongst the  Romani community throughout the Americas, there was a certain amount of controversy when Steve Kaslov bought up yards of red silk at bargain prices in San Francisco and used this to dress the women of the group, of which he was baro, in long red skirts. This caused an uproar amongst American Vlach-Roma, who saw this as scandalous. It is thought that in defiant retaliation, Kaslov gave this name to his NGO when it was founded, and in consequence Roma in South America think of this organization as “The Red Skirt …[Dress] Association”.

This demonstrates that Roma in South America had thought about the possibility of political organization. But it wasn’t until the 1980s however, that in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a Romani violinist of Serbian origin called Mio Vasite, together with others, Roma and non-Roma, created the first Romani cultural association called CEC (Centro de Estudos Ciganos), of which Mio Vasite was president. This was similar to such Romani organizations in Europe, although with more of a cultural character and working within the Romani traditions and kris (law) rather than independent of them. All these kinds of organizations were seen at beginning as strange to Romani culture.


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