American Gypsy


Last night PBS Frontline aired "American Gypsy", a documentary that made a brief appearance in NYC theaters last year. It features Jimmy Marks, a Spokane based used car dealer, who was the first Rom in the United States ever to challenge the racism of the dominant society, in his specific case an illegal cop raid on his home.


As PBS tends to repeat shows, my advice is to look for it. This film is a fascinating introduction into a world that tries to exist outside of the world of the "gadjo" or non-Roma. They fear that assimilation will destroy the unique Roma culture. These sorts of fears would remind us of another "unassimilated" group, the Orthodox Jew, who tries to co-exist as economic actors in gentile society, while preserving their own customs and beliefs inside their community.


Although I doubt if such a history has ever been written, a Marxist account of the Roma people would account for them in terms of what Abram Leon called the "people-class" in "The Jewish Question." The Jews, according to Leon, "constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class." That economic function is tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to support his economic function.


As a people-class Jews are able to maintain their ethnic identity no matter what country they live in. The same thing is true of the Roma who emigrated westward from India about a thousand years ago. Unlike the Jews, their economic function was not related to trade but to handicrafts which could be picked up and moved at the drop of a hat. This included horse trading and repairing pots and pans. In modern times these crafts have evolved into auto dealing, Jimmy Marks's profession, and auto body repair. Also, Romas are some of the world's greatest musicians who have made their mark on flamenco, jazz and Eastern European folk music. (For a great introduction to Roma music, I recommend the documentary "Latcho Drom" and the feature "Gadjo Dilo", both by Roma director Tony Gatlif.)


According to Roma scholar Ian Hancock, who is at the University of Texas and of Roma origin himself, the Romany term gadjo, or outsider, is related to the Sanskrit "gajjha," which means civilian. In the documentary Jimmy Marks is shown playing with his grand-daughter. As he counts off from one to ten, the narrator and director Jasmine Dellal (a British Jew) notes that the words for the numbers are the same as they are in Sanskrit.


The Marks clan are part of the Romanian Gypsies, or Vlax, who migrated in large numbers to the United States around the turn of the century and for the same reason that Jews and other groups did: to flee oppression. The Vlax had been enslaved in Romania for nearly 500 years. This fact more than any other explains the suspiciousness with which they regard the outside world. When I was growing up in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s, my parents would often remark without much prompting, "You can't trust the goyim." Roma, who despite being murdered in equal numbers by the Nazis, have never been given the kind of moral or financial reparations given to the Jews. They are still despised and persecuted.


When we first meet Jimmy Marks, you notice two things right off the bat. He is festooned in jewelry and he wears a tie with a likeness of a McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce label in the middle, a totem for his success in the business-oriented "gadjo" world. While out for a spin on a country road one afternoon, he came across a train crash that had left thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce spilled across the ground. He approached a representative of the wholesale company at the wreck and offered to buy every bottle for a penny each. He then took the bottles and sold them to restaurants and bars for 15 cents each. The money helped him to launch his used car business.


The film is centered on Marks' legal battles with the Spokane police who raided his home in 1986 in what amounts to a sting operation. They tore gold-plated false fingernails from the women, snatched earrings from a girl, searched a baby's diapers. They found $1.6 million in cash, some sewn into quilts, and $160,000 in jewelry. There were items from 35 different burglaries, the police said. The Marks claimed that the money was deposits from Roma families who did not trust gadjo banks. The documentary makes clear that the money was divided into packets and clearly marked by family or clan name. This did not matter to the cops who regarded all gypsies as thieves. (The word "gypsy" is derived from Egyptian as Europeans had believed that the Roma immigrants of 500 years ago were from Egypt rather than India.)


The substance of the film is about the Marks' 40 million dollar suit and the many fascinating Roma customs they adhere to, which are explained by Ian Hancock in his U. of Texas office. Despite attempts to remain unassimilated, there is clear evidence that American society is making inroads. You can see Jimmy Marks praying in a Born Again Church, while his children sit around a restaurant complaining about not being able to go to college. (Roma children are removed from school immediately after the sixth grade to make sure they are not tainted by gadjo culture. Jimmy Marks can not read or write a word in English.)


The conclusion of the film deals with the surprising turn of events in the legal case. I will let you find out about that for yourself.