The Star-News


Gypsies in the city

Sat, Sep 29 2012 12:00 PM Posted By: Susan Walter

Probably everyone has been curious about prognostication – telling the future. Ouija boards, tea leaves, palm reading, tarot cards, crystal balls, astronomy. I dabbled in these during college; the results made me a confirmed skeptic.

My college dabbling was a result of a term paper I wrote on the Rom (commonly called Gypsies) for an ethnology class.  I became fascinated by their culture. My meager funds went toward photocopying segments of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, and I purchased books about them, particularly those by Jan Yoors.

I took my “studies” a step further by dating a Gypsy. He said he’d been born in Mexico. He spoke Romany, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Korean and unaccented English. He claimed to be atheist but wore a rosary under his shirt like a necklace. I fed him, mended his clothes, then he disappeared. Soon after that I sort of lost interest in the Rom.

The intrigue returned when, poking through an antique store, I found the photo accompanying this article. Labeled “Two cuties” of  “back Co[unty] San Diego,” the comely lasses are identified as “Margaret and Margrie  – Gipsies.  July 1914.”  Their dress exhibits traditional voluminous skirts with, likely, the huge interior pockets, full length aprons, high necked and long sleeved blouses and neck kerchiefs.  Both girls’ hair is unbound and uncovered, signifying they were not married.

For this column about local Gypsy history, I am indebted to another researcher. Thank you, Sheryl!

The Rom traveled through here many times, and were the objects of great interest with every visit. The first mention in the newspaper was Aug. 31, 1881, when the San Diego Union reported that “The Gipsies, who have been camping on a vacant lot here for a week or so, have gone to San Bernardino.”

“A camp of fortune telling gypsies” returned to San Diego in 1886. In 1888 “A gang of wandering gypsies … are now camped on the outskirts of the city. There are quite a number of them, men, women, children, monkeys, dogs, etc.”

In 1889, Marshall Beatty herded a “gypsy gang” which was “infesting” the area out of National City, where they had “commenced systematically doing the town by begging.” The watching gaje (non Gypsy) crowd found this event amusing.

Another visit occurred in 1896, by 72 “Greek” gypsies from New York. They were following their traditional horse trading and fortune telling lifestyles, and the women were detailed as “a fine-looking lot, except for their evident shrewdness in evading fresh water. Most of them are straight, with regular features, full black eyes and abundant hair. Some of them have blue eyes and blonde hair.”

Apparently the reporter asked about their coloration, because they denied the accusation that they stole babies, stating they “had babies enough of their own.”

A band of 65 more was expected to arrive in a few days.  Tired of them by this time, the Union editorialized “They Must Move On.” In 1903, a “Roumanian” tribe arrived, this time by steamer. They camped legally for five days with “a permit to peddle on the streets” and “everyone was thankful” when they left.

Gypsies have been catching attention again, notably in National Geographic which featured an article of an atypical Romany village. And now there is a show about the Rom. What do you think? Can you tell my future? Do you think I’ll watch it?


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