Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality

Santa Cruz Spirituality: Romani People
by Paul Tutwiler

History of the people

"The Romani People (Roma, or Gypsies) are of northern Indian origin, having moved out of that area probably some time between AD 800 and AD 950, migrating westwards into Europe and arriving there some time after AD 1100." (Thus begins Ian Hancock on page 7 of his The Pariah Syndrome (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Karoma Publishers, 1987). This work is the source for all the background information in this paragraph.) Neither the reason for this emigration nor its patterns are clear, but the route of these emigrants through Persia, Armenia, Anatolia, and, eventually, Southeastern Europe is well established, mainly by linguistic evidence. To this day, the Romani language, with its dialects and variants, is recognizably a derivative of Sanskrit. By the 14th century the Romani had been detained in the Balkans, had been trained to be a worker class, and were beginning to be treated legally as slaves. It was in this period that they learned the trades which ever since have been associated with them, especially becoming metal workers, peddlers, animal trainers, and musicians. Gradually, however, many escaped and were living almost all over Western Europe. The Balkan Roma were finally freed from slavery in 1864, and many of them soon emigrated to the rest of Europe and to the Americas. In the Balkans the Roma lived, and still live, in villages, where they are fixed and are not nomads. Western European Roma tended, however, to be mobile, and they are the ones whose lifestyle is synonymous with "Gypsy" in Western culture. Whether as slaves or as traveling people, Roma have retained strong community ties, have been little understood by the members of the dominant cultures, and have everywhere been treated harshly by them.

It is possible that some Roma were transported as slaves, or at least as indentured servants, to North America in colonial times, and it is clear that some made their way here before the emancipation of 1864, but the main immigration occurred after that. It is also clear that many of the so-called Gypsies who arrived here were not true Roma, because numerous other itinerant groups who arrived from Europe claimed to be Gypsies or were understood to be such. This applies particularly to those who came from Northern European countries, and above all to the Tinkers from the British Isles. (Brian A. Belton pursues the difficult problem of ethnic identification in his Questioning Gypsy Identity: ethnic narratives in Britain and America. (Walnut Creek, California: Alta Mira Press, 2005). Both Belton and Hancock are English Gypsies, Hancock being able to trace his lineage back to Hungary. They are among the Gypsy intellectuals who are bringing the realities of Gypsy and Romani life to the attention of Western scholars and policy makers.)

Until some time after W.W. I, Gypsy Americans followed a nomadic life in the U.S. Gradually, stable populations grew up in New Mexico, California, Florida, Oregon, and Maine. Today most Gypsy Americans are settled in large cities throughout the country. ( 2005.)

UNESCO estimated the 1981 Romani population of the United States to be about 200,000. (Ibid.)

In California Romani populations are found now at least in the Sacramento, San Francisco Bay, and Los Angeles areas. (Lacking other information about this, I infer it from 2005, the website of God's Gypsy Christian Church in Los Angeles.) The Machvaia Rom group, originally from Romania, is strongly represented in the Bay area, and numerous studies have been made of the life and customs of these Machvaia people. (These are reported in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Series 5, Volume 2, Number 1, February, 1992, pages 19-59, "Health and Illness Among the Roma of California," by Anne Sutherland; Series 5, Volume 4, Number 2, August, 1994, pages 75-94, "Respect and Rank Among the Machvaia Roma," by Carol Miller; and Series 5, Volume 7, Number 1, February, 1997, pages 1-26, "Luck: How the Machvaia Make It and Keep It," by Carol Miller. Renamed Romani Studies in 2000, this scholarly journal is a prime source of information about the Roma. The website 2005 contains a sketch of American Gypsy Roma history as well as information about how to contact the society)

Roma Spirituality

Most Roma have converted to the religions of their host countries, typically Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism), and Islam. ( 2005.)

As a matter of fact, there is a God's Gypsy Christian Church, founded in 1977 and headquartered in Los Angeles, which has congregations throughout the country. The statement of faith on its website clearly characterizes it as Pentecostal. The website does not have a complete list of the congregations, but of those mentioned, the closest to Santa Cruz is in Fremont. ( 2005.)

There remains nevertheless in Roma culture a residue of the ancient Indian folk earth religion. It varies in detail from one Roma group to another, but it has general lines. Thus,

Roma believe in their powers, as exemplified by their use of curses, called amria, and healing rituals. They practice fortune telling only for the benefit of gadje, and as a source of livelihood, but not among themselves. The fortune teller is always a woman, called a drabardi. The concept of fortune telling contains several independent elements that are misleadingly grouped together. One element is foretelling the future, called drabaripe or drabarimos. Another element relates to healing powers, which the Roma do practice among themselves. The healing elements of fortune telling are called 'advising.' Both elements are based on a belief in the supernatural.

Good luck charms, amulets, and talismans are common among Roma. They are carried to prevent misfortune or heal sickness. The female healer who prescribes these traditional cures or preventatives is called a drabarni or drabengi. Some Roma carry bread in their pockets as protection against bad luck, or bibaxt, and supernatural spirits or ghosts, called mulo. Horseshoes are considered good luck by some Roma just as they are by non-Roma.

Since Roma feel that illness is an unnatural condition, called prikaza, there are many supernatural ways in which they believe disease can be prevented or cured. One method of lowering a fever has been to shake a young tree. In this way the fever is transferred from the sick person's body to the tree. Another method to bring down fever has been to drink powdered portions of certain animals, dissolved in spirits, to the accompaniment of a chant. Some beliefs include carrying a mole's foot as a cure for rheumatism, and carrying a hedgehog's foot to prevent a toothache. Any number of herbs, called drab, are used for the prevention or cure of various diseases. Herbalism may be practiced by both sexes. Some of these herbs, called sastarimaskodrabaro, actually have medicinal value in addition to their supernatural qualities. ( 2005 The parent website, 2005, which is the Patrin Web Journal, is a valuable collection of articles on various aspects of Roma history and life. Other Roma-sponsored websites can be found at 2005.)

Gypsies - Roma - in Santa Cruz

The earliest reference I have to the presence of Gypsies in Santa Cruz is an 1876 newspaper report that a band of about 18 "English gypsies" on their way from Omaha to San Francisco in wagons stopped for several days and pitched their tents in the Blackburn orchard. Many of them were blue eyed and of fair complexion, and the group was not perceived as a threat to the peace. A number of the women read the fortunes of Santa Cruz ladies. (SC Sentinel, May 6, 1876.)

In 1883 a band of about 30 English speaking Gypsies encamped on Myrtle Street and were engaged in horse trading and fortune telling. The reporter adds some (partly correct) information on the history of Gypsies in general and, once again, does not see these visitors as threats. (Santa Cruz Surf, June 20, 1883.) These fortune telling powers were touted by Theosophists, who held an 1896 fund raiser and in its announcement wrote, "among other attractions there is to be a wonderful Romany Seeress, who will tell you your past and foretell your future without making any mistake in either." (Santa Cruz Surf, Nov. 11, 1896.)

In this same year of 1896, however, a Santa Cruz newspaper tells of a greatly different experience: Spanish and Portuguese speaking Gypsies who said they were Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro encamped "in the Gharkey addition, near Columbia street." Horse traders and beggars, they were raggedy and dirty, although they were "very strict in their observance of Sunday." (Santa Cruz Surf, May 26, 1896.) Brazilian Gypsies, evidently the same band, but reported to be 100 strong, and having the avowed goal of working in the 'beet fields near San Francisco,' (Pajaronian, Apr. 30, 1896.) had passed through Watsonville before arriving in Santa Cruz. (Pajaronian, May 28, 1896.) In September it was reported that they were about to pass through Watsonville again, on their "return trip." (Pajaronian, Sep. 10, 1896.)

Occasional local newspaper articles from 1905 to 1924 tell of police efforts to keep Gypsies out of Santa Cruz and Watsonville. (In addition to references noted below, there were articles in the Sep. 30, 1905 Santa Cruz Sentinel, in the Jan 16, 1907 Santa Cruz Surf, in the June 14, 1912 Register Pajaronian, in the July 13, 1912 Santa Cruz Sentinel, in the Mar. 3, 1913 Santa Cruz Sentinel, in the Oct. 23, 1913 Santa Cruz Sentinel and Evening News, in the June 5, 1914 Santa Cruz Sentinel and Santa Cruz Surf of the same date, in the Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 1914 Santa Cruz Surf, in the Sep. 2 and Sep. 3, 1915 Santa Cruz Evening News, in the Sep. 14, 1915 Pajaronian, and in the Apr. 27, 1919 Pajaronian (as reported 75 years later in the Apr. 27, 1994 Pajaronian). All the articles from 1905 to 1915 are in the collection of local historian Phil Reader; the rest are in my collection.) On many of their visits the traveling Gypsies are accused of criminal activity, especially of stealing and defrauding residents. This includes two scams that defrauded two people of about six hundred dollars each. (Santa Cruz News, Aug. 9, 1924 and Sep. 29, 1924.) None of these newspaper articles, however, reports criminal prosecution against them.

The newspapers make little attempt to explain who Gypsies are and what their background is, or even by which route they arrived in the county. Some exceptions are 1) the itinerary of a 1922 band which traveled in a caravan of automobiles from Salinas, passed through Watsonville and then Santa Cruz, and was ejected from all these places by the local police; (Santa Cruz Evening News, Oct. 11 and Oct 25, 1924.) 2) the statement of a 1914 group of them in Santa Cruz who said they had come from Hungary; (Santa Cruz Surf, Mar. 20, 1914.) 3) the name "Trampacula," which the only English speaking Gypsy woman among those accused of being involved in a scam said was her name; (Santa Cruz News, Aug. 9, 1924.) 4) the account of a Sep. 4, 1915 Gypsy betrothal ceremony held in a camp near the Potrero end of the railroad tunnel in Santa Cruz. Both local newspapers describe the ceremony as colorful and musical. Both quote the Gypsies themselves as saying that they are "Greek Catholics," and that their language is Romany, although they come from several Eastern European countries. (Santa Cruz Morning Sentinel, Sep. 5, 1915 and Santa Cruz Surf, Sep. 6, 1915.)

An elderly gentleman told me in 2006 that when his father was a boy, which would be early in the twentieth century, "Gypsy Alley" was the name given popularly to Brook Ave., which is across the creek from Pilkington Ave. close to the shore in the Seabright area, because the Gypsies regularly set up camp there.

Indexes of local newspapers available to me in 2005 contain only three references to Gypsies after 1924. In the earliest of these, 1940, they are booked for fraud in Santa Cruz. (Santa Cruz Evening News, Jan. 26, 1940.) Then, in 1942 columnist Ernest Otto observes that

"The Gypsies of the early days were very different from those which appear once in a while now. They were not so colorful as they did not wear the many gay skirts such as are worn by the present Gypsies. The old timer bands which came were of English bands. They had horses and they made most of their money in the horse trading and at this they were experts. The women called from house to house and told fortunes." (Santa Cruz Sentinel-News, Nov. 8, 1942 - all the peculiarities of grammar in this quote are in the original.)

Finally, in 1948,

Not predicted in the cards was the fire which burned the fortune telling Gypsies' tent to the ground in Capitola Wednesday, according to the sheriff's office. The Gypsies had apparently set up the tent preparatory to beginning the spring season on the rented lot of Frank Blake's at the corner of the Esplanade and Stockton streets. (Santa Cruz Sentinel-News, April 2, 1945.)

I have, in 2007, no information about the current presence of Gypsies or Roma peoples in Santa Cruz County.

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