Pale, Transient Ghosts – Living Echoes of an Ancient Culture

By Kary Vannice

A familial/ethnic group written out of the Mexican history books? Who could these people be, and why and how could they have been so easily disregarded?

Your mind may automatically go to some long-gone ancient, indigenous tribe, who where effectively wiped clean by European settlement here in Mexico. But, this ‘tribe’ is not long-gone, nor indigenous. They are, in fact, European immigrants whose close-knit families still thrive on Mexican soil today … Gypsies or, depending on whom you talk to here in Mexico, ‘Roma’ or ‘Hungarians’. About 20,000 Gypsies are believed to be living in Mexico today, but their numbers are hard to determine for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their wandering lifestyle.

The first Roma immigrants to the Americas are linked to Columbus’ voyages from Spain. Even more were sent over by an Austrian Emperor to aid France when they controlled Mexico. But, perhaps the biggest influx came during World War II when Hitler’s Nazi army targeted Gypsies along with Jews and other ethnic groups for genocide.

Arriving from Europe, the Roma people brought with them a seemingly hereditary aversion to putting down roots and a unique language, Romani. It is this unique language that leads to the origins of the Roma family tree, India. The Romani language is a derivation of ancient Hindi. Most Roma people in Mexico today now speak a special brand of the language that mixes Spanish words with their own Romani.

Roma people are known in Mexico, as they are known in much of the world, as travelers, a people in constant motion. They are performers, teachers, traders and craftsmen. They have combined their nomadic heritage with a flare for the dramatic over the decades, bringing live performances, bazaars, even traveling movie theaters to remote towns and villages throughout Mexico.

They are distinct; pale skin and eyes, light hair, and facial features that echo their European roots. Many of them, still today, travel in small bands or familial groups; all of their earthly possessions in the back of a truck that serves as both their transportation and their home. Their transience and difference make them a mystery, and Mexico too, is full of stereotypical accounts of Gypsy-like behavior. Stories of fortune telling, swindling, stealing and even sorcery have plagued the Roma people in this country, evidence that they have been unable to escape the reputation they seem to have the world over.

Their reputation became so bad, that in 1931, Mexican immigration laws were changed in an effort to ban ‘Los Hungaros’ from settling here with their families. But the reforms did not help, and in the late 1960’s the last significant arrival of Roma immigrants came from Spain.

Despite the stereotypes that surround them, the Roma people are unquestionably and undeniably a familial culture. Perhaps, it is their transitory lifestyle itself that reinforces and strengthens the ties that bind them together. A lifestyle that one might think would scatter children to the wind and leave elderly grandparents behind, but instead forges a bond that runs centuries deep and binds them tightly to their ancient nomadic ways.

Here in Mexico, if you wish to catch a glimpse of these pale, transient ghosts, cities like Puebla, Monterrey and San Luís de Potosí serve as gathering places for family groups to rest and interact before once again folding up their tents and moving on.