Call me Roma: Northwest Gypsies defend their heritage

May 29, 2013, 8:59 AM | Updated: 10:02 am
When an Issaquah psychic was busted recently for allegedly stealing $30,000 from a naive customer, ...
When an Issaquah psychic was busted recently for allegedly stealing $30,000 from a naive customer, the word "gypsy" came up at the prosecutor's office. While there's no evidence the suspect involved is in fact a gypsy, there is a rich Romani Community in the northwest with a very interesting past. (KIRO Radio/Kim Shepard)
(KIRO Radio/Kim Shepard)

When an Issaquah psychic was busted recently for allegedly stealing $30,000 from a naive customer, the word “gypsy” came up at the prosecutor’s office.

While there’s no evidence the suspect involved is in fact a gypsy, there is a rich Romani Community in the Northwest with a very interesting past.

In 1997, unofficial Gypsy leader Jimmy Marks invited his father, Grover, to haunt Spokane City Hall. Grover Marks had earlier cast a curse on city hall over an illegal police raid of a family home.

The Marks family settled with the city for over a million dollars, but they claimed the sum far from made up for the harm done to their community.

In Pierce County, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist says he knows the Marks family, and the Steves and the Risticks, two more well-known Romani families.

“We’ve even had a curse levied against our chief criminal deputy by one of the family members, but the criminal activities of a relatively small number shouldn’t taint an entire ethnic group,” says Lindquist.

In a small, private hall on Vashon Island, Roma gathered for the holiday of Kali Sara, honoring a Gypsy symbol of strength and perseverance. More than a hundred members of the Romani community greeted each other with hugs and smiles.

It was part concert and part history lesson, as the featured violinist shared the oral history that goes along with their traditional music, like the Romanian Rhapsody which was written by a Roma who kept his heritage secret.

In the audience, Roma activist Shon Paramush is hoping to change perceptions.

“This is the lens in which the dominant culture views the Roma. It’s not just a criminal, it’s a Gypsy criminal,” says Paramush.

Shon’s aunt, not by blood, but by community ties, is retired Vashon librarian Morgan Ahern. She has opened a traveling Gypsy museum in the hopes of keeping a written record of what has largely been an oral history and dispelling myths about the Roma people.

“The thing is that you don’t hear about the Roma lawyers and the Roma doctors, because it’s not to your advantage to say “I’m Roma” when you’re dealing with a patient who then might not want to even see you,” says Ahern.

Ahern says there are Roma people all around the Puget Sound, although you would have a hard time picking them out. They look nothing like the characters portrayed in TV shows like “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.”

She has spent a lot of time researching the Roma culture after it was taken away from her at a very young age. When she was 7 years old, Ahern says she was forcefully taken from her family and placed in a boarding school program to assimilate Gypsies into American culture.

“So, I have an education, but I traded a lot of my culture to get it,” says Ahern.

After retiring from her work at the Vashon library, Ahern opened a traveling museum about the Gypsy people.

Paramush explains there are a lot of misconceptions about their culture. For example, they traveled the land out of necessity, not wanderlust. Many countries had laws against Roma settling there.

“Historically speaking, we couldn’t be settled for anywhere too long,” says Paramush.

Now, a typical Roma family stays in one place, their children are in school, and the adults have normal jobs. Paramush says her mother and grandmother both worked in the medical field.

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Call me Roma: Northwest Gypsies defend their heritage