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Professor studies the exclusion of Romani from European societies

In “The ‘Gypsies’ of Europe: Life on the Outside,” Assistant Professor Jennifer Illuzzi and her students explore Romani exclusion in history.
In “The ‘Gypsies’ of Europe: Life on the Outside,” Assistant Professor Jennifer Illuzzi and her students explore Romani exclusion in history.
Photo by Rebecca Zenefski '10.

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the deportation of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma in July 2010 as part of a crackdown on illegal camps in the country, his government was widely criticized by the European Union (EU). This controversial expulsion also led to HIST 2994: “The ‘Gypsies’ of Europe: Life on the Outside,” offered this winter, at St. Catherine University.

“What happened in France appeared in the media a lot and there was protest from the European Union because it was an issue of just how open the ‘open borders’ of EU are,” says Jennifer Illuzzi, assistant professor of history, who came up with the four-credit, special topics course.

Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, and their citizens, including the Roma, have freedom of movement within the EU. However, during the economic downturn, concerns arise in the wealthier nations that the poor who arrive in search of work will become a burden on their welfare system.

“What I found most interesting about this recent expulsion was that the EU actually said, ‘This is wrong and you can’t do this,’” Illuzzi says. “And that was the first time I’ve heard such a protest from the EU. Italy did the same thing a few years earlier with the Romani and illegal African migrant workers, but no one cared as much.”

“Romani” (rhymes with hominy) describes an ethnic group — one commonly called "Gypsies." Romani subgroups include Roma, Sinti, Kalderash and Xoraxane. For many, however, the word "gypsy" is synonymous with vagabond or someone ruthless.

“The term ‘Gypsy’ has historically been used to refer to a set of negative behaviors rather than an ethnic group,” Illuzzi explains. “It is purely a pejorative label. Not everyone labeled a Gypsy would be ethnically Romani.”

Illuzzi, who hails from Connecticut, is in her second year with St. Kate’s Department of History, Place and Political Science. Her interest in the Romani surfaced in 2004, while studying Italian during graduate school.

“I stayed with a host mother when I attended a language school in Florence, Italy, and one of the first things she said to me was ‘watch out for the Gypsies,’” Illuzzi recalls. “Other Italians I met would also tell me the same thing. The general assumption was that the poor Romani people you saw begging on the streets were there to connive you and steal from you.”

It wasn’t long before Illuzzi started to wonder about the roots of the catchphrase and the stereotypes that surround it. “Clearly, I thought, no population chooses to earn a living by stealing,” she says.

Unearthing the stories
After completing her graduate work on German and Italian nationalism, Illuzzi decided to focus her Ph.D. dissertation on the historical impression of the Romani — in particular how Italy and Germany treated this ethnic group from 1861 to 1914. She received a Fulbright Scholarship in 2006 to pursue her research in Turin, Italy.

“Finding the historical records of Romani people, especially what they were thinking and feeling, is nearly impossible,” she says. “This is a society that didn’t previously write down a lot of their history. So, my dissertation was based mainly on the interactions of people labeled as gypsies with state authorities by studying what I could find, which were court cases for crimes they were accused of committing.”

Illuzzi concedes that it was a skewed way of learning more about a population.

“But it did give a picture of what the authorities were trying to do,” she says, “which was to arrest as many gypsies as they could and take away their claims to Italian citizenship.” She found a similar process of banishment or deportations in Germany.

Illuzzi has 25 students in “The ‘Gypsies’ of Europe: Life on the Outside,” which explores Romani exclusion in European history from the Middle Ages through present times — including a French student who enrolled to learn more about her country’s recent treatment of the Romani.

“One of my goals is to help them understand Romani as a group and ethnicity without all the baggage or the stereotypes,” she says. “How on any level is it OK for the prime minister of Italy and the president of France to say, ‘I don’t like these people and I want to get rid of them’? What often happens with ethnic prejudice is that you see people only as a set of characteristics. You forget humanity.”


Feb. 8, 2011 by Pauline Oo

See also: Faculty, Liberal Arts, Social Justice