'American Gypsies': Romas unveil a secret culture

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American subcultures have become a hot trend in the past year, with TV shows delving into the lives of the Amish, a group called the Hutterites and, perhaps most infamously -- and entertainingly, in some instances -- Gypsies (some of whom prefer to be called Roma). TLC has had hits with "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" and "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding," which were not short on gaudy fashions, emotional fireworks and dramatic fisticuffs -- and that was just among the women. National Geographic Channel now has its own Roma series, "American Gypsies" airing Tuesdays.

Co-executive produced by Ralph Macchio, "American Gypsies" follows one of New York's most prominent Roma clans, the Johnses, who struggle to preserve their age-old customs and keep power in their community. One of the Johns sons, Bobby, particularly struggles with balancing his family's old ways and letting his daughters experiment with branching out into their own lives in a more modern, non-Roma world -- such as letting them take an acting class, as seen in the series premiere, much to the chagrin of the other family members.

"What makes us Roma?" Bobby's brother Nicky responds to a question at a press conference about the show. "Our language is secretive. Our language isn't written down anywhere. You can go to the Mayan ruins. You won't find any images of us or a word written down. Our language is sacred. Other Gypsies or other Roma that use that word, we're not allowed to write it down and tell you what we're saying. It's forbidden. And that's who we are, and the show shows that, who we are. We're unveiling our culture to you."

While much of the drama and conflict -- and even dialogue -- in the premiere episode felt surprisingly scripted for a nonscripted series, almost like a Roma version of "The Godfather," it is interesting to learn about this subculture, which has its own rules, its own courts to resolve community conflicts, and its own restrictive system of whom its members can and cannot date and marry.
Photo/Video credit: National Geographic