A while back, during one of my book readings in San Francisco, a woman in the audience announced that she came to warn the people about the Gypsies. I had been talking about growing up in a Romany household in the former Soviet Union, about my parents’ beautiful house, about moving to America, going to college, working in the film industry before deciding to open a piano studio for kids. That’s when she stood and said a Gypsy is a Gypsy. More accurately, that a Gypsy cannot integrate into society, because Gypsies are a subhuman category incapable of more evolved reasoning. The people in the audience had begun to fidget, their faces rock hard and flushed with anger. Disbelief and fear glued me to my spot behind the microphone as she told us that Gypsies have been genetically engineered by nature to have children at 9 years old and that most of the girls died at about 14. I tried to keep my cool and explain that the majority of Roma are living quite normal, boring lives, and then I wondered why I would have to do that in the first place. How could an entire ethnicity be crammed into a single typecast so mercilessly?
(MORE: Who Are the Roma? TIME Explains)
And yet it is, time and again, most recently in the widespread reaction to a little girl named Maria who was discovered to be in the care of, but not the biological daughter of, a couple named Christos Salis and Eleftheria Dimopoulou in Larissa, Greece. The press has nicknamed Maria “the blond angel.” Meanwhile, Salis and Dimopoulou are repeatedly referred to in headlines as “Roma” or “Gypsy.” Imagine, for a moment, if we routinely referred to suspects by their ethnicity instead of country of origin, so that English citizens of Caribbean descent would be described as a “black couple” in headlines and not a “Liverpool couple” or what have you. In Maria’s case, there was an automatic presumption of guilt, but it was their ethnicity as Roma that defined the crime.
Then there are the images: the 4- or 5-year-old girl staring into the lens of a camera, her braided hair dipped in dark paint, clothes ragged, dirt on her fingers. A powerful conclusion emerges, and without crucial facts, without hesitation, we permit it to brand itself on our minds: Maria has been gypsyfied! And quite unawares, we are now looking at a case of possible child trafficking by the Gypsies and negligent parenting at the hand of the Gypsies. The stereotype of Gypsies as child snatchers is centuries old, but ask anyone if they can give you a specific incident, and they will scratch their heads. More disturbing historical facts have survived, including records of more than 133 anti-Gypsy laws enacted in the Holy Roman Empire at around 1551, which made being a Gypsy punishable by death, and authorities systematically took Romany kids from their parents and placed them in “proper” homes, a trend that continued well into the first half of the 19th century.
Stealing children is not Romas’ favorite pastime. We have plenty of our own, and as any parent can vouch, raising offspring takes time, money and the virtue of infinite patience. Most Roma — college students, professionals, homeowners, citizens — are too busy building careers and futures to slink about dark streets in search of children to snatch, because in fact most Roma are not itinerants living out of caravans but are assimilated into society. Of the 10 million Roma scattered around the globe today, only several thousand still live in camps. But cultural amalgamation comes with a price: in order to be accepted and have a chance at a normal life, most Roma keep their ethnicity a secret.
Back to Maria. It may be that the accused have, indeed, taken a child from a mother who could no longer care for her. Kostas Katsavos, one of the couple’s lawyers, says they adopted Maria with the permission of her biological mother, although the adoption was “nonlegal.” It may also be that they have committed an unforgivable crime. But if so, the fact of them being Roma would be the least important thing to know about them, instead of the most important. Crime defies all labels except one: immoral.
Marafioti is the author of American Gypsy: A Memoir. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including Bust and Slate. Trained as a classical pianist, she has also worked as a cinematographer. Marafioti is a past BMI–Kluge Center fellow in partnership with the Library of Congress. The views expressed are solely her own