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American Gypsies: Forced teen marriage norm in Romani culture?

Mechele R. Dillard's picture

What is it with these people on American Gypsies--what is "disrespectful" about not being married with a couple of kids by age 18?

It's hard to know what is going on in the minds of the Johns family on the National Geographic Channel reality show American Gypsies. But, then again, maybe that's a good thing, not understanding what these people are thinking.

Apparently, in the world of the Romani, not being married and having a couple of kids by the time one is 18 years old is a sign of disrespect to one's family, and brings shame and dishonor upon the household.


“I live in New York City, there's a million single girls out there. I just don't see the need to settle down right now. I don't care if it's the gypsy way or not.”

At least Val is thinking for himself.

At age 18, Jack, the youngest Johns brother, had been married for three years and had two kids, after marrying his wife—who was 14 at the time of their marriage—at age 15. On this episode, the couple was celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary. Great for them, but not a reason for Val to get married when he blatantly and vehemently does not want to do so, and certainly not a reason for Val's dad and grandmother to command him to go to Jack's anniversary party and pick a wife.

None of this, of course, means anything to the Johns family, who puts their “tradition” above people, at least when it is convenient to do so.

Disrespecting Family or Disrespecting Marriage?

“There's no one else like us that holds respect and honor for one another,” Nicky told his kids between blatherings about how he was going to get Val married since no one else could.

What a complete joke; this man is the Johns family representative for respecting family and marriage?

Honor and respect; if this family is what "honor" and "respect" are all about, then, please, give me dishonor and disrespect.

According to Eric, Val's father, there is no such thing as falling in love. How sad that someone thinks that way. Now, long-term, everlasting love is, of course, more than fireworks and giggles, but falling in love, finding "the" one--anyone who has it will tell you that, yes, it is real. It is very real. And, it is wonderful. Now, can that work with an arranged marriage? No reason why not. But, for someone like Val, who wants to find his own wife in his own time? Probably not.

"Val has been causing us a lot of trouble for a long time now," Tina, that unbelievable windbag of a family matriarch, said. "You cannot have a non-Romani girlfriend. You cannot have a little American girl."

That woman--if she is not a made-up cartoon character for this reality show, then heaven help people who have to live with her.

And, Eric, who seems to want to assert his "power" as the oldest brother over his son because, let's face it, his brothers listen to nothing he says, gave Val an ultimatum: "I'm finding you a wife, you're gonna get married."

But, Val was having none of it as Eric tried to arrange a quickie marriage with a Rom girl (also over the hill, apparently, at age 18), even going so far as to get approval for the match from the so-called "elders."

"I might be gypsy blood, but I spent the last 18 years of my life as an American," Val said to the camera, then later telling his father, "I don't care about tradition. I care about me. That's it. I'm marrying who I want to marry."

Good plan, Val; it is apparent that no one else in the Johns family will care about your welfare, so you'd better do it yourself.

These Johns; all one can hope is that they are nowhere near representing Romani tradition.

Stay tuned.

American Gypsies airs on National Geographic Channel on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m.

UPDATE: Johns family makes mockery of family values

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
I am a Romani person, living in North America, and can tell you without a doubt that this television show does not portray the realities of Romani culture. Reality shows are usually scripted, and always dramatically overblown. Nearly every other Romani person I know has a normal job, or goes to school, mows the lawn and washes laundry and goes grocery shopping like normal people. Maybe one in ten behaves like the people on this show and they are generally looked down upon the way most people consider "trailer trash". Actual reality would never make interesting television so the producers of the show. Activists and prominent members of the Roma community are appealing to National Geographic to put and end to this offense to our culture- have a look at

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
I am not a Romani, but I am a member of a Native American tribe so, I do understand stereo-types. I have been watching American Gypsy religiously. It amazes me the drama and daily friction- and joy that abounds in this family. They are the epitome of wearing their emotions on their sleeves-the opposite of people in my culture (stereotypes considered). They are so tight knit, it's unbelievable. They could coin the phase, I'm loved so much, I'm being choked to death with this love. Everyone wants to be involved in everyone else's life. If this is truly the way the John's family run their lives, all their children are in for a troubled and hard life. I was particularly troubled when the two sister's wanted to act, went to an agent & it was discovered the girls couldn't read. It seems their mother was supposed to home school them & neglected to teach them to read. On one hand, there is mystery and perceived romance about the strong family life and ties within the Romani community. On the other hand, at least in this family, their willingness to hold themselves and their children back by lack of education and exposure to mainstream life, will do nothing to empower their families to a better life. Quite the contrary. I'm so happy to read your post that the behavior we see on this show, is in fact, not the norm. Although voyeuristically, it is entertaining to see this family get into and out of crisis of their own creation brought about by their limited and small minded opinions and behaviors. In my humble opinion, as far as entertainment goes, this show could rival any fantasy fiction show such as, Modern family.

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