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Č is for Čigāns

Continuing with the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge, we’ve come upon our second Latvian letter…. Č!

This was a tough letter! There are not many Latvian words that start with “č” (pronounced “ch”), and even fewer that could relate to genealogy in some way. But I’ve found one – “čigāns”. This is Latvian for Gypsy or Roma. The word is probably borrowed from the German “Zigeuner”. Like “Gypsy” in English being replaced by the more appropriate “Roma”, there is something of a movement to have “čigāns” replaced by “roms” in Latvian, but by and large the term used by both Roma and non-Roma in Latvia is still “čigāns”. This is also the word (though usually in its German [Zigeuner] or Russian [цыган] equivalent) that will be seen in genealogical records, which is why I’m considering it important for discussion here.

Almost 2,000 Roma lived in Latvia at the time of the 1935 Census. Despite the drastic drop in population due to the Holocaust, today the Latvian Roma population numbers over 8,000. As with Latvian society in general, there has been a shift from rural to urban residences. The Roma presence in Latvia dates back several hundred years, to when they came to Latvian territory mostly from Germany and Poland.

How can you tell in genealogical records if someone is Roma? Records will often mention it, usually in the place of the occupation. Due to their roots in Germany and Poland, many Roma will also have German or Polish surnames. I have yet to see any Roma with German surnames in the records, but surnames such as Mitrowski, Kozlowski and Burkewitz are all common. Mitrowski is the one that I see most often, particularly around Limbaži, where the family appears to have been established for most of the second half of the nineteenth century.

The reason I bring up the Roma in a genealogical context is because despite commonly being viewed as outsiders and nomads living on the fringes of society, there are numerous families that lived in the same area for years, such as the Mitrowskis mentioned above, baptizing their children in the same Lutheran churches as the Latvian peasants did, and living alongside Latvians. What the records do tell us is that while Roma children often had Roma godparents, sometimes they also had Latvian godparents and vice versa. The records also tell us that there was a higher rate of births outside of wedlock among the Roma than in the general peasant population in a number of congregations. A source I consulted for research on the topic of Roma in Latvia seemed to imply that it was not unusual for Roma to have children prior to marriage, but other sources say that virginity prior to marriage is important, so I’m not sure which is the case. Maybe someone can provide more information?

What the social relationships were between Roma and Latvians, though, I can’t say. However, there was a great deal of moving from place to place in general in 19th century Latvia, regardless of ethnicity, so nomadism was not something that could be associated only with Roma families. In some cases, Roma families were more settled than many Latvian landless farmhand families, who could move every year, if not more often, looking for new work.

Now, this is not to say that discrimination didn’t happen – I know it certainly did. One need look only at the one Latvian-origin Roma surname that I have seen – Mangotājs. This would come from the verb “mangot”, meaning “to beg/scrounge”, thus meaning “one who begs/scrounges”. This shows the “establishment” that granted surnames was not particularly well-disposed towards the Roma population.

This discrimination still exists today, with Roma being generally frowned upon, not getting the same levels of education as the rest of society, having a much higher rate of unemployment, etc. Work is being done to improve the situation, but slowly. As time passes, hopefully the Roma community will be able to be more integrated in Latvian society, so that they can pursue higher education, get better jobs and explore more opportunities, while also having the ability to maintain their cultural traditions and language.

Do you have Latvian Roma ancestors? Or information about the lives of Roma in 19th century Latvia? Please share their story in comments!

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