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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga works with United Nations to tell story of Romani people, including local leader Jimmy Marks

Gypsy leader Jimmy Marks, shown in a March 2004 photo, died June 27, 2007, at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. Marks, who battled local officials for decades and placed a curse on Spokane, became famous in 1986, when police raided his home and that of his father, Grover Marks. Marks was a vocal advocate for the Roma community and sometimes referred to himself as the "Gypsy senator." (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Illuminating a history not often told, Gonzaga University is working with the United Nations to highlight stories of the Romani people locally and across the Americas.

The Romani Memory Map for the Americas is a crowd-sourced initiative that designates places across North and South America that hold significance to the Roma. Beginning with 29 memory points, the map is meant to expand as more places are nominated by Roma living in the Americas.

The Romani people are a nomadic ethnic group originating from northern India who later migrated throughout Europe. Subject to much prejudice and discrimination, the Roma have been commonly known as “Gypsies.” Although now well-known as an offensive term and misnomer stemming from the original belief that the ethnic group was native to Egypt, it was the term used by some members of the Marks family, a Roma family prominent in Spokane in the later decades of the 20th century.

Gonzaga’s Center for Global Engagement hosts the English-language version of the UN Romani Map for the Americas on its website. There are also Spanish and Portuguese versions of the site. Those who would like to nominate additions to the map can do so at ohchr.org/en/calls-for-input/2024/call-inputs-romani-memory-map-americas before a June 15 deadline.

Places on the map can have personal meaning to a specific Romani person or the community as a whole. Examples include historical events, places where Romani people settled, a community center, a place where important documents or archives are kept, a camping site or a cemetery.

“The goal of doing this is that Romani American history is virtually non-existent in academia, but also in popular consciousness where a lack of visibility of the real history allows for more stereotypes and misinformation,” said Gonzaga History Professor Ann Ostendorf, who is a scholar of Romani history and a member of the project’s organizing committee.

The goal of the map is to “raise awareness that American history is Romani history,” she said.

Spokane is memorialized in the Romani Memory Map for Roma cultural demonstrations that took place in the city during the 1974 World’s Fair.

Best-known among the Romani community in Spokane was Jimmy Marks, who at times was a leader among the Roma and a perpetual pain in the side of local officials. Described as a “flamboyant gadfly” in his Seattle Times obituary, Marks infamously placed a curse on Spokane following a 1986 police raid against his family.

While being investigated for allegedly stealing property burglarized from homes, police seized over $2 million in cash and jewelry in the raids, which were later ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Though property was returned, the Marks family later sued the city – leading to a legal saga ending in a 1997 settlement after over a decade.

The notoriety of Marks and the questions around criminal investigations into him provide a “double-edged sword” to Roma scholars.

“If anybody in Spokane knows about Romani people, they have a tendency to have Jimmy Marks come up in their mind. That has both pros and cons,” Ostendorf said. “In Spokane, probably more people maybe than a lot of places recognize that Romani people are part of our local history. But because of Marks’ reputation as an outrageous, on-both-sides-of-the-law kind of character, it can feed into the prejudice that all Roma are possibly criminal.”

Oftentimes, Marks’ battle with the city overshadowed his work as a civil rights advocate for the Romani people in Spokane and across the Americas, she added. It was Marks and his family who organized the Roma cultural demonstrations at Expo ‘74, opened a Romani Cultural Center in Spokane and donated Roma cultural artifacts to the Smithsonian Museum.

In the mid-‘80s, Marks also served on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council to represent the Romani people, who were a victim of the Nazi genocide.

“We want the world to know that we, too, mourn our dead and cannot forget what happened,” Marks told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “We are tired of waiting for the world to realize our people suffered.”

According to the UN, more than 3,000 Roma were killed at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. Much is still unknown about the full scope of Roma deaths under Nazi Germany compared to many other groups.

“The persecution and exclusion of the Roma did not begin with Nazism and did not end with it. Recent studies show that Roma experience very high levels of discrimination and hostility in Europe and in the Americas,” reads a 2015 UN report. The “invisibility” of the Romani people in the Americas – and the subsequent discrimination facilitated by it – was also highlighted by the UN report.

Ostendorf noted that the Romani ethnicity and identity is not tracked in the U.S. Census, and it remains unclear how many Romani people live in the United States.

“There’s no place where you could mark this identity. Immigration records don’t track it. There’s been very little scholarship attempting to determine who’s Roma, who chooses to retain this identity, how it’s retained over the generations. Largely this is because many people don’t see ‘Gypsies,’” she said .

Most cultural depictions of the Roma fall into stereotypes associated with antigypsyism, the form of racism and discrimination faced by the Romani people.

“Gypsy is the stereotype, whereas Romani are the real people. And the real people have suffered under the negative stereotype of gypsies,” Ostendorf said.