Going to America Because of a
by Vida Gorjup Posinkovic
Translated by Christina Strojan
There are many cases of decidedly female migrations in the
history of Slovene emigration, from the "aleksandrinke"
in Egypt and the »slamarice« or makers of straw
hats in the USA to the "kostanjarice", women selling
chestnuts, in Europe. Usually women migrated abroad to follow
their husbands. From existing documentation we learn very little
about these women, their education, their class or their reasons
for leaving. Even their names are rarely found on the various
lists yet they played a crucial role in preserving our emigrants'
Slovene identity and roots.
Women expatriates were the subject of a three day international
conference organised by the Institute for Emigration Studies
at the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of
Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU) at the end of October. Historians,
sociologists, ethnologists, archivists, and guests from abroad
took part in the discussion which presented female Slovene emigrants
from many different perspectives. The result was a complex and
multi-layered image of female emigration and the role women
played in preserving Slovene culture abroad.
According to historian Dr. Marjan Drnovšek, female emigration
was mostly connected with accompanying their husbands and less
to the women's own wishes and initiative. Cases of exclusively
female emigration were mostly confined to one region. Thus the
"aleksandrinke", who found employment as nursemaids
in Egypt during the construction of the Suez Canal originated
from the Vipavska region whereas the »slamarice«,
who left for America to manufacture hats, all came from Domale.
Nuns from Prekmurje left for France, while women from the Primorska
region moved to Yugoslavia between the World Wars. The so-called
slave trade has not yet been researched in detail.
The most common reasons among women for emigrating were to earn
their dowry and to help their families. As Dr. Aleksej Kalc
from the Science and Research Centre of Koper noted, their going
abroad was a family decision made in order to help them recover
from poverty though the move was considered temporary. However,
despite the fact that these sisters and daughters left home
with a heavy heart and a clear goal in mind, they seldom returned.
In their new environment they quickly developed a social network
and settled down. This environment was often more progressive
and liberal than their home environment. This was most notable
in the US where, at that time, the movement for the rights of
workers and women was very strong.
The Custodians of Traditional Values
The role of women abroad of course depends on our point of
view, emphasised sociologist Dr. Marina Lukšic Hacin. If
we regard it from the standpoint of preserving our cultural
heritage, their role was crucial. With emigration the processes
which are vital for preserving our identity as Slovenes move
from the public into the private sphere, which in a patriarchal
society is ruled by women. In emigration, women pass on the
main values and symbols of identity to the younger generation.
They take care to preserve the mother tongue, usually in the
form of dialect and to convey the emotional relationship with
their homeland to their children.
However, despite all efforts to preserve them, values change
with the second generation. First generation emigrants carry
from their homeland things that are most dear to them, things
that they can identify with. Because throughout history emigration
was most common among the lower and middle classes, the symbols
of identity, from music and books to food, comply with their
social backgrounds. But for the young people who haven't had
the opportunity to develop an emotional bond with their country
of origin, these symbols seem remote; they therefore quickly
adopt the symbols of their generation in their own environment.
This, of course, does not mean that they are neglecting their
roots. Often the lack of tolerance older generations show towards
a different perception of traditional values displayed by the
young is the main reason for the generation gap in Slovene communities
and accelerates the process of assimilation of the young. However
it would be interesting to determine what importance the younger
generation places on the original symbols of identity once it
gets older, says Dr. Lukšic Hacin.
The American Dream
One of the most powerful emigration stereotypes is the conviction
that all things abroad are better. Its origins are probably
in the early years of the last century in the US and it has
been preserved by a collective lie, both by the emigrants themselves
and their relatives at home. In truth the conditions were bad,
they lived modestly, and everything that was sent home was taken
out of their own mouths. Sometimes life in America was even
harder than at home, but acknowledging this would mean admitting
that their decision to go abroad was bad and the sacrifice needless.
Joe Valencic from the US remembers his mother telling him about
the time she arrived in America, in 1929 during the Great Depression,
when she faced harsher poverty and greater social insecurity
than in her native Brkini.
On the other hand, the letters from America of a member of the
Slovene minority in Hungary, presented by Marija Kozar Mukic,
show a huge leap in the quality of social status. The young
girl was shocked when she moved from the decidedly patriarchal
environment of Porabje to America, the land of civil rights
and the women's liberation movement. Regardless of the circumstances
in which they lived, the emigrants were always fond of displaying
their humble fortunes. And sometimes a lavish hat on the head
of an immigrant would be enough to stir in the local wives and
girls a fervent wish to go abroad.
The case of emigration to the US is also interesting because
of the response of the majority population towards individual
groups and the pressures on them to integrate. The idea of the
famous melting pot, in which the many ethnicities should merge
into one common American nation was, in the second half of the
20th century, reversed. Suddenly it was not enough to be an
American, you had to have something else besides, and that something
could only be ancestral roots leading back to your homeland.
Nowadays ethnicity is no longer preserved in order to survive
but to retain a sense of meaning.
According to Dr. Mirjam Milharcic Hladnik, who researched the
life-stories of Slovene women in the US, America was especially
attractive to women in the field of education and employment.
But it is interesting that it was in the USA that women did
not have the opportunity to pass their culture on to their children.
While they were still mainly employed in the home, society was
ruled by the influence of the melting pot and when »new
ethnicity« came into being, women were, in general, already
employed outside the home, and the children left in the care
of public institutions.
Female Emigration Today
The history of female emigration is full of dramatic stories
and great sacrifices along with great achievements and many
happy moments. Thus Dr. Mihael Kuzmic presented the life and
work of the school sisters in Bethlehem and the crucial role
they played in educating and preserving the Slovene culture
among the emigrants from Prekmurje from the beginning of the
20th century to the 1970s. Dr. Zvone igon spoke about
Slovene missionaries while Joseph Valencic strolled through
American film, presented the first film containing the Slovene
words I love you or "ljubim te" and discovered a film
diva of Slovene origins, Nora Gregor. He also mentioned the
famous young emigrant Melanie, the beautiful bride of Donald
Modern women however who choose to emigrate belong to another
story, presenting a different image of the female expatriate
and her different attitude towards going abroad. According to
Dr. Lukšic Hacin, women today certainly do not go abroad
in search of lush hats or husbands. They leave mostly to gain
knowledge. Their main goals are education, employment and later
professional careers, where they are already catching up with
the men. For some time now, women have been more successful
in their studies than men, thus gaining access to scholarships
and opportunities of studying abroad, which in turn leads to
better jobs with more responsibility. If we add the effects
of positive discrimination, enjoyed by women in certain social
areas on account of their previous neglect, the complete image
of her social status is much improved. As Slovene Women were
always great fighters, there are an increasing number of success
stories among the expatriates of today.
(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet December 2004"