By Zach Krajacic
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
While recently attending a 100-year anniversary celebration at Our Lady of Bistrica, a Croatian Catholic Church in Lackawanna, I was reminded of my family’s immigration almost 50 years ago from Croatia (part of Yugoslavia at the time) to the United States. The journey brought many challenges, but we overcame all of them through a strong family bond, hard work, education, traditional values and our Catholic faith.
My parents worked hard under Marshal Tito’s communist regime, but the fruits of their labor were meager. Tired of government control and poverty, they looked forward to freedom and prosperity in America.
We arrived in New York City on Dec. 27, 1970. I was 2 years old and my brothers were 9 and 7. At the time, Richard Nixon was president and disco music, bell-bottom pants and big collars were in fashion. Mustaches were also in vogue, which was fortunate, because it probably helped my Dad and uncles feel at home.
One of my uncles came from Buffalo to meet us in New York. He was the reason we were able to come to America. In the face of strict immigration laws, he helped to clear the way by vouching for us and agreeing to be held responsible for us. He had immigrated to the United States seven years earlier following his escape from Yugoslavia. After wandering and hiding in the forests for two weeks, he eventually made it across the Italian border and later to America. To this day, he has a fondness for Italians and deep love and gratitude for the United States.
My uncle and aunt lived in Riverside and they graciously provided the upper flat of their house as a temporary residence. My parents had limited means and received no financial assistance from the government or any organization. They quickly found jobs without knowing English. Dad worked a physically demanding job at J.H. Williams, where hard labor coarsened his hands. Mom worked full time as a seamstress at Chase Bag while also taking care of the family and performing household duties.
My parents saved enough of their modest wages to buy a house in less than a year. Even after becoming financially established, they often worked through their vacation time to earn extra income. And they never purchased luxury items. They also bought and fixed up rental property, which turned out to be a blessing because it was a source of income when their factories closed.
While my parents worked hard to provide for their family, they also expected my brothers and me to do our part. As early as age 12, my brothers could often be found on a ladder with a paintbrush in hand. One brother had to quit the football team to help paint a newly purchased rental property. Additionally, we took on adult responsibilities that required knowledge of English at an early age.
The same level of hard work and discipline was expected in the classroom. Our parents placed a high value on education and pushed us to excel, even though they were not able to assist us. We had to learn English on our own. Our parents’ poor English skills created some interesting situations, such as when my brother had to accompany Mom to parent-teacher conferences to act as a translator. Some students might view this with envy, but any benefits were surely outweighed by awkwardness.
Of course, the immigrant experience is to some extent inherently uncomfortable, especially when there are no other immigrants around besides your relatives. When you have lamb and pig roasts for birthday parties, you don’t exactly fit into mainstream American culture. Once, a student in a different grade called me a Hungarian. I tackled him to the ground and corrected him. I had nothing against Hungarians. I just felt that if he was going to tease me about being an immigrant, he ought to at least get the nationality right.
Although we came from a disadvantaged background, my brothers and I were never given any preferences or special treatment in school or the workplace. Still, we were excellent students, earned master’s degrees and have enjoyed good careers.
One reason we were able to succeed in the face of challenges is that our upbringing was rooted in traditional values. Our parents instructed us to work hard, act morally and always get along with others. They also disciplined us when necessary. All of this kept us on the right course and gave us the proper framework for life.
The values we learned stemmed largely from our Catholic faith. One of the reasons my parents worked so hard was to afford Catholic school tuition, first at All Saints Elementary School and then St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. In addition, I still recall various moments that impressed upon me the importance of our faith, such as being forced to attend Mass as a child and not being allowed to go out with my friends on Good Friday. I am now grateful for these acts of guidance, which planted seeds of faith that would later mature and play a central role in my life.
It is fascinating to think about how our lives would have been completely different if we had not come to the United States. I have also wondered whether our immigration to America in 1970 was God’s way of saving our family from a war that would come to our native land some 20 years later. I won’t know the answer to this question until I pass to the next life.
But I do know that our family has been blessed. This great country gave us the opportunities we needed to succeed. We achieved the American dream through old-fashioned principles that are beneficial not only to immigrants but to all people who want a good life.
Zach Krajacic, of Lancaster, is vice president of operations at the Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network.