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Giving Texas Czechs ‘a sense of place’

Two Austinites dive into their culture with traveling exhibit on Texas Czechs.

Lori Najvar, who grew up in Hallettsville in Lavaca County between San Antonio and Houston, often heard Czech at home.

“My parents’ first language was Czech,” the Austin artist says about her Texas Czech family. “They spoke Czech first, then were forced to speak English.”

To be clear, what her parents spoke was not what one would hear nowadays in the Czech Republic.

“The language froze in time here,” Najvar says about a dialect handed down from 19th-century immigrants to Texas. “And it absorbed new words here, even a few German ones. Meanwhile, it continued to evolve in the old country. Our Czech dialect sounds more like old Moravian, from the area home to most of our ancestors.”

Dawn Orsak, an Austin cultural administrator, is fifth-generation Texas Czech. She and her friend, Najvar, created the small but potent traveling exhibit, “Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition,” now at the Texas Capitol Visitors Center, located in the old crenelated General Land Office Building.

“I really wanted a project that honored my ancestors,” says Orsak, whose family also settled in Lavaca County, and who works by day for the Caddo Lake Institute. “I also wanted to focus on, not just history, but currently practiced Czech customs. I wanted the community to celebrate itself.”

Her late great-uncle was John Morkovsky, bishop of the Galveston-Houston Catholic Diocese. The charming archival film footage in the exhibit comes from his personal collection.

“There’s so much about the past in museums,” says Najvar, an employee of the Texas Workforce Commission, who made a documentary about a Texas Czech family’s 50 years of sausage-making tradition. “But not much for young children to relate to, for instance.”

Most of the exhibit consists of interpretive banners, but the duo, working under the nonprofit umbrella, PolkaWorks, also offers some interactive elements.

“Everybody can learn from each other’s cultures,” Najvar says. “It broadens our perspectives. Our society is moving so fast, we are danger of losing all this. Festivals are a good place to start, but talking to relatives or neighbors about their memories is better. If you can get it first hand, it sticks.”

The exhibit’s story

The Czechs who came to Texas — migration peaked in the 1880s — were primarily Moravians, but also Bohemians, Slovaks and Silesians. Most immigrants landed in Galveston and moved inland to farm the land. Because their rural communities remained isolated, many of their traditions survived into the 21st century.

One way that Texas Czechs endured rural life here was by creating fraternal groups — KJT, Sokol, SPJST and others — that tended to social, fitness and economic needs. Also, faith helped to preserve Czech culture. Tourists are dazzled by their painstakingly preserved painted Central Texas Catholic churches. Yet the immigrants also included members of the Unity of the Brethren, a Christian group whose roots go back before the Reformation.

Almost every weekend, this Czech culture goes on public display somewhere in Texas at church picnics, weddings, fundraisers and cultural festivals, where centuries-old music, dance, food and apparel are revived. The oldest such large-scale event is Houston’s Saints Cyril and Methodius Slavic Heritage Festival, established in 1963.

“The oldest parish picnic, referred to as Pražská Pout, takes place in the community of Praha in Fayette County,” the exhibit reports. “Because it is one of the earliest Texas Czech settlements, founded in 1855, the community is sometimes called Matička Praha, or Mother Praha.”

These fandangos will often include polka bands — although some of the musicians now must learn the Czech lyrics phonetically — folk singing, cooking demonstrations and tournaments of taroky (a card game).

“At its heart, Texas Czech music is dance music,” the exhibit explains. “Bands play polkas and waltzes — dance styles that were popular when Czech immigrants first settled in Texas — for weddings, church picnics, cultural festivals and public dances.

Today’s polka bands, which evolved out of brass groups, often start with accordions and can include modern electrified keyboards and electric bass, mixing in some country, western swing and conjunto styles. Some bands are multi-generational: The Baca, Patek, Vrazel, Majek and Mikula families are “musical royalty” in Czech Texas.

Radio shows featuring polka music began in the 1920s, and, more recently, Internet polka shows are reaching even larger audiences.

“Band leader and radio host Alfred Vrazel of Buckholts, the only Texan inducted into the National Polka Hall of Fame, hosts the longest running polka radio show in America,” according to the exhibit. “Vrazel started broadcasting in 1955 on station KMIL 1330 AM in Cameron.”

Almost any Texas Czech social event includes food, using Old World methods adapted to other foodways here, hence the pineapple-filled kolaches, jalapeño-venison sausage and chile-infused sweet pickles.

And any time Texas Czech get together, there’s talk of family roots. The Czech Heritage Society, founded in 1982, and the Texas Czech Genealogical Society, established in 2000, help them link the generations together. Libraries in Houston, La Grange and Temple hold particularly strong genealogical records along with volunteers fluent in Czech.

Making it personal

“Czech is a West Slavic language spoken by over 11 million people throughout the world,” the exhibit tells us. “The Texas Czech dialect is based in the dialects of northeastern Bohemia and the Lachian and Valachian regions of Moravia.”

Although immigrants preserved this dialect through schools, newspapers, theater and religious services, usage has declined sharply since World War II. Only about 9,000 Texans still speak Czech regularly, according to the 2010 census.

Most Texas Czechs know at least a few words, such as “Jak se máš?” (“How are you?”). Words such as pupek (belly button) and pivo (beer) have filtered into Texan speech.

The exhibit reminds us that Texas A&M University and Blinn College offer Czech classes. Czech has been taught at the University of Texas since 1915. The Czech School of Dallas caters to children of recent immigrants.

Alas, although Czech was once the third or fourth most spoken language in Texas, that part of the culture is losing ground.

“Czech language programs are dying out in Texas schools,” Orsak says. “The Czech Museum in Houston is more about maintaining arts and cultural ties with the Czech Republic. There’s only one Texas Czech publication left — Našinec. No more Czech-language radio, though there’s loads of polka stations.”

Still, the exhibit-makers contend that each Texas Czech should find some personal comfort in their preserved culture.

“It gives me a sense of place,” Najvar says. “It wasn’t till I went to college that I realized I had a culture to identify with. And I identified more with it once I got there. ‘Oh, it’s my culture that makes me like some kinds of food and like certain music.’ I found value in where I’m from.”

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