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Immigrating to The States from Croatia

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Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles.
Photograph by D Ramey Logan, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikimedia.

        The blooming maritime industry in San Pedro was promising for a lot of Croatian immigrants leaving Yugoslavia. And of course, the coastal location and the Mediterranean climate of Southern California also reminded San Pedro’s and the rest of LA’s Croatians of home on the Dalmatian Coast in the Adriatic Sea. 

        Situated right next to the Port of Los Angeles just south of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the neighborhood of San Pedro played a big role in the development of the largest maritime gateway and port in North America. Annexed by the City of Los Angeles in 1909, San Pedro slowly developed alongside the major seaport, which became one of the busiest in the country. Lined with oil refineries, fish canneries, docks, and shipyards, it was an area of opportunity for those who wanted to work in those industries. These opportunities attracted immigrants from overseas, as well as domestic immigrants from the Midwest and the East Coast. Even more noteworthy is San Pedro’s diverse community. The area became home to Japanese, Italians, Croatians, Portuguese, Greeks, and Scandinavian immigrants, most of which found their footing through opportunities in the fishing and cannery industries. 

        Located in Southeastern Europe and home to Dubrovnik, a major filming location for Game of Thrones, Croatia is one of the 13 nations that make up the Slavic population in Europe. Having been a part of former Yugoslavia, Croatian immigration took place alongside those of neighboring nations such as Slovenia, Serbia, and Bosnia. Most Croatians immigrated to the United States mainly during the 19th-20th centuries in between the years 1890 and the 1930s. To this day, San Pedro remains one of the largest Croatian enclaves in the United States and the largest one in Southern California, totaling to about 30,000 people of Croatian decent out of the 80,000 total residents, according to the LA Department of City Planning, and then an estimated 1.2 million total Croats live in the United States altogether, according to the Central State Office for Croats Abroad. Other U.S. cities and states are home to a decent amount of Croatians, including Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, San Jose, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Overall, the United States contains the largest diaspora of Croatian immigrants. 

        According to Alexander Albin's The Speech of Yugoslav Immigrants in San Pedro, California, the earliest Croatian immigrants from the 1860s settled in New Orleans and found jobs in the fishing industry or as artisans and traders. The next wave of Croatian immigrants in the 1890s and later found employment in Pennsylvania and New York as either steelworkers or coal miners while some settled in other industrial towns in the Midwest.

        Other Croats from the mid-Adriatic islands of Brač, Korčula, Vis and other parts of the Dalmatian Coast who sought employment in the States found a home away from home in San Pedro, where 

Map of Los Angeles detailing Croatian presence in the area with the biggest enclave seen down in San Pedro. Map by Eric Brightwell.

they either opened their own businesses or found jobs and prospered in the fishing and seafood industries and canneries in San Pedro. Eventually, Croatians became one of the dominant groups in the maritime industries.

        While many Croatians were able to find jobs in the industries they wanted, a lot of Croats who arrived after World War II were actually political refugees seeking a better life away from economic and political hardships that they were facing under Yugoslavia’s socialist/communist regime. 

        “That's what kind of inspired immigration during the time of Socialist Yugoslavia,” said Professor Viktorija Lejko-Lacan, who grew up in Zagreb, Croatia and now teaches Croatian/Serbian language classes at UCLA. “It was political and economic reasons because all these nice ideas about the society that would give everyone what they needed didn't actually come true.”

        Many immigrants also remember the economy being extremely poor in Yugoslavia where sometimes it was hard to make ends meet. Nikolina Vukovič, 22-year-old from San Pedro and student at Long Beach State recalled her grandmother's stories where she said she had to pick berries and then weigh them all in a bucket to earn money.

        "Some people would put water in it to make it heavier," said Vukovič. "But she always just did berries [and] was honest about it."

        Some Croatians would even cross the Italian border to escape the hardships in Yugoslavia and then make their way to the United States from there, said Professor Lejko-Lacan. Especially with connections around the world, people were able to see what life was like or what it could be like for them in the United States, and many immigrants wanted that for themselves, whether it was just to pursue the American Dream or to escape the political and economic climate in Yugoslavia, or both.

        One noteworthy figure in San Pedro’s fishing industry was the owner of Star-Kist Foods Inc. It was founded by Croatia’s very own Martin J. Bogdanovich. Originally from the small fishing town of Komiža on the western side of the island of Vis, Bogdanovich moved to Southern California and became a fisherman. He bought a fresh fish trading company, California Fish Co., eventually opening his own factory and constructed a fish cannery called French Sardine Co., now called Star-Kist Foods Inc. Not only is Bogdanovich considered a legend for bringing new fishing techniques over to the Pacific, but he forever changed the American fishing industry and ran the biggest fish cannery and tuna plant in America, which was where other fishermen from Komiža and other parts of the Dalmatian coast found their first jobs after immigrating to the States. Ultimately, StarKist was able to give many Croatians a fresh start by providng emloyment. 

Martin J. Bogdanovich, founder of Star-Kist. Photo courtesy of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society.

        The town of Komiža has a whole history of its own, which is mostly tied to the fishing industry. It is the village where fishing on the eastern side of the Adriatic came to life and served as a major center for fishermen in the Middle ages. In addition to being a quiet and peaceful Mediterranean village with stunning beaches and also one of the filming locations for ‘Mama Mia 2: Here We Go Again!’, Komiža has always held a strong fishing tradition. Because agriculture was limited in Komiža as it is isolated from the rest of the island, those who lived in Komiža turned to the water for a solution. With the waters being full of fish and other seafood, Komiža unsurprisingly became a long-term home for fishers in the Adriatic. The fishing industry in Komiža thrived under the Austro-Hungarian empire, and when the empire started diminishing, so did Komiža’s fishing success, which included seven fish processing factories. This is another reason why fishermen from the area emigrated from Croatia to North America because they sought alternatives to Komiža, particularly in Southern California, where they could apply their fishing skills. This is how San Pedro became an enclave for Croatian fishermen. Komiža has a Fishermen’s Museum by the sea front on the main promenade to commemorate its legacy. 

        “There was barely a Komizian who had not begun his life in America by working in Bogdanović’s cannery," per "That is the main reason why today in San Pedro there are many more people from Komiža than in Komiža itself.” 

Boats docked in the small harbor that sits in the town of Komiža, Vis , Croatia. Photo courtesy of myself. 
The main promenade of restaurants and cafés in Komiža. Photo courtesy of myself. 

        “It's like walking through a little San Pedro because everybody who lives in San Pedro vacations there,” said Peter Hazdovac, Croatian American who was born and raised in the San Pedro enclave. “There's those cafes along the main promenade [where] I walked from one side to the other and at every table there was somebody from San Pedro.”

        Hazdovac’s parents were both born in Croatia, specifically inland Dubrovnik and the island of Mljet. 

        “Both my parents met in America, and they moved to San Pedro because there was a big Croatian community here and we had some family here as well,” said Hazdovac. 

        His parents then opened Adriatic Tours, a Croatian travel agency where Hazdovac has been working at for the past decade. 

        “It was in San Pedro for a specific reason because there were a lot of Croatians living here and they were able to sell airline tickets and help Croatians get back [to Croatia],” said the San Pedro native. “And that's kind of what their bread and butter was of their business.”

        His family’s business also allowed them to become even more involved with the community as they were interacting with other Croatians on a daily basis and helped promote events, selling tickets for dinners and concerts at the Croatian American Club & Hall, a common gathering place for Croatians located on 9th street in the San Pedro neighborhood. Hazdovac currently resides in San Pedro with his wife and two daughters.

        Branimir Kvartuč moved to San Pedro at the age of six when his parents immigrated from Zadar, Croatia. His parents started working at Starkist when they arrived in San Pedro.

Branimir got his first accordion at the age of three, a staple musical instrument of Croatia. This photo is in Zadar, Croatia, three years before the family emigrated to San Pedro. Photo courtesy of Branimir Kvartuč.

        “That's where everybody worked when my parents immigrated here,” said Kvartuč. “[My parents] definitely had a giant sense of community, as much as you could possibly have, like 10 out of 10.”

        This was at a time where if you moved to America, you assimilate. You leave your old country, culture and language behind. It was more ideal to quickly assimilate and forget your old identity. But assimilation can be slowed when you live in an enclave that can keep you from being immersed into American life, making that big sense of community both a blessing and a curse. 

        “[At Starkist], they were speaking Spanish better than they were speaking English because they were working with Spanish speakers, [so] their assimilation took a lot longer.” said Kvartuč. "Not only are they

moving from a very small country, but they don't speak the language or have any education, so it was super tough for them.”

        For a lot of immigrants, it was also hard to have a steady job. 

        “I've thought about my career and [my dad’s] career and his ability to communicate, I think the worst thing about working [at Starkist] was that there was this constant fear of being laid off,” said Kvartuč.

Brothers Branimir and Ante Kvartuč visit their native Zadar, Croatia. Before the pandemic the duo would visit every summer. This photo is a screen grab from their remake of the music video Scotty Doesn’t Know from the 2004 movie EuroTrip. Photo courtesy of Branimir Kvartuč.
Between 2008 and 20011, Branimir moved back to Croatia to continue his photojournalism career in Dubrovnik, Croatia. During the same time, he imported Stand Up Paddle Boarding and introduced it to the nation, using the sport to raise funding for the local Dubrovnik hospital and cancer awareness. Photo courtesy of Branimir Kvartuč.
 When Branimir moved to Croatia between 2008-2011, he worked for CroPix, Croatia’s largest photo agency. He is photographed here in his company car for Jutarnji List, Croatia’s newspaper of record. Photo courtesy of Branimir Kvartuč.

        A few Croatians in the later generations had even slightly pushed back a bit at defining themselves as solely their heritage. Some wanted to figure out who they were and have to an identify of their own aside from their heritage. 

        “For most of the people that I grew up with, [the Croatian culture] was much bigger part of their lives,” said Kvartuč, now a co-owner of “I went a different direction in my growing up.”

        Nevertheless, he strived to have an American college experience in New York while still emphasizing his Croatian heritage in other areas of his life, such as through his love for Croatian sports teams and attending some rallies during the Croatian War for Independence in the early nineties.

        Kathy Creighton was born and raised in San Pedro, as was her mother whose parents both immigrated from the island of Brač off the Croatian coast. Her grandfather, Josip Ursich, from her mother’s side came to San Pedro in 1918 and decided to get married once he was stable and wrote back to his family in Brač.

        “They sent a couple of pictures, and he looked at the pictures, and he picked one. So he wrote back and said, okay, send me her," said Creighton. "That turned out to be my grandmother.”

        When Creighton’s mother, Violet Ursich, was finally born to Ljubica Carevic Ursich, she had such a big community of Croatian kids in San Pedro that there was no need for her to even speak any English at first. 

Kathy's grandmother, Ljubica Carevic Ursich, is pictured here on the very right. Photo courtesy of Kathy Creighton.
Kathy''s mother, Violet Ursich, is pictured here on the very right. Photo courtesy of Kathy Creighton.
Kathy's grandfather, Josip Ursich, is pictured here on the top right. Photo courtesy of Kathy Creighton.

        Creighton’s father, Lujo Moretti, was born and raised in Cavtat, just south of Dubrovnik and was the youngest of seven. He attended school in Dubrovnik and would most of the time be busy helping his dad load boats for transporting goods. His life was often unpredictable. 
        “A good sailor knows that to reach his destination, he will have to adjust his sails to the constantly changing winds and unpredictable currents. Some days he might find smooth sailing out in the open waters and other days he might need to dash into a harbor for safety when the winds are rough,” said Creighton in a eulogy to her father. “My father sailed through life this way.”

        Moretti was conscripted in World War II at the age of 16 to serve in the Yugoslav army and brought back with him some dire stories. After his service, he graduated Nautical school and made the decision to leave from Communist Yugoslavia to Italy on November 29th, 1950. He was given refugee status before he went to Canada and then to San Pedro. At the time of his escape, it was a big Yugoslav holiday, the fifth anniversary of the founding of the People's Federation of Yugoslavia.

        “He pretended to be a patriotic Communist, decorating the [party] hall [in Cavat], helping with the decorations and late at night once the party was over, he and another man got into a little boat and they left [to Italy]," said Creighton. 

        After setting sail on a dangerous stormy night in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, they heard a ship horn in the distance the next morning and hoped that it was a ship from anywhere but Yugoslavia, where they could be taken back and punished for escaping. The men were rescued by an Italian ship by the name of Esperanza, which translates to hope. They were then taken to a refugee camp in Italy for three months before immigrating to Canada. In Nova Scotia, Canada, Creighton’s father started his new life working in a logging camp and then finally made his way to the West coast of Canada in British Columbia, wanting badly to return home if only there was no risk of punishment or execution by the Yugoslav government. 

        Moretti then became one of a few thousand men from all parts of the globe who helped build a hydro-electric dam in Kitimat, Canada, which involved blasting a 14 mile tunnel through a mountain where there were two crews, one on each side of the mountain. Each crew blasted seven miles inward until they met in the middle, literally six inches apart. He lived with, worked with, and befriended many other men from all over the world during this project. 

        He then spent a couple more years fishing, among other miscellaneous jobs down in Vancouver until he got his dream opportunity to sail on a merchant ship to every side of the planet multiple times, bringing back story after story from places like Japan, India, Africa, England, France, Osaka, the Panama canal, and the Suez canal. He carried on this dream until he met a girl in San Pedro, Creighton’s mother, Violet. They married just a couple months later and then came Kathy.

        Creighton's father continued to spend almost 30 years as a longshoreman. Later he would be found busy with different activities. You would find him in Wildomar planting fruits and vegetables in his garden or building benches, hot plates, and birdhouses. His life journey always kept him busy and gave him many stories to tell, some scary but some inspiring. Like him, many Croatians from the older generations in San Pedro had to escape a communist regime and make an often perilous journey to the States. But most of all, Creighton's father was proud to live among San Pedro’s Croatian community. 

        “He was a very proud member of the Croatian American Club from the day it was founded," stated Creighton in her dad’s eulogy. I remember him standing out on 9th street, beaming when he finally got to see his Croatian flag complete with the red and white checkered coat of arms flying proudly."

        Creighton herself was involved with the Croatian community growing up. She attended Croatian language classes and grew up speaking the language with her grandmother, her father, and her mother, who was a Kolo dancer throughout much of her life. 

        Interestingly enough, the island of Brač has a slightly different dialect, as do other islands off mainland Croatia. Creighton picked up a lot of her language skills from her grandmother, which are noticeable even to this day. 

        “When I go to the Cavat or Dubrovnik area, [my father's family] will still tell me that I have a little bit of a dialect from Brač, one person even told me, “you talk like an old lady,” Creighton said with a small laugh. 

        As a Croatian American, celebrating all the typical American holidays are even more thrilling when it’s mixed with Croatian traditions, like on Easter this past month.

        “Easter pastries from the Croatian community are just kind of like an added extra layer that just makes it more fun,” said Creighton

Violet Ursich's Kolo dress that she wore during her folklore years. Photo: Kathy Creighton. Photo courtesy of Kathy Creighton.
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