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Croatia in Southern California

The Croatian American Hall of San Pedro in the 1970s.
Photo courtesy of the Croatian American Club.
Members of LA's Croatian community gathering for a group photo in front of the Hollywood Sign. Photo courtesy of Petar Repar.

        The Croatian community has Mario Forgiarini, Valentin Ivankovic, and Vlado Huljev to thank for the Croatian American Club in San Pedro. While many Croatian immigrants were enjoying their new sense of freedom in America, they wanted to bring their culture and upbringings with them abroad. The club’s banquet hall has served and still serves as the main gathering place for a variety of cultural events for the hub of Croatians in San Pedro, as well as for Croatian language classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These are things that bring the community together and allow for a sense of pride across San Pedro’s Croatian population, young and old. A part of ninth street in San Pedro was even renamed to 'Croatian Place' in honor of the neighborhood's Croatian population.

        “It was what we all did,” said Peter Hazdovac, Croatian Amercian who took part in these classes and events growing up and now works at his parents’ travel agency in San Pedro.

        Niko Skoblar was born and raised in San Pedro where both of his parents immigrated to from the Zadar region of Croatia. Skoblar grew up being heavily involved with the Croatian community in San Pedro, attending dinners and other cultural events. After graduating from San Diego State University in 2017, he gained a bigger passion for preserving his community's culture.

        “Throughout the years I've really seen the importance of having a community [and] holding values specific to your culture and your heritage,” said Skoblar. “I realized that the Croatian community is not as strong as it once was growing up.”

Croatian soccer supporters gathered for the Croatia vs. France soccer watch party in San Pedro during the 2018 World Cup. Photo courtesy of the Croatian American Club.
Croatian community gathering for the annual Croatian Independence Day festival, May 2022. Photo courtesy of the Croatian American Club.

        Skoblar now serves as the Director of Activities at the Croatian American Club and works alongside the rest of the club’s board to put together exciting events, like soccer watch parties, the yearly Croatian Independence Day celebration & street party every memorial weekend, soccer tournaments, and more to constantly reinvigorate the Croatian community. What San Pedro has at the Croatian American Club is a board of 20 people working hard to revive a dwindling community of over 30,000 Croatians in San Pedro and 100,000 in all of Los Angeles. The goal is to hold on to what previous generations had. You can always be Croatian by blood and call yourself Croatian, but what’s worth more is upholding the values that are associated with those roots. Moreover, breaking free from the shackles of communism and socialism in former Yugoslavia and maintaining a primarily Croatian community was extremely important to the previous generations who had always longed for and envisioned a free and independent Croatia.

        “Giving back is trying to fight for what people fought for back then, to have a Croatian community and give back to everything that was provided to me and all the enjoyment I had,” said Skoblar. “My love and passion is trying to provide that for the next generation so people can hold on to their culture and their values.”

        One special event specific to the Croatian American Club is Fishermen’s Night, or ‘Ribarska Noč’. Many Croats who immigrated to Southern California had skills and specialties in fishing, which is why they were drawn to San Pedro and its fishing and tuna industries. Many fishermen would travel all the way up to Alaska and go fish commercial

salmon. Fishermen’s Night serves as final a farewell to the husbands who would be gone for the next four months in Alaska sacrificing their time and energy fishing to be able to feed their families. This event is overall a celebration for the fishermen and their contributions to the San Pedro community. 

        “It's a really important tradition that we still have,” said Skoblar. “It's that sendoff of the strong willed Croatian men who needed to support their families.” 

Niko's grandfather (left) pictured in the Croatian Hall with Franjo Tudjman (and his signature). Tudjman was the first Croatian president after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Niko Skoblar.
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Niko pictured in the Croatian American Hall during the Spring 2020 Kick Off Beer Pong Tournament. Photo courtesy of Niko Skoblar.
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Niko out fishing in the Rancho Palos Verdes area. Photo courtesy of Niko Skoblar.

        Skoblar’s own love for fishing and his Croatian heritage was in a lot of ways inspired by his grandfather, Davor Božin, who was one of the many men who went to Alaska every summer to fish and who is also a part of the Croatian American Club.

        “Through my grandparents stories and my parents stories, that's kind of what shaped me to who I am today,” said Skoblar.

        His grandfather, originally from the quiet and almost empty island of Rava with a population of less than 100 people year-round, wrote an autobiography called "From Rava to America", and was the first to name every single person on Rava who was killed by the communists, along with the people who killed them. He also wrote a dictionary for the differing dialect that people on the island of Rava use, which also varies among some of the other islands off the coast of the mainland, including Vis and Brač. Back in the homeland, Skoblar's main spot is Rava. Having gone there with his grandfather almost every summer growing up, it ignited his passion for fishing and his appreciation for the simplicity of life, especially before there was internet access on the island. 

        “I always look [up] to him,” said Skoblar. “He's always tried to preserve his way of life. So that's the way I look at the Croatian Hall."

Kolo dancers performing outside the Croatian American Hall in San Pedro. Photo courtesy of the Croatian American Club.
Mural outside the building of the Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Photo courtesy of myself.

        In San Pedro, there is also Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, where mass is hosted in several languages every week, including Croatian. In San Pedro, Croatians also found a sense of community and support through the Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church where they were able to meet other Croatians who were also practicing Catholics and had similar stories and experiences.

South Shores Meat Shop

        Another great gem that Croatians in San Pedro have is the South Shores Meat Shop. Located on Western Ave, this shop is an authentic Croatian food market where Croats can go for a small taste of home. San Pedro residents can go there to find goods, snacks, and other brand names imported directly from Croatia or from other Balkan countries. This small but significant market is made up of a team of Croatian butchers who serve quality cuts of sausages, seafood, delicatessen, and other fresh meats while also preparing freshly made sandwiches to go.

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Darko Skracic and his son holding fine cuts of meat at the South Shores Meat Shop. Photo courtesy of the South Shores Meat Shop.

        Store owner Darko Skracic started working there when the shop first opened in 1961 and then bought it himself in 1963. He now runs the shop alongside his son and grandson. Skracic enjoys serving San Pedro’s community with authentic Croatian goods and favorites and providing people with cooking tips and tricks.

        Nikolina Vukovič, 22-year-old student at Long Beach State grew up San Pedro.

        Vukovič's father was born and raised in Split and settled in San Pedro as it was already a popular place for Croatians to settle after emigrating from their home country.

        “He was [in Croatia] during the war [for independence] and he left and came to America to [pursue] the American dream and started his own business,” said Vukovič. “He [also] had a cousin over here already.”

        And all it took was living and going to school in San Pedro or the surrounding area to meet other Croats.

        “I know so many Croatians that live in San Pedro simply from school, the club in San Pedro and my father’s friends and their kids,” said the college student. “There's a lot of people there that were Croatian, or even part Croatian."

        What makes this community so prominent in Los Angeles is the huge love and drive everyone has as being Croatian, said Vukovič.

        Nikolina and her family frequently travel back to Croatia to visit her grandmother who lives in Old Town Split and live the island life in Selca, Brač where her great grandfather bought a house in the early 1900s. 

        "It's amazing," said Vukovič, who loves to spend time at her grandma's apartment right by the farmer's market and the city center in Split.

Nikolina's sister Ivana in Selca, Brač, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Nikolina.
Nikolina holding her baby nephew outside in Split, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Nikolina.
Nikolina at age 16 holding a sea crab in the water in Croatia. Photo courtesy of Nikolina.
Nikolina's sister Ivana turning around for a photo while walking around in Old Town Split, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Nikolina.

St. Anthony's Croatian Catholic Church & Los Angeles Vatreni

        Newer generations of Croatians in Los Angeles have managed to carry on their legacy and maintain an amazing community and sense of belonging. In addition to the Croatian American Club in San Pedro, there is St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church and Parish in downtown LA that holds Croatian mass every Sunday and Croatian language classes, Kolo dancing lessons, and other cultural programs for Croatian children. The Kolo is the traditional folklore dance practiced by several Balkan countries, and is usually a right-of-passage for many Croatians growing up.

        Johnny Cvjetkovič was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up going to St. Anthony’s Croatian Church. Now he helps run the Los Angeles Vatreni at St. Anthony’s alongside Petar Repar, who grew up in Fresno and found another amazing community of Croatians in Los Angeles. Running LA Vatreni and participating at St. Anthony’s were a few of the many ways to connect and build relationships with those who share the same heritage, language, religion, culture and the same upbringing as children.

        “It just felt like a second home,” said Repar. “There's this underlying bond between Croatians when we have the same foundation, same culture. It's just really easy to build on top of that.” 

        “[It’s] a place where everybody understands each other,” said Cvjetkovič. “Everybody plays by the same rules. You just feel like you can go to any Croatian hall in America or North America and it's almost like you've known these people for decades.”

Johnny and Petar at the Arena for Clippers Heritage Night, April 2022. Photo courtesy of Petar Repar.
Johnny in front of the alter inside St. Anthony's Church. Photo courtesy of myself.

        In addition its literal translation to “fiery”, LA Vatreni is the brandname of the Croatian soccer supporters of Los Angeles. Heavily inspired by the successful soccer watch parties hosted over in San Pedro at the Croatian American Club, LA Vatreni started out as a small soccer watch party on a little projector to cheer on their homeland's team and gained popularity quick, turning it into what it is today. 

        “As we got older, we were trying to find something to bring [together] the teens, the early 20s people around,” said Cvjetkovič. “[LA Vatreni] became known as the group that puts on sporting events at the church.”

        Now an extension of St. Anthony’s Parish, LA Vatreni strives to bring together the Croatian community in LA. Like the Croatian American Club in San Pedro, LA Vatreni continues to organize and host soccer watch parties at the St. Anthony’s hall to bring together Croatian soccer supporters. St. Anthony’s Church and LA Vatreni serve as kind of a hub for Croatians in other parts of LA who aren’t close to San Pedro and is another means of uniting all of LA’s Croatian diaspora. 

        “We wanted to bring something to San Fernando [and] San Gabriel Valley up in downtown LA," said Cvjetkovič. “And we had this beautiful hall and that's where we started doing it.”

        With the soccer cups happening only every few years, LA Vatreni started branching out to help promote and market other Croatian events, such as those at the Croatian American Club, the annual Croatian Cultural Extravaganza at St. Anthony's put on by the Kolo Club Croatia, and Clippers Heritage Night, a game day celebration of Croatian culture and for recognition of Croatian Ivaca Zubač, who plays for the Clippers.

        There’s a sort of feeling that Repar says is neoposivo, or indescribable, from seeing his community come together and knowing that he and Cvjetkovič helped 'unite Croatians in LA and around the world', as their motto says. It's indescribable to be instilling the community and passing their culture and heritage on to the next generation of Croatian kids in America, where it is normal for people to gradually lose touch with their roots.

       “I think we're just really an extension of all those generations before us that [also] wanted to bring Croatian people together and promote the culture,” said Cvjetkovič. “They thank us because in a lot of ways, we all do assimilate to the countries that we live in.”

        “[What makes me happy] is the enjoyment I get out of seeing everyone come together and have a great time,” said Repar, who also mentioned how a couple met through LA Vatreni’s Instagram livestream. “Just hearing stories like that where we're bringing people together, for me, is why I do it."

        Every year, over 600 young Croatians fly in from across North America to attend the Croatian Cultural Extravaganza. It is one of the biggest Croatian social and cultural events in North America that unites LA’s and all of North America’s Croatian population. An event like this that includes plenty of festivities like Croatian food, fancy dinner banquets, live Croatian

Members of the Croatian community gathering for a group photo outside the arena at Croatian Clippers Heritage Night, March 2023. Photo courtesy of Petar Repar.
Croatian soccer supporters cheer on their team at one of the December 2022 World Cup soccer watch parties @ St. Anthony's parish hall. Photo Photo courtesy of Petar Repar.

music, a full dance floor, and Kolo performances is a chance for Croatians not just from Los Angeles, but also those from other cities like San Jose, Sacramento, Vancouver, Chicago, and Pittsburgh to get together in one place and celebrate their culture. This February, Croatians from all over North America got together at St. Anthony’s Parish & Hall for the 15th annual Extravaganza. 

        Cvjetkovič has attended every single Extravaganza so far.

        “It’s like a yearly reunion that we look forward to each year. Singing, eating, drinking together,” said Cvjetkovič.

Croatians from all over North America gather inside St. Anthony's parish hall at the Croatian Cultural Extravaganza. Photo courtesy of myself.
Girls pose in front of neon Los Angeles Vatreni letters at the Cultural Extravaganza event in February. Photo courtesy of myself.
Kolo dancers performing at the Bovard Auditorium at USC, Feb. 2023 during the Croatian Cultural Extravaganza. Photo courtesy of Petar Repar.

        Mike Milinkovič was born and raised in Canada and moved to Los Angeles for chiropractic college. Having always been involved with the Croatian community back home in Canada, he got involved at St. Anthony’s and found another Croatian community in LA. It was here at St. Anthony’s where he met and married his wife, Brenda. Milinkovič’s kids, three year old daughter and five year old son, performed in the Kolo dance performances over at USC a couple months ago during the weekend of the Extravaganza.

        “I think this will create memories for them and hopefully [memories] that they can carry on to future generations as well,” said Milinkovič.

Mike hanging out with his son and daughter in the children's language classroom at St. Anthony's. Photo courtesy of myself. 
Poster of Croatian language basics hanging in the children's classroom at
St. Anthony's. Photo courtesy of myself.

        Milinkovič's kids also attend the Croatian language and cultural classes offered at the church.

        “I think it's important to know where your roots come from,” said Milinkovič. “It’s always nice to know where does your name come from, where does your family origin come from? Why do we do certain things culturally and what makes that unique?”

        Even if it means driving an hour to attend mass or for the kids to attend language classes, many of St. Anthony’s members make the trip out to connect with other Croatians and to have a fulfilling and rewarding sense of community that may not be as easy to get at other local churches closer to home. 

        “We drive quite a distance to come here, and I think it's worth it,” said the Croatian Canadian. 

Poster displaying photos of various Croatian cities and sites in the children's classroom. Photo courtesy of myself.

        Putting on an event like the Croatian Cultural Extravaganza can be a piece of work, but it’s worth every minute. 

        “It is such a huge undertaking to put it on from an organizational perspective,” said Katica Ban, president of the Croatian Children’s School at St. Anthony’s. “But seeing Saturday evening when the concert finished and dinner finished and all those young people on the dance floor all together, it was just a really heart touching moment.”

        Ban was born in Croatia and moved to Los Angeles in 1990 when she was 14 years old, right before the homeland war. She has been a part of St. Anthony’s parish and the Croatian community ever since she arrived. Coming from a family heavily involved in folklore back in Croatia, Ban immediately started dancing with the Kolo group at St. Anthony’s. As life went on, she became a teacher at the Croatian Children’s School and is now president of the school, where her children currently partake in language classes and Kolo lessons.  

        “Seeing them enjoy it on their own without me pushing them to do it is something so meaningful,” said Ban. “Them wanting to be here, wanting to be part of this parish, part of [the] Croatian community, and seeing how important it is to them, is really huge.”

        Especially in a city like Los Angeles that is so large, it is easy to get lost. It’s important for any community’s future generations to understand their culture and to carry on the legacy for future generations. 

        Just like Milinkovič’s family, Ban and her family commute from outside of LA to be at St. Anthony’s. 

        “It's definitely a big commitment to be here,” said the native Croatian. “We have our local church [back home], too. But [St. Anthony's] is our home.” 

Members of St. Anthony's Church practicing the Kolo in the parish hall. Photo courtesy of myself.

Soccer: An Identity

            Croatians have always taken a lot of pride in their soccer team and made it a part of their identity. Even with fewer facilities and resources than other countries, along with the fact that many players there are doing it simply to make a living, their small country of almost four million people has become a compelling and robust powerhouse in soccer, said Hazdovac. Having made it to the World Cup finals in 2018 against France and making it to 3rd place in 2022, Croatians love to get all fired up about their team in Croatia and overseas in California. 

Croatian soccer team graphic. Courtesy of the Croatian Football Federation.
Croatia's team starting lineup ahead of the World Cup finals against France in 2018. Photo courtesy of:, CC BY 4.0, wikimedia. 

        “They learn to persevere through these challenges that they have and [a] lack of infrastructure, [and] use it as a benefit to become very strong minded and very motivated,” said Hazdovac, who played soccer in college at Cal Poly Pomona and then professionally in Zagreb for a few years. 

        For the 2022 World Cup, Croatians were energized and ready to cheer on their homeland at soccer watch parties hosted by LA Vatreni and the Croatian American Club. Everyone woke up at crazy times like 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. dressed in checkered red and white to cheer on Croatia, said Vukovič.

        “When you ask about soccer, it’s a big part of our identity,” said Branimir Kvartuč, Croatian American originally from Zadar, Croatia. “I think that's why they're so good in so many sports, because they have to grow out of the smallness to prove themselves, and that's part of the DNA. Croatians work really hard because they want to be [a] bigger identity than the size of the country,” said Kvartuč, comparing it to the Napoleon complex. 

        Croatia may be a small country with a small population, but they make up for it through their powerful and mighty soccer team. Napoleon even said in reference to Croatian soldiers: “If I had only 10,0000 Croatians, I would conquer the entire world!"

        A great source for all things sports in Croatia is Founded by Branimir’s brother Ante Kvartuč, they both now co-own the website. Starting out as a blog about Croatian soccer videos on YouTube, the website became a whole media site that publishes content in English touching on everything related to Croatian sports including soccer, basketball and tennis. It has especially become influential in soccer. 

Branimir (left) and Zvonimir Kvartuč participating in an all-Croatian soccer tournament at Daniels’s Field in San Pedro in the early 1980’s. Zvonimir died at the age of 29 in 2003 following complications with opioids. 
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