Czechs are seeking a few good Texans
Cultural center rallying descendants to embrace heritage
Houston – If Effie Rosene had her way, every Texan of Czech acestry would know how to answer „Jak se mas?" Right now, she fears the way of saying „How are you?" would be Greek to most.
"We´ve got to always celebrate our roots," said Ms. Rosene, chairwoman and president of the Czech Cultural Center Houston. "Our roots are what make us special."
Czech Texans hold a special place in this state. While far from the largest ethnic ancestry as measured by the 2000 census, the Czech category is the only one released so far in which Texans ranks No. 1 nationally.
According to figures released earlier this year, 187,729 Texans count themselves as primarily of Czech heritage, a tiny percentage of the more than 20 million people who live here, although the number probably is higher because of ambiguity in the categories.
Ms. Rosene said she suspects that many Czech Texans, several generations removed from their ancestors´ immigration, do not embrace their heritage.
"Somebody with a purely Czech name will walk in and we´ll say, "Hello there, are you here because you have such good taste, or are you of Czech heritage?" and they´ll say, "No, but my father was," or "My grandmother was."
"And that´s so sad."
The heart of the cultural center´s operation is a small space in Northwest Mall that sells books, dolls and perhaps the Czech Republic´s best-known export: crystal glassware and exotic and colorful blown-glass vases and other artwork.
Proceeds from the sales and from the organization´s annual gala and other fund-raisers go toward building a permanent home, a three-story structure under construction on a plum site in the Museum District. The organization is a registered charity.
Czech immigration peaked before World War I. Older Czech Texans are trying to establish the cultural center and heritage societies across the state to pass traditions and language on to younger generations.
"We´re working on young people, trying to tell them, "You have a very rich heritage, a very proud heritage," said Raymond J. Snokhous, who volunteers as honorary Czech consul for the southern half of Texas. "We´re recruiting because, hey, we´re on the down side. Somebody has to step in and take over."
The first Czech known to have made a mark in Texas was Frederick Lemsky, who played the fife for the Texas army during the Battle of San Jacinto that clinched independence in 1836.
Czech immigration kicked into high gear in the mid-1800s, when the Rev. Josef Arnost Bergman began writing to friends in the Bohemia and Moravia regions about the promised land he found in Austin County.
"If you go back and look at who really settled this place, you had the Rangers, bud until the Czechs and Germans came to Galveston and Indianola, this place was still six-guns and prairie,""said John Sharp, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor who is half-Czech.
Poor Czechs, eager to escape political persecution and till their own plots, established farms across Central Texas, many north and south of a line between San Antonio and Houston. By 1910, 15,074 Texans were Czech immigrants.
As Czechs established communities across the state, they began establishing fraternal organizations such as the SPJST (Slovanska podporujici jednota státu Texas, or the Slavic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas), and two Catholic organizations, the KJT for men and the KJZT for women.
Some towns still known for their Czech heritage include Schulenburg, La Grange, Fayetteville, Crosby, West, Ennis, Richmond and Rosenberg.
Over time, Czechs joined other rural residents in gravitating toward the cities, bringing their traditions of boisterous weddings and foods – namely pastries called kolaches – into mainstream Texas. A museum honoring Czech culture is located at SPJST headquarters in Temple.
The cultural center, which should be moving into its new building this time next year, conducts weekly Czech language classes and produces a quarterly newsletter.By Mark Babineck
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