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How do Croatians Communicate? By David Byler 8th Generation Croatian-American
By David Byler | Published  11/12/2013 | Opinions , Croatian Life Stories , Community | Unrated
Croatians seem to "engage" or "interact" vigorously

How do Croatians Communicate?

We Croatians seem to "engage" or "interact" vigorously.

The sun has not opened his eyes completely, nor have I, when I wander off to the kitchen to find some coffee. Je ponedjeljak. Znam, jer the old yellow cat is looking through the glass kitchen door that leads to the back yard.

Kava for me, cat food for Miss Kitty. How does she know I will feed her? How do I know she wants to be fed? We communicate, that's how we know these things. She is not my cat. I am not her owner. She lives outside. I live inside. Somehow we have a connection. That's how it is. I think she likes the music I play. I know the little dove that hangs around here likes the music because he chirps along with it. In our tiny selo consisting of one cat, one man, and one bird, we communicate.

In some small ways, I and all the Croatians in the diaspora are a little like that old yellow cat. We live outside Croatia, and other Croatians live inside Croatia. The Croatian selo is much larger of course than one cat, one man, and one bird. We Croatians seem to be adventurous and we are everywhere. Still, somehow we have a connection among us and we communicate. To alter a common American phrase - "you can take the Croatian out of Croatia, but it is very difficult to remove Croatia out of a Croatian."

Nenad Bach and I communicate. I discovered him through Studia Croatica, which has a YouTube channel which I had found and enjoyed. I followed my nose from them back to the Crown Croatia web site and to Darko Zubrinić's "Croatian History" web site on the internet. Mr Bach accepted me as a "friend" on FaceBook, and one day I sent him a private message asking if I could "borrow" his hat. He answered me, and we have been communicating together from that time.

One day Mr Bach asked me to participate in a study concerning Croatian Radio outside Croatia. I jumped at the opportunity and learned a lot. Croatian programs and radio stations have come and gone in the fifty years I've turned the dial looking for them. After that project, I wandered off on my own into a much less formal study of Croatian YouTube channels. When the task became overwhelming I stopped, but not before I discovered that Croatians have accumulated over a billion views since YouTube began in 2005. I discovered that our views overall have been surging mostly in the last couple of years. Some channels showing two million views two years ago are showing nearly twenty million now.

I remember from my youth one night when there was a knock at the front door. Tata jumped up excited and happy. He had had a phone call before we went to sleep. I did not know what it was about, except in those days in our house the phone never rang unless someone had died or there was something of great importance.

At the door in the middle of the night were some men whose ship had docked just a few hours before at Freeport, Texas. After all the "pozdrav"s and "kako si ti"s they showed us their jute bags full of grass cuttings which they had carefully kept moist and alive all the way from Sierra Leone. Tata had been waiting for this - a disease resistant strain of the grass he wanted. They came inside long enough for mother to present each one of them with a proper cup of tea and some kolac.

One of the men also had a little sack for us with newspapers and records in it. Vinyl records I suppose they were, or whatever plastic they used back then. Do you remember those? Plastic disks often with just one song on each side? The men had to hurry back to their ship so we got the records first this time. The next day we planted and watered all the grass. Then Mama and Tata and I listened to music from Home. This is how it was in those times, the seamen brought newspapers and records and gossip in the middle of the night. We were always happy to see the men from the sea and we were always happy to have an excuse to go visiting and share the treasure they brought us along to the next family.

A week later, after the grass delivery, we took the records and the newspapers over to Baka Horvat. She lived a few miles down the road. You had to cross where the old railroad track to Sugar Valley used to be, cross the creek on a narrow bridge and go through the forest about a kilometer to the high ground to get to her house. Strangers did not bother her there. She was not my real grandmother, but I loved her just the same. She liked to show me her treasure box. In there was her Austro-Hungarian passport and she told me with great pride how it was that she was neither Hungarian nor Austrian, but Croatian. She taught me to read a little from the newspapers that came to her. The news was always at least a month old, sometimes way more than that. Baka taught me to tell the difference between propaganda and news too. She said that what some government tells you, you don't trust never. She had an unforgettable tone of voice when she said "nikada ne!" Baka Horvat taught me that the trees around her house were named hrastova. Each fall, we sang together while we made jelly from the wild grapes that grew on them.

The music on the records which came by sea was not the only contact we had with Croatia. There were radio stations in those days which catered primarily to the Czech audience but a couple of the diskjockys were Croatian and the Czechs didn't complain when they put some of our music into their line up. Occasionally we might hear a little news from Croatia from them or at the festivals they arranged.

I often went to sleep listening to mother's voice singing from my parent's bedroom. After I went away to college, to the military, and to work, there was no one to sing me to sleep for many years. Where I was, there were no newspapers, nor music, nor anyone speaking on Croatian, and what I knew of the language faded. When I had a few more than forty years I met Carole, who lived near Orehovac, Texas, which no one outside a few in my family and a few esoteric historian types, has known by that name for almost two hundred years. Her background included Croats who had migrated to Kentucky to work in the mines there. After we were married she would sing me to sleep. She had some cassettes from Home too. We wore them all out and we did not know how to replace them.

Some years later, my wife developed cancer. As the cancer progressed she more and more wanted to hear music from Home. As far as we knew then, we were alone here many hundreds of miles from anyone like us. We found a little music on the internet, but not much. YouTube was still new but we searched anyway and to our delight there was already a lot of Croatian music available. I opened a channel so I could make playlists. The music brought her a lot of sweet comfort. Her last conscious act came just after noontime on Sunday of the Holy Rosary in 2006 when she stood so I could bathe her and she swayed in my arms to "Ne mogu bez tebe."

After she was gone from me, I felt very much alone indeed. My mother was gone too, my father was four hundred miles away and sickly. The nearest other relative was fifteen hundred miles away. I listened to the music on YouTube. After awhile I learned to make comments on videos and saw that people answered back.

Eventually I developed a little community of "friends" and began to make videos myself. Along the way I learned about Google Chat, Google Talk, and I even talked live through Google Video Talk to Croatian friends in Germany and Canada. I connected my FaceBook account to my cellphone and we could text message through FaceBook all around the world. Yeah, this was before "Twitter" too. Never mind the distance, I soon had a fair sized family gathered around me. Since that time we've all tried out Yahoo Messenger and Skype too. Every time something new comes along we try it out to see how well it suits what we want to do. We've even been trying out Google's Hangouts - there might be some potential there. The internet pundits tell us that to be successful we must "engage" our audience. The main reason Croatians are out on the internet is to "engage" the music and "engage" other Croatians so most of us have gotten pretty good at "engaging" our audiences. My little YouTube channel has grown from a handful of views to several million and even that number seems likely to double by the end of 2014. My email inbox has more than ten thousand fan letters I have to answer sometime when there is time. We Croatians seem to "engage" or "interact" vigorously.

We may not have always been so effective as now, but we have nearly always found ways to communicate. Croatians emigrated for more reasons than you can shake a stick at. (I know that isn't good english, but that's how you say it.) Among those reasons were religion, politics, employment, adventure, and sometimes because the old women of the selo would not approve a match. Letters back home would reveal one's whereabouts and the world has never been so large as people pretend. Sometimes the best way to keep one's head is to keep one's lips closed. Davno, the Hapsburg family ruled Austria/Hungary/Croatia. The same family also ruled Spain, i.e. Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, California, Mexico - all places some Croatians found themselves. The Croatian fishermen in Louisiana and along the Texas coast have gone through Spanish, French, American, Confederate, and again American rule and remain in contact with Croatia partly because of the sea, the wonderful mysterious sea, across which a boat can return to Dalmatia now and then regardless of what government is in Dalmatia at the time.

All this brings us back to conversations with Nenad Bach. A few weeks ago, we were talking about things like this and he posed the question "How do Croatians Communicate?"

"How do Croatians Communicate" is a vital topic for many of us. Croatian musicians, poets, artists, politicians, preachers, and marketing people of all varieties, no less than those from any culture or from any ethnicity, are communicators. Our success depends on persistent and pervasive communication. A song heard only by a few birds in the forest, as pleasant and appreciative an audience as they may seem to be, is somehow unsatisfying to us. Our satisfaction is not derived from the wealth or power that our communication might yield but about our "voice" being heard and perhaps eliciting a response from our audience.

"Wealth," or at least some money, does play a role in communication. An artist, a musician, an engineer, or even a politician, an educator, a farmer or a fisherman, needs to at least have a roof over his head and some food in his belly and some medical care perhaps. We are rejoicing just now at the remarkable success recently of our young Miss Yelich- O'Conner whose music has risen to the top of the charts worldwide. My ears hear her melodies echoing the tones of the Adriatic at Zadar and building into rhythms which reverberate across the world. As I see her at this time, she is reflecting some of the finest of Croatian values into the english speaking world. We all wish her the best, and we will not completely discount financial success as part of the equation.

None-the-less, the music Croatians make has never been all about money for us and never will be. Perhaps Elvis Presley made some money singing "Sedi Mara," which he recorded as "Aloha oe," but some of us get a kick out of just knowing he sang one of our songs. Some of us take great pride in the fact that nearly every where on the face of the earth, from the the islands of the sea, Japan, even in the mountains of Mexico, strains of Croatian music may be heard. The "DNA" of our culture has spread to the ends of the earth. Was this what Jesus meant when he said "The meek shall inherit the earth?" I won't argue that point either way, but, in a way, we have - through our music.

Sixty years ago, as a young man in school in Texas, I was taught that long ago in Europe, the wandering musicians, troubadours, spread news and culture from town to town as they traveled. Then we were taught how that all that changed with innovations of various sorts. What we were taught was correct to a certain extent, except that Croatians still work that way. The technology changed, and we use the technology very well, but we haven't changed. Our musicians, wandering or otherwise, play key roles in cultural transmission and, as we will soon see, musicians have key roles in the transmission of information as much now as they always have since the beginning of history.

Because this presentation may have a mixed audience, meaning Croatians of all kinds and even non Croatians of all kinds, I believe I should tread carefully in the next matter we will discuss. We need perhaps a clear definition before we proceed. I have already mentioned Baka Horvat as an influential person in my own formation. Even more importantly there was majka moja. There was my father's mother, and teachers, professors, and many other revered stare majke in my life. When I use the term "old woman" or "old women," I intend for you to grasp a reverence almost perhaps as awesome as some people revere the Gospa. When I read a poem or listen to a song about "stara majka" I hear not only about the specific woman who bore me onto the earth, but also I hear about Domovina, Home, which I was taught at my mother's knees to revere in the same way.

It is beyond my scope here to discuss all the roles the "old women" play in Croatian society, or even at what age or with what qualifications, a lady becomes a part of that revered "guild." My point may perhaps best be illustrated by a joke that was sent around among the Croatian people on FaceBook not very long ago. There was a photograph of several older women sitting in a courtyard. The inscription read something like "Google? No, just ask the old women, they know everything." It is a good joke because it is the truth. The old women play key roles in transmitting our culture. They teach us who we are and how we are to be. They teach us how we understand what we see and hear. They teach us how to interpret and how to verify the information which comes to us from various sources. Very rarely do they try to control us, but they form us, they inform us, they advise us , and most often a wise person heeds their advice.

Someone will want to hear about the role of the printing press in the formation and transmission of our culture. So, lets talk about that. The first presses printed religious books of various sorts. The Roman Church was busy about that and so were the "Evangelicals" of that time. What do we do in church? We sing. The Choir sings. The priest sings. Croatian music has informed the Croatian church for a thousand years and perhaps it will always be so. We sing.

Later when newspapers and journals began to spring up, those were the efforts of our poets and musicians. Even today, a large part of the "news" in newspapers and similar media is about musicians and the performing artists of all varieties.

Blogs take a position which has never existed before, somewhere between newspapers and books. "Crown Croatia," almost predictably, has as its editor a well known musician. Studia Croatica is on spanish language while "Croatian History" is on english. There are other blogs which tend more toward current news and sensationalism. Still others attempt to deal seriously with interpretation of events. Mishka Gora and Ina Vukic are among the respected women write blogs of this latter variety.

Croatian culture is far too complex to simplify with only a discussion of music and stare majke, but in part because of our music and because of the old women, Croatians tend somewhat to remain Croatian no matter what we do or where in the world we find ourselves. Perhaps because of this we have been more adventurous than some. I understand, for example, there were Dalmatian sailors involved from the outset of the explorations in the "New World." Earlier, we seem to have had Marko "Polo." Our utter confidence in who we are may explain why we have been prone to all sorts of adventures including union with the Hungarian Crown, union with Austria, the several Jugoslavian adventures, the European Union, and so forth. We know that whatever the outcome, we will remain Croatian because that's who we are. The devil take anyone who thinks else.

Have there been Croatians who wandered off and lost contact with the Homeland? The answer is yes. I have a son-in-law who was so very proud of his "Austrian" heritage - except that one day he told me that he knew his ancestor had lived in an "Austrian" seaport. He could not find such a thing on the map. After we had a long talk, he was cheering for the Croatian team during the next World Cup series and he has now been to Split from which his ancestors came to Texas long ago. Others who came here on an "Austrian" passport have simply blended in to the mixture of people around them. No one seems to know what happened to all the Croatians who went to Kentucky to work the mines two hundred years ago.

In America there were social mechanisms which have pressured assimilation. Most Croatians were Roman Catholic but Americans were highly suspicious of Catholics. Our names were difficult for english speakers to spell or pronounce. The majority of "Evangelicals" or "Lutherans" in America assumed all Evangelicals were German and the outnumbered Croatian Evangelicals were generally silent. There was once a lady who emigrated to North Dakota from Bjelovar with her family a hundred fifty years ago. Her sister went to Zagreb. Neither knew how to stay in contact with the other. Their connection was lost. I have a friend who is a descendant of the lady who went to North Dakota. He knew that he wasn't German but he did not know what was his background. He knows now and knowing provides him with a sense of identity he has lacked all his many years.

That sense of identity has sometimes been trouble for Croatian-Americans. No one around us knew where Croatia was anyway, so we didn't say much. Most of the time, being identified as "Austrian" meant very little. Some people would try to pin us into "Jugoslavia" but that was never entirely satisfactory either, so we still didn't say much. After 1990, we began little by little to hold our heads up high.

After the 1990s, at least in the diaspora, there was a quiet, informal, consensus reached that we needed to become better communicators than we had ever been. During the events of the 1990s, it seemed that the news organizations and the politicians in North America were confused most of the time about everything Croatian. Not only did we need to communicate our values and ways to maintain some vestige of our ancestral culture for ourselves, but we needed to communicate to the people around us and to their leaders. The survival of what we hold dear might depend upon our success.

About the time these conclusions were being reached, new tools began to arise and we learned to use them. We learned to make music videos and we learned to chat all around the world with each other. We learned how to draw other people to listen to Croatian music and to begin to appreciate at least some of our culture. Dance groups have been formed and mayors of large cities like Houston with populations as large as Croatia itself have made proclamations honoring us. I see similar events in Argentina and Australia, San Francisco and on and on around the world. We are no longer nearly invisible and silent. We want the whole world to see, hear, and enjoy some of the priceless pearls of Croatian culture and we want the whole world to enjoy knowing us.

Džo Maračić-Maki came to Houston to sing for our annual Croatian Ball. I filmed most of the event and as I was posting the videos to YouTube I noticed that a German corporation was claiming the rights to the music to make money from the advertising. I spoke to Džo Maki about this and he assured me that was not right but there was not much he could do about it. Since this seemed somewhat up to me and my friends who owned the channels where this music resided, a war ensued. It was a quiet war, a war of words, a war of communication, which never made the newspaper headlines. My friends and I began quietly but persistently protesting through the system on YouTube. The Germans retreated. As CroRec and other Croatian entities have been reclaiming all that music, we have been delighted. Our hope now is they will run advertising on these videos on our channels and make lots of money for whatever Croatian artists are involved. As for the video makers, we do this out of love for for the music, for the musicians, and for the Homeland, and that is quite reward enough.

Not long after Nenad Bach had raised the question to me about "How do Croatians Communicate," Dolores Lambaša died from her injuries out in Slavonia. That hit hard. We pretty much all loved her vivacious presence. I saw the news on Facebook about nine hours after the fact and, like Baka Horvat taught me, I checked it out. I put a notice on my page, sent a notice out on YouTube, made a memorial video honoring her, and made a few phone calls. Then as I continued to relay the information to others both in and out of the Homeland, I began to observe and to take notes about how the news was spreading. Croatian Television and radio had the news first. Online newspapers and blogs were the next to relay the information which was then taken up by the musicians or by their fan pages on FaceBook. I have observed that many of these "fan" pages are tended by the "old women" about whom we talked earlier. Had I not been busy that day, I would have seen the news on Facebook myself within the hour she died. There is a natural lag due to technical issues for much information to arrive on YouTube but when the news hit there it was spread very quickly through our community and beyond to people who had never heard of Dolores before. It fascinated me that some people who were in Zagreb at that time heard about this from me all the way in South Texas. Where once communications required weeks or months to travel in one direction, this sad news arrived here and bounced back Home in a matter of hours. Within twenty-four hours, nearly everyone in Croatia knew, primarily through Television and radio and almost simultaneously about five million people outside Croatia knew what had happened through various "social media," primarily through Facebook and YouTube which seem at the moment to be our preferred pathways.

Sunday morning, when we lost Vinko Coce, the news spread through very much the same pathways as with the news concerning Dolores. This time however, the news spread through the world wide community even faster than before. I believe it would be fair to say that nearly all of us everywhere knew or had the opportunity to know what happened to him in less than twelve hours.

Useful statistics concerning Croatians and our use of the internet tells only the part of the story because the aggregators of the statistics have no way to unravel any information about the Croatian diaspora. Even so, the information available tends to confirm the observations we have just heard. According to, after and Google, the most used internet media in Croatia is Facebook, followed by Youtube. Various sources agree that there are at least a million six hundred thousand FaceBook users in Croatia. Croatian YouTube users are actually impossible to accurately count but it requires a lot of users to rack up over a billion views. The other news media fall variously after these in the charts. Radio and print media have experienced a certain decline and have migrated to the internet and to Facebook to serve their audience. Television still has some importance in the diaspora when it arrives through the internet. "Trust in Media" from the Faculty of Political Science and Media Metar, Zagreb, 2009 discovered that I was not the only one who was influenced by Baka Horvat or someone like her. Croatians tend to check out and verify information received from any source. The most trusted information is information relayed by other individuals personally known to us.

Even though we are a small people, our engagement with the internet compares favorably to other nations. Not including the diaspora, at least three million Croatians are on the internet. Data from the Croatian Bureau of Statistics Survey on usage of information and communication technologies from 2010 shows less than a third of those over 55 are engaged. My experience with my own YouTube channels suggest that either I have penetrated that entire market or that coupled with the diaspora that particular segment is much larger than the statistics can reveal. While I believe it is the latter, I am not sure what this means in terms of marketing or communication except that my observation regarding this could be worth considering.

I wish to make a small but important aside at this moment. Any sort of social communication such as Facebook lends itself to various proclamations of "political causes." We Croatians have a mechanism that tends to temper those things. I might put a placard on my page, for example, which says "ZA!," and someone else might put one up which says "PROTIV!" but we rarely get angry at each other. We still say to each other for "dobro jutro" every day and we exchange birthday greetings and we talk as friends. In a few days we usually take all those placards down and go on about our business, which for the most part is featuring our Croatian musicians and poets. We do not wish to be swept up by the whirlwind and drive away our audience. People can sort out all those "za"s and "protiv"s for themselves if they want. Its the music that drives us and the music we will have.

Politics, politicians, and government all play key roles in Croatian communications. First of all, its important that the people see and hear the politicians and the government communicate. Knowing about our politicians and knowing our politicians helps to draw us together as a family. Perhaps the state can contribute most to the flow of communication by doing what the state has always done well - by keeping the roads open, so to speak. When the highways are open, the communication flows of its own accord like the wind or the sea.

As many changes as have occurred in our lifetimes, as much as technology has advanced, Croatians have not fundamentally changed. We adapt the technology to us and to our ways and to our needs. A thousand years ago, the musicians and the "old women" were the conduits or mechanisms of communication to the larger selo. They still are. How do Croatians communicate? - As a natural force like the wind or the air we breathe. A major goal of our communication is to draw our people together and to share the exquisite treasures of our culture with those we encounter in the world.

do sljedeći put, blagoslov - until next time, blessings,

David Byler, 8th generation Croatian-American


Formatted for CROWN by   Marko Puljic
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