Immigrant Stories: Slovenian parents settled in Ohio Slovenian community
Intro: Carol Opeka grew up in a Slovenian community in Ohio. Here is her interview with Walter Gallacher’s Immigrant Stories.
Opeka: My grandfather on my father’s side was a miner who came to this country to earn money so that he could pay off his mother’s debts. He worked in the mines in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. He even traveled to Brazil to work. Back then itinerant workers like my grandfather were called “birds of paradise.”
He went back and forth between the U.S. and Slovenia regularly, and sometimes he would bring his wife, my grandmother. Consequently, three of their six children were born in the United States, and my dad was one of them.
He was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and taken back to Slovenia when he was 6 weeks old and grew up there. When he turned 21 he decided to take advantage of his U.S. citizenship. The Great Depression was raging worldwide, and he figured life had to be better than what he was experiencing in Slovenia.
He came to the United States only to discover that life actually wasn’t better. He missed his family, his house and the land and animals that he grew up with. He came through Ellis Island and was supposed to be picked up by his cousin who had sponsored him. The cousin, who was from Cleveland, was delayed and didn’t arrive for days. The only option immigration authorities gave my dad was to wait in jail.
Finally, his cousin arrived and took him to a Slovene community outside of Cleveland. Apparently, Cleveland had the largest Slovene settlement in the United States and the third largest in the world at that time.
Gallacher: Did your dad speak English?
Opeka: No, he didn’t know the language or the customs. Somebody gave him his first banana and he ate it peel and all. People made fun of him. He came with the suit on his back and little else, so he went to his first job on a potato farm in his suit.
He eventually settled in a little town called Barberton about an hour south of Cleveland. That’s where I was born. Barberton has a very vibrant Slovene community. They have their own lodges and churches, their music, their festivals and shops that cater to Slovenes. They have recreated their own little Slovenia.
I don’t speak Slovenian, but that was because my parents thought it was important to become Americanized, so they didn’t encourage my sisters and me to learn it. I think they didn’t want us to experience the prejudice they had. They used to call Slovenes “hunkies.” That was a derogatory term for Central Europeans who worked in the mines or did manual labor.
Gallacher: Did you experience prejudice?
Opeka: Not prejudice, but I did feel like I was different. I felt like I walked with one foot in each world. I wanted to be a part of American society and interact with American kids, but I felt there was something different about me. My approach to life and what is important was different, because I didn’t have what other kids had. We were poor and lived close to the earth.
My father had about three years of education and worked in a factory. My mother’s parents also emigrated from Slovenia, and she only had eight years of education. I was never really encouraged to go to college. I was the oldest of three girls, so going to college was a breakthrough. It was a battle.
I fought my way through that and started paying my own way when I was 16. I was determined to go to college and have a better life.
Gallacher: What was the resistance from your parents?
Opeka: I don’t think my mother resisted, but my dad didn’t think that women needed an education. When I started high school, girls had three tracks they could take — academics, secretarial and home economics. My dad felt I would be lucky if I was a secretary. I told him I was going to do academics.
He just stared at me and stalked off. There wasn’t much communication between us. He was from a generation of Slovene men who expected you to do what they said, no questions asked. He let me know that he wasn’t going to support me if I didn’t obey him. I’m sure he thought that I would just fail, and that would be that.
But I was determined to do it myself and prove him wrong. So when I turned 16, I got a job working 30 hours a week at the Kroger grocery and worked there all through high school. It was a push, but I was determined.
Gallacher: So who encouraged you if it wasn’t your parents.
Opeka: I loved learning, and I saw all around me what an education could do, so it was mostly an internal desire. I realized that I had to start early and work hard if I wanted a different life than I had there.
Gallacher: So how did you raise enough money to go to college?
Opeka: I was very frugal. I went to Ohio University down in Athens. College, at that time, wasn’t that expensive. I paid $1,200 for room, board and tuition that first year and eventually got scholarships and worked a variety of jobs, so that helped.
Gallacher: So your relationship with your father was strained.
Opeka: Yes, he was a difficult man to get along with, very set in his ways but an extremely hard worker who was very loyal to his friends. He didn’t strive for anything but to feed his family, build a home and raise his children.
My mom was the opposite of my father. She was a kind and gentle soul, timid in a lot of ways. She ended up getting pushed around a lot by my father. I saw how my mother was treated, and I decided that was not the way I deserved to be treated in my life.
Gallacher: You were the groundbreaker in your family. Did your two sisters follow in your footsteps?
Opeka: Yes, they did. One sister is a biology teacher, and the other is a physical therapist. They are very determined as well. When I graduated from college I think my dad decided it was something my sisters could do, too.
He never told me he was proud of me for what I had accomplished, but I think by encouraging my sisters he was letting me know indirectly that I had done a good thing. I’m just glad it worked out for all three of us.
Gallacher: Have you ever been back to Slovenia?
Opeka: Yes, I have been back twice, and I keep in touch with my father’s relatives. He has a 95-year-old sister who is still doing well. She and the family welcomed me with open arms, and I slept in my father’s family home and walked the streets my father grew up on.
I so wanted to be able to speak the language and communicate with them. I’m a foreign language teacher, so it is one of my regrets that I wasn’t allowed to learn the language as a child.
Gallacher: What attracted you to language arts instruction as a career?
Opeka: I value what learning a language can do to enrich your life. I think that it can help you understand who you are and open your eyes and mind to other ways of seeing the world. I learned that every culture has its own beauty.
I discovered French in college, and something just clicked with me. I can’t really explain it, but I just knew that learning French was something I was meant to do. My love of the language has taken me to France. I taught there on a Fulbright exchange and toured the countryside and went to Slovenia to see my family.
Those visits with family gave me a chance to learn more of the Slovene language and get closer to my parents’ relatives. They were so welcoming. The children learn English from an early age so they were my teachers and translators.
Gallacher: Have spent your career teaching language?
Opeka: Yes, I taught at Glenwood High School for 20 years, and I’ve taught classes at Colorado Mountain College. Before that I taught in Ohio. I’m retired now but I still teach for Literacy Outreach as a language tutor.
Gallacher: How did you end up in Glenwood Springs?
Opeka: Back in the ’60s, my ex-husband had been a dentist in the Navy, and when he finished his tour of duty we were looking for a place to set up his practice. I remembered a trip we had taken to Colorado through Glenwood Springs.
It was on that trip when we were approaching Glenwood from Aspen that I noticed this bluff above what is now Donegan Road where I live now. I had a very strong spiritual feeling that there was something very important about that piece of ground. So when it came to choosing a town this was where I wanted to live. We decided to move here and now years later we are sitting on the spot I noticed years ago. This is where I raised my daughter and my three sons. It’s been a great place to raise a family.
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