If you've ever been to West Fest or dined on a roadside kolache...it's no secret Central Texas has a vibrant Czech community. Some local organizations are working to preserve this culture for future generations to come.
The Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas is a life insurance agency during the week. But turn any corner on this particular weekend at their Main Lodge in Temple, Texas, and you’re bound to hear a few conversations that don’t have anything to do with life insurance.
There are still almost 13,000 people who speak Czech in Texas. And according to the U.S. Census there are almost 190,000 Czech-Americans in the state--that's more than any other state. And many live right here in Central Texas.
The Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas is a gathering place for organizations like the Texas Czech Genealogical Society. The TCGS caters to Texas Czechs from all over the state. They hold meetings and cultural conferences like this one, called "From Ship to Plow." This was a workshop featuring guest speakers and storytellers deeply invested in their Czech roots and traditions. However some of those speakers are concerned about the future of their culture.
Luba Ruzicka immigrated from what was then Czechoslovakia in the late 60's.
"We came here to the Americas in 1968 when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia with military force and that was the time mostly educated people were leaving. And we have been here ever since. 45 years," Ruzicka said.
The first Czechs arrived in Texas in the early 1800’s. Throughout the rest of the 19th and 20th Centuries thousands of foreign-born immigrants from what was then Bohemia and Moravia came to Texas for reasons like economic prosperity. Many were also escaping religious and political persecution brought on by communist occupation.
Ruzicka says events put on by the Texas Czech Genealogical Society help her preserve that part of her heritage but she worries about what's going to happen when first and second generation Czech Texans are gone.
"I wish that more younger people would attend so they could keep the heritage," Ruzicka said. "Cause as you can see, mostly older people come here. And that’s a shame because with this older generation, the heritage will probably slowly die.”
Ruzicka recently published a book on her journey as an immigrant entitled "Luba's Travels."
Current Austinite and 5th generation Czech Dawn Orsak is talking about food.
"One of the things that I would like to see happen is more people learn how to make Kolaches and other foods that are associated with the Czech community from community members so that that authenticity can be maintained within the community," Orsack said.
Orsak has a hefty background in Czech curation. She’s presented Texas Czech culture and foodways to communities in Texas and at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Her newest exhibit, “Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition,” will premier this September at the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria.
"The exhibit will have a multimedia station where people will watch short, two-minute films about different activities in the Czech community," Orsak said. "It will have some artifacts: a kroj, things like an accordion or a deck of tarok cards.”
The exhibit is the work of Orsak and a non-profit she’s a part of called PolkaWorks. It’ll feature several panels talking about food and music in the Texas Czech community. It’ll steadily be making its way across the state for the next three years, making plenty of stops in Central Texas.
It's events and programs like these that keep TCGS members like Frank Kalbac of Plano coming back for more. A native of St. Louis, Kalbac spent much of his childhood growing up in the Midwest. He’s joined Czech organizations in Minneapolis and Chicago. But Kalbac says he’s been able to connect the most with his roots in Texas.
“When I come here and meet people and hear their stories, it makes me proud to be a Czech," Kalbac said. "I try and attend West Fest and the Ennis Polka Festival. All those are social and cultural type events. It just amazes me how I don’t have to go to the Czech Republic to sample what it would be like growing up Czech.”
For more information on the, “Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition,” exhibit, you can visit PolkaWorks.org. Luba’s Travels is available on Amazon and for download on Kindle. You can also find the Texas Czech Genealogical Society online at TXCZGS.org.