17 / 2003
Mirjam Milharčič-Hladnik

Slovenian Women’s Stories from America

The fifty-seven stories recorded as part of this oral history project so far, confirm that the woman's role in preserving the cultural heritage among Slovenian immigrants is extremely important both on the public as well as private level. Women are the activists in the Slovenian community, church and organisations; they are members of the singing, dancing and theater groups; they work in countless volounteer projects. But because an important part of the cultural heritage is preserved at home and in the kitchen, traditionally the woman's domain, the woman's role is wider and its impact on the identity of the family members crucial. As a home maker the woman spends more time at home than her husband even if she is employed; she looks after children; she uses the Slovenian language at least when referring to food; she prepares regularly or at least ocassionally Slovenian dishes; she celebrates Slovenian holidays and adds something Slovenian to the celebrations of the American ones; she talks about the people of the same origin and maintains correspondence with the family and friends in Slovenia. The women narrators are in this context of a special importance because they can tell us about the subtle material that identity is made of. They help us understand the complex ways in which they work as socializers on the public as well as private level, which at the end of the day explains, why there is always something in a woman's life worth telling.

It is obvious that the dilemma of deciding how much of one's heritage must be sacrificed to become a member of the mainstream society can never be solved. For the first and second Slovenian immigration waves (before and after the second world war) we can assume that every woman tried to resolve it in her own way. However, for the second and third generations and for the contemporary Slovenian immigrant women in America the dilemma has been turned around. The issue now is how much of one's heritage and customs must be preserved to put oneself as a member of a particular ethnic origin in the mainstream society. The turnaround has been possible because Slovenians, as other European immigrants, have climbed in one hundred years to the position of American middle class and acquired in the post civil rights era the status of the whites. Besides, the Slovenian women who come to America today already are middle class, well educated, independent, ambitious, clever and, of course, white. For Slovenian women who have moved to America in the last ten to twenty years the question of identity and the choice of symbolic ethnic identification does not exist. They regard the problem of preserving the Slovenian cultural heritage and maintaining their ties with their home, language, parents and friends as solved to a large extent by having access to the internet. As one of them defines it, her home is her briefcase and her computer. Having an email address allow them to maintan daily communications with their parents, friends, even children; on their computer they keep their photos, albums, letters and other memorabilia; and on the internet they can check the situation in Slovenia, read books and newspapers, listen to the radio and TV programs or join a chat group in Slovenian. If they feel like doing it, of course. And many times they do not. However, sometimes their views on the cultural heritage change when they start a family and have children. Even those who feel strongly about preserving their cultural heritage are faced with the questions of cultural and ethnic background, language and tradition in a much more definite way when they are addressing their children's future.

Milharčič-Hladnik, Mirjam, Ph D, Sociology of Culture, Research Fellow, Institute for Slovenian Emigration Studies, Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia