Texas history: Czech culture celebrated on radio, in stories
One of this column’s most compelling correspondents is Gary Brantley of Cameron. He understands that Texas history happens close to the ground, and it is all around us, not just associated with books, museums or monuments.
He sent a note about one aspect of Czech culture in Texas that reminded me of previous stories we’ve done on this community whose language was still the fourth most spoken in the state when I was growing up.
On Sept. 6, Alfred Vrazel of the former Vrazels Polka Band, who has hosted a weekly radio program on radio station KMIL in Cameron since 1955, celebrated his 80th birthday, as well as the 65th anniversary of his radio program.
“When the program first aired in 1955, the band actually played live in the studio,” Brantley writes, “while in recent years, Alfred has recorded it on Thursdays for its weekly airing from noon to 2:20 on Sundays. I usually listen at home as he plays polka music from great bands throughout the state, as well as music from the Vrazels. I feel lucky being able to enjoy the music and the great history behind it, while it's all presented by a genuine Texas living legend. Listeners call in and email Alfred from across the country, and even from international locations where they listen online.”
The Sept. 6 program was especially meaningful because of the double anniversaries, and it was a live show with Alfred's wife, Berniece, their daughter, Cindy, and three grandchildren in the studio with Alfred.
“I caught most of the show and it was so cool listening to their memories of the band and the program,” Brantley writes. “In 1976, the Vrazels Polka Band was the only polka band invited to take part in bicentennial celebrations in Washington, D.C., performing at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 1991, they were invited to the Texas Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center in D.C., and in 1992, they performed at the Barns of the Wolf Trap Foundation in Vienna, Va.”
The Sept. 6 radio show featured several recordings made during that Barns of the Wolf Trap performance.
“It was endearing to hear that ‘The crowd went wild,’” Brantley writes, “with a lengthy chant of ‘One more song!’ calling the band back for more. Shades of ‘The Boss!’”
Brantley reports that good wishes and happy birthday messages poured in during the program, with Alfred's family members announcing them between songs.
“I heard a tribute come in from Russia while I listened,” Brantley says, “and Vrazels fans from across the nation called and emailed their appreciation of the band and its preservation of the Czech language and culture. Growing up as I did in Cameron, one had a lot of Czech and German friends and neighbors and nearly everyone knew a few words and phrases of the Czech language. Of course, one still hears it, but it has become less prominent now as demographics change.”
Brantley’s note reminded me of a particular story I had written four years ago.
In 2016, I reported about a key exhibit on Czech-Texan culture put together by friends Lori Najvar and Dawn Orsak. The show premiered at the Texas Capitol Visitors Center in the old General Land Office Building, then it toured the state. Alas, it is no longer in any shape to tour again.
I offer now a few snippets from that story about “Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition”:
The Czechs who came to Texas — migration peaked in the 1880s — were primarily Moravians, but also Bohemians, Slovaks and Silesians. Most immigrants landed in Galveston and moved inland to farm the land. Because their rural communities remained isolated, many of their traditions survived into the 21st century.
One way that Texas Czechs endured rural life here was by creating fraternal groups — KJT, Sokol, SPJST and others — that tended to social, fitness and economic needs. Also, faith helped to preserve Czech culture. Tourists are dazzled by their painstakingly preserved painted Central Texas Catholic churches. Yet the immigrants also included members of the Unity of the Brethren, a Christian group whose roots go back to before the Reformation.
Almost every weekend, this Czech culture goes on public display somewhere in Texas at church picnics, weddings, fundraisers and cultural festivals, where centuries-old music, dance, food and apparel are revived. The oldest such large-scale event is Houston’s Saints Cyril and Methodius Slavic Heritage Festival, established in 1963.
Lori Najvar, who grew up in Hallettsville in Lavaca County between San Antonio and Houston, often heard Czech at home.
“My parents’ first language was Czech,” the Austin artist says about her Texas Czech family. “They spoke Czech first, then were forced to speak English.”
To be clear, what her parents spoke was not what one would hear nowadays in the Czech Republic.
“The language froze in time here,” Najvar says about a dialect handed down from 19th-century immigrants to Texas. “And it absorbed new words here, even a few German ones. Meanwhile, it continued to evolve in the old country. Our Czech dialect sounds more like old Moravian, from the area home to most of our ancestors.”
Dawn Orsak is a fifth-generation Texas Czech.
“I really wanted a project that honored my ancestors,” says Orsak, whose family also settled in Lavaca County. “’I also wanted to focus on not just history but currently practiced Czech customs. I wanted the community to celebrate itself.”
Her late great-uncle was John Morkovsky, bishop of the Galveston-Houston Catholic Diocese. The charming archival film footage in the exhibit comes from his personal collection.
“There’s so much about the past in museums,” says Najvar, who made a documentary about a Texas Czech family’s 50 years of sausage-making tradition. “But not much for young children to relate to, for instance.”
“Czech language programs are dying out in Texas schools,” Orsak says. “The Czech Museum in Houston is more about maintaining arts and cultural ties with the Czech Republic. There’s only one Texas Czech publication left — Našinec. No more Czech-language radio, though there’s loads of polka stations.”
Still, the exhibit-makers contend that each Texas Czech should find some personal comfort in their preserved culture.
“It gives me a sense of place,” Najvar says. “It wasn’t till I went to college that I realized I had a culture to identify with. And I identified more with it once I got there: ’Oh, it’s my culture that makes me like some kinds of food and like certain music.’ I found value in where I’m from.”
“Everybody can learn from each other’s cultures,” Najvar says. “It broadens our perspectives. Our society is moving so fast, we are in danger of losing all this. Festivals are a good place to start, but talking to relatives or neighbors about their memories is better. If you can get it firsthand, it sticks.”
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