The Croatian Diaspora of Los Angeles and Its Archival Documentation

Tamara Štefanac, Senior Archivist at the National and University Library in Zagreb, shares her research work on the Croatian diaspora of Los Angeles and about her experience as a Fulbright visiting scholar at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies.

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By Lenka Unge, CERS Program Coordinator

The scholarly work and research of Tamara Štefanac, Senior Archivist in the National and University Library in Zagreb, Croatia, focuses on the role of archives and record in societies. She is particularly interested in challenges presented by archival material preserved in diverse organizational and societal contexts.

Štefanac recently spent six months as a Fulbright Visiting Assistant Professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies (SEIS) to study the written heritage materials of the Croatian diasporic community in Greater Los Angeles. The metropolitan area is home to one of the oldest Croatian immigrant groups in the United States.

Štefanac chose SEIS for her Fulbright program because of UCLA’s international orientation in archival studies: “UCLA encourages the international aspect of archival scholarship,” she reflected, “which is very important in the networked age, where information in various forms crosses borders, but archival practices often remain constrained within the borders of nation-states.”

The UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies (CERS) had the opportunity to interview Štefanac before she returned back to Zagreb at the end of March 2023.

How did your cooperation with Anne J. Gilliland, Professor of Information Studies at SEIS, start and how has it evolved over time?

While she was in Croatia to conduct a research study, Professor Gilliland served as one of my mentors: she was the advisor for my doctoral thesis when I was doing my PhD at the University of Zadar. UCLA had a memorandum of understanding with the University of Zadar to enhance collaboration between the two information studies departments. Our collaboration continued over the years because of a shared interest in the value and meaning of records in the lives of individuals and groups. We are both interested in the transnational component of archival scholarly work and seek to understand the challenges that are involved in such practices. This research has developed into a global scholarly network, Records & Rights in Displacement & Diaspora, which analyses displacement and diaspora from the perspective of information and archival studies. I am one of the scholars participating in the network.

How do community archives in Croatia differ from those in the USA? Do you see any major differences in their creation and management?

They differ in concept and scope. This is the consequence of historical developments and different legal systems. On the surface, one might conclude that since both the USA and Croatia belong to the Global North and have westernized societies, cultural heritage institutions and their practices are alike. Only with immersion in both contexts can one discern differences. This is, in my opinion, the immense value of the Fulbright program. By observing professional and academic practices, one learns first-hand and the learning experience is deeper and more meaningful.

As a Fulbright visiting scholar, you analyzed archival documentation of the Croatian diaspora in the greater Los Angeles area. According to your findings, what traces has the diaspora printed on Los Angeles as their host city?

Croatian emigrants came to California in the 19th century, in the course of labor migration, as fishermen, sailors, and agricultural workers. From a cultural perspective, the most visible traces of the Croatian diaspora in Los Angeles nowadays can be seen in the San Pedro area and Downtown LA, mostly in communities of Croats from the first to the fifth generation of immigrants. As an interesting detail, the StarKist tuna company founded in San Pedro was the accomplishment of Croatian-Dalmatian immigrants. Cultural traces in public spaces are still present and tangible, although shadowed by the rapid developments of the 20th century. Archival traces are not so visible, especially not in public heritage institutions. Community and family archives portray different pictures and present a heritage value in themselves. I’m excited to hear that UCLA will be opening a new campus in San Pedro, which is the heart of the Croatian community in this part of Southern California.

You’ve mentioned that archival traces of the Croatian diaspora are not very visible in public heritage institutions in Los Angeles. Did this pose a challenge for your research? How did you overcome it?

Archival traces of the Croatian diaspora in Los Angeles are scarcely preserved in the first place. This isn’t an uncommon situation for diasporas of countries that have gone through many changes of political systems in the past. The traces that are preserved are often labeled and categorized under diverse titles. This poses a problem for researchers and communities that wish or need to access that material. I needed ingenuity and persistence, and relied on my prior knowledge about misrepresentations and mistakes in catalogs.

Could you describe the relationship of the Croatian community in Los Angeles with their written heritage? What aspects of that relationship did your research project focus on?

I haven’t finished analyzing the data I’ve collected, so I can only talk about preliminary findings. It seems that Croatian heritage identity primarily manifests itself through food, song and dance, language, and religious practices – for some members of the community. These aspects have already been confirmed in prior research by other scholars as most vital in diasporas in general. I went a step further and investigated their personal archives, material connected to their migration, as well as material their ancestors took from Croatia before they emigrated. Of course, that material is emotionally charged. In my opinion, these personal archives serve as an intersection of emigrant and immigrant heritage, a place where these two elements meet and create life stories. Besides archives, I looked at memory practices in public spaces. San Pedro is an excellent ground to observe the Croatian community’s presence manifested in street names, cultural and community halls, names of shops, and of course, people who identify as Croats and Croat Americans.

During Winter 2023, you taught a course titled “Transnational Archival Documentation of Diasporic Community Experiences”. What social and technological issues facing archivists and their profession have UCLA students learned about in your course?

I shared my experience from practical archival work with my students. This practical work is very important for the development of my academic thought, especially that connected to international research. While there are innumerable technological challenges in our work -- mostly related to issues of accessibility, affordability, and sustainability-- I think these are easier to face than the social challenges. I hope that students who took my course have a better understanding of migration flows and intergenerational transfer cultural practices. They learned about the importance of the participation of cultural heritage institutions in discussions about historical and contemporary migrations, about the value of archivists’ cultural competencies in working with migrant and diasporic groups and individuals, and about designing robust, flexible and inclusive information infrastructures as backgrounds of institutions in the cultural sector. Even if students won’t in future work with the topics of migration and diaspora in the international context, they will have close contact with transnationals in their own country. The knowledge they have acquired will prove useful in relation to understanding cultural habits, practices, and needs. We also discussed issues related to working across language spaces and generational loss of the mother tongue, which poses particular problems for archival work in the diaspora.

How has your stay at UCLA helped to advance your research?

I see UCLA programs as some of the most progressive academic programs addressing current societal issues in California, including cultural change. The UCLA programs I had a chance to learn more about provide insight into important contemporary topics in information studies discourse. Because of my stay at UCLA, I can see more clearly the differences between societies in California and those in Central and Eastern Europe. I have a better understanding of how academic thought develops and knowledge transfers happen in different historical circumstances. This aspect may seem trivial at first glance, but mutual understanding, acknowledgment of differences, and openness to dialogue, in which American and European academic traditions express the same openness and respect, are of utmost importance for any kind of collaboration.