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Exploring Ethnicity and Family Heritage

Far left seated: My Great grandmother Eva Hillrich. Fifth from left standing: My grandmother Helen Triffun (originally Trifunatz). 

Laura Marti – October 26, 2023

This past summer, I traveled to Akron, Ohio, my hometown, for a family wedding. During our time there, my aunt brought out several boxes of old family photos. We were all excited to look through and reminisce, seeing old friends of my parents while they were teenagers, my grandparents when they were first married, and even glimpses of great grandparents who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. 

Older members of our family shared what they knew of the stories connected to each picture, and together we learned new things about our family history, tapping into our cultural heritage. While I had always known our family roots traced back to Serbia, some relatives speculated that a couple of our ancestors might have been Hungarian – that was new to me!

Clockwise from top left: My parents (Jerry and Marge Petrovich), my mom’s parents (Helen and Peter Triffun), my dad’s parents (Stella and Andrew Petrovich)

The following day, my parents, brother, and I visited the houses where my mom and dad grew up. We had such a great conversation about their experiences, and my brother was especially inquisitive. We found the old “family farm” in Barberton, Ohio, that my dad had always told us about, though today not so much a farm as a large property but with the same big white house still there. My dad delighted us with stories of his childhood, from mischievous antics with his siblings to memories of owning goats and chickens. He grew up speaking some of the Serbian language at home and especially with his grandparents.

We also drove by our favorite Serbian chicken restaurant, The Village Inn, a place of many fun family gatherings. We couldn’t resist ordering chicken dinners to add to our nostalgic journey.

In another part of town, we searched for the small meat market that my mom’s dad owned. It was no longer there, but the quest brought good memories for my mom about working in the market with her dad every day after school as a teenager. She also shared that he originally worked at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., as many immigrants did. But a friend from their church (very ethnically southern European) owned a small meat market and wanted to move to Arizona, so he and others at the church pressured my grandfather into buying his store to help his ‘brother’ out. It became kind of a church / family business, but it eventually went bankrupt and my grandfather lost the store.

My brother and I found ourselves completely engaged and connecting on a deeper level. We wanted to know as much as we could about family history and our Serbian ethnicity. I realized how much our cultural history and ancestry shape us in profound ways, and sometimes, we miss out on these vital stories until moments like these compel us to ask.

“Family Farm” and Village Inn

WHAT IS ETHNICITY?

What makes these stories so compelling? Why is learning who and where we come from so important to us? Everyone is familiar with the reference to America as a melting pot, and although there’s more nuance to the term, it’s obvious that we’re represented by a multitude of ethnic groups. So why is it important for any of us to connect to our ethnic and cultural heritage?

Ethnicity is typically described as a socially defined category of people who identify with each other based on common ancestral, social, cultural, or national experience. In practice, however, our ethnicity is not determined by rigid rules, but rather by how people and groups identify and perceive themselves and articulate their common identity. People tend to self-identify with an ethnic group based on how they describe shared social and cultural experiences, language, food, traditions, and a shared sense of belonging. These self-descriptions and affiliations serve to categorize ourselves and others.

Exploring my ethnicity provides a profound sense of identity. It helps me understand my place in the world, my connection to others, and gives a sense of belonging. We all desire a group where we feel we belong, one where we can share our stories and traditions. I appreciate my heritage and ethnicity because it has contributed to the person I am today.

The generation that first emigrates can feel much more of the pain of missing their country of origin. As later generations acculturate and assimilate to the new (host) country, those ties are not as strong and it takes more effort to maintain them. Since I’m two and three generations removed now, much of the “culture” of our family’s country/region of origin has gotten lost, as we are fully assimilated to American culture. One of the simplest ways my family has tried to maintain some of our self-described Serbian ethnicity has been through food. At family gatherings, my mom always made apple pita, and it became a favorite tradition. Learning to make certain traditional food dishes like stuffed cabbage rolls (sarma), chicken paprikash, nut rolls (kolachi), or apple pita (basically their version of apple pie) was important to me. A cousin in California is the holder of all my paternal grandmother’s recipes – a treasure trove I’m still trying to get copies of.

Apple pita and walnut rolls (kolachi) at another family wedding.

THE PITFALLS

There is a danger when the connection to our ethnicity turns into tribalism – an extreme form of identity that pits one group against another in a battle for supremacy. The key when exploring our ethnic heritage is to do so with inclusivity in mind. We should strive to appreciate and value all cultures and ethnicities, recognizing the unique contributions each brings.

And ethnicity is tricky in another way. It sounds great that we want to connect to our heritage, our ancestors, our ethnicity, but the circumstances under which immigration took place is important because it can create an idealized version of what it meant to be any number of ethnic groups, such as Italian, or Serbian, or Polish. It’s essential to maintain a realistic perspective.

For example, as I describe in a previous blog post, Finding myself in the story – Uncovering the history of Serbian Immigrants, Serbian immigrants came with a wave of immigration to the U.S. between 1880-1920, which was primarily from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. It was a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization when America received more than 20 million immigrants. But Serbian and other southeastern Europeans were considered in America to be inferior, undesirable, dirty, of low intelligence, and even thought to have had inherited genetic traits of social inadequacy. America did not want these immigrants. Sound familiar?

The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted further immigration from countries in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, because they were not the “right” kind of immigrants. They were not considered “white” enough.

As immigration ceased, existing immigrants united for survival, working within their own communities. As my dad shared with me, many had limited education and couldn’t complete schooling due to the need for work to support their families. They found jobs with friends and relied on one another to replace ties to their home countries, leading to the idealization of their ethnic identities. As their links to their homelands vanished, they adopted an idealized ethnicity.

‘Symbolic ethnicity’ refers to a concept that describes the way individuals of a particular ethnic background identify with their ethnicity in a largely symbolic manner, a superficial connection grasped aesthetically rather than through deep cultural engagement. Individuals may identify with their ethnic background on certain occasions or in specific contexts, such as during cultural festivals or holidays, but not as an ongoing aspect of their everyday lives. This is all complicated by a general racialization process imposed on all of us that places people in categories, whether they fit or not, and places us into a racial hierarchy.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND OUR ETHNIC HERITAGE?

My ethnicity has shaped my identity. Hearing my family’s stories gives me a sense of belonging and a sense of origin and continuity. Understanding my ancestors’ immigrant struggle gives me context for today’s discussions about race/ethnicity and the racial hierarchy our system is founded on. 

My family history also allows me to empathize with immigrants today who are experiencing what my ancestors experienced.

It is humbling to know that my family was not considered white when they came to the U.S., so they didn’t always have the privilege that comes with whiteness. No one group of people is any more important than another, and the power assumed by white racial groups is misplaced. I choose to frame my white identity in a way that is inclusive and encourages me to see my role in racial (and ethnic) injustice and my part in dismantling it.

My story can’t be universalized, and not every story of ethnicity is the same. I think what is significant is that I’m drawn to it, it pulls me in. I love the community it builds with my family to share these memories and appreciate those who have gone before. I love being Serbian and I love celebrating what culture and traditions I know. But I also appreciate the nuance of ethnicity – knowing that there is so much more to it just drives me to keep learning.

RESOURCES

Finding myself in the story – Uncovering the history of Serbian Immigrants – Brownicity

U.S. Immigration Before 1965 

Talking Race and Ethnicity | Harvard Graduate School of Education 

Connecting the Past and Present with the Immigrant Stories Project | NEH-Edsitement

Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs

Read more of Laura Marti’s Family History:


Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four adult children, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.