Adam Eterovich – Oral History

I was born in San Francisco. My parents came from the island of Brac on the Dalmatian coast, my father in 1910 and my mother in 1920. My father was the oldest son, of thirteen. Four died before they were one year old because of no doctors. Nothing. There was one doctor on an island for 14,000 people.

As a young man, my grandfather was thrown in jail in the old country because they said he was a socialist. This was under the Austro Hungarian crown.

My father was sent to Australia at age sixteen to follow the Australian Gold Rush in the 1890s. O.K., so he arrived in Australia. Then he travelled 3000 miles across the country to work in the gold mines in west Australia. When he got there the English wouldn’t hire him. Discrimination. Papa couldn’t read or write. So he had to cut wood in the bush. Alone. Every month he’d take the wood to town. My grandfather joined him later and they worked together for a few years, and then my grandfather said, ‘let’s go home.” But my father met an old Dalmatian who told him, “Don’t go home, go to California.” This was 1910. And that’s how he ended up here.

Now how could a man who couldn’t read or write, come here and open restaurants and coffee houses? I’ll tell you how. He knew how to add. Anybody who lives on rock, like the islands on the Dalmatian Coast, and can squeeze out a living for 2000 years, when they came here to California, this was like gold.

My father was a bootlegger from 1919 to 1931. Made his own booze. We had a ten foot basement down below. He supplied everything to the Croatian owned saloons and restaurants. I’m convinced that our people actually originated California cuisine as it’s known in San Francisco. You know, the open fire grill and so on. Good examples of this cuisine are the Croatian owned restaurants Tadich’s, opened in 1849, and Mayes Oyster House operating from the 1860s.

I was raised in the SMBS. My father took my brother and me in when I was old enough. And I had to go to the Croatian church. Montenegran picnics. Serbian picnics. Slovene picnics. Croatian picnics. Everything, until I got to be fifteen or sixteen, and I said, “Now I don’t think I’m going to go anymore.”

At home we spoke an island dialect. When I married my wife in Croatia, they laughed at me, they said, “You’re a throwback. That’s what they used to speak 100 years ago.” link to audio? I didn’t speak school Croatian, but rather a regional dialect. At home we used whatever language we used, and outside the door … it was like you had a switch in your brain. As soon as that door hit you on the behind you spoke English and were completely American. You had to live in two worlds.

For us, explaining ourselves was an impossible task. We didn’t have a country. When you went to school you had a map. It said Italy. It said Germany. That was obvious. But where were we? For example you say, you’re from Yugoslavia.” Well, that’s where Mama came from. But Papa came from the same island and it was Austria. What can you do?

I didn’t know I was Croatian until I was about 22 years old. We called ourselves Slavonian. Papa went to the Slavonian Society. All the people of San Francisco said, “you’re Slavonian Americans.”

This is a good story about clan names. My father always referred to his friends by their clan names instead of their last names. It lost its meaning after he died. But in 1950 when I went as a soldier to the island of Brac and I got off the boat and I asked, “Where is Andreas Eterovich?’ Somebody said, “Which one?” Then I remembered my father’s clan name. Because there could have been fifteen Andreas Eterovichs. And I said, “Faraun. “ And he said, “Right there.” Well, that was part of their culture.

O.K. I went into the Army and was outside the United States for almost four years. Then when I came home I went to the university for four years. Then I decided I didn’t want to go to work and I got a scholarship to study in Zagreb and I went to school over there for a year and a half.

In fact, I took a college minor in history. I had this seventy year old professor who said to me, “Adam, I never heard anything about you Slavonians. I used to go into your restaurants.” And he gave me an assignment to do a big paper on my people.

At that time I thought our people all rolled off the boat about 1900. Then I started to dig into it, and discovered, “Oh, my God, we’ve been here a long time.” And I collected data for that paper — that’s how it started and I never stopped.

After college and the Army I became active in the Society again.

[Editor’s note: Adam has devoted much of his adult life to the interests of the Slavonic commuity in San Francisco. He has held many offices in the SMBS and was the moving force behind the shift in the Society’s vision from that of a closed social and service society to a cultural center open to all nationalities.

In addition, he has done extensive genealogical and historical research on Croatian Americans and may have the most extensive collection of such records. He has established a publishing house and a website to support his research and has a number of projects in the works.]

As for the SMBS now, it needs a continuity of culture and a purpose. When we lost some of our social purpose we were about to disappear. Societies of any ethnic group die because of that. That’s why, with John, we started the cultural part about fifteen years ago. I’m not a singer or a dancer but I support it.

I write about Croatians in America to help get an identification. And maybe, if some people read it, they’ll identify. I’m not concerned about the newcomers, they know. It’s the second, third, fourth generation that don’t.

We Americans put everything in categories. For example, when you are eating a Danish cookie and you like it, you think the guy’s pretty civilized to have nice cookies. My point is, that in order to feel sorry for you or to feel you are human they have to know something about you. And this identification is my mission. That’s why John and I started that Marko Polo Croatian Day. But I got my Italian friends mad at me.