Although the gritty Port of Los Angeles doesn’t have much in common with Croatia’s glistening Dalmatian Coast, the abundant fishing industry and the Mediterranean climate of Southern California was enough to attract Croatians to San Pedro.
Dating back several generations, Croatian immigration started with the fishing industry. Most Croatians who came to San Pedro in the first half of the 20th century worked as fishermen and cannery workers. The second wave of Croatian immigrants arrived after World War II as political refugees from the former Yugoslavia. It is now estimated that 30,000 of about 80,000 people in San Pedro have Croatian roots, according to Peter Hazdovac, first Vice President of the Croatian-American Club.
“[In San Pedro] we’re getting into probably they say like third, fourth, even fifth generation Croatian-Americans,” said Hazdovac.
Once Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991, some of the political tensions from back home were brought overseas with the second immigration wave throughout the early 90s while Bosnia & Herzegovina was the latest battleground for the Yugoslav civil war. This was reflected by a small divide between the Croatian-American Club, which favored Croatia’s independence, and the Yugoslav-American Club, which contained Serbians who were less in favor of it.
“You were either a member of the Yugoslav club or you were a member of the Croatian Club,” said Jack Baric, the Sports Director at the Croatian-American Club.
The division subsided when the Yugoslav-American Club was renamed to be called the Dalmatian-American Club after Croatia became an independent nation. Both the Croatian Club and the Dalmatian Club exist today for local Croats to honor and embrace the nation’s culture, heritage, and independence.
A stretch of Ninth Street in San Pedro was named “Croatian Place” in 2003 by the Los Angeles City Council to honor the city’s Croatian community. Today, San Pedro’s Croats connect and continue to embrace, preserve, and celebrate their cultural heritage as a community through the Croatian Club and the Dalmatian Club.
In 1972, the Croatian Club purchased the Croatian Hall that sits today on Ninth Street in San Pedro. This has since then been the main event space for local Croatians to gather and embrace their nationality through a number of cultural events like dinner dances, festivals, soccer watch parties and fundraisers.
Every year in honor of Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia, the Croatian-American Club organizes an Independence Day festival. The street is blocked off and local Croats gather to celebrate with live music, drinks, and Croatian cuisine.
“It’s the premiere event of the year,” said Baric. “It’s a fun party. There’s music, there’s food, and a lot of non-Croatians will come because it’s just a really fun event.”
It takes place every Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to honor Croatia’s first free election on May 30, 1990 — the day that fueled the decision to officially declare independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991.
“That’s kind of like the Croatian weekend,” said Hazdovac.
There’s also Croatian mass every Sunday at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church and at St. Anthony’s Croatian Church in downtown Los Angeles.
Specialty shops in the area serve various Croatian dishes, desserts, candies, and wine. One is the South Shores Meat Shop, which is owned by Croatian butchers. There are also weekly lunches at the Croatian American Hall serving traditional cuisine.
“We used to have what’s called ‘Fishermen’s Night’ at the Croatian Hall where they would do a huge fish dinner, and two to three hundred people [would] come there for that,” said Hazdovac. “Sadly, a lot of that stuff has kind of disappeared now with COVID, and it’s going to be hard [to get] that stuff back up and going.”
The Croatian Club also hosts soccer watch parties when the national team competes in the European Cup or the World Cup.
With 3,000 people packed in the streets to watch Croatia play in the 2018 World Cup finals on a 150-foot jumbo screen, local Croats came together as a prideful community to cheer on their homeland.
“[The Croatian Club has] become known as the go-to place to watch global games during big tournaments,” said Baric.
No matter the distance, Croatians embrace this little piece of home that they have all the way in Southern California.
Photos: Madelaine Sarisky