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Hungarian Americans. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Immigrants and their descendants from Hungary. The self-designation of Hungarians as
Magyar, their country as Magyarország, originates from the Ugric period and describes
their tribal position at the time they separated from their Finno-Ugric language kin, and
blended with Central Asian nomadic Turks. According to legend, under the leadership of
chieftain Arpad seven tribal chiefs pledged brotherhood by letting their blood flow
together and invaded the Carpathien Basin in A.D. 896. Over the centuries, however, the
romantically conceptualized “Oriental” Magyar culture blended into its central European
neighborhood and at the time emigration from Hungary began, 40 percent of Hungarian
arrivals belonged to ethnic minorities.
The Hungarian American subculture is a small but heterogeneous part of the
patchwork of American ethnics. In itself it does not stand out as a solidly knit community
united by conspicuous folkloric identity features, but is more characterized by
fragmentation in its display of cultural consciousness, due to Hungary’s ethnic
heterogeneity and hereditary class hierarchy.
Opening the telephone directory of any American town or industrial area, Hungarian
presence is easy to detect by listings such as Szabó (tailor), Kovács (Smith), Varga
(cobbler), Kocsis (coachman), and other surnames that indicate occupations. Other names
feature physical character, mood, or temper, such as Kiss (small), Nagy (large), Joó
(good), and Balogh (awkward), or the geographical region of origin, such as Szegedi
(from Szeged) and Veszprémi (from Veszprém). The multinational character of
Hungarians is indicated by such common names as Magyar, Tóth (Slovak), Nemeth
(German), Oláh (Romanian), or Horváth (Croatian). Revealing of the same is the fact that
people often keep their foreign-sounding names (spelled in Hungarian), like Resetar,
Lakcsik, Sisák, Hoffer, or Duczer.
Others may not be so easy to identify as Magyars. In the desire to preserve their
original names, some anglicize the spelling, (Sillaghe for Szilágyi); those who want to
assimilate may simply translate their names into English, like Mr. Shepherd (Juhász) and
Mrs. King (Király) did. Dialing any of these listings, however, may lead to different
meanings of Hungarianness. We might reach a newcomer who strives for acceptability, a
veteran custodian of Hungarian values surviving his succumbing generation, the
conscious or unconscious preserver of a selected set of traditions, the young seeker of
roots who makes a pilgrimage to Hungary and relearns the forgot ten mother tongue, or the person whose Hungarian family name is the only connection to
the ancestral past.
Regardless of the individuals place in the timetable of the immigration process,
Hungarians never represented a large number in America, nor has their presence greatly
fluctuated. In the peak years between 1907 and 1910, two million Hungarian job seekers
came to the United States. Magyars are shown sporadically and in low and slowly
declining numbers in the censuses between 1910 and 1980, in larger cities, townships and
industrial counties of the Eastern United States—today there are about 1.8 million
Americans in the United States who claim to be of Hungarian ancestry.
A historical overview of the emergence of the Hungarian American subculture must
review the period primarily from 1870 to 1956. Emigrant groups of diverse nationality and social status migrated from Hungary to the United States for different reasons, a fact
that explains their lack of solidarity.
The first arrivals were exiles of the failed 1848–1849 revolution against the Hapsburg
rule, numbering 800 to 900 people who settled in fifteen locations. They dispersed soon
to urban centers where they joined other elite emigrés: patriotic, politically conscious
intellectuals and businessmen. They launched the symbols that would later form the core
of a constructed Hungarian American ethnic identity.
As the second wave, mass emigration began in the 1870s and affected mostly the
agricultural population. Until Wbrld War I, more than two million people crossed the
ocean. In 1882, when steamship agents offered to book passage for a group of thirty-two
villagers of County Sopron to bring them to South Bend, Indiana, as laborers for
Studebaker’s wagon factory and Oliver’s plow plant, the farmhands displayed good
enterpreneural skills, mobility, and readiness to sacrifice for a better future. They
accepted the worst labor- and living-conditions in order to save every penny, return
home, and become prosperous farmers. These single, transitory male workers were no
“immigrants.” Austere communal living kept them within the institution known as the
“boarding family” headed by “the lady,” wife of a fellow worker and acquaintance from
the old country, who provided room and board to young men. With the passing of time
and conditions changing, temporary workers had to decide whether to stay or to return.
Staying meant breaking out from isolation, learning the language and basic skills, settling
with family, and changing loyalty from the homeland to the land of choice.
When political and economic situations in Hungary and the United States forced
people to stay where they happened to be, shortly before World War I, several enciaves
of peasant settlers emerged in the United States. The emigrants, including ethnic
minorities originating from historic Himgary and Magyars speaking regional dialects,
together established a specific Hungarian American culture. In spite of the diversity of
regional Hungarians, with their uneven representation of cultural dialects, religions, and
loyalties, four generations of peasant immigrants—the foreign-born, and their first-,
second-, and third-generation American-born offspring—comprised the largest, most
conspicuous group that established the image and identity of the Hungarian American as
it is known today. The group as a whole was nicknamed öreg Amerikások (veteran
Americans) and represents the main culture-bearing community of Hungarians. However,
this population group, totaling about 450,000, never settled anywhere in mass and never
created a solid, closed ethnic residency. (Even in Cleveland, the legendary “American
Debrecen,” stronghold of Hungarian Protestants in America, Hungarians accounted for
less than 10 percent of the residents.) People were spread out in the suburban regions of
industrial towns, making their living from heavy industry. Only 1 percent ever returned to
farming, like the founders of Arpádhon (The Home of Arpád) in Louisiana. This unique
settlement of strawberry farmers was established in 1896, the 1,000th anniversary of the
birth of Hungary, and romantically named after the nomadic land taker Arpád, although
the settlers were of mixed ancestry. Tired of industrial labor in Detroit, South Bend,
Akron, Ohio, and other company towns, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, German, and
Ukrainian peasant emigrants from historic Hungary together, forged the farming
community of Arpádhon and invented a Hungarian identity, symbolized by songs and
dances celebrating the harvest of their crops.
The third category of emigrants was composed of professionally trained people who
began to arrive from Hungary after World War I. They did not join the settling trend of
peasants and did not seek companionship with them. Traditionally, peasantry constituted
a solid subculture in Hungary and was isoiated from the elite, not only as servants (the
poor and powerless isolated from the rich and powerful), but also by different standards
of education, worldview, language, and the arts. Urban elite emigres included educated
professionals; Jewish intellectuals (who left Hungary between the two World Wars,
fearing anti-semitism); and those who left after the end of World War II (displaced
military men, politicians, old nobility, and determined emigrants fearful of Communism).
Concentrated in large cities—New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles—
these emigrés represent only a symbolic community whose members host cultural events
and attend commemorative programs and banquets related to political-patriotic causes.
The offspring of these displaced persons no longer claim a Hungarian identity. Many of
the so-called “freedom fighters” who fled during the 1956 revolution were not politically
motivated but took the opportunity to seek freedom from Communist rule. These
newcomers were mostly young people, ready for a new career. Working-class
Hungarians opened their purses and hearts to assist them, but the sponsors’ enthusiasm
soured because their wards targeted higher education not factory jobs; a world’s
difference separated peasant thrift and the goals of these immigrants, who soon vanished
in the mainstream.
In Hungary, peasant culture developed more regionally than nationally. Whereas
individuals were efficient in local folk education and loyal to local tradition, they were
ignorant of the overall national culture established by school education. Immigrants, at
the outset, continued their loyalty to native local heritage and maintained regional
identities even after they were forced to disperse and intermingle. Consciousness of
Hungarian national identity and its symbols, however, began to infiltrate local-identity
features quite early. The Romantic nationalist image of the late 19th century was recast to
fit the nostalgic mood of elite expatriates. This image was stronger and more attractive to
the masses of homesick immigrants than more divisive, less prestigious ancestral peasant
traditions. The new image helped the peasant folk unify through a set of standardized,
homogenized identity symbols representing “the noble Hungarian nation” that embraced
them only in exile.
The construction of a homogenized Hungarian American culture was conveyed by
social, beneficent, and religious organizations whose regional chapters followed the
guidance of their national or global headquarters. Enthusiastic clergymen assumed
leadership in the promotion of a standardized patriotic-national culture that replaced the
inherited local and regional customs, demeaned as stigmas of backwardness. Calendar
and life-cycle rituals were supplemented by Hungarian and American patriotic
commemorative celebrations, supervised by elite community leaders and filling the
ethnic recreational needs of the settlers, who were eager to learn and improve themselves
in the new situation. The sensation of a newly acquired dignity by former farmhands
made it easier for them to blend into the mainstream.
While the imported repertoire of regional folk costumes, dances, music, and foodways
was suppressed and moved from the public to the private area of consciousness and later
to complete oblivion, a unanimously accepted stock of new Hungarian American forms
emerged and became important symbols of Hungarianness. Among these are the magyar
ruha (Hungarian dress, a fabricated festive costume); the Csárdás pair dance; Gypsy
music; a few popular folk and imitationfolk melodies; and a menu of holiday dishes
limited to stuffed cabbage, gulyás, chicken paprikás, kolbász (smoked sausage), csiga
and other homemade noodles, kalács (milk bread), kifli (horns with walnut filling), rétes
(strudel), and palacsinta (crepe)—none of which can be missing from weddings, funerals,
associational banquets, church feasts, March Fifteenth (commemorating the 1848 War of
Independence) and July Fourth picnics, and the most enduring feasts—the Wine Harvest
Dance and the pig-slaughter dinner. The minutes of organizing associations, photoillustrated yearbook reports, and locally compiled cookbooks inform the carbon-copy
similarity of these rituals across Hungarian America.
If prior to 1914 the emigrant elite suppressed regional peasant traditions, the 1956
“freedom fighter” generation temporarily assumed leadership in the revival of ethnic arts.
The ambition to teach dances, songs, and crafts, to organize festivals, and to teach the
grandchildren of immigrants the forgotten language was motivated by the teachers’ own
needs. The political-ethnic revival movement, claiming recognition of a multi-ethnic
America, activated latent awareness of folk traditions, resulting in the revitalization of
fading forms of folklore. It energized the new immigrant intelligentsia and reached out to
the young generation of American-born enthusiasts.
In the preliminary stage as “birds of passage,” the migrant, temporary workers lived in
isolation between two worlds. Their life is well documented in mournful lament poetry,
songs, fictitious letters, anecdotes, and amateur skits caricaturing the hardships of
adjustment of greenhorns. Without a conscious effort to give up old values, however,
assimilation began by learning elementary skills, new concepts, and idioms of the English
language, changing habits of eating and clothing, operating appliances, and so forth.
When small neighborhoods emerged, they seemed perfect cells to accommodate cultural
heritage on a broad base. Similar to other European labor migrants, Hungarians formed
their self-sufficient settlements between 1907 and the 1930s. Bankers, lawyers, doctors,
food merchants, innkeepers, mail carriers, and pawnshop owners served the immediate
needs of patrons in the native neighborhoods of cities, while local chapters of basic
Hungarian American institutions—benevolent fraternities, political clubs, and churches—
also began to take shape, providing for the physical and spiritual welfare of the
The parishes had an overall strong influence on the maintenance of ethnic loyalty and
cultural preservation. Nevertheless, while the majority religion of Hungarians is Roman
Catholic (ca. 65 percent), the Americanized Protestant denominations of the minority (ca.
25 percent) churches became the centers of cultural and social life. Not only did the
church organize life-cycle and calendar rituals, patriotic, political, and civil festivities,
and entertaining programs, it also offered education to both children and adults in
language, history, literature, and folklore, such as handicraft, dancing, and singing.
The ethnic enclave, an irrational, nostalgic imitation of the hometown, was founded by
the immigrant generation seeking temporary shelter in the alien world. Within it, essential
values could be maintained while members also built the bridge to the future; it provided
help to adjust to the industrial environment, the multilingual neighborhood, and the
As long as the ethnic enclaves existed with a majority of the immigrant generation,
they were culture-forming and culture-maintaining entities with masters of ceremonies
leading traditional customs and practices. Habitat and housing patterns, interior
decoration, use of space, religious symbols, vegetable and flower gardens, and the gossip
bench in front of the house all corresponded to old-country forms. But as Old World
values shifted to a new Hungarian American consciousness with the passing of the
generations, there emerged a new brand of ethnic folklore, rooted in the old, but
addressing contemporary issues of everyday life. Old stories about bewitching, magic,
and healing were replaced by Arnerican-style ghost stories and local-character anecdotes
highlighting funny cases of ignorance and smartness, tricksters, and dupes in the
community. Greenhorn housewives use gesture language in the grocery store; the judge
grants citizenship to the numbskull thought to be witty; a smart “Hunkey” peddler
outwits other ethnics; an ignorant waitress serves marshmallow instead of mushroom
soup; and a short-witted Bible-class student mistakes Pittsburgh for Bethlehem as
Christ’s birthplace because both are in Pennsylvania.
The ethnic community eventually outlived its usefulness, as the children and
grandchildren of immigrants, born in the diaspora, found the environment restrictive. For
the first American-born generation, the meaning of ethnicity and loyalty to heritage is
different from that of the foreign born. It is an option to choose, retain, and develop
images and emblems of ethnicity or reject them completely. In their cultural spectrum,
ethnic heritage occupies only a small compartment reserved for special occasions. The
ethnic images are select elements displayed more for the general public than for insiders.
What is chosen for these occasions is spectacular, attractive, and classy, taken more from
the national than from the regional heritage as a more usable item in status-promoting
social activities. While everyday life—home decoration, eating habits, and the like—no
longer contain traces of homeland ethnicity, a few display items appear prominendy at
festival occasions, particularly in the performance of dance and music, the wearing of
costumes, and the preparation of special dishes. When the International Institute of
Indianapolis invited local ethnics to introduce their specialties to the public in 1986,
Hungarian women were dressed in Matyó (a regional group of northern Hungary) blouses
with black skirts and boots mass-produced and exported from Hungary. They served
potato stew in paprika with green salad and sang sentimental pseudo-folksongs. This
hybrid revival appears as a response to the national appeal of ethnic Americans; it is a
conscious self-stereotyping, a message to others, but also a nostalgic gesture toward the
in-group and an attempt to preserve elements of a distant past that the new generations do
not understand.
The Hungarian-by-choice may be a member of a totally integrated family. The
American-born children of the 1956 freedom fighters seem not susceptible to the festival
movement propagated by both American and Hungarian agencies. Lacking roots and
continuity, however, the movement is superficial, following the performance guidelines
given by agencies to amateur performing groups throughout the United States. Ethnicity
may be active or latent, depending on circumstances; it may be recalled or completely
The accidents of history, the lasting isolation of Hungarian Americans from the old
country, the peculiarity of the language belonging to the Finno-Ugric family, and the
ideological, social, and cultural segmentation of the immigrant generations, singly and
together, have contributed to the discoloration of the modern-day Hungarian American
Linda Dégh
Dégh, Linda. 1966. Approaches to Folklore Research among Immigrant Groups. Journal of
American Folklore. 79:551–556.
——. 1977–1978. Grape-Harvest Festival of Strawberry Farmers: Folklore or Fake? Ethnologia
Europaea 10:114–131.
——. 1980. The Ethnicity of Hungarian-Americans. Congressus Quintus Internationalis FennoUgristarum. Turku. Part 4, pp. 225–290.
Fejös, Zoltán. 1993. A chicagói magyarok két nemzedéke, 1890–1940 [Two Generations of Chicago
Hungarians, 1890–1940]. Budapest: Középeurópai Intézet.
Hoppál, Mihály. 1989. Ethnic Symbolism: Tradition and Ethnicity in a Hungarian and an
American-Hungarian Community. In Folklór Archivum nr. 18. Budapest: Néprajzi
Kutatócsoport, pp. 155–184.
Lengyel, Emil. 1948. Americans from Hungary. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott.
Puskás, Julianna. 1982. Kivándorló magyarok az Egyesült àllamokban, 1880–1940. [Emigrant
Hungarians in the United States, 1880–1940]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.
Szántó, Miklós. 1984. Magyarok Amerikában [Hungarians in America]. Budapest: Gondolat.
Vázsonyi, Andrew. 1978. The Cicisbeo and the Magnificent Cuckold: Boardinghouse Life and
Lore in Immigrant Communities. Journal of American Folklore 91:641–656.

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