EMPIRE, La. (WGNO) - Blame it on a downturn in the economy and political upheaval. Not here, but in Yugoslavia, in the late 1800s.
Croatians -- at that time, the country was part of Yugoslavia -- were looking for work, and not finding enough of it at home. So Croatians began to cross the Atlantic to the land of opportunity.
Like most immigrants of the time, Croatians came to America through New York's Ellis Island, and no one is quite sure how- or why- a few Croatians traveled all the way down to the southernmost tip of Louisiana. But they did, and they stayed, and they found work in an undeveloped industry- harvesting oysters in the bayous of Plaquemines Parish.
True, Croatia is a coastal country on the Adriatic Sea. But Croatians back then, and now, don't eat many oysters. As local oyster farmer and President of the Croatian American Society John Tesvich describes it, the shells of Croatian oysters are as hard as rocks, and the oysters themselves are not especially tasty. Tesvich says some Croatians harvest just a few oysters, marketing them as an "artisanal" product, like an obscure cheese or wild mushrooms.
So why did Croatian immigrants turn to full-time oyster farming in Louisiana? Tesvich says it's simply because the work was hard and few locals were doing it, while Croatian immigrants had worked hard in the grape and olive fields back home.
Over time, those turn- of- the- century Croatian immigrants became the dominant force in the local oyster industry. Their descendants today work in all aspects of the business, from seeding and harvesting oysters, to shucking and selling them. Mitch Jurisich, a third-generation Croatian descendant, laughs when he says it's easy to spot fellow descendants in Plaquemines Parish. "If a person's name ends in an 'ich,' or and 'ic,'" he says, "odds are, he's from Croatia."
To maintain their heritage, many oyster farmers and their families return to Croatia to vacation each summer. So many in fact, that John Tesvich's wife, Jane, teaches the Croatian language to small groups of people who want to be able to speak the native language on those summer trips to the home of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
How to say "Thank you, Croatia" for a vibrant Louisiana industry?
Jane says it's " Hvala, Hrvatska"!