Today, on 13 December (St. Lucy’s Day), Argentina and Croatia will face off in the World Cup semi-finals. It’s safe to say, most Angelenos who care at all about association football (aka “soccer”) will be rooting for Argentina. Los Angeles is also home to the nation’s second-largest Argentine community — although it is smaller than the Croat one. That said, a lot of non-Argentine Latino Angelenos will no doubt set aside any resentments of Argentines in favor of 90 minutes (plus extra time) of Latin American solidarity. As a Costa Rican co-worker, whose Peruvian girlfriend was in tears after the Brazil loss to Croatia, explained; their allegiance changed as the final whistle blew to Argentina, because at that moment, Argentina became the only team representing South America, or indeed, all of the Americas. And then there’s the small issue of Lionel Messi, who despite being inarguably one of the greatest and most beloved footballers of all time, has never won a world cup… and this, he has made clear, is his last go.
Croats, whilst greater in number in Los Angeles, have a much lower profile here. There are no Croatian restaurants that I know of. Most Angelenos would fail to locate Croatia on a map and I suspect a few would struggle to correctly identify the continent on which its located. And while Argentina gave the world gauchos, Jorge Luis Borges, Babasonicos, Evita, Soda Stereo, yerba mate, Miranda!, and tango — Croatia is mostly known for… hang on. OK, after an internet search, I have learned that Croatia is best known for, I kid you not, its “scenic pebble beaches.” Croatia are the underdogs, though, so there will be those who root for them for that reason — and maybe Slavs will set aside their differences temporarily to vote for the only Slavic team in the competition. Speaking of dogs — the familiar dog breed, the Dalmatian, has its origins in Croatia. But if Croatia beats Argentina, “world-class football” will likely supplant both firefighters’ best friend and gravelly seasides as Croatia’s claim to fame.
Croatia (Croatian: Hrvatska) is a small country in Europe located on the Adriatic. Its neighbors are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. It shares a maritime border with Italy. Its capital and largest city is Zagreb. Croatia’s population, at 3.899 million, is almost exactly the same as that of the City of Los Angeles — 3.849 million. The country is slightly larger than San Bernardino County.
Croatia’s population is primarily comprised of Croats, a South Slavic people, who arrived in what’s now Croatia in the 500s CE. Croats make up about 91.6% of Croatia’s population. The next largest ethnicity, Serbians, only comprise about 3.2% of the population. Outside of Croatia, there are substantial numbers of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the US, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Austria, Australia, and Canada.
In 2012, there were 414,714 Americans who self-identified as being of Croatian origin or descent. Croatia’s State Office for the Croats Abroad, however, estimated that there are closer to 1.2 million naturalized Croatian-Americans. Within the US, the primary centers of Croatian-Americans are the metropolitan areas of Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and Los Angeles. Pittsburgh is especially well-known for its Croatian community and the state of Pennsylvania has the largest population of Croats of any state. The state with the second largest population is California, though, which was estimated in 2010 to have a population of 45,537 Croatian-descended residents.
The history of Croats in the broader American Southwest/El Norte de México begins a surprisingly long time ago. In 1683, a Croat Jesuit, named Johannes Ratkay, established a mission in the Rarámuri homelands of New Spain in what’s now the state of Chihuahua. In 1746, a Croat Jesuit and cartographer named Consago Gonzales (Ferdinand Konšak) created the first great map of Baja California, and shortly after, a map of the Gulf of California. By the 1800s, San Francisco was home to a thriving Croatian community. Tadich Grill, which opened in 1849, is the oldest restaurant in continuous operation there. The Croatian American Cultural Center of San Francisco was founded there in 1857. The Church of the Nativity was established there in 1887.
Croatians began arriving in Los Angeles in large numbers in the late 1800s when Croatia was still part of Austria-Hungary. Another wave of Croatians arrived following the establishment of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1940s. Although it’s a rather dated source, published as it was in 1964, author Francis H Eterovich claimed in Croatia: Land, People, and Culture that the Los Angeles metropolitan area — especially San Pedro and Santa Ana — was then home to about 35,000 Croatian Angelenos. San Pedro was the choice for Croatians from coastal Dalmatia, who tended to work as fishermen, in canneries, or as dockworkers. Immigrants from continental Croatia and Hercegovina, meanwhile, tended to favor landlocked Central Los Angeles, where many worked in construction.
One of the world’s best known brands of tuna, StarKist, has its roots in San Pedro’s Croatian community. In 1917, Ivo Mirkovich, James Mirkovich, Joseph P. Mardesich, Martin J. Bogdanovich, and Nick Vilicich, founded the French Sardine Company of California. After Croatian and Italian fishermen hunted sardines into local extinction, the Japanese of Terminal Island‘s Furusato neighborhood helped steer their attention toward tuna, a fish whose flesh, traditionally (and understandably, in my opinion), had been dismissed as unfit for consumption. New processes were developed to diminish the pungency and tuna came to be promoted for its blandness, and thus was embraced by Americans. In 1942, French Sardine became Star-Kist. Charlie the Tuna was introduced in 1962. In 2008, it was purchased by Dongwon Group, who’ve been charged with under-filling cans in a class action lawsuit and paid a $100 million fine for price fixing.
Vincent Thomas (né Tomasevich) was a politician who represented San Pedro’s 68th and 52nd Districts in the California Assembly from 1941–1978. His family came to San Pedro in 1919. After graduating law school, Thomas worked at the French Sardine cannery. In 1940, he moved into politics and began pushing for construction of a suspension bridge to connect San Pedro proper with San Pedro East, on Terminal Island. The Vincent Thomas Bridge opened in 1963 and is the only suspension bridge in Metro Los Angeles. To my mind, the green bridge with its blue lights is every inch the equal of other cities’ suspension bridges but in a city with as many landmarks as Long Angeles, it tends to be overlooked as an icon. That said, film character Neil McCauley refers to it as the Saint Vincent Thomas Bridge in 1995’s Heat.
There were tensions within the Croat Angeleno community for decades — not between Central Los Angeles Croats and Harbor Croats — but between Croats who favored independence and those who favored Yugoslav unity. There were death threats and businesses were bombed in the 1970s. In the 1980s, a baseball game between the Croatian team and the Yugoslav team erupted into a riot — injecting in the process a shocking amount of action into the game more often characterized as “America’s naptime.” After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1992, however, no one was still advocating for Yugoslav unity — and another wave of Croats arrived in Southern California.
CROATIAN ANGELENO ORGANIZATIONS
There are two long-established Croatian Angeleno organizations, although the older of the two has gone through a number of name changes. On 6 May 1926, a group of 25 Croatians founded the Jugoslav Club of San Pedro, The members banded together to build the club’s hall, which opened its doors on 31 August 1935. In 1944, the name was changed to the Yugoslav-American Club of San Pedro. The club’s Women’s Auxiliary was formed in 1962. In 1992, following the independence of Croatia, the club changed its name to the Dalmatian-American Club of San Pedro.
Since Yugoslavia had dissolved, it would’ve been natural for the Yugoslav-American Club of San Pedro to change its name to the Croatian-American Club of San Pedro or something like that. That would’ve been too similar, though, to the Croatian American Club, another San Pedro Croat organization, which originally met at the residence of siblings Joska and Vlado Jelenic. That club began its tradition of plays and picnics on 30 August 1959. They incorporated their organization on 16 November 1959. They formed an association football team, SC San Pedro Croat, in 1967. In their 1968-1969 season, they came in second place in the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League.
MY HISTORY WITH CROATIA
The first I remember hearing of Croatia was in 1991 when the country’s independence from Yugoslavia was declared. For the next four years, a war of independence was fought. In 1992, there was a Yugoslavian exchange student in our high school. His name was “Dejan” so believe he was Serbian. If I remember correctly, he waved off my attempts to inquire about the “Greater-Serbian Aggression.” He was a long-haired, seemingly good natured, and outgoing boy and he appeared eager to distance himself from the conflict roiling his corner of the world. My impression was that he actually welcomed the comparative ignorance of my classmates, who nicknamed him “Dijon,” and showed absolutely no curiosity about his homeland.
Since then, things seem to have stabilized considerably. Croatia is a high-income country, ranks high on the Index of Human Development, and is a member of the EU. They derive a lot of their income from tourism and yet I don’t recall anyone ever having gone there that I know. Like I wrote earlier, I’d love for that to change and if you donate a couple thousand to my Patreon, I promise I’ll visit, explore, and report back on Croatia today.
CROATIANS IN HOLLYWOOD
Many of the most prominent Croatian Angelenos have had roots in the Hollywood film industry. The most famous, most likely, is John Malkovich, whose family name is Croatian but only because his paternal grandparents were Croats. Actor./Comedian Judah Friedlander and San Pedro-born actor Patrick Muldoon have Croat mothers but non-Croat fathers (and thus, non-Croat family names). Although Friedlander is today a world champion, in the 2000s, I used to often see him perform in the basement of an East Hollywood Ramada Inn.
Other Croat Angeleno actors include Daniella Monet Zuvic, Gloria Grey (née Maria Dragomanovich), Goran Višnjić, Ivana Miličević, Jenna Elfman née Jennifer Butala), John Miljan, and Mira Furlan. Film producer Branko Lustig was a Croatian Jew.
Two of my favorite Croat Angelenos in Hollywood are the Yuricich brothers, both of whom were special effects artists. Matthew J. Yuricich worked as a matte artist on Forbidden Planet (1956), and North by Northwest and Ben-Hur (both 1959). He also worked on Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Soylent Green (1973), Young Frankenstein (1974), Logan’s Run (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The China Syndrome and 1941 (both 1979), Blade Runner (1982), V (1983), Ghostbusters and 2010 (both 1984), Fright Night (1985), Poltergeist II: The Other Side, The Boy Who Could Fly, and Solarbabies (all 1986), Masters of the Universe (1987), Die Hard (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), Dances with Wolves (1990), and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). He died in 2012.
Matthew’s younger brother, Richard Yuricich, is also a special effects artist. His credits include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Event Horizon (1997), Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), and The Book of Eli (2010).
I’m not sure whether or not Ronald Lawrence Kovic ever lived in Los Angeles, but the anti-war protestor was the subject of Oliver Stone‘s 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July. Stand-up comedian Anthony Jeselnik is Croat and used to write for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Glendora-born self-help guru Tony Robbins (né Mahavoric), isn’t exactly a Hollywood star but he has starred in countless infomercials and made a few cameos in films. And Ohio politician Dennis Kucinich moved to Los Angeles and lived with his friend, actress Shirley MacClaine, in the early 1980s.
CROAT ANGELENO MUSICIANS
There are also several high-profile Croat Angelenos who’ve been involved in the music industry.
Pop singer and actor Guy Mitchell (born Albert George Cernik) signed a deal with Warner Brothers when he was eleven and performed on KFWB in the 1930s. He had a string of hit singles in the early 1950s.
Tony Butala, lead vocalist with The Letterman, was born to two Croatian immigrants. He co-founded The Lettermen in 1958.
David Paich is the co-founder, keyboardist, and singer of the rock band Toto. He wrote many of their biggest hits, including “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa.” His father was the pianist and composer Martin Louis Paich, whose parents immigrated from Croatia.
Krist Novoselic was born in Compton in 1965 and lived there for one year before his family moved to San Pedro. His family moved to Aberdeen, Washington in 1979, where he co-founded Nirvana with Kurt Cobain in 1987.
Miljenko Matijevic is lead vocalist and songwriter of the rock band Steelheart.
Paul Salamunovich was the Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1991 to 2001 and its Music Director Emeritus from 2001 until his death in 2014.
Zagreb-bron singer Tajči, moved to Los Angeles in 1997.
Tomislav “Tomo” Miličević was the lead guitarist of the rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars from 2003 to 2018,. He was born in Sarajevo to Croat parents who moved to California and opened Beverly Hills‘s Roxbury Cafe.
Clara Veseliza, known professionally as Clair Marlo, is a composer and performer based in Istria and Los Angeles.
OTHER PROMINENT CROAT ANGELENOS
Other prominent Croat Angelenos include:
Mia Slavenska (née Čora) was a Croatian-American soloist with the Russian Ballet of Monte Carlo from 1938 until 1952 and again in 1954 and 1955. Whilst touring with them, she opened a ballet studio in Los Angeles. After moving to Los Angeles, she taught at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1969 until 1983 and at CalArts from 1970 until 1983. She died in Los Angeles in 2002.
Jacob Matijevic was a NASA engineer who worked on Mars Exploration Rovers. He came to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1981. For his contributions to the rover projects, NASA named several Martian landmarks, including Matijevic Hill and Jake Matijevic Rock. He died in 2012.
Anthony “Tony” Maglica — inventor of the Mag-lite, who moved to Ontario, California in 1950 and founded Mag Instrument, Inc. there in 1955.
Frank Ivancie — a former mayor of Portland, retired to Woodland Hills and died there in 2019.
Gary Gabelich — the racecar driver who set the land speed record with the rocket car Blue Flame on 23 October 1970. He attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School and came out of the drag racing scene. He died at the age of 43 in 1984 after a traffic collision.
Jakša Cvitanić — professor of Mathematical Finance at CalTech and the director of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences.
Michael D. Antonovich –a former Chair of Los Angeles County — sometimes referred to as the county’s mayor — and a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Rudy Svorinich Jr. was a Los Angeles City Councilperson from 1993-2001. He later served as the president of the Dalmatian-American Club.
Los Angles was for decades home to one well-known Croatian restaurant, Ante’s. Ante Perkov was born in Tribunj in 1921. He arrived in San Pedro in 1941 and found work as a dishwasher at the Victory Cafe. Ante’s first opened on Fifth Street in 1951. It moved to its final location in 1975, taking over the former home of the Alaska Inn. The section of Palos Verdes Street on which it was located was renamed Ante Perkov Way in the 1990s. Perkov died in 2001 and his son, Tony took over. Tony died in 2012 and Ante’s closed.
There was, in the years since, another Croatian restaurant, Cafe LuMar. Cafe LuMar opened in Monrovia around 2012. It seems to have closed around 2017. I don’t have any other information about it.
I don’t believe that there are currently any Croatian restaurants in Metro Los Angeles but if there are — or any Croatian food trucks or home kitchens — do let me know and I’ll add them to the map.
About 79% of Croats identify as Roman Catholic and there are at least two Catholic churches with ties to the Croatian community.
Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church was established in San Pedro in 1889. Most of the original parishioners were either Croatian or Italian. The current church, the parish’s third, was built in 1959. They still offer a Croatian language mass every week.
The St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church was founded in what’s now Chinatown in 1910 and the church was constructed by Pacific Coast Building Co. Every year, since 1952, they’ve hosted the annual Croatian Picnic. They also host major association football games for them not to show the semi-final today would be unimaginable.
SPORTS IN CROATIA
There are numerous sports that enjoy popularity in Croatia, including basketball, handball, ice hockey, skiing, swimming, table tennis, tennis, water polo, and picigin — which originated in 1908 on a beach in Split. Los Angeles has also been home to sports figures of Croatian origin or ancestry. American football player Greg Dulcich is from Glendale. The Los Angeles Lakers were briefly coached by Rudy Tomjanovich. Before him, Michael J. Pecarovich served as the head football coach at Loyola University of Los Angeles in 1928 and 1939. He also coached the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
Not surprisingly, association football is Croatia’s popular sport. The national team has emerged as a strong competitor since independence and their striking šahovnica jerseys have become a common site at international competitions. In 1998, they competed in their first FIFA World Cup and got third place, behind Brazil (whom they knocked out in penalties a few days ago). They’ve qualified for every UEFA European Championship since 2004. If they can pull off a defeat of Argentina, they’ll play the winner of the France vs Morocco game in the final.
“Croatian Los Angeles” (Barbara Hansen, 1999, Los Angeles Times)
“Street is Renamed for L.A.’s Croats” (Jessica Garrison, 2003, Los Angeles Times)
Croatian Operated Restaurants in Early Los Angeles
“How San Pedro’s Croatian community helped shape the port town” (Donna Littlejohn, 2018, The Daily Breeze)
2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar Match 14 – CROATIA 🇭🇷 (Eat the World Los Angeles)