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  • Understanding Hyphenated EthnicityThe Serbian-American Case1
  • Andrei Simić

Of the many identities which characterize the heterogeneity of American life, among the most enduring are those rooted in sentimental and nostalgic ties to ancestral cultures. Like other descendants of the so-called New Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the Serbs have belied the inevitability of the venerable melting-pot theory.2 On the contrary, Serbian culture transplanted by immigrants to the New World has demonstrated a surprising tenacity and continuity. This is not to say that it has remained static or frozen in time. Rather, what has occurred is an ongoing process by which ancestral traditions are selectively chosen, reformulated, and integrated seamlessly with elements of contemporary American culture as part of an adaptive process.

For the purposes of this essay, I will limit the scope of my discussion to only part of the very diverse Serbian diaspora in America, that is, to those individuals who trace their descent from the largely peasant immigration from parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Montenegro, and whose descendents now include grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Like other so-called hyphenated Americans, the expression of ethnic identity among these Serbs exhibits specific characteristics which differ markedly from those [End Page 37] of ethnic minorities in Europe and other parts of the world where ethnic identity is an overarching concept permeating almost all aspects of life. In part, this opposition stems from the nature of America as an immigrant country where, with some notable exceptions, 3 citizenship is the principal determinant of status in the public sphere, while ethnicity is largely relegated to private life.

In many parts of the world, ethnic groups are regarded to varying degrees as distinct and bounded social and/or legal entities in contrast to other similarly defined populations. To cite one of many possible examples, a policy of "official nationality" was implemented in Russia in 1833 under Nicholas I. This policy in a modified form has continued to the present time. It stipulates that the "internal passports" which all adults must carry designate a single ethnic identity of the bearer irregardless of the fact that many people are of mixed ancestry. Thus, ethnicity and nationality4 are treated as immutable ascribed characteristics. In contrast, in the United States ethnic identity is not only regarded as a largely private concern, as mentioned above, but also as an achieved status as well, that is, as a matter of personal predilection which theoretically has little or no role in public life. Furthermore, as I will show in the following discussion, it is this element of personal choice which plays a central role in the actualization and reification of hyphenated ethnicity.5

Serbs in America: A Question of Numbers

There is little agreement on the total number of foreign-born and native-born Serbs in America today; nor is there any practical means by which an accurate census can be taken. For instance, in 1980, Petrovich and Halpern estimated the number to be between 175,000 and 300,000.6 Similarly, it is very difficult to accurately assess the number of Serbs who immigrated to the United States [End Page 38] during the period prior to the First World War because, among other factors, they were often officially listed as Austrians or Hungarians, or categorized together with Bulgarians.7 The determination of numbers is even more problematic in terms of the specific subset of Serbs which constitutes the focus of this discussion. The difficulty rests on the lack of a single objective criterion by which to identify them. To a great extent, this can be attributed to both the very nature of hyphenated ethnicity and the generational depth of this population in America, a situation which has resulted in a large number of intermarriages with other ethnic groups and so-called mainstream Americans.

Were it possible to locate all those individuals who evidence some Serbian genetic ancestry, the question could be legitimately raised, "Whom should we count as Serbian and by what criteria?" For instance, how should we categorize a person with a Serbian father and an...


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