Igor Mikolaska (born Igor Mikoláška), 1978
Igor Mikolaska was born in Trenčín, western Slovakia in 1978 and grew up nearby in Nové Mesto nad Váhom. His father, also named Igor, worked for a company that made air conditioners until the business was privatized following the fall of communism. He now works for an insurance company. Igor’s mother, Helena, worked as a government lawyer specializing in land disputes. Igor attended elementary school and technical high school in Nové Mesto nad Váhom, where he studied English for four years. He played competitive volleyball with the national junior team and traveled throughout Slovakia for tournaments.
Although he considered playing volleyball professionally, Igor decided to study English at university in Trenčín and says that six months of intensive study greatly improved his language skills. In 1999, Igor traveled to the United States for the first time to work at a summer day camp in Fox Lake, Illinois. He settled in Chicago permanently in 2004. Igor received a bachelor’s degree in management and a master’s degree in human resources, both from Roosevelt University. While studying, he met fellow Slovaks and saw there was a need for an organization to promote activities for young Slovak émigrés. He founded Slovak USA, an organization which has put on concerts, film festivals, holiday parties, folk festivals, and other activities. Igor says that he now has to turn down some of the artists approaching him, due to the number of interested groups. He has plans to open a Slovak and Czech cultural center in Chicago. Additionally, Igor works a reporter for Slovak newspaper Pravdacovering the Chicago Blackhawks.
Igor says that he was proud to receive his American citizenship in 2008, as he feels at home in the U.S. and is happy to contribute to American society. He frequently travels back to Slovakia, both to visit friends and family and to scout talent for events. He lives in Chicago.
A few things changed for Igor following the fall of communism in 1989
“I was ten at the time, and all I remember is basically I got to the school and I greet the teacher the same way –čest’ práci [hello; literally ‘honor to work’] – and she said ‘No more of this stuff. Now just say ‘Good day.’ I was like ‘Okay,’ but it still took me a month until I basically switched.”
Did any of your classes change? Did any of your textbooks change?
“The only thing that changed was the requirement to learn Russian. Suddenly we are able to learn German, so the first minute I learned that, I dropped Russian language – which I only studied for one year anyway – and I studied German for three years.”
Igor explains his reasons for founding an organization for young Slovaks in Chicago
“So basically when I was finishing my MBA studies, I met a few Slovaks, and there was nothing – I felt – there was nothing to do for young people. So I decided, ‘Well, why don’t I just create something,’ and that’s what I did. I created an organization called Slovak USA and we have this website www.slovakchicago.org and what we do is mainly focus on the cultural and educational activities that connect and unite the Slovak community around Chicago. Once you leave your home country, you miss certain aspects of it, so it was really great to meet other Slovaks and Czechs and share the same interests. We have the same problems and we can connect and help each other.”
Identity can be a struggle for Igor
“Once you grow up somewhere else and you basically go live somewhere else, I think you’ll be kind of living on both sides of the fence for the rest of your life, so it’s kind of difficult to decide where to jump. Sometimes I feel I am home only when I am on the airplane or the ocean; that way I am nowhere.”
Igor discusses the relationship between Czechs and Slovaks in Chicago
“Just recently we [Slovak USA] started to cooperate with the Czech Consulate in Chicago, and we help each other with advertising for concerts, which is very helpful. Trying to bring more the Czech-Slovak community together, especially for the events because I don’t really think we are that much different, especially here in Chicago. Maybe people in Slovakia and Czech Republic think so, but I think here we are very close and united. It’s a similar language, similar habits. Maybe I think we are different when we live back there in Europe, but we come here and we see we are pretty much the same; and that probably includes the Polish people.”
Which is maybe different from previous generations.
“Oh absolutely. They’re very nationalistic, so they actually wanted to work only within their community and I think that’s changing right now.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History