Alex Vesely (born Aleš Veselý), 1966
Alex Vesely was born in Příbram, central Bohemia in 1966. His father was a foreman in a mine and his mother worked an office job. He remembers having a happy childhood, with his grandparents visiting often and spending vacations in a houseboat on the Vltava River. Alex and his brother and sister grew up in an apartment in town, but later moved to a house that his father had built a few miles away in the country. He attended trade school where he studied electronics, but left for the United States before finishing his studies.
In 1983, Alex’s mother decided to emigrate with her children and second husband. They escaped while on vacation in Yugoslavia and stayed in a refugee camp in Belgrade for several months before flying to the United States. Alex’s family arrived in Chicago in November 1983, having chosen that city because their sponsors, Alex’s stepfather’s parents, lived there. They were met at the airport by Judy Baar Topinka, a local politician of Czech and Slovak heritage, and settled in Riverside, Illinois. Alex completed his schooling in Chicago, where he took English classes; his new friends also helped him to master the language. He returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time at the end of 1989 – right after the fall of communism. Alex says at this time, the country was in a state of confusion and transition because the situation was still ‘very fresh.’
Alex has been a waiter at Klas, a traditional Czech restaurant in Cicero, Illinois, and also worked a series of technical jobs in heating and cooling. He currently works in construction and, as a sculptor, has participated in some art shows with other Czech and Slovak artists. His pieces are sculpted from materials such as wood, granite, and fiber optics. Alex says he tries to visit the Czech Republic at least once a year, where his daughter lives. He currently lives in Chicago.
Alex’s father worked as a foreman in a mine, and Alex heard about the life of a miner
“I guess it was a hard job, but as a foreman, not as hard as the ones that were doing the physical labor. Uranium is a very bad material, so a lot of those guys would get cancer really young. They would make good money. Those dudes, I remember them. They would make so much money, they would make a lot more than some doctors and stuff, but they would die young and they would spend it out, just partying, drinking. I remember that.”
Alex’s family stayed in a refugee camp in Belgrade before arriving in the U.S.
“There were a lot of Czechs, a lot of Slovaks, a lot of Romanians. The camp wasn’t too bad. We were one of the luckier ones – we had a small cottage. They even had hot showers there. A lot of other people weren’t as lucky. They slept in a tent and had to use public showers which they had there. The food was horrible, I mean horrible. They would make chicken and cabbage every day. I love chicken, but after the camp I couldn’t eat it for a couple years; I couldn’t eat chicken for a few years. I had a good time. I would go to the flea market over there, sell whatever I could sell to get my own spending money. You know, when you’re 17 you need some money.”
Alex considered returning to Czechoslovakia shortly after arriving in the United States
“Back then, yeah I did think about it, but it was different. I was thinking, if I go back now, what’s going to happen to me? I didn’t see anything good happening to me if I would do that. My father wanted me to do that, because he missed me. He missed us all, must have been very hard for him. But I was thinking, if I go back over there, I’d be doomed. I’d be lucky if I got to finish school, the trade school, and then it would just be bad all around. Plus, I would have to go into the army. I would have a scar on my record already, I think it would be pretty difficult. But I did think about it, yes. I did miss my country and my friends.”
In December 1989, Alex returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time
“My first trip [back] to Czechoslovakia was in 1989 and I stayed there for New Years in 1990, so it was very fresh what just happened there. And I still had to go through that stuff. I had to register at the police station, I had to exchange a certain amount of money every day as an American tourist. Although it wasn’t communist any more, it was still the old rules over there. There was a lot of confusion there I guess. What I remember though, with a few dollars in my pocket I was like a king over there. It’s not like that anymore, but you could get a lot back then. It was amazing, it was really was. You could treat like 10 people for 20 dollars. They all got fed and they could drink, and it would cost you nothing.”
Alex reflects on the changes Cicero, IL has gone through
“The whole neighborhood changed. It used to be all Czech over here. I remember we’d drive down Cermak Avenue and there would be Czech butcher shops, a bakery, other restaurants, Czech bars, even Polish places. And now you drive down Cermak Avenue and pretty much it’s all Spanish. This [Klas Czech Restaurant] is the last Mohican on Cermak Road. I love this place, it’s very unique.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History