Bronislava Grelova Gres
Bronislava Gres (born Bronislava Grelová), 1970
Bronislava (Brona) Gres was born in Liptovský Mikuláš in central Slovakia and grew up in the nearby village of Liptovské Sliače. She and her twin sister, Zuzana, lived with their mother, Anna Vesela, and their grandparents. Brona says that some aspects of her childhood were ‘tough,’ as her uncle had immigrated to the United States and her family attended church, which led to some unfair treatment at school. In 1987, Brona’s mother moved to the United States and married Zdenek Vesely, an American citizen. Although the plan was for the girls to follow shortly after, it took well over one year for Brona and Zuzana to be allowed to leave the country. Brona says that, although they had no trouble receiving visas, their passports were confiscated for awhile. They arrived in the United States in October 1988 and settled in with their mother and stepfather, who now had their younger sister, Margret, in Aurora, Illinois.
Brona says that the first few months in the United States were difficult as she was not comfortable with the English language. Brona and Zuzana received English lessons from a tutor who also helped them enroll in the local high school. In January 1989, they started as juniors in the ESL program, and the following year took regular classes as seniors and graduated.
Brona married a fellow Slovak émigré and had two children. She and her husband spoke Slovak to their children, and she regularly cooked Slovak food and kept traditional Slovak customs during the holidays. Although an American citizen, Brona says that she felt like a ‘Slovak living in America’ and she returned to Slovakia every year with her family for visits. She was closely involved in the Czechoslovak community in the Chicago area and attended get-togethers. She lived with her family in Darien, Illinois, until her death in 2014.
Brona talks about growing up in Slovakia in the 1970s
“Grade school was kind of tough. It was communism, and we went to church so it was frowned upon. My uncle emigrated in 1968 and then my mom went to church, so since those two elements we had against us, it was really tough. The teachers were really tough on us, so instead of giving us a break, let’s say, because we had no father they were tougher on us, and therefore we had worse grades than other children.”
Shortly after arriving in the United States, Brona and Zuzana began learning English
“We got a tutor. Her name was Raida. She was from Cuba, and she was from a communist country. So the city of Aurora got us a free tutor, and twice a week she came to our house or we went to the library or we went to her house and she was trying to teach us by books, by pictures – pointing and telling us ‘These are scissors; this is a camera; this is a computer.’ That’s how we started communicating, and I think it went on for about six months. She went to the mayor of Aurora and she basically got us into Waubonsie Valley High School. Because they said that we are already 18 and they cannot take us in, but she went and talked to the mayor of Aurora and the mayor of Aurora called the high school and he said ‘You have to take them.’ So they took us and we were juniors. So we went there and we got ESL teachers. For the first six months we were in a bunch of ESL classes, and then senior year we joined regular, normal history, math, English, geography – whatever classes we had to take in order to graduate, because our education back home was only three years. So they figured out how many classes we need, how many more credits we needed. So they told us what kind of classes we needed to take in order to graduate in the United States.”
Brona recalls her first impressions of the West
“First thing I remember when we arrived in Switzerland: the airport was like ‘Wow!’ We saw bananas; we saw oranges; we saw all this under-the-table material that was in Slovakia and we were really, really shocked. And this was little boutiques only. And then we came here and we went to, let’s say, Kmart or Walmart or something like that. So to us it was like this super-duper shopping mall. My mom never went to the shopping mall; she went to these local stores only, so to us it was like, ‘Wow.’ Coming from a communist country to Kmart, it was like luxury. Like Gucci or something like that at the time. So that’s what I remember.”
Keeping her Slovak heritage alive is important to Brona
“We go to all these picnics and everything, and at home we do Christmas traditions, Easter traditions. We have pictures of Slovakia, we listen to Czechoslovakian radio all the time. We, at home, only speak Slovak to my children – my husband is Slovak so we only speak Slovak at home. I cook Slovak food. We try to live like we used to live at home, but in America.”
Brona talks about the dynamic of the Czechoslovak community in Chicago
“When you go to the Czech Republic or Slovak Republic, there is more hatred between each other. Prague people will say ‘Oh, we don’t like Slovaks,’ or Slovak people will say ‘I don’t like Czechs.’ But here I never hear anybody say that we don’t like each other. Here we are like one big community, and it’s like a brotherhood over here. If you go back home, I noticed that over there they distance themselves. They try to be… ‘We are Slovaks.’ They try to be really proud Slovaks or really proud Czechs. Here we try to help each other and over there they try to be individuals more.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History