Yvette Kaiser Smith (born Iveta Kaiserová), 1958
Yvette Kaiser Smith was born in Prague in 1958. Her father Karel worked in theatre, and her mother Vlasta was a secretary. Yvette’s sister, Miroslava, was older by 18 months. Yvette recalls having ‘total freedom’ as a child in Prague, walking the city streets alone and taking the tram to extracurricular activities and doctor’s appointments. She participated in what she calls ‘typical’ after-school activities such as swimming and theatre. In January 1968, Yvette’s father traveled to the United States for work; although his visa was valid until 1969, he returned for a brief period following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 and made the decision for his family to join him in the United States. He then returned to the United States and Yvette’s mother went about securing passports for the family. In late December 1968, Yvette, her mother and sister left Czechoslovakia for England, where they stayed with a relative. After one month in England, Yvette’s father sent the family money for plane tickets, and they flew to Dallas, Texas.
The Kaisers lived in an apartment in the Highland Park area of Dallas. Yvette’s father worked in construction and her mother found employment as a maid. She began school in March 1969 without knowing how to speak English. Yvette says she learned quickly, thanks to help from her classmates and teachers. She says that although the family spoke Czech at home and her parents kept a Czech household, once she became fluent in English she ‘became American overnight.’ In 1990, she earned a degree in fine arts from Southern Methodist University and married her husband Tim. They moved to Chicago in 1991 and she enrolled in a masters program at the University of Chicago. After receiving her MFA, Yvette began her career as an artist. Although she started out as a sculptor, Yvette says that her first trip back to Prague in 1998 changed her direction as an artist and she now crochets fiberglass. In 1999, Yvette’s parents moved back to Prague to live and she often went to visit them. She says that she has retained a few Czech traditions at home, mainly celebrating Christmas on December 24 and making traditional foods on other holidays. Today, Yvette lives in Chicago with her husband and father.
Yvette reflects on her childhood in Prague
“I love my mom and I have no complaints about my upbringing, but I think we were just, like, running wild. I remember running around the city when I was really young. Getting on the tram unattended. Going downtown, running around. It’s not like here where you’re worried about what’s going to happen to your children. We’d walk to the doctor on your own. That’s what I remember. It’s a strange thing to say, but I remember total freedom as a kid.”
On January 25, 1969, Yvette arrived in Dallas with her mother and sister
“We landed at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. I remember that very clearly. Karel made some friends, they picked us up, we drove down Lemmon Avenue, went through my first drive-thru, I had my first hamburger and a Dr. Pepper. I still love Dr. Pepper; the smell has a very specific smell. Because Dallas has the plant where they make Dr. Pepper and, to me, it’s just a feel-good thing. Good drive-thru hamburger – Princess burgers – and a Dr. Pepper. That was my first American joy.”
Yvette says she learned English fairly quickly
“I had no English; I started school. Every hour, the teacher took the smartest kid in the class, and that student and I went to the back of the room or in the hallway, used flashcards and first-grade readers and I can tell you this – this is what I remember, I could be exaggerating – but I remember at the end of that school year, what is that? Maybe two months? Two and a half months? I understood and was able to speak probably 90-95% of what I know now. My English was perfect, very heavy accent.”
Karel and Vlasta, Yvette’s parents, moved to Prague in 1999 after retiring
“If they would have stayed in America, they would have had to work their crap jobs until they died. They were sort of bound to the mortgage; bound to paying for life. Really, their American success story is us, is me. That I have choices. That I can get away with being an artist and not having a ‘real job.’ That I was able to realize who I am. That’s their American dream. I think they didn’t benefit from it they way I clearly did.”
Yvette discusses her place as a Czech-American
“You know, it’s a funny thing. When I go back there [to Prague], I’m a foreigner. Living here, I’ve been here most of my life, but I’m realizing I don’t actually fit. I’m more of a Czech-American than American. When I go back to Prague, I’m a total foreigner. They don’t recognize me as a Czech person, so it’s funny.”
Yvette’s first return trip to Prague had an impact on her identity and her art
“When my mom and I went back for three weeks, it was like this emotional roller coaster. When you walk through big streets and little streets and all these places, the park where you grew up. I was like a really dried up sponge and all the sudden I was soaked in water and I just, it was like a wafer that expanded. I was so emotional back then, I couldn’t even tell you. It was crazy. It’s like I was asleep and I woke up. And I can’t even define it. It was like in a big stroke way, not in little details. Literally, that’s the image I get. I was like a little wafer and I just puffed up. That’s the big thing. If you have to sort of identify the Czech-ness and the American-ness, that’s when the Czech-ness sort of woke up. And I thought ‘Oh! Hello.’ Part of it was, it’s that time, there’s like there’s this big, dead, blind gap between then and what was then now. There was no memory. But all of the sudden, going back to those streets, to the smells, to the same stores. Like Bílá labut’, it was just a department store – and it actually finally closed a few years ago – but we went there when I was a shorty. It was still there. Obviously Prague didn’t change a whole lot, but a lot of the places were still there and all of the sudden it woke up all these memories; and it was like dead silence for, what, 30 years, filled up with pictures and smells. It was crazy. So that was sort of the identity awakening.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History