Chicago’s Bulgarian Community Begins to Extend Its Roots

December 2nd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Text by Joe Linstroth

Photography & Narration by Evan Martin

Audio collected by Joe Linstroth


**Click arrows in bottom-right corner for full-screen viewing and captions


CHICAGO — When Father Gruio Tzonkov first arrived in Chicago in 1990 to take over as pastor of St. Sophia, he discovered that the city’s sole Bulgarian Orthodox church was nothing more than a converted two-flat on the city’s Northwest side.  The residential building was a stark contrast to the cavernous, Byzantine-style temple he left behind in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city.  There were only a few thousand Bulgarians living in Chicago then, most having been granted political asylum after fleeing the repressive Communist regime of longtime dictator Todor Zhivkov. 

For nearly two decades, the humble church on North Lawndale was one of the few places in the city where Bulgarian expatriates could speak their native language and share a traditional meal.

A lot has changed in 20 years.  Today, Chicago is home to the largest Bulgarian immigrant population in the world.  The Consulate General of the Republic of Bulgaria estimates there are close to 100,000 Bulgarian immigrants living in the metropolitan area, with a vast majority having arrived in the last 15 years.  Bulgarians build Chicago’s homes and offices.  Their 18-wheelers traverse the country, hauling goods and helping to sustain Chicago’s long tradition as a transportation hub.  They are also making inroads in the city’s art scene and professional ranks.

The Bulgarians’ story is now entering the second act of the classic American immigrant tale: first-generation immigrants, after the tough, lonely years of finding jobs and homes, are now reflecting on their new identity and looking to retain and reinforce the bonds of language and tradition in their new homeland, even as their children and grandchildren become more and more American.  It is also the moment when their strength in numbers begins to alter the American culture around them, if ever so slightly. 

While there is not one neighborhood that can be called “Little Bulgaria,” the community’s presence is the strongest in the northwest suburbs.  Bulgarians flock to the Mladost Grocery and Deli in Schiller Park for conversation and the tastes of home, from seasoned meatballs and wafer candy bars to sour Bulgarian yogurt and cirene (pronounced SEE-reh-neh), a saltier, creamier version of feta cheese.   On Saturdays, youthful energy fills the drab classrooms at DePaul University’s O’Hare campus where 120 children — the community’s second generation — learn Bulgarian language, history and folk dancing. On weekend nights, the packed dining room at Mehanata Restaurant in Des Plaines pulsates with techno beats and the staccato notes of a synthesized clarinet that gives Bulgarian pop music a dash of Middle Eastern flare.

Two miles from Mehanata, St. Sophia’s whitewashed, million-dollar complex illustrates just how far Chicago’s Bulgarians have come in 20 short years. The church, opened in 2003, gleams amid warehouses, power lines and rows of townhouses. 

“This church is a symbol for the Bulgarian community and they want it to be the best,” Tzonkov said.

In addition to the airy, vaulted chapel, there is a large hall with a commercial kitchen and a bar, uniting the community’s social life with a religious tradition that took a pounding in Bulgaria during nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule and another 40 years of communism.

“When I came here, religion was forbidden in Bulgaria, especially on Easter and Christmas.  Police and teachers would stand in front of the church and write down the names of the people who attended,” he recalled.  “People were afraid.” 

Green Card Lottery Fuels Growth

The Bulgarian population in Chicago began to steadily increase after 1989, when Zhivkov’s communist regime fell victim to the wave of political changes sweeping across Eastern Europe.  With political asylum no longer necessary, many more found a new way to legally immigrate here:  the green card lottery. 

Since the mid-1990s, Bulgarians have been eligible for the State Department’s green card lottery program, which awards 50,000 visas annually to citizens of countries with low immigration rates to the United States.  Bulgaria’s Consul General in Chicago, Ivan Sotirov, said the number varies from year to year but estimated that last year approximately 1,000 people came to Chicago through the program. 

The lottery has not only fueled the growth of Chicago’s Bulgarian community in recent years but also altered its dynamics, transforming a small cluster of asylum seekers into a bustling community of immigrants drawn by dreams of well-paying jobs, a better education and the comforts of American life.

The green card lottery is still popular in the small Balkan nation, which is roughly the size of Virginia and has a population of 7.6 million, even though Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007.  It seems that, despite enhanced mobility within the European continent, many Bulgarians still prefer to immigrate to the United States, and Chicago is often their first choice. 

Old Ways and Familiar Challenges

The community’s growth has brought with it a host of new challenges, such as the tug-of-war between the ways of the old country and those of the Bulgarians’ new home. 

For years, Bulgaria has suffered from rampant corruption.  Last April, the European Parliament demanded a report on the country’s management of EU funds, citing concerns over judicial standards and organized crime. 

This shadowy history, many said, has embedded a lack of trust into the culture’s social fabric, and such wariness has posed a significant challenge to forming a stronger community in Chicago.

“Bulgarians are well-known for their individualism,” said Vassilen Vasevski, a Chicago artist who helped found the Bulgarian Artists Abroad in 2007.  “We have problems working together. This is a Bulgarian trait.” 

Tzvetelina Boynovska, an immigration attorney and president of the Bulgarian American Association, founded here in 2002, agreed.  “In many cases, [Bulgarians] do not understand that if they work together, they may achieve much more than one-by-one.  So organizing things collectively is difficult, very difficult,” she said.

Several also spoke of an identity crisis, one that emerges, to some degree, in every immigrant who feels caught between two homelands, yet belonging to neither — when broken English elicits glares at the checkout line and an American address draws the jealous ire of friends and family left behind. 

“You will remain an immigrant in your soul forever … I enjoy America, I love America, but I know that I won’t be accepted as one of the true Americans here,” said Vasevski, who was 29 when he came to the U.S. ten years ago.  An easel holds an unfinished canvas in the middle of the dining room of his Chicago apartment, and old soup cans stuffed with paintbrushes line the shelf behind it.  His oil paintings adorn the walls, their colors confident but not bold, and the delicate lines of a woman’s face reveal an artist’s sensitivity. 

“And when I go back to Bulgaria, there is a huge distance between me and my relatives and old friends,” he said.  “Everyone imagines that we are extremely rich people here in America and think we are lying when we try to give the actual picture.” 

With jobs in construction and truck driving the most common among Chicago’s Bulgarians, most are hardly rich.  Vasevski works two jobs teaching art at Harold Washington College and the Illinois Institute of Art.

As the Bulgarians’ story progresses, however, the conflicting identities will most likely work themselves out naturally in the younger generations.  They will blend personalities and memories cultivated in America with Bulgarian ancestry to form a distinctly new identity.

“I wouldn’t say it is a Bulgarian community because we’re living in the United States and our homeland is actually here,” said Father Tzonkov.  “My grandson was born here, is he Bulgarian or American?  He is an American who is from Bulgarian roots. He has habits like an American boy.”

The challenge for the first generation is to ensure that the youth, who adapt more fluidly to new environments, remain connected to their heritage. 

The First Heirloom is Education

At noon on a rainy Saturday in April, the two-story building that makes up DePaul’s O’Hare campus in Des Plaines comes alive with laughter and the thumping of feet.  In six classrooms, colorful maps of Bulgaria, the cities written in their native Cyrillic alphabet, are taped to the walls.  The students, ages 6-15, are anxious for their morning classes at the John Atanasoff School to let out.  Parents wait in the lobby, scattered on sofas and conversing in Bulgarian.  Others are pulling into the parking lot and unloading their children for the afternoon session.  

Verginiya and Miroslav Mladenov wait quietly in a corner for their oldest daughter, Gergana, 15, to finish.  Their other daughter, Kamelya, 9, has been let out early and is draped sideways over a chair next to them, her legs dangling as she pounds away on a handheld video game.  The Mladenovs came to Chicago through the green card lottery five years ago from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, and now live in Skokie. 

“We think our daughters need to know the Bulgarian language,” said Verginiya.  Kamelya flatly disagrees with her mother. For her, an extra day of any sort of school seems objectionable.

Like most of the school’s students, Kamelya and Gergana will live with relatives in Bulgaria for the summer.  These summer excursions serve a duel purpose: one practical, the other cultural.  Many families cannot afford to have a parent stay home for summer break, and extended family in Bulgaria can provide daycare as well as exposure to the language and customs. 

The school’s atmosphere appears to contradict the prevailing sentiment among Chicago’s Bulgarians that they are difficult to organize.  Nine teachers, all with full-time jobs, devote their Saturdays to passing on Bulgaria’s history and language to the second generation.  Not an easy task when most of the children, after putting their heads down and pencils up for a sixth straight day, would rather be playing with friends.  

“Our school is a different example,” said Boyanka Ivanova, the school’s principal.  “We work as a team.”

Named after the American inventor of the digital computer, whose father emigrated from Bulgaria at the turn of the century, the John Atanasoff School is one of four in the metropolitan area that is certified by the Bulgarian Ministry of Education to teach Bulgarian language, geography and history.  The school began in 2002 with 18 students, Ivanova said, and this year the enrollment is 120.   To accommodate the growth, the school moved here last year from St. Sophia.  Parents pay $60 per month, a fee that has remained the same since the school opened. 

The school has also recently received support from the Bulgarian government.  This year the Ministry of Education sent them books, notebooks and other materials.  Next year, it will help pay for rent and teachers’ salaries.

The Time is Now

This support, along with a permanent consulate office that opened in 2005, is part of the beginning of an official relationship between Chicago and the Bulgarian government.   Mayor Richard Daley this year proclaimed March 3rd to be Bulgarian Day in the city.  And last February, Sofia Mayor Boiko Borissov, who was recently elected prime minister, met with Mayor Daley to begin talks on becoming sister cities.  It is a long process, said Sotirov, but the formal relationship will go a long way toward strengthening cultural and economic ties between Chicago and Bulgaria.  

A more informal economic relationship, however, has already begun.  Chicago’s Bulgarians contribute significantly to the country’s struggling economy.  While the exact amount is impossible to calculate, Sotirov said that the community is responsible for a significant portion of the $1 billion in remittances that flowed into  Bulgaria last year.  

A glance at any one of their four local newspapers reveals that the community as a whole is flourishing.  Ads for restaurants, mortgage brokers, insurance agents, doctors, lawyers and churches are splattered across the pages. 

At a time when many mainstream American newspapers are on life support due to waning sponsorship, Svetlozar Momtchilov, editor and publisher of Bulgaria Now, said his weekly newspaper would soon expand from 64 pages to 72. 

Last May in Chicago, the Bulgarian American Association hosted a retrospective on 20 years of immigration to the United States.  Next month, Vasevski’s work, along with pieces from other Bulgarian American artists, will be featured in the main lobby of the Daley Center.

With momentum building, many said they look forward to the day when Bulgarian American folk dancers can tap and slide their feet across the floor of their own cultural center — where modern Bulgarian American art can be displayed next to ancient Thracian artifacts.  But it will take patience, which they have because most of the Bulgarians here are not going anywhere.

“We start with one brick and add another,” said Kina Bagovska, an artist and journalist.  “We have built a base here.  Now I think it’s easier because Bulgarians see what is happening, and we have proof that we can do this together like others.  We’ve seen what other ethnic groups in Chicago are doing, but they’re older than us.” 

“I think that it takes time,” said General Consul Sotirov.  “It’s a new community.  I would say that Bulgarian immigrants who’ve come here, they work and live for their children.  So the second generation will be stronger and more efficient.”

Meanwhile, the area’s growing number of Bulgarian restaurants, schools and churches will continue to unite the young community. 

Father Tzonkov, sitting in St. Sophia’s chapel surrounded by two-story windows and dozens of hand-painted icons, expressed hope.  While most Orthodox Christian churches in Bulgaria are somber, windowless places, natural light filled the Des Plaines church despite a steady downpour.  A knowing grin emerged from beneath the 55-year old priest’s white beard. 

“The future looks very bright for the whole Bulgarian community,” he said.

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