So I thought I spoke Bosnian, but apparently I don’t. At least that’s what the U.S. Census Bureau tells me.
It hasn’t been fun having my cultural identity blurred for more than two decades by outdated history books and culturally insensitive surveys.
I thought that at least the Census would be on top of this, but it’s not distinguishing among several languages and nations of former Yugoslavia. This is poor practice and hits a sensitive nerve for many people for whom language and geography are synonymous with religion and, therefore, conflict.
I have been explaining to people where I’m from since immigrating to the United States 16 years ago. I’ve been mumbling that Bosnia is above Greece, pointing to a small nation on maps that still depict Yugoslavia as a nation, and explaining that yes, we have a language and, no, it is not Russian.
I get it. Bosnia is a small country, and I don’t suspect most people my age grew up watching breaking news about genocide. Heck, neither did many adults.
And neither, it seems, did the Census.
On Election Day, I kicked off my upcoming project on the Bosnian community in Chicago by reporting on how it was reacting to the 2012 election. After digging through some census data with my editor, we came across some surprising material.
“Bosnian” is not listed as a language in the data dictionary (see page 75). I’m no nationalist and, while I don’t necessarily agree, I haven’t yet started a riot about having it lumped under Serbo-Croatian.
Wanting to get to the bottom of this, I called the Bureau myself. I spoke with a linguist and found that immigrants write in languages on the census forms themselves. Because the annual census samples a small percentage of the total population language groups with low numbers get combined with others based on the historical origins and geography.
But then why isn’t Serbia listed as a country if the language is Serbo-Croatian? (See page 98 of the data dictionary). And why is Yugoslavia still on the list 20 years after it broke up, but several other countries aren’t? The breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a series of ethnic and political wars in that 1990s, ultimately resulted in seven sovereign, independently governed nations: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia and Kosovo. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo, but we’re not Serbia, so we should probably be going with the seven countries.
It turns out Yugoslavia isn’t the only former country with this same problem on the list. Take Czechoslovakia, for instance, which broke up in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Ironically, both countries are listed individually as well. There’s also the former Soviet Union, or USSR, which dissolved in 1991.
My first thought was that the Census was maybe trying to account for people born there when the countries did exist. That way someone born in, say, 1970 Yugoslavia or USSR can legitimately say they are from these former republics. But that wasn’t the explanation I was given.
To understand how the annual census groups nations, I talked with Thomas Gryn, head of the Foreign-Born department at the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It’s based on sample size,” he said. “Kosovo, for instance, is under 10,000. But we’re planning to implement changes soon to roll Yugoslavia into ‘other Eastern Europe’ and Serbia out on its own.”
Gryn admitted it’s not a perfect system and it seems like the Census is trying to rectify the situation.
But the bottom line is, while Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia are countries — albeit language-less ones — Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Kosovo aren’t. So under what do immigrants from these nations fit and what are they all speaking? Yugoslavia and Serbo-Croatian?
That’s not just politically incorrect, it’s wrong. Like it or not, the days of Tito are long gone.
In places like the Balkans — where nationalism, religion and language are tools of political tension — misrepresentation means a lot. To begin, it leads to inaccurate statistics in an official source. Second, the ethnic and political tensions of the Balkans just aren’t conducive to a complacent attitude and misidentification.
What if you’re a Bosnian Serb and you identify with Serbia more than Bosnia? That’s just too bad, Serbia’s not on the list so you’ll have to call yourself a Bosnian or Yugoslavian, neither of which is quite right. Two decades haven’t been enough for forms and systems like these to catch up.
As for Yugoslavia, some will argue that Serbo-Croatian is the language while the others are dialectic subgroups. But linguistic controversy runs deep because of the area’s bloody history of nationalism and the languages’ ties to religion.
For instance, Bosnian has borrowed the most from Turkish, Arabic and Persian. It’s spoken by Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, as opposed to Croats and Serbs, who are generally Catholic and Greek Orthodox, respectively. People from these groups can understand each other, but the dialectic differences are sufficient for people to distinguish the ethnic background of their neighbors.
Sounds trivial? Tell that to people who suffered through a war based in religious differences.
Renewed ethnic tension has given people reason to distinguish themselves yet another way — language. It’s become synonymous with religion, so speaking one dialect versus another is like declaring yourself a Muslim, Catholic or Greek Orthodox. And people are doing it to find strength and solidarity, justified or not.
I see it every time I go back to Bosnia, where I was born. And I see it here, where thousands of former Yugoslavians came as refugees in the 1990s.
According to the 2011 Census, 45 percent of people from the given former Yugoslav countries residing in the United States immigrated in the 1990s, with the largest numbers arriving in 1997. Given that only four of seven existing Yugoslav countries are listed in the census, Bosnians make up the largest group.
Most “Census-defined” Yugoslavians went to New York, followed by Illinois, which has the most Bosnian-born immigrants in the country. Almost 10 percent of about 123,000 Bosnian-Americans are in Illinois, with other big hubs in Missouri, Florida and New York. As for those in Illinois, we’ve mostly set up in Chicago’s north side, in groups of neighborhoods like Lincoln Square and Portage Park. (Click here to see our analysis of when Bosnians came into the United States and where they settled.)
Talking to Chicago Bosnians, it’s clear memories and history of the war are still close to their hearts and minds. People still feel victimized, even abroad. They are sticking together to hold on to a culture many of them still feel is threatened, and they are sticking together to heal.
The people I interviewed for my election story spoke passionately about their origins. They’re not just Bosnians, but Bosniaks, said many Chicago Bosnians the day of the 2012 election. They themselves choose to draw the lines of their identity, which many feel deserves distinction after a war that challenged to destroy it.
So even here, in the melting pot of the world, I’ve found that language remains parallel to religion. I wonder how many more years it will take before there is a fundamental shift in that attitude — and how many before history books, maps, surveys and polls and the federal government in our new homeland catch up.
If you have any questions or comments on this, past or upcoming articles by Azra Halilovic, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome your feedback.
(Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, Investigative Database Editor at Hoy, contributed to this article.)