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Ganado man visits mother country for first time (Video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Nov. 20, 2012 at 5:20 a.m.
Updated Nov. 21, 2012 at 5:21 a.m.

James Cantu, left, and Alvin Svoboda talk about their recent trip to the Czech Republic from inside of the Ganado Theatre. Cantu has been trying to convince Svoboda to take the trip for years and it wasn't until a Czech acquaintance took up the cause that he finally went abroad to the land of his ancestry.

James Cantu, left, and Alvin Svoboda talk about their recent trip to the Czech Republic from inside of the Ganado Theatre. Cantu has been trying to convince Svoboda to take the trip for years and it wasn't until a Czech acquaintance took up the cause that he finally went abroad to the land of his ancestry.   Angeli Wright for The Victoria Advocate

When Alvin Svoboda was growing up in Ganado, Czech traditions and heritage thrived throughout the community.

Sitting inside his historic Ganado Theatre, the same theater where he's worked for more than 50 years, Svoboda recalled the dominance of Slavic culture around town.

"We grew up speaking Czech. Mom and Dad were fluent in English, but I couldn't speak English until I was 7 years old," said Svoboda, 74. "Here in Ganado, about 30 percent of the population spoke Czech and some of the old-timers didn't speak English at all."

Svoboda never lost his Czech roots. He still lives in the same home on South Third Street where he grew up learning about homemade wine and sauerkraut-making. And through the years, he's remained fluent in the language of his childhood, a language and culture that fade with every passing year.

But even though Svoboda is well-versed in his Czech roots, until last month, he'd never visited the country.

After years of believing he was too old, too crippled and too busy with the operation of his theater, Svoboda finally decided to visit his mother country.

"I always had a lifelong dream to go, but I didn't have the means. And my body now, with my leg problems and bad knees, arthritis and hip replacements, I was concerned to travel," he said.

Svoboda's friend and housemate, James Cantu, said he's been trying to convince him to visit the country for years. Each time the conversation came up, however, Svoboda changed the subject.

"It took a whole team of people to convince him to go," Cantu, 35, said. "I've been trying to talk him into going for six years."

Earlier this year, Svoboda said he was contacted by a Czech foreign exchange student who wanted to spend a few a days with him. A second visit included the student's parents, who ended up staying with Svoboda in Ganado for four days.

"When they got home, they kept calling and emailing me and inviting me to visit them. She had me on the phone for more than an hour many times," Svoboda said. "She told me they're sitting there thinking about me, and we've told everyone about you and your body is not going to hurt any less tomorrow than it does today."

A few months of convincing Svoboda in Czech to visit the Czech Republic was the nudge he needed to get on a plane.

Svoboda and Cantu purchased their tickets, shut down the Ganado Theatre and ventured across the world on a two-week excursion to Eastern Europe.

"We took the long route," Cantu said. "We went Houston to London, then to Vienna . and when they picked us up, we went straight to Radkova Lhota, and there was a party waiting for us."

For two weeks, the men trekked through the Czech Republic, meeting friends and family and participating in the Czech traditions he'd long known as a boy.

"I don't know that anything shocked me. It was fairly similar to what I grew up with," Svoboda said. "It was so beautiful. I completed a lifelong dream to go there."

Part of the trip included mingling with friends, learning to cook traditional meals and making wine from homegrown fruit trees. They also spent some time tracking down kolaches, which were curiously absent from mealtimes.

"We looked all over for kolaches, but we only found them in the market in Prague," Cantu said.

"And they're much smaller than the ones we have," Svoboda added.

The men spent many days visiting historic sites throughout the country, and Svoboda said he even had the chance to visit a Czech movie theater, called Kino.

"It was plain from the outside, but really beautiful on the inside," he said. "There were 399 seats, twice as big as ours with all stadium seating and those old curtains that open 40 feet."

Svoboda also said the projectionist had been there for more than 50 years, something he could identify with.

"The movie business there is going down. It's really not what it should be," he said. "If I had their theater in the United States, I'd have to guard it with my life because everyone would be trying to come see it."

Svoboda had no problems traveling through the country. His Czech accent was spot-on, and many people asked when he immigrated to the United States.

They were surprised he was a second-generation American.

"I spoke Czech the entire time I was there," he said. "Everyone understood me, and said I sounded like I'd lived there my whole life."

One of the more meaningful aspects of the trip was visiting Svoboda's grandfather's home, the man who left the Czech Republic at 22 years old to move to the United States.

"He never said why he wanted to come to the United States . but they heard about the opportunity here," Svoboda said. "It was exciting to see his home and think about how he'd been born there."

Now that Svoboda and Cantu have returned to Ganado, the pair continues to discuss the trip.

The families they stayed with in Czech Republic plan to visit Svoboda again in the United States, but he hopes one day he'll be able to return.

"I'd like to go back there, but I don't think I'll ever make it again," he said, wiping tears from his eyes. "If I didn't have the theater and all my friends and ties here, I'd move there and never come back to America."



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