Hunky Culture

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Hunky is an ethnic slur used in the United States to refer to a laborer from Central Europe. It originated in the coal regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where Poles and other immigrants from Central Europe (Hungarians (Magyar), Rusyns, Slovaks) came to perform hard manual labor on the mines. They were called "hunkies" by the American public, which lumped them together into a category of Slavic immigrants, irrespective of their individual ethnic background. The use of the term as an ethnic slur has fallen into disuse,[1] but the term hunky and the public image associated with it has historic relevance in the perception of Slavic immigrants in the United States. There is some usage of the term in other forms; for example, it is used to describe any mill worker in regions of Pennsylvania, as part of the term Mill Hunky.[2]


The terms Hunky and Bohunk can be applied to various Slavic and Hungarian immigrants who moved to America from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The immigrants came en masse prior to the turn of the twentieth century (starting around 1880) seeking opportunity and religious freedom[citiation needed]. The Hunkies' image was a departure from Hungarian prestige that peaked around Lajos Kossuth's visit in 1851-1852, aka Triumphal Tour.[3]

The overwhelming majority of these economic immigrants (initially 85%, later 65%) consisted of young working age men. Originally they planned to spend only a few years in America, and then return to Hungary with enough capital to transform themselves into independent farmers or self-employed artisans. This was precisely the reason why, instead of moving into agriculture in line with their traditions, they went to work in the coal mines and steel mills. Only in heavy industry did they have a chance to collect enough money to be able to fulfill their goals back in the Old Country.[4]

Three Rivers Arts Festival controversy

In 1990 artist Luis Jimenez titled a work the "Hunky Steelworker" from reading about the phrase being used in Western Pennsylvania and it was chosen to be among the hallmarks of that years Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh. Following protests that were even joined by local politicians calling out the work for stereotyping Hunky culture Jiminez gave his blessing to have the "Hunky" sandblasted off the sculpture and renamed simply "Steel Worker".[5]


The Poles and other Slavic immigrants settled in highly industrial areas and shaped the culture of certain towns and cities. Native residents referred to them as hunkies, and in areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, Slavic-Americans self-identify with the term without offense. There is a Labor Day festival in the city of Toronto, Ohio known as the "Hunky Fest". Ethnic food, prizes, and games are played during this festival.

In the summer of 1990 at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Arts Festival a 15 foot tall exterior sculpture entitled "Hunky Steelworker" caused outrage among ethnic central Europeans.[6][7][8][9]

Hunky Blues - The American Dream. 100min. a film by Peter Forgács, 2009. premiere at MOMA, NY, and National Gallery Washington DC. 2009.[10]

Péter Forgács the renowned Hungarian filmmaker composed a poetic documentary exploring the fate of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian men and women who immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1921. To tell their sagas Forgács weaved this grand epic from the early American cinema, found footage, photographs and interviews. The film reveals the difficult moments of arrival, integration and assimilation, which eventually fed the happiness of the later generations and their fulfillment of the American dream.


  1. CoalSpeak: Dictionary of the Coal Region
  2. Hunky: The Immigrant Experience
  3. [Steven] Bela Vardy, "Kossuth amerikai 'diadalutja' 1851-1852-ben" [Kossuth's 'Triumphal Tour" of America, 1851-1852], in Debreceni Szemle [Debrecen Review], New Series, vol. 6, no. 3 (1998), pp. 331-339; and Steven Bela Vardy, "Louis Kossuth's Words in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address," in Eurasian Studies Yearbook, vol. 71 (1999), pp. 27-32.
  4. Vardy, Steven Bela East European Quarterly; Fall 2001, Vol. 35 Issue 3, p309, 34p
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