It’s hard to believe it’s been 35 years since that night that would help me define my future path in my life. Yes… it may sound a bit superficial to most, but read on, please.
It was Academy Awards night in 1988.
I was in college. Like many 20 year olds, I was rebelling against everything my parents wanted me to do… Church, Greek stuff, speaking Greek… anything and everything they pushed me into, I pulled farther away.
At the time, I was doing volunteer work for Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign. I was hanging door-hangers on suburban homes with Dukakis’ name and electoral message on them. I was also spending a few hours every week in the campaign office doing everything from stuffing envelopes to manning the phone desk.
I remember watching the Oscars that night and seeing a woman with a familiar Greek last name win the Best Supporting Actress award. It was Olympia Dukakis and she won for Moonstruck, a film I hadn’t seen but was intrigued by the same last name as the guy who was running for President.
As she accepted her award, at the end, she raised her statuette high up in the air and channeled her first cousin, Michael.
I didn’t know Olympia Dukakis then. Eventually I would meet her and we would become close friends. I told her the story over and over again how she helped me understand that night who I was, and more importantly, where I came from.
It was that night that I realized what the American Dream was and that I was the heir to this legacy, through my grandfather, Michael Papadomanolakis who first emigrated here in the late 1800s, to my parents, Chris and Joann, who came from Crete in the 1940s and 1960s, respectively.
But watching Olympia Dukakis’ shout out to her cousin Michael was more than that.
Think of it. On that night, Olympia stood on that stage, with 2 billion people watching worldwide and had just won one of the most prestigious and coveted awards in the world. And at that very moment in time, and in our history as a community of children and grandchildren of immigrants, she shouted out to her first cousin, Michael, who was running for President of the United States of America.
Two first cousins whose parents had emigrated from Greece, each on top of the world. Two children of Greek immigrants– and two of the most successful and recognizable people in the world.
For me, that was a defining moment as a Greek American and it convinced me to take “the Greek road.” It helped me realize that “all that Greek shit” that my parents were forcing down my throat really meant something.
That night would help me chart my path in life to never forget those ideals that my parents fought hard to instill in me and to carry my Greek heritage like a badge of honor. It would also help me never forget that I was the son of immigrants and I had to honor that legacy constantly.
Years later, I would eventually understand all of this even more cohesively and not consider my Greekness as something independent or separate from my American upbringing and identity.
It was Melina Kanakaredes, another Hollywood actress and dear friend who said so eloquently at an event I organized in Chicago that our Greek ideals and our Greekness actually make us BETTER Americans. Her words were so true and helped me realize that being Greek in America– that is, espousing our heritage, ideals– actually doesn’t only make us better Greeks. It makes us better Americans.
Here’s the video of Olympia Dukakis’ acceptance speech. Watch it until the end.
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