At the turn of the 20th century many Greeks came to the United States seeking a better life. They worked hard and wanted their children to be Greek. Today, I often ask Greek immigrants who decided to stay and raise their children in America, if it was worth it? Their responses often sound the same.
“Yes, it was worth it. I have no complaints, my kids are educated, they speak Greek, we have our home our jobs, we have money, but I worry about my grandkids. If we lived in Greece, I think it would have been better. I see my friends in Greece today and hate to say this, but I am jealous of them or rather I envy them. The families there are together, and they will always be Greek. Their kids and grandkids will never be anything else.”
This was the fear many Greeks had when they first arrived to America; that their progeny would lose a sense of what it was to be Greek, that they would not speak Greek, that they would marry someone who was not Greek and that they would lose a personal connection to Greece.
For those of us who were born and raised in a Greek American home, we felt this weight on our shoulders. We were constantly reminded how important it was to be Greek and our families went to great lengths to assure that we would be Greek.
We went to Greek school, we spoke Greek, we learned all the Greek folk dances, we attended Greek-Orthodox Church services, we traveled to Greece, we spent an infinite amount of time with Greek family, and we were vicariously paraded at family gatherings as the perfect Greek children.
Because we were so Greek, America did not feel like home to us. At the same time when we were in Greece, we did not quite fit-in there either. Greeks in Greece thought we were frozen in time, a blast from a long ago past, when the first Greeks emigrated to America.
They called us “Χαζοαμερικανάκια” and “Κουτοαμερικανάκια,” little dumb Americans. But the truth was, we loved Greece and we loved America too. As Greek Americans we felt like we were all the same. We felt our families were the same and it was easy for us to relate to one another.
But it was the Greek family, the Greek school and the Greek Orthodox Church that would play the greatest role in maintaining our Greek identity. In Greek school, the walls of our classrooms were adorned with pictures of heroes from the Greek Revolution, icons of Greek Orthodox saints, and picturesque posters of Greece.
Each year a group of students would accompany the school principal to the Greek consulate in downtown Chicago to pick up our Greek textbooks. One year I got to go with a group of my friends. I remember that we took the school bus and we all sat in the back row with the seats in front of us empty. We could only see the bus driver in the far-off distance driving the bus.
When we got to the Greek consulate, we met with the Greek Consul General. She welcomed us at the door and started to ask each us a question in Greek. She pretended to be interested in what we had to say—-when she was really interested how well we spoke Greek. After she was done talking to us, she turned to our principal and told him how impressed she was with our Greek. Afterwards she took us down the hall to a large storage room.
The room was filled with rows and rows of books from Greece. They were all new and smelled as if they had just came off the Greek press. There were books on grammar, history, science, music, archaeology, theology and literature. We took what books we needed for each grade level, and few extra copies just in case. We loaded the books in boxes and placed them onto the bus, and we were off back to our Greek school to distribute the books to our fellow students. I remember thinking on our way back that kids in Greece were reading the same books we were. I thought that was cool.
In Greek school, we learned about Greek history, about Greek Orthodox Christianity, and how to read and write in Greek. On Greek Independence Day, we wore our finely embroidered “foustanella” and “amalia” costumes and marched down Michigan Avenue as cheerful attendees waived both Greek and American flags at us.
When the Imia Incident took place, we protested outside the Turkish consulate, and when our history was being challenged, we reminded the world that there was only one Greek people, one Greek language and one Greek history.
While our Greek school was homogenous, our neighborhoods were a cosmopolitan world where disparate cultures met.
Our non-Greek friends were Irish, German, Italian, Serbian, Polish, Jewish, Korean, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Black or just American. They were surprised we went to Greek school and they did not quite understand why we had to be so Greek.
When they talked ill of our Greek heritage, or mocked our food and traditions, we did not think there was something wrong with us, we instead proudly defended who we were. We were proud to be Greek and we weren’t willing to let others make us feel bad about it.
When summer came, our bags were packed like inflated air-balloons and we were off to Greece. We visited family. Our parents let us roam the streets and village squares until the early hours of the morning.
We played with kids from Greece and we met other Greek kids from around the world. We had our first crush in Greece, our first kiss, our first boyfriend, our first girlfriend. We spent time with our Greek grandparents and great-grandparents, with aunts, uncles and cousins. They took us places and told others who we were. When we became young adults, we continued to travel to Greece.
We did the tourist thing, went clubbing, hung out on the beach, and reconnected with family and friends. At the end of our stay, many of us did not want to go back home. We thought to ourselves how great it would be to live in Greece. When we had families of our own, we took them to Greece, and we wanted our children to love Greece as much as we did.
I was four when I first visited Greece. I spent the whole summer in Greece. I forgot how to speak English when I came back. My wife picks on me today on some of my English grammar mistakes, “Close the light” I say, instead of “Shut the light.” “Sheltered Greek!” She says.
I had to straddle two cultures all my life — not quite mastering either one.
Today, the community is struggling to maintain the Greek language. Most second and third generation Greek Americans don’t speak Greek. It’s not easy to learn Greek. I personally have to work hard to maintain my Greek. But Greek is not the only defining characteristic of being Greek-American. Many of my Jewish-American friends don’t speak Hebrew, but they still fell very much connected to their Jewish heritage.
My grandparents never cared to visit the Acropolis or the other major historical places in Greece, but they felt very much connected to the land and its people.
Of all the ventures that I have seen that help young Greek Americans connect to Greece, it is the Ionian Village Program. For many young Greek Americans that attend the program, it is a transformative experience. They connect with their Greek heritage, their Greek history and the Greek Orthodox Christian faith. After attending the program they want to be Greek.
Undoubtedly, it will be difficult for future generations of Greek Americans to maintain strong personal relationships with the people from Greece. When I was a child my family hosted a dozen or so people from Greece, both family members and non-family members. I have continued my relationship with many of these people today.
I think it is important to create a robust exchange program, where students from Greece could be hosted by Greek American families and Greek American kids could be hosted by Greek families. This would help to build personal relationships that may be lifelong. Such an exchange program would further aim to make the benefits of American society available to Greece while enriching Greek American life to the art, history and culture of Greece.
Greek American schools are also important in maintaining a Greek American identity. The schools have done some good work recently in revising their curricula to meet the needs of the Greek American child today.
Less emphasis has been placed on Greek language and more emphasis on Greek culture and Greek history. Adult Greek language classes have been introduced, and many of the schools have music concerts, special speaker series and other events centered around Greece.
Many of the schools have even carved a special niche in a shrinking market of Greek American education. Some cater more to families that speak Greek in the home while others cater more to second or third generation Greek American families. I have also been told by some of the principals from these schools that the Greek economic crises (as unfortunate as it was) has increased enrollments in these schools because of new Greek immigrant arrivals to the United States.
While there are still many Greek schools, almost all of them are afternoon or weekend schools. The all-day schools that many of my generation attended are virtually gone. Moreover, by middle school most of the students at the Greek schools decide to stop attending these schools.
While many of the Greek schools have relocated to help increase their enrollments, they still struggle in attracting students. I’m not sure if all these schools will survive in the future, but I hope that they will.
There is no question that the Greek American community found education important, and in many ways more so than other immigrant groups. Greek American families went to great lengths to educate their children. At the same time, they did not want their children to do what they did for a living. They aspired that their children would do something better than themselves.
“Go to school so you do not have to work as hard as we do” was a mantra of many Greek mothers and fathers. Many Greek American children were even discouraged from going into the family business and an education was a way out from the hard work that their parents did.
The Greek Orthodox Church in the United States is also important in maintaining a Greek identity. Does one need to be Greek-Orthodox to be Greek? I struggle answering this question. It is however difficult to find someone who does not agree that Greek Orthodoxy is integral to the social and cultural life of the Greek American community.
Today, many Greek Americans have issues with the Church. Many have left the Church. The Church has also attracted new converts who are not Greek.
It is true that Greek Orthodoxy is just as much a faith as it is a Greek cultural and religious tradition. Many Greek Americans have their reasons why they have remained Greek Orthodox: for spiritual reasons, for cultural reasons, for a connection to one’s ancient Greek ancestors or because it brings about blissful memories from their childhood.
These are all fair reasons. But we should also remember that along with what Judaism is to the Jewish people, there is no other religious tradition that is more tied and more important to the cultural and spiritual life of a people as the Greek Church is to the Greek people.
I hear many second and third generation Greek Americans complain that they would prefer more English during the liturgy so they could better understand what is happening during the service. But it’s not just about the liturgy, its’ about the music, the community, and the overall experience.
A friend of mine says, “Did the early Greek immigrants understand the liturgy in the Koine Greek? Think of it this way, would an Italian opera sound and feel the same way if it were in English?”
Currently, the elephant in the room is the recent financial crisis in the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States. Saint Nicholas Cathedral and National Shrine at the World Trade Center has yet to be completed. It is to be the gateway of Greek Orthodox Christianity in the United States.
Many of us remember when Costas Simitis, the prime minister of Greece, visited New York City after the September 11 attacks. He stood side by side with the priest of Saint Nicholas Church where the church stood before it was destroyed in the attacks. Days earlier the church’s Gospel had been found by clean-up crews near the site of the church. The two men held the Gospel up high in the air to a crowd of cheering Greek Americans.
The Greek government and many other members of the community donated money for the building of the shrine. The shrine however has yet to be completed.
As there are many successes in the Greek American community there are just as many shortcomings. We have to be honest about these. Perhaps this final chapter is not the right place to go over all of them. However, after graduating from Greek school most of us went off to a public schools or Catholic schools. Those settings were foreign to us and we felt like outsiders.
The Greek American school system was largely a K-8 school system. It ended up becoming a feeder system for public highs schools and Catholic high schools. We never developed a Greek American high school system or even a secular Greek American university like a Brandeis University, created by the Jewish-American community for the purposes of supporting Jewish-American higher education.
When Dan Georgakas writes about supporting Greek American artists and intellectuals, he is talking about the future of the community. It is my generation and later generations of Greek Americans who share the responsibility of preparing future generation of Greek Americans.
We need writers, artists, and intellectuals as Dan says, as well as mentors to help prepare these future generations. How well we do in these areas will determine the true success of our community as well as how we will define ourselves in the future.
About the author
Theodore Zervas is a professor of education at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois. Zervas holds a doctorate in cultural and educational policy studies from Loyola University of Chicago.
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