By Vicki J. Yiannias
It has always been appropriate to honor the pioneering generation of Greeks who emigrated to America between 1900-1924, but to do so at this time in Greek-American history “can sometimes guide us on what works and what does not work well in the American context”, says art and cultural critic, Dan Georgakas, author of the book My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and America in Motor City, new from PELLA Publishing Company.
In My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and America in Motor City, Georgakas told The Greek News, he uses his own family and friends to enrich the community saga, to give voice to the Greeks of Detroit and other Greeks like them who grew up in industrial America.
“The Greeks of Detroit were mainly working class and liberal; I thought the story of such communities had not been told and I wanted to give them voice. The majority of Greeks from 1900 to WW II were workers. Their major occupations were railroads, woolen mills, fur workers, auto workers, steel workers, cigarette makers, and miners. We also know that thousands of Greeks worked in the war industries of WW1.”
Mr. Georgakas was the guest speaker at the thirty-second Seminar on the Modern Greek State, held at the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave on Thursday evening, March 22. Mr. Georgakas, who is a Fellow at the Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies at Queens College talked about his new book My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and America in Motor City and was asked questions in a dialogue format by Nick Alexiou of the Sociology Department at Queens. Orestes Varvitsiotes, founder of The Hellenic Arts and Letters Institute (HALI), which co-sponsored the event, hosted the evening.
Georgakas covered much ground in a flowing, interconnected way that kept the audience interested, talking about his parentsʼ origins, which were very different from each other — Georgakasʼs father was born in a small village outside of Kyparaissia, in the Peloponnesus, and his mother was born in Smyrna (from which she escaped on the last boat that left Smyrna during the catastrophe of 1922) — and his book, which is the saga of the Greek-American community in Detroit, Michigan.
“The Greeks in Detroit did not live in a solid Greek community, but in one large ethnic community comprised of mixed families, Arabs, Italians, French, and Poles,” he explained, “…rather than fighting with each other, we were united by our status as immigrants or children of immigrants and felt “xenophilia” the ethnic groups felt toward one another. We knew we were different than the ʽAmericansʼ and viewed them with an ethnic ʽthird eyeʼ. In short, we were not totally consumed by Americanism, so were freer to pick and choose what we wanted to adopt.”
Noting that most of the pioneering generation in Detroit were New Deal Democrats, strongly supportive of unions and working in the auto industry or having jobs closely linked to the industry, Georgakas focused his attention on the daily lives of “ordinary Greeks in Detroit, not the notables”, and on Detroitʼs Greek American cultural panoply: the changing nature of Detroitʼs Greektown, wrestling, films, dating Greek girls, failing to master Greek, and related topics.
Mr. Georgakasʼs observation that Second Wave Greeks (1965-1980) were much different than the First Wave (1900-1924) generated considerable discussion. The Second Wave was urban and better educated, arriving in a USA that was friendly to Greeks rather than hostile, and with a support system of relatives to help them get going, said Gerogakas, “They have proven to be even more successful than the First Wave, who were also very successful. We also know that the survival of the community depends on Second Wave Greeks and their families who make up the greatest percentage of the one million Greeks in America.”
There was a lively discussion about the possible revival of the Greek language in America. “Today, there are 250,000 Greek speakers, but some 200,000 are immigrants. Nonetheless, there seems an upswing in people wanting to learn Greek and America was now more open to bilingual individuals,” said Georgakas.
Orestes Varvitsiotis, who told The Greek News that he enjoyed reading My Detroit so immensely that he couldnʼt put the book down until he finished it at three oʼclock in the morning and that “all day long the next day I was haunted by its ending.”
He wanted to have The Hellenic Arts and Letters Institute (HALI), co-sponsor the event, said Varvisiotis because he feels that the Greek American community does not have a tradition of supporting Greek American writers and HALI attempts to fill this gap in the community as far as possible within its budgetary constraints.”
“Dan is in the generation that broke out of the ghettos,” said Varvitsiotis, “when he was growing up there was a dynamism in the community, and Greece was becoming a touristsʼ mecca where many Greek Americans travelled to seek their roots, as well. Also, because of Danʼs background one would expect, and is offered, his insights about the larger society, the social, economic-political and cultural conditions within which our community functioned.”
* The Seminar on the Modern Greek State, which was founded in 1975, is a Program of the Queens College Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies and is co-sponsored by the CUNY Academy for the Humanities & Science. The Seminar is made possible in part by a grant from the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.