New York.- By Asher Matathias
The American colonists who audaciously declared national independence and formed a democratic republic in the 18th century set in motion a chain of inspiring events that we can today, finally, ascertain and celebrate, in the new millennium, the arrival of universal popular sovereignty!
Consider the sequence of seemingly inevitable democratic breakthroughs: in 1789, the French Revolution ushered the ideals of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, followed by the Mexican and Latin American uprisings, including the heroic eight-year struggle for the latter-day rebirth of Greece, begun this day in 1821, against the multi-ethnic, but autocratic, Ottoman Empire.
Community-wide celebrations included receptions: early in the afternoon, at the Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria, branch of Commerce Bank, where school children, clad in traditional and modern dress, danced to tunes and music of Greek ancestors; in the evening, a gala gathering took place at the Greek Consulate on East 79 Street, NYC, with the ever-gracious Consul-General Catherine Bouras holding court in the building’s second-floor salons for an overflow crowd!
Sandwiched between these social affairs was the very substantive invitation issued on behalf of the Association of the Prefecture Magnisias “Argonauts,” under the aegis of the Federation of Hellenic Societies Mizonos of New York, held at the Stathakion Center, Astoria, NY. The plan was to honor the 250th anniversary of the birth (1757) of the first martyr, and forerunner of the Greek Revolution of 1821, Rigas Feraios, born Antonios Kyriazis, in the village of Velestino, Thessaly, near the city of Volos.
For the occasion, Queens College-CUNY sociologist Dr. Nicos Alexiou presented a provocative and penetrating lecture of this historic personality with ample development of themes for us to address in our contemporary lives as individuals and ethnic minority within the broader American society.
Rigas Feraios, in his short life — betrayed, arrested, tortured, strangled (June 13, 1798), his body tossed into the depths of the Danube River — evolved into the paradigmatic figure for integrating formal education, creative writing (author of poems, monographs, political tracts), and political agitation for national independence. He read and traveled widely, becoming fluent in several languages, contacting and / or being employed by men who would share future newsprint and book space with him: Alexander Ypsilanti, Nicholas Mavrogenes, France’s Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte! His preference for demotic, not classic, Greek endeared him to agrarian folk, as was his insistence that they depopulate cities and occupy the countryside — from whence guerrilla warfare for freedom could be waged.
This hero did not live to see his vision of a democratic Balkan region, with Greece prominent among its neighbors, realized, but his passionate advocacy aroused the patriotic sentiments of people coming out of 400 years of Turkish domination (the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453). Perhaps, the most famous, best known poem in three stanzas, one I remember reciting by heart as an elementary school pupil was Thourios. Two lines repeatedly favored by freedom-loving champions loudly proclaim: It’s better to have an hour as a freeman than forty years as a slave.
Those highlights formed a proper background for Volos-born Nicos Alexiou, to frame the needs that today’s organized expatriate Greek communities in America must address: encouragement of student-exchange programs with our native land; understanding and tolerance for the demographic transformation of Greece from a net exporter of population, for economic advancement, to warmly welcome the heterogeneous immigrants that are rushing to enter the country; drastic reduction in Greece’s budgetary allotment for defense, transferring those funds to human, i.e. educational, development; founding a communal library and a museum incorporating the story of Greek immigration; pressing families to learn English and train to become voting citizens, maximally actualize the potential offered to all by our blessed adopted country!
Nicos, an accomplished poet who liberally distributed his 20-year published bilingual compilation The Garden of Lost Vespers, asked and received much comment from the thoughtful audience, which included leaders of the aforementioned Federation of Hellenic Societies: president Nikos Diamantidis, general secretary Dimitrios Dimitriou, public relations, Dinos Rallis, and others. Additionally, the executive board and members of Argonauts, including: president Apostolos Zoupaniotis, vice president Dimitrios Kukurinis, treasurer Alexandros Karpetis, secretary Apostolos Skotidas, counselor Socrates Savelidis, Fany and Steve Negrin, and many more.
The day’s special meaning, the warm camaraderie, and ongoing preparations for a Fifth Avenue Greek Independence Parade, with its theme of religious freedom, on Sunday, April 15 — with live television coverage between 1:30 and 3:30 PM on Channel 9 — more than compensated for yesterday’s dramatic soccer loss in the hands of Greece’s archrival, Turkey, 4-1! (Several observers, of a certain age, were able to recall another traumatic defeat, to Spain, fifty years ago, 7-1.)