What does it mean to be part of the Hellenic diaspora?
By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director
“The long unmeasured pulse of time moves everything,” Sophocles once wrote. “There is nothing hidden that it cannot bring to light, nothing once known that may not become unknown.” The first wave Greek immigrants settled in New Orleans over 165 years ago. Since then, Greek and Cypriot Americans live in every state and territory in the nation, from bustling cities like New York and Chicago to the quiet plains of Wyoming and the mountains of Colorado.
Time moves everything, even culture, and as our community moves from first to second, third, fourth and even fifth generation Greek Americans, the question brought it light is this: what will the future of the Greek American identity look like?
There are more people of Greek and Cypriot descent in America than ever before. How many self-identify as such? How many speak Greek? How many have had the privilege of visiting Greece?
You don’t need to know the specific statistics to know the answer to each of these questions is “not enough.” Why is self-identification and affiliation with Hellenic culture so important to preserve across time and generations? HALC member Yianni Konstantinou explained how Hellenic culture is unique and why it’s important to preserve:
Greeks, even if they are down and out on their luck they have what we call filotimo. They are always looking to help another person. You see that in the news right now with the refugee crisis. The Greeks, because of their hospitality, aren’t going to let these thousands of people starve even when they themselves are struggling so much. That’s something that we need to remember and to try to instill in the generations to come. It is heartbreaking knowing that my kids might not have what I, and many other first generation Greeks, had growing up. We were going to Greece every summer to see our grandparents, we were speaking Greek in the house, we attended Greek School, learned Greek dances, went to church every Sunday. I think an organization like HALC is so important for our kids, because we all might be doing well individually, but we are at the same time losing our identity as Greeks. We need to have a strong base to turn to that enables us to move forward as a community. We need to make sure we don’t lose our Greek identity and filotimo.
Raising Greek families and preserving Hellenism is more difficult today than it was for earlier generations for myriad reasons. Intermarriage means fewer children are growing up listening to Greek spoken as the primary language in their home, even in homes where both parents are Greek but who speak primarily English. Greek schools, in turn, are largely witnessing declining enrollment and geographically, there simply aren’t enough of them. In other words, in urban centers Greek language schools are plentiful yet families for one reason or another are not enrolling their children while in areas where there aren’t as many of Greek descent, where such schools can serve a vital connection to culture, such schools are lacking. Online courses are of course available, but anyone who has attended Greek school (church affiliated or private) can attest to the value of in-person attendance to create a sense of community and belonging. Traveling to Greece to create that sense of community and belonging is out of reach for many families struggling ot make ends meet.
Meanwhile, because fewer children are attending Greek schools and because Greek history and the classics are no longer given the amount of attention they deserve in elementary, high school and college curriculums, cultural literacy in our community is at a low point. Language aside, the history of Greeks and Greek Americans is a story that needs to be told, not forgotten. As HALC member Irene Antonoglu has emphasized, remembering history means learning from history:
My story isn’t a unique story, but I have a story that isn’t told often enough. My father’s side of the family is from Asia Minor, and because of the war my entire family lineage was lost and the families were separated as a result of the refugee crisis in 1922. It seems as though by having lost that lineage, finding commonality with other people who suffered the same experiences is how I am able to make meaningful connections in the Greek community and have a deeper understanding of what it feels like to have your identity taken away from you. I am a staunch supporter of cultural heritage as a result, and have the responsibility of making sure that story doesn’t die within my children’s generation.
How do we teach future generations that things like “OXI” aren’t just a slogan, but are shorthand for one of the modern world’s most remarkable moments of defiance and courage? How do we emphasize the importance of Greece’s contributions to the world without devolving into silly stereotypes?
And, most importantly, how do we continue in the spirit of those contributions?
That’s where organizations like HALC come in.
The Hellenic American Leadership Council has as its mission the twin pillars of advocacy and education. Advocacy — from writing letters to Congress to getting involved on local issues — is about continuing the proud tradition of civic involvement that has defined our culture since antiquity. It was Pericles who wisely pointed out that “just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” It’s why HALC is on the frontline of policy relating to assistance to Greece, the continued illegal occupation of Cyprus, the refugee and migration crises and more.
Our education programming, on the other hand, serves to inform our advocacy efforts. We give context to the news, to holidays and commemorations circulated on a calendar, all in an effort to preserve Hellenism across time and generations. As HALC member Michael Marks has pointed out, that Hellenism give us a sense of legitimate pride:
Everybody I know, and continue to meet, has a tremendous sense of pride — not only in their ancestry but also their cultural traditions. As we become a more diverse nation, and as the footprint of our diaspora expands, we must never lose sight of the extraordinary gift people give and receive when allowed to connect more meaningfully with their Greek culture. We have an important responsibility to preserve and promote our traditions because it’s a beautiful way to relate to the world in light of everything that our culture has given to us.
It’s members like Michael Marks, Irene Antonolgu and Yianni Kontantinou — and so many others — who are soldiers in that fight to promote and preserve Hellenism in the United States. We’ll be featuring such amazing members in our I am HALC series kicking off in September. In the meantime, take a look back at our previous features:
“I AM HALC” MEMBER SPOTLIGHT
Irene Antonoglu (4/5/17)
George Chiampas & Peggy Chiampas (1/29/16)
Georgia Loukas Demeros (2/10/16)
Anthony Kammas (1/29/2016)
Yianni & Sofia Konstantinou (3/24/2016)
Ted Koutsoubas (3/23/17)
Michael Marks (4/24/17)
Taso & Maria Pardalis (3/29/2016)
Basil Simon (6/2/2016)
Zack Space (3/18/16)
Stathis Theodoropoulos (4/13/2016)