by George Vailakis
Greek Business File starts a tribute to the Greek Diaspora all over the world. We will present the history, evolution and prospects of Greek communities, along with first -hand testimonies of Greeks abroad. We open this series with the story of the Greek community in the USA
The story of the Greek community in the USA sounds like the turn of the ugly duckling into a swan: from the initial disrepute and poverty to prosperity and power.
The history of Hellenism abroad is long and fascinating, with the Hellenism of the Diaspora, as it is otherwise called, being one of the most important manifestations of Hellenism over time. And, of course, the most desirable immigration destination, historically, is the USA.
According to the estimates of the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad today, more than 5 million citizens of Greek origin live outside the Greek borders, scattered in 140 countries around the world. The largest concentration of the population of Greek origin is in the USA: about 3 million.
Greeks entered the USA as “Levantines”
The first Greeks to arrive in America came from Smyrna, Crete and Mani and together with Italians and Corsicans founded New Smyrna in Florida in 1768 under the guidance of Andrew Turnbull and his Greek wife, Maria Roubini. But the colony with the 500 Greeks was not successful, as many of the settlers fell ill and died. On July 17, 1777 it was officially abandoned. However, the first wooden school in the USA created by Ioannis Giannopoulos from Mani survives there.
The systematic migration of Greeks to the USA began in the second half of the 19th century. At that time, Greeks entered the USA as “Levantines” because they came from Asia Minor and from Greek islands that belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The Greek immigrants who arrived in America between 1890 and 1924 can be divided into three main groups: (1) Greeks who went to the Western States to work in the railways and mines; (2) Greeks who ended up in New England cities and worked in the textile and footwear sector; and (3) Greeks who went to major cities in the North, mainly in New York and Chicago, and worked in factories or found work as washers, polishers, and peddlers. Therefore, like most immigrants, Greeks originally belonged in the working class.
Immigration increased in the 1890s, mainly due to the many economic opportunities in the United States, the difficulties faced by Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and later the Balkan Wars and World War I. Somehow, from 1890 to 1917, 450,000 Greek immigrants arrived in the United States and another 70,000 from 1918 to 1924. By 1900, US authorities had lifted restrictions on the entry of Greek immigrants and their numbers grew dramatically.
In terms of regional distribution, Greeks now have a strong presence in the Northeastern United States, while (according to the American Community Survey, 2015) they live in one of the following states: New York (170,637), California (134,680), Illinois (99,509), Florida (90,647), Massachusetts (83,701), New Jersey (84,000), Pennsylvania (71,000), Ohio (61,000), Michigan (59,000), Texas (49,000), Maryland (41,000), Connecticut (35,000), and Virginia.
Gradually, therefore, Greek neighborhoods were created in the major urban centers of the USA, while small Greek businesses –mainly restaurants, cafes and grocery stores– appeared everywhere. The Greek community began to organize in Greek Orthodox parishes, national associations and other organizations. In fact, in 1915 the Greek newspaper “Ethnikos Kiryx” was published in New York, which still exists, and in 1922 the largest and longest-lived Greek organization AHEPA was created, which has contributed with numerous donations to finance medical and other research in the USA and Greece (such as the AHEPA Hospital), as well as in student scholarship programs.
Large numbers of Greeks began to come to the United States again after 1945. The reason was the economic disaster suffered by World War II, as well as the Civil War that followed. From 1946 to 1982, approximately 211,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States. And because the post-war immigrants did not receive as much assimilation pressure as the older ones, it was not long before they renewed the Greek-American identity. In addition, over the years the Greek community in the US rises – both economically and socially. As early as the 1960s, many second- and third-generation Greek-Americans began to get involved in the country’s political life in high positions.
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
By organizing their religious lives and cultural, national, and religious events, Greek Americans soon established themselves as an ever-growing, economically and culturally, community embedded in the American social fabric. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, based in New York, is a province of the Oecumenical Patriarchate with new Archbishop Elpidoforos since May 11, 2019. Before the founding of the Greek Archdiocese, there were many Greek Orthodox communities in the Western Hemisphere. The first Greek Orthodox community in America was founded in 1864 in New Orleans, Louisiana by a small colony of Greek merchants. In New York, the current seat of the Archbishop of America, the first permanent community was established in 1892.
The “Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America” was founded in 1921 and was officially recognized by the State of New York in 1922. In 1908 the Orthodox Church of America belonged to the Church of Greece, but since 1922 the Archdiocese belongs to the Patriarchate. In 1996, the Ecumenical Patriarchate divided the Archdiocese into four parts (America, Canada, Central America, and South America), leaving the Archdiocese of America only with the United States.
After 1981 and the entry of Greece into the European Union, the numbers of immigrants in the USA decreased significantly and are estimated at 2,000 per year. And, of course, there is a qualitative difference compared to the previous ones, since most of them immigrate to the USA not as unskilled workers or as … brides for expatriates, but for studies and then stay on to pursue an academic career. In recent years, immigration has not only been minimized, but there is a reversal of the return of Greek Americans to Greece.
However, according to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), between 2010 and 2014, Greek nationals were granted 6,340 residence permits with permanent resident status. Immigration in this five-year period is at lower levels compared to the last decade, as in 2000–2009 16,841 Greek citizens received a residence permit.
On the other hand, the number of Americans who speak Greek today is only 0.16% of the population: this means that only 312,000 US residents, or 27% of Americans of Greek descent speak Greek. Obviously, the cessation of the influx of new Greek immigrants and the assimilation of the younger generations has as a consequence the gradual reduction of the Greek element in the USA.
The American-Hellenic Institute
As the president of the important organization of the Greek community, the American-Hellenic Institute (AHI), Mr. Nikos Laryngakis says: “Today the Greek community in America together with the Jewish community are the two most powerful in economic power and in the field of education – this is shown by all relevant statistics. We are in the third and fourth generation and the Greeks have always wanted their children to get more education. But for many years, Church statistics have shown that mixed marriages account for more than 90%. I do not say this as something negative. My daughter too has not married a Greek. But having reached the fourth generation of Greek Americans, it is a fact that the form of the Greek community is changing. “I do not think this is going to affect religion or culture, it is alive and well and will continue to be so – something that can be seen in school, church and cultural events.”
As for the relationship of Greek-Americans with the Greek language and Greece, Mr. Laryngakis explains: “Today’s Greek-Americans characterize themselves as Americans of Greek descent. As long as there are organizations that have the financial resources to be able to promote relationships, they will continue and be strengthened at the state level. But these organizations that are made up of local unions decrease; they cannot be maintained. In addition, the Greek language is of great difficulty and the Greek schools teaching it are constantly dwindling and have been limited to New York and Chicago. But much more important than knowing the language is knowing the history of Greece. Being Greek is not just a language. It is the way of life, the way of thinking, the philosophy. You can also promote Hellenism even if you do not know the Greek language”.
Don Theodoro: The First Greek to Set Foot in America in 1528
Theodoro Griego or Don Theodoro was a Greek explorer and conquistador. He was born in the Aegean and later moved to Spain. He set sail from the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda and followed Panfilo de Narvaez in his expedition to North America. He was one of the first Greeks to reach the new continent (America). The expedition sailed from Cuba and reached Florida. Narvaez ordered his men to explore Florida and march further to the North, and in 1528 they reached the Apalachee, but Narvaez arrogantly attacked the American Indians and destroyed their settlements. Soon after they were attacked by the Apalachee warriors and they ran out of resources. At that difficult moment, Don Theodoro made 5 rafts, using liquid from pines, wood and leather and saved most of his companions. Eventually, Don Theodoro Griego was killed searching for water in a nearby Indian settlement. Most of the men who participated in the Narvaez expedition were killed, including Narvaez himself and only 4 survived to tell the story. Today a statue has been erected in Florida in the city of Tampa in honor of this great Greek conquistador and explorer.
This article is published in the January/ February issue of Greek Business File, available here.