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Columnists

Photos – Windows into a Family’s Past

June 10, 2022
By Constance M. Constant

Stoic faces stare out from antique photographs stored inside an old box. “Who’s this guy?” Frustratingly, not all photo subjects are identified.

Saving family photos is universal. Whether our roots are Greek, Korean, Italian, Jewish, Irish, or any of the world’s religions and ethnicities, most Americans living in 2022 are connected to immigrant ancestors. When our pioneers could afford it, they had their photographs taken to send back to their folks in “the old country.” Precious, relic pictures may be resting in a box on your closet shelf.

Greeks had come in small numbers from the 1700s to late 18th century. Then, over half-million young, Greek immigrants arrived in the United States between the 1890s and 1920s. Courageous women and men boarded ships in Greek ports, or made their way west through Europe, boarding ships at Atlantic ports to sail across the vast ocean. We’re here because our family protectors made the arduous sacrifice to come here and stay here: it’s an old story.

Family heroes’ struggles are worthy of repeating and always remembering. Most of our disadvantaged forerunners couldn’t communicate upon arrival. Persevering through frustrating prejudice, working long, hard hours, they learned a difficult language: English.

How puzzled and devastated they must have felt finding themselves victims of vicious hate by some Americans. Southeastern European immigrants, including our Greek pioneers, were considered “the offscourings of Europe.” Ugly discrimination prompted 1920s U.S. Congressional legislation curbing Greek and other nationals’ immigration.

Tragically, a hateful, bigoted minority in the United States still perpetrates poisonous lies regarding ‘the other’. Regardless of differences among us, whether racial, religious, ethnic, political, relating to immigration, personal preference, etc. – we’re all members of the same ‘tribe’ – the human race. Ending irrational, immoral bigotry has always been do-able inside every family and school when valued role-models reject mean-spirited ‘other’ labels – and instead show and pass on – by example – goodwill, empathy, and respect toward all people. Let’s insist on the truth and on respect for all.

Decades ago, hateful prejudice against Greek immigrants locked our pioneer heroes into the lowest paying jobs, poor housing, ridicule, and violence. Avoiding inevitable failure when applying for employment declared ‘unavailable’ to immigrants, many became entrepreneurs – a most successful decision for countless Greeks.

Aged, black and white, or sepia photos connect us with family beginnings. Delightfully, we find images of our unforgettable grandmothers, Yiayias-to-be, arrayed in billowing white veils and wedding dresses, demurely standing alongside our lovable future grandpas. Pappou proudly wears a white boutonniere on the lapel of his crisp new suit.

Young and handsome, our family founders posed for their historic wedding portrait and started a new life together in America. Unimaginable events lay ahead. On that celebratory day our heroes were unaware repercussions from a Great Depression and World War II would distressingly impact their lives.

Keepsake wedding photographs were mailed to the old country, allowing distant parents to see their ‘palikari’ (brave young man) or ‘hriso koritsaki’ (golden little girl)  wed to the new in-law they, sadly, had never met – and may never know.

Taking interest in treasured antique photos, asking questions, labeling pictures now, while beloved, elder family experts are still with us, hopefully strengthen appreciation for our family pioneers.

My family gratefully preserves a small portrait, circa 1912, of four good-looking, serious young men: pioneer immigrants born in Arcadian Mercovouni. A quick glance conveys a successful quartet: looking like bankers. One dapper fellow is my father, Apostolis. The others are his younger brother, Vasilis, and first cousins: Thimios and Sotirios. Sharing costs, four cousins paid for one photo-sitting.

Bankers? Hardly. Earning less than meager pay from three padrone-bosses, these four young men shared one rented room for sleeping, and labored 16 hours a day (from 1907-1917) in a drab Chicago shoeshine parlor as – shoeshine boys.

Their main goal in life was sending U.S.-earned cash to their needy families in Mercovouni. Over time they saved to purchase shoes, suits, shirts, and ties to wear in this picture, then mailed the photos to their parents to prove that in the ‘xenitia’ (foreign lands) of America their sons were healthy and doing well.

Amusingly, more Mercovouniotes emigrated from Greece when our four guys, remembered as impoverished village urchins, had their picture taken in Chicago wearing “high-class American suits and well-shined shoes.”

Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek-American Recollections (Cosmos Publishing, 2005) and American Kid, Nazi-Occupied Greece through the Eyes of a Child, (Year of the Book, 2015).

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