A little over 100 years ago, my father, mother and four of my older siblings left the Greek island of Crete to join families from around the world in journeying to seek a new life in the United States.
My father was a Greek Orthodox priest. In that period, which covered World War I, coal and copper mines abounded in the western regions of the United States. Labor agents traveled to Southern Europe, visiting Italy, Spain and Greece, to recruit workers.
Eager to escape their impoverished villages, many young men in those countries signed often-punitive contracts. In return, they were promised a steamship ticket in steerage and a job in the mines.
In 1917, a community of Cretan miners residing in the Utah mountain town of Price, Utah, planned for and built a church. They had no priest except for a circuit-riding cleric who came only for funerals and for a Sunday service once every six weeks.
The miners wrote a letter to the Bishop of Crete pleading to be assigned a full-time priest.
Years later, my parents told us how they had reassessed their decision and made the decision to go to America.
“We understood and feared the dangers of the journey. We also felt grieved for the young miners away from their families, and lacking someone to pray for them,” my father said. “But the principal reason we changed our mind was that our blessed island had no educational opportunities beyond elementary grades. America had middle schools and many universities. We felt that in America, you children would have a chance for an education and a better life.”
The Utah parish sent my family second class tickets which provided them a small cabin with six bunk beds in tiers of three. In later years, I recall my parents speaking of their first sight of the Statue of Liberty when their ship entered the harbor at Ellis Island. Along with the other passengers, our parents and siblings crowded at the railings of the ship.
“I was grateful she was a woman,” my mother said, “I felt she would understand a woman’s love, fear and hope for her children.”
“When I first saw the statue,” my father said, “I remembered when I was a boy listening to the old men in our village reading aloud the letters from their family members who had immigrated. They wrote of having food, work and money in their pockets. The great statue looming before us in the harbor that day seemed to promise that fulfillment.”
But Ellis Island proved an ordeal for my family, the first time my parents and their children had been separated. The miner’s representative who was to escort them to Utah had been delayed. My family was sequestered overnight, my mother and the girls in one compound, my father and the boys in another.
My father told us of his sleepless night frantic with worry about my mother and sisters, hearing the moans and prayers of the frightened men on the cots around him.
The following morning, the representative from the parish in Utah arrived, and my family began the long train journey west.
The young Cretan workers were assailed with fear and loathing. Their language and habits were strange. They were loud and they swaggered and, sometimes, they drank too much. Because of their dark olive complexions, they were thought to be blacks, and suffered the same prejudice and intolerance.
My parents told us that It was not uncommon to see signs in the windows of restaurants and shops …“100% American. No Greeks, N———s, or Rats Allowed!”
The two years my family spent in Price were a tense and troubled period. Utah was the West and men carried guns. This was true of the townspeople and of the miners, as well. There were confrontations and bitter quarrels, usually ending with the miners being the ones arrested. For public drunkenness and fighting, they would be sentenced to weeks and even months in jail.
The incessant xenophobia made daily life an ordeal and a constant fomenter of quarrels. My father would visit the taverns on Saturday night and to prevent quarrels turning deadly, take the guns away from drunken Greek miners. He would return the guns when they attended church the following Sunday morning.
After about two years, my family moved from Price to a parish in Savannah, Georgia, and then to a parish in St Louis, Missouri. Then they moved to a parish in Chicago, which remain my father’s parish until his death in 1951.
While some parts of the country were less virulent in their resentment of immigrants, life for my parents and siblings was a continuing struggle as they endeavored to learn the language, adapt to the customs and to battle xenophobia in some form or other. Little by little, as they learned to speak English and grew accustomed to their neighbors of other nationalities, their lives were woven into American society.
As I’ve grown older, I think more often about my father and mother making that courageous decision to expose their children to that perilous journey. I reflect too on their need to learn a strange language and to assimilate themselves into a society that continually resisted them as foreigners.
Today, there is virulent debate about the surge of immigrants seeking to enter the country. There is meager discussion about the courage and faith required to uproot a family and make such a perilous journey.
I think it is still the power of the dream personified by the Statue of Liberty that remains an imperishable force today, as it was in the time of my parents’ journey.
What a shame if that glorious symbol of our country is in years ahead replaced by the stark, desolate image of a wall.
Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.
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