For the four decades we have lived in our Indiana home, a large vintage photograph has hung on our living room wall showing about 20 young men posing for the camera, mountains looming behind them. They wear what must have been their best suits, with silver and gold watch fobs dangling from their vests. In contrast, they wear boots stained with dust. Each man holds a bottle of beer in one hand and a gun in the other.
Many of the men are strikingly handsome. All sport rakish mustaches, some bushy and others thin, often with the tips curled. None of the men shown is smiling; their expressions are stern and proud.
These men were immigrants who came to the United States from Greece in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines in Utah and Colorado. They left behind wives, mothers and sisters many would never see again. Most had their journey paid for by a padrone, a labor boss who, in exchange for their passage and a job in the mines, retained a percentage of their paychecks. Many men remained indentured to the padrone for years.
In the early 1900s, coal mines were dangerous. Cave-ins and gas explosions caused injury, and deaths were common. After years working in the mines, men also became afflicted with black lung disease.
A tragic aftermath to the photograph is that within a year after the photo, approximately half the men shown died in the Castle Gate mine disaster in Utah in 1924 when more than 250 miners were killed.
My father, a Greek Orthodox priest from the island of Crete, immigrated to America in 1916, as a parish priest in the mining town of Price, Utah. His parishioners were young Greek miners similar to those in the photograph.
The Price miners, all from our family’s island of Crete, had built a church but had no priest. They wrote the bishop in Crete asking he assign them a priest.
Many priests were reluctant to endanger their families in a long ocean voyage only to settle in the barren west of the United States. Adding to the danger, after two years, Europe was still at war. German U-boats, foraging in the Atlantic, had proven indiscriminate as to whether the ships they attacked were passenger or military vessels.
My father and mother were married in Crete in 1908. By 1916, when the miners were petitioning the bishop, my parents had birthed four children. The bishop, becoming desperate, finally asked my father.
My father and mother’s fears were similar to those of the other priests. But they also felt sympathetic for the plight of the Cretan miners in Utah.
My family traveled to America in second class, which provided a small cabin for the six of them. They spent the journey in fear of an attack by German submarines, enduring ocean storms and treating the children’s seasickness.
When my family landed at Ellis Island, a miner’s representative met them to escort them by train to Salt Lake City in Utah. From there, they would travel by auto to Price, about 40 miles away.
My family spent a stressful two years in Price. The Utah Mormons and Christians resented the newcomers speaking a strange tongue. Dark-complexioned, the Greeks were thought to be African and they were victims of the prejudice and indignities suffered by blacks.
Newspapers in adjoining states ran false stories about immigrant thieving, drunkenness and their disrespect of Mormon and Christian women. Editorials and cartoons railed against “the shiftless, ignorant and drunken Greeks. Italians and Chinese.”
The greatest threat to the immigrants came from the masked hooligans of the Ku Klux Klan, who kidnapped men and bull-whipped them under their flaming crosses for offenses such as looking disrespectfully at a white woman.
The Greeks were hot-tempered, and when they were taunted they responded angrily. A fight between a Greek and a Mormon often escalated into a riot with a score of Greeks and Mormons battling. My father had to appeal to Mormon judges for the release of Greeks arrested for brawling.
When I was six months old, my family’s final move was to a church on Chicago’s South Side. The neighborhood in Chicago where our family lived was an immigrant community, a polyglot of nationalities from Southern Europe. In addition to Greeks and Italians, there were Jewish families emigrated from Russia, Poland and Germany. Though the communities mostly remained separate, the varied nationalities lived amicably together. Mothers exchanged outgrown clothing, while we children did not ask where our playmates came from. I had close Jewish friends and was invited into their homes to seders and to share the lighting of the holiday candles. I think these mixed neighborhoods were the true melting pot that helped nationalities learn to live together.
Slowly, English replaced Greek as the language we spoke at our table. But my mother’s Greek dolmades as well as the honey saturated pastries such as baklava remained unchanged. That balancing of language and food was true for other nationalities.
These memories of my family’s effort to adjust with other cultures return now as I read daily about building thousands of miles of fence, while banning Muslim emigration from particular countries.
Yet the dream of this country as a refuge persists. As recently as a decade ago, as we were visiting my parent’s village in Crete, the old men in the coffee house lauded our good fortune living there, while the young men spoke fervently of emigrating to the United States.
For most of the world, “America” remains a word spoken with reverence and longing by the young and by the old.
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