Greeks in America always have asked themselves how they can pass their Hellenic identity to the next generation. Quite often, it seems the end of a viable community is at hand. Pessimists, however, have been consistently wrong. More than a hundred years after the onset of mass immigration, the Greek-American community is larger than ever in absolute numbers and proudly retains a Hellenic identity. The community of 2015, of course, is far different than the community of 1915. Rather than being mostly foreign-born and not well-educated, the current community is primarily American-born and well-educated. The future community will be different from both.
Speculation about what Greek America will look like or even if it will exist a hundred years from now is fanciful. Thinking about the next fifty years is not. Even though unforeseen may events alter expectations, certain trends are clearly evident. A new wave of immigrants from Greece seems unlikely. Even during the present Greek crisis, when 200,000 Greeks have left the homeland, 97% chose to relocate in EU nations or Australia rather than the United States. The pattern here for decades is that as many Greek-Americans repatriate or retire to Greece as new immigrants arrive. This indicates that the majority of the community of 2065 likely will consist of American-born Greeks who do not have exposure to even a grandparent born in Greece.
Another inescapable change derives from the phenomenon of outmarriage to non-Greeks. For quite some time, that rate has been least 80%. As this trend is increasing rather than decreasing, a majority of Greek young people in 2065 will have multiple ethnic heritages. This suggests the community may be fated to have a highly diluted Greek ethnic identity that is primarily symbolic in the sense of being shallow.
A far more hopeful perspective is offered by Peter Moskos in the third edition of Greek-Americans: Struggle and Success. He finds that a significant percentage of children of mixed heritage are opting to emphasize their Greek identity. He describes this as Greek identity “trumping” other ethnic heritages. If that phenomenon continues, the Greek-American community could continue indefinitely. Choice, however, is not just a matter of individual will but the product of a complex of family, community, educational, national, and economic forces.
Put simply, the Greeks of the Great Migration (1880-1924) and the Second Wave (1965-1980) were Greek by birth and mainly were concerned with how American they wished or were allowed to be. The generation that matured after World War II mainly thought of itself as the caretaker of an ethnic legacy inherited from its parents. In that sense, individuals had to decide how Greek they wanted to be. The generation that will mature in 2065 will not be greatly influenced by genetic heritage or seeing themselves as caretakers of a historic legacy. Individuals will opt for being Greek primarily on the basis of how that fits into their personal ambitions and psychology. With that reality in mind, there are numerous community actions that could foster the choice of Hellenic identity.
A full-length book would be required to fully explore all the variables and strategies involved in preserving Greek identity in our new demographic era. What I have tried to do in this limited space is briefly indicate some of the available options. A number of excellent measures are already in place or in progress. Others that have proven unsuccessful or were even moderately successful in a previous historical context will have to be discarded, greatly changed, or minimized
THE SOCIAL ORGANIZATIONS
It is difficult to imagine a Greek America that is not connected to Greece and Cyprus. For the past two decades, many Greek organizations have fed that connection by sponsoring travel to Greece by thousands of young Greek-Americans. The response has been terrific. Participants return feeling very enthusiastic about being Greek and wanting, in many cases, to learn more about Greek culture and to better navigate the Greek language. Refining and expanding these programs should be one of our priorities.
The nature of any given program differs. Organizations like AHEPA provide relatively large numbers with an introduction to contemporary Greek culture laced with some education on the Byzantines and Classic Greece. An organization such as the American Hellenic Institute provides a relatively small group interested in public service with intense interactions with political figures and thinkers in Greece and Cyprus. Cretan organizations and other regionally-based groups focus on familiarizing students with the local history and culture of their forbearers.
The more formal study abroad programs of Modern Greek Studies programs seek to provide first-hand experience and interactions with Greek colleagues. A persistent problem in realizing these goals has been that funding from foundations often goes to Classical or Byzantine Studies rather than Modern Greek Studies and Greek-American Studies. All are worthy, but funding the latter two is essential for community survival.
The “topika somatei” have a crucial role to play. They embody the most direct and immediate linkage to Greece. If one wants to interact in some manner with a specific region in Greece or Cyprus, the “topika somateia” are often the most efficient and rapid means of so doing. Regional organizations, however, have not done much to reach a broader public. There are notable exceptions. The Pontian societies, for example, have been very vocal in trying to bring the Christian Genocide orchestrated by Turkey into public discourse; and the Macedonian associations have exposed FYROM’s historically fraudulent claims to the legacy of Alexander the Great.
Follow-up programs are now required to maintain and cultivate the Hellenism activated by these various programs. Younger people need to be integrated into community organizations as partners rather than learners. Their perspectives and their skills in dealing with the new communications technology can help revitalize our organizations and make them far more effective in dealing with the general American public.
The Greek Orthodox Church has three major options. It can continue to offer more of the same. It can increase its emphasis on Greek ethnicity. Or it can focus on spreading Orthodoxy.
The Church currently welcomes converts but is passive in its outreach. Most converts result from outmarriage to non-Greeks who adopt their spouse’s religion. The shortage of priests continues and many new priests are converts already ordained by related faiths rather than clergy schooled in Greek Orthodox seminaries. Americanization of the Church appears to be haphazard rather than planned. Continuing this mode is reactive at best and has no special appeal to children of outmarriages.
An alternative would be to make the preservation of Greek identity in America a major Church mandate. Fewer compromises would be made with American culture and using the Greek language would be stressed. Such a Church would almost certainly decrease in total numbers, but the faithful would be united by a strong commitment to a culturally-focused Church. There would be less appeal to children of outmarriages as a category, but those who were attracted would have or acquire an intense ethnic identity.
A third choice is for the Church to strive to become a national Orthodox Church in which the Greek in its title is generic, like the Roman in Roman Catholic. The emphasis would be on faith rather than ethnicity. There could be serious outreach to other Orthodox believers, but growth would mainly entail conversions from other faiths. The Greekness of the Church in this scenario would be in its core values and rituals. Although the liturgy and hymns might remain in Greek just as the Catholics once used Latin, most Church activities, however, would be in English. If such a Church were successful, it would likely want to be self-governing as is the case in most nations. This pathway is obviously appealing to the children of outmarriages. Such an approach, however, has never been attempted in the United States and has numerous risks and complexities. Its virtue is that it actively addresses changing cultural dynamics while retaining its Hellenic essence.
REVISED SECULAR CULTURE
If Hellenic culture, rather than genetic heritage will be central to Greek indemnity in 2065, the community has to move dynamically in areas where it has not been strong. We have done quite well in preserving traditional dancing and music, but we have had a weak commitment to the other arts. We must understand that if we want young people to choose Greek identity we must go beyond celebrating Greek national holidays and traditions. If we wish to have work produced by, for, and of Greek-American, we need to support our artists and intellectuals. Without such support, they are liked to go to where their efforts are better appreciated.
Forums, readings, book signings, theatrical productions, art exhibitions, and similar programs need to become regularly occurring events. We also need more academic/political conferences that are conceived and promoted in a manner that goes beyond the community to also reach the American mainstream. What kinds of activities are suitable for any given group or region can and should vary.
Newspapers and other publications have a key role in maintaining Hellenic identity. Breaking news is going to be the domain of the Internet. Any individual can learn the results of say a Greek election as fast as any journalist. This reality means our ethnic press needs to concentrate on in-depth commentary while continuing to cover topics that are ethnic in nature but not part of the conventional 24-hour news cycle. Music, film, and literary critics must have the same credibility as political columnists. To simply publicize an event or work by a Greek artist is no longer sufficient, and puff pieces where all works are praised are counter-productive. The justly popular tradition of offering recipes, judging Greek wines, and reviewing restaurants is sound, but also needs to be upgraded. As readers of this newspaper know, many of these upgrades are already being made. If upgrading becomes the norm in our publications, television programs, and radio shows,, ethnic mass media might well grow even as some forms of conventional media perish.
Books with Hellenic themes generally sell in the low thousands. As a consequence, most specialized literature is published by university press, small independent presses, or ad hoc groups. Greek-American organizations with multiple chapters can offer tremendous support to these publishers by buying books for their organizations, university collections, and public libraries. Multiple subscriptions to literary magazines and academic journals assist greatly in keeping these economically marginal enterprises viable. The same holds true for videos. DVD sales, that are low by usual commercial standards, are often more than sufficient to keep independent filmmakers solvent even if live screenings are sparse.
STILL GREEK TO ME
The demographics of Greece are the most dynamic since the ousting of the Ottomans. More than 10% of the population originates in other nations. Whatever the ultimate fate of these newcomers, many, particularly those from neighboring Balkan nations, will become Hellenes. A related trend is the uptick in outmarriages by Greeks who work in other EU nations. Moreover, people born outside of Greece, including Greek-Americans, are being elected to the highest Greek pubic offices. These developments suggest that having Hellenic cultural identity can be independent of geographic location or genetic inheritance.
Just as homeland Greeks have begun to appreciate those in the diaspora who prize Hellenic identity, Greek-Americans are increasing aware that our future has more to do with interactions with modern Greece than nostalgia about “the village,” Classic Greek ruins, and Byzantine glories. We also must deal with the reality that by 2065, the present European majority in America will be reduced to a plurality. This will result in increasing numbers of bilingual and multi-cultural Americans.
Whether Greek-Americans can truly be Greek if we only speak English, has always been an identity issue, but no one questions that access to Greek music, cinema, and literature is best appreciated in the mother tongue. A new factor in sustaining Greek in America is the emerging global system that prizes cultural sensitivity and bilingualism. Americans will increasingly need to speak more than one language. In that sense, retention of the Greek language in America is now tied to wider cultural needs as well as the particular desires of family or community. This situation results in some unexpected benefits for us.
New funding pathways have opened. Public charter or magnet schools, Greek language classes in some public schools, Internet language courses, person-to-person Skype interchanges, and a strong focus on college language courses are all positive developments. The odds for Greek language retention in his new linguistic climate are long but much better than in past years and not impossible. We must also acknowledge that for all our past efforts, we have not been particularly successful in retaining Greek. To just keep repeating the same methods and expect different outcomes doesn’t make sense.
In the past, homeland Greeks often have believed Greek-Americans are not “real” Greeks. Greek-Americans, in turn, have often looked upon Modern Greece as a failed political culture with which they do not want to be closely identified. Thankfully, those attitudes are now waning. Greek-Americans have realized the benefit of seeing ourselves as homeland Greeks see us, and homeland Greeks have begun to place greater in how they are perceived by Greek-Americans. The increasing interaction between homeland and diaspora Greeks visible in various scholarly, journalistic, business, and artistic enterprises is very encouraging.
A good example of how homeland Greeks have become seriously interested in exploring the realities rather than the myths of the Greek-American experience is evidenced by the number of excellent documentaries they have made about Greek America. These works made by homeland Greeks are usually done with Greek-American partners. The resulting films are frequently shown on Greek National Television, and they are reviewed in Greece’s mainstream press. Conversely, in America, there has been an upsurge in Greek film festivals and Greek film nights with a new emphasis on reaching out to the general American public.
Even if all the changes that appear positive should occur, the maintenance and growth of Greek America is not guaranteed. Nonetheless, if we just look backward, hankering for a romanticized yesteryear, failure is guaranteed. A priceless legacy we inherited from earlier generations of Greek-Americans is to think about the future and take actions that we believe are appropriate for growth. If we exhibit that same vision, courage and determination, the Greek-Americans of 2065 will honor us even as they contemplate how to navigate the remaining fifty years of century.
Dan Georgakas is Director of the Greek-American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College (CUNY) and the author of My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City; a Greek language edition will be published later this year.