Early History of Greek emigrants in America

In our days the majority of the Greeks travel to the United States in order to visit New York and experience the American way of living. Not many decades have been passed though, since people were boarding the ferry for the 20+ days trip just to have a chance to pursue the American Dream, even if many times this was translated as washing dishes in a restaurant.
450,000 Greeks arrived to the States between 1890 and 1917, and many of these people were forced to do that in order to escape from wars, extreme poverty and social persecutions. They settled, in large urban centers such as Chicago, New York and tens of smaller cities scattered across the country reaching as far as California.It is interesting that Greek immigration at this time was over 90% male, that were expected to work and return to their homeland after earning capital and dowries for their families.The vast majority of them didn’t spoke English and they engaged in various forms of employment such as street vendors and shop owners.

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They brought with them their traditions, food, religion, and language and once they settled in, they began developing a social life initially based around Kafenia, Greek coffee shops, where spent almost the whole of their non-working day. Using the Kafenion as headquarters, the few bilingual and literate Greeks handled correspondence with the homeland and negotiations with the new world institutions. Here a man could ask about employment and marriage opportunities, enjoy a game of cards, and debate political issues.

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Always coexisting with the Kafenion were establishments also dubbed coffeehouses, but which actually were tavernas. These establishments offered live music and the opportunity to dance, and from them various types of night clubs emerged, that could be found in port cities like New Orleans and in tourist’s attractions such as New York’s eighth avenue. The Rebetiko music played by Greek immigrants in the United States and recorded by American companies reflects the traditional culture of the immigrants and may thus serve to illuminate the attitude of the immigrant artist toward his or her ethnic identity and the problems of becoming integrated into new cultural surroundings. One irony of this rich musical continuity was that Greeks in America preserved certain traditions more faithfully than their homeland counterparts whose habits were ravaged by world wars, then civil war and finally dictatorship.

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As far as work is concerned, New York was the port of entry for the majority of the Greeks and many patterns that developed there would be reproduced in other Metropolitan areas. Greeks began to own restaurants quite early in the immigration cycle, but it always been true that more Greeks worked in Greek establishments, hotels, and deluxe restaurants than own them. From the teens onward, these food workers constantly fought to advance themselves economically. In addition to this, the first employment for many Greeks immigrants at the turn of the century was found in the mill town of Massachusetts because the unskilled work demanded by textile manufacturing was well-suited to newcomers from unlettered agrarian backgrounds.
Proportional number of Greeks, appeared to work in California, Oregon and Washington. Almost all of these men were part of an army of unskilled itinerants that supplied the American labor scene with workers. Greek worked in the lumber, mine, and construction industries, and for a time were predominant in the laying of railroad tracks. In the late teens, Greeks made up nearly twenty percent of the work force on the nine western railroads.
Through the years Greeks, became one of the best-organized ethnic groups in the United States in every area of interest: commerce, labor, religion, community and the period of low wages, poor public acceptance and marginal economic viability has passed. They shared the American work ethic and desire for success and they have risen to visible positions of power.

 

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