Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Immigrant Women in the Work of Helen Papanikolas (III)

The Journeys of an Immigrant Woman: A Quest for Home

Numerous pioneer immigrant women experienced immigration as an alienating dislocation, an exile. Yet the initial sense of loss, marginality, and hardship gradually meshed with nascent feelings of attachment and hopes of America as a place of belonging. Papanikolas reports that America eventually felt as home to many of those women, though the complex process of this transformation remains largely unexplored in her writings. The biography of her parents, Emily - George, however, offers insights on this topic. In this work, which fuses personal testimony, eyewitness accounts and archival research, Papanikolas weaves an intimate narrative exploration of the emotional journeys and material circumstances leading to her mother’s rootedness in America.

Emily’s biography can be mapped as a series of movements across geographical social, psychic, ethnic and class locations. When in 1901 an accident incapacitated her father, she left her natal village in Western Thrace and moved to the city of Thessaloniki, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. Transported from her rural origins to an urban environment Emily finds herself at the intersection of shifting, multiple locations. As a servant for an affluent Greek family she experiences class marginality. When she later followed the family in its resettlement in Istanbul, Emily is simultaneously at the margins and vicariously at the center of the thriving Greek bourgeoisie community in the city. Two years later, when she took the bold step to migrate to America, she experiences new cartographies of class instability and the added task of linguistic and racial marginality. She initially led a peripatetic life in the American West as a domestic servant, first working for the wealthy family of a Greek immigrant banker in Salt Lake City, and later for a married labor agent in Pocatello, Idaho. She eventually married Yioryis, a Greek immigrant, and joined him in a family odyssey of frequent moves within Utah, before settling in Salt Lake City during the Depression.

Emily’s journey was punctuated with traumatic dislocations but also enriching relocations. She crossed class and social boundaries when she became a wage earner and moved from her rural origins to cities in Ottoman Turkey and later in America. She was economically depended as a servant, though she was able to achieve some measure of economic self-determination to migrate to America. Her social life was limited, yet she was exposed to the inner networks of cosmopolitan Ottoman Greek bourgeois and later to the family dynamic of socially mobile Greek immigrants in America. It was during her experiences in Istanbul where Emily felt the longing to “have [her] own home, [her] own linens on the bed, on the table” (1987:181). America, where she “will[ed] to go” (181) seemed the land that promised to deliver this yearning.

As an immigrant, Emily experienced the gendered constraints of Greek patriarchy and the ethnic oppression inflicted by American nativism. This dual domination was brought to consciousness, when she attended a segregated movie theater during her initial courtship with Yioryis, her future husband:

"Emilia also noticed that Americans sat on the main floor, the xeni [foreigners] in the balcony. She thought angrily of Sunday liturgy in the small, ugly Pocatello Greek church; the cloddish men who built it kept a peculiar old village custom: women and children looked on from the balcony" (1987:230)

Yet migrancy is also associated with welcome cultural change, and upward socioeconomic mobility. Her metaphorical and actual journey away from rural culture took yet another turn through her experience of new kinds of intra-cultural zones. Cosmopolitan, former wealthy refugees who fled Istanbul and Asia Minor after the 1922 Greek Turkish war, introduced Emily to sentimental love songs and internationally famous movie stars. Kilarney Reynold taught Emily to cook American dishes. Yioryis’s economic success earned the family a move to wealthy suburbs. In this manner, the distance between the immigrants and “white” middle class America was shortened. Emily, her hair fashionably cut short and looking “almost American,” now feels home as a member of the Ladies Guild whose

"members were the ‘good’ women of the town, tidily dressed, easily distinguishable from the immigrant women, the poor Americans, and the wives of doctors, dentists, and the newspaper editor who had nothing to do with the other three groups" (1987:43).

Emily appears to be moving past her social and economic marginalization when she fulfills her life-long yearning for a home of her own. Acquiring a home in Helper, where “doctors, attorneys, and businessmen lived” resolves her life’s tension between the necessity for movement and the persistent longing for a domestic center. She has “migrated” from the position of an outsider to a coveted space of “white” middle-class respectability.

"She sat for many minutes overwhelmed with relief: they were now proper people. At last she had her own home. She has come to America for it and now she had it" (1987:294).

America rewards the family’s hard work and entrepreneurialism with mobility and relative acceptance. The narrative legitimizes the ideology of the American Dream for the immigrant who now occupies a nascent place in the space of “whiteness.” The inevitable focus of the biography in a single immigrant family that happened to experience mobility, however, should not lead to the conclusion that graduation to the suburbs was naturally shared among all southeastern European immigrants. The record is relatively silent about families who did not make it in the middle-class. Did the Greek immigrant participation in the labor movements at the time preclude access to the American Dream? Did immigrant political commitment to combat exploitation interfere with the quest for a stable home? We have no specific knowledge, also, about alternative social spaces where Greek immigrant women could have sustained dialogues across racial and class boundaries. How did marginalized immigrant pioneers felt towards oppressed women of color? Where there any contexts where they closed ranks against racism? Clearly, further excavations of the archive are necessary to produce biographies and histories of working class immigrant families, and inter-racial solidarities.

For Papanikolas, the movement of the immigrants to the suburbs is emblematic of a larger process of assimilation. She identifies the pattern of immigrant integration though the specifics and unevenness of this process – the ambiguities of acculturation, the cultural betweeness of the immigrants, the multiplicity of identities, the relationship between class and assimilation – do not command, with some exceptions, center stage in her historical analysis. Instead, she emphasizes the weakening of the cultural gap between the newcomers and the locals, and cultural forgetting. Though she insightfully recognizes that often immigrants and their children felt it was necessary to hide their differences from the mainstream, she does not pursue this point in any detail. In her account, immigrant sub-urbanization leads to an ultimate displacement of tradition. Increasing rates of intermarriage further indicate the increasing mainstream acceptance of the daughters and sons of immigrants. Residential segregation and the insularity of the immigrant home become a thing of the past. While the immigrant past casts its shadow on the Greek-American present – a theme that Papanikolas repeatedly returns to in her fictional work – it is superceded as Greek immigrants are integrated into the mainstream as assimilated American ethnics.

Ultimately, Papanikolas follows closely the paradigm of American ethnic studies. In her account, the nation is seen as an integrative redemptive space. Despite the multiplicity of class hierarchies embedded in early twentieth century American modernity – and therefore the plurality of histories within an “ethnic group” – she adopts the single focus of the omnipresent subject-historian. “We children of immigrants who have visited our parents’ villages are profoundly grateful that America’s industrialization, and more specifically Utah’s, drew them,” she writes. “Otherwise our lives would have been poor indeed” (1975:124). Here, industrialization fosters the narrative of uniform progress from poverty to prosperity. This claim assumes the invariable economic success of all wage-earner immigrant laborers, and inevitably directs attention away from immigrant lives that did not translate into prosperity under conditions of industrial capitalism.

Papanikolas largely subscribes to the linear assimilation of immigrants. For her, the Western frontier – metaphorically understood as a place that sustains multiple cultural affiliations – is closed for immigrant Greek America. Holding the modernist understanding of culture as a whole – a view shared by great many professional anthropologists and folklorists at the time of her writing in the 1960s and 1970s – she maintains that immigrant beliefs and values can be lost in their entirety. It is this assumptions that informs her strong assertion that “assimilation is now complete in Carbon Country” (1981:100). This claim attaches credence to scholarly work that makes a case for the frontier as a space for creative bicultural expressions among racial minorities, but a mono-cultural zone for southeastern immigrants, who are seen as assimilated “white” ethnics (Lape, 2000). But persisting ambiguities embedded in the assimilation process advise against this totalizing claim. It is appropriate in this respect to follow the narrative thread in Emily’s biography, to an instance when she extends hospitality to the members of the Ladies Guild. In what follows, a social rite of passage meant to bring into closure Emily’s liminality in the multicultural borderlands of the region, reveals that assimilation cannot be a linear process:

"She served the women American dishes: salmon loaf with peas in cream sauce, chicken croquettes with potatoes au gratin, chicken a la king, Waldorf salads, pies of all kinds, strawberry shortcake, and caramel custard, exquisitely shimmering on the plane with a Nabisco biscuit. ‘You just serve too much food,’ a salesman’s wife said after she had eaten heartily, and my mother rubbed her hands together and looked liked [sic] a chastened child" (43).

Emily is caught between cultural practices, performing her knowledge of American cuisine but also adhering to the imperative of Greek hospitality, generous offering. In this instance, she is between cultures, neither wholly American, nor fully Greek. Chastised for her social faux pas she is culturally de-centered, made to realize that inclusion demands full assimilation. Her rite of passage from an immigrant outsider to a “white” middle-class is not complete, producing complex figures of difference and identity. Willing to assimilate in different subject positions, Emily deploys syncretic cultural codes that do not – in fact cannot – fit in any cultural zone demanding the uniformity of cultural authenticity. The movement of the immigrants to the suburbs does not translate into total cultural loss. More realistically, Emily operates in an uneven cultural terrain where engagement with tradition entails a context-specific dynamic process where custom is embraced, negotiated, or rejected. Astonishingly versatile, Emily crosses cultural boundaries as she also selectively participates in tradition. Neither fully Americanized, nor an absolute traditionalist she will keep oscillating between cultures well into her old age; this betweeness of an individual challenges the notion of immigrant Greek America as a closed cultural frontier.

Helen Papanikolas is aware, of course, that in multicultural America, sites of cultural remembering, attachment, and performance have not disappeared (2002). The divisive contact zones of the frontier have now been reconfigured to integrationist sites encouraged by liberal multiculturalism – the ethnic festival, the immigrant museum, the university classroom where ethnicity is taught, the ethnic blockbuster film, Public Television documentaries, and intermarriage, among others. Out of what kind of cultural sediments and transmutations did this cultural revitalization take place? What transpired between the era when nativism and assimilationism reigned supremely, to the current moment when multitude differences vie for our attention? What kinds of transformations took places within families, institutions, and the larger society during this span? Her recent book, “An Amulet of Greek Earth” (2002), makes a gesture toward this direction. There, she maps the “racial odyssey” – to use Jacobson’s (1998) apt phrase – of Greek immigrants, and documents, albeit in broad contours, their racial transformation from the maligned “non-white” immigrants into today’s “white” ethnics who are celebrated by liberal multiculturalism. Clearly, the notion of an open frontier is crucial to enable the close investigation of these changes historically and to avoid the reductive notion that while a culture was “lost” in the 1940s, it was somehow resurrected ex nihilio during post-civil rights multiculturalism. But it will be a mistake, I think, to criticize Helen Papanikolas for working with what today are considered ill-founded anthropological assumptions of culture. Her work is the product of intellectual currents, ideologies, and the prevalent political constraints of her times. To dismiss her work on the grounds of its integrationist assumptions inevitably leads to the logical equivalent of discarding any contemporary analysis founded on the value of diversity, an assumption that is taken for granted today. I suggest instead, that contemporary scholars of Greek America will benefit from a critical reading of the politics of her work, particularly her unprecedented success for the time in turning “Greek America” a legitimate topic of academic research. This may provide much needed insights today to tackle the glaring neglect of Greek Americans from, indeed its “bleak under-representation” (Leontis, 1997:104), in mainstream anthropology, cultural, literary, film, and theater studies. It may offer a departure point to start mapping strategies to confront what is perhaps the least talked about academic inconsistency: In an academy fascinated with diversity, Greek America’s cultural visibility in the public sphere has been relegated in the academic margins.

Helen Papanikolas has written and publicly spoken on behalf of racial minorities. She has insisted in bringing to the public consciousness the notion that the relative socioeconomic success of various groups has been determined to a large extent by their relative proximity or distance from phenotypical “whiteness.” Her scholarly work and public lectures do not neglect to document the racial oppression of minorities such as native American Indians, African Americans, Mexican, and Asian Americans which were excluded – in relative degrees – from the privileges of “whiteness.” There is a political import in this position because it recognizes that it has been structural constraints, not simply cultural values that determine upward mobility. “The roots of discrimination were in color and physiognomy,” she writes. ‘The darker the skin or the more distinctive the features, the greater the prejudice” (1995a:244). In her critique of “up by their own bootstraps” ideology of ethnic success, Papanikolas anticipates the emphasis current “whiteness” studies place on race as a structuring principle of social hierarchies.

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