Saturday, June 4, 2011

«Στην Αμερική» and "The Immigration Photo-epic"




Since the advent of multiculturalism, in the 1960s, popular culture has been inundated with images of southeastern European immigrants. In museum exhibits, films, documentaries, books, commemorative albums, postcards, and stamps, images of arriving immigrants crowded on the decks of ships, huddling their babies, kissing the soil of America, longingly contemplating the Statue of Liberty, subjected to medical examination, have created a visual archive which Matthew Frye Jacobson* identifies as a new genre, "the immigration photo-epic." These mythic images are part of a narrative that has successfully incorporated Greeks, Italians, Jewish, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, and other southeastern European peoples into the nation's history. Ellis Island is elevated now into a topos of national origins, and is revered in a way similar to that of Plymouth Rock, another symbol of mythic origins.

Jacobson offers acute insights on the cultural work of this "visual record." These images "do not resurrect memory," he suggests, "they have become it." Their filmic adaptation, in particular, produces a generic immigration story which dissolves the differences among immigrant national groups, let alone intra-group diversity. Visual culture has produced "the notion of a singular, knowable 'immigrant experience'" he writes. Immigrants arrived, suffered, overcame poverty and discrimination, and ultimately rooted themselves to America experiencing mobility. Theirs is a triumphant story of struggle and success.

Let us compare this generalized narrative with Θανάση Παπακωνσταντίνου story in the song «Στην Αμερική»:

Ο τόπος που μεγάλωσα κρυφό παράπονο έχει,
που η θάλασσα δε δέχτηκε το χώμα του να βρέχει.
Παρ' όλα αυτά, του ωκεανού, ξέρω, το μαύρο κύμα
σε πάει ίσα στο βυθό σε πάει και στην Κίνα.

Α! και στην Αμερική
μαζί με τη Μαρίκα, το Δούσια, τον Κωστή.

Τους βλέπω μπρος στα μάτια μου μες το παλιό βαπόρι
σα στρείδια στο κατάστρωμα οι μετανάστες όλοι.
Βουβές γυναίκες, άλαλες που δύναμη αναβλύζουν,
παιδάκια που δε νοιώθουνε το δρόμο που βαδίζουν.

Α! τα χρόνια τα παλιά
βαριά φορτία φεύγαν για την Αμέρικα.

Του Κατσαρού ανεμίζουνε τα κατσαρά μαλλιά του, καθώς
κοιτάζει αντίθετα προς τη γενέτειρά του.
Του φέρνει ο άνεμος στ' αυτιά τραγούδια αγαπημένα,
τα 'παιξε στην κιθάρα του, τα 'δωσε και σε μένα.

Α! απ' την Αμερική
μαζί με τη Μαρίκα, το Δούσια, τον Κωστή.

Και σαν το κουρελόβαρκο αδειάσει στο λιμάνι,
θα τους στοιβάξουν στη σειρά οι ξένοι πολισμάνοι. Άλλοι
θα 'χουν τον τρόπο τους και θα ευδοκιμήσουν
κι άλλοι ως να πεθάνουνε τη δίψα δεν θα σβήσουν.

Α! στην Αμερική,
Ελλάδα σαν αγριόχορτο φύτρωσες και κει.

[Ακούστε, youtube.com/watch?v=OMn_a1TCPb8&feature=related – (Μουσική, Στίχοι: Θανάσης Παπακωνσταντίνου; Τραγούδι: Σωκράτης Μάλαμας)] – For a translation of the song into English see below (***)

The song evokes the collective experience of awe, anticipation, affect, and travel conditions (σα στρείδια στο κατάστρωμα οι μετανάστες όλοι – Βουβές γυναίκες, άλαλες που δύναμη αναβλύζουν) to proceed with particular cultural references in the image of singer Yiorgos Katsaros** poetically evoked (Του Κατσαρού ανεμίζουνε τα κατσαρά μαλλιά του). Katsaros' songs narrate the social dramas of immigrants, and Θανάσης Παπακωνσταντίνου takes up the narration of immigration through song (τα 'παιξε στην κιθάρα του, τα 'δωσε και σε μένα).

Immigrants are refreshingly seen as individuals (μαζί με τη Μαρίκα, το Δούσια, τον Κωστή). Immigrants have a name, the song reminds us, a name attached to a story. And not all stories are the same ( Άλλοι / θα 'χουν τον τρόπο τους και θα ευδοκιμήσουν /
κι άλλοι ως να πεθάνουνε τη δίψα δεν θα σβήσουν.)***

As Greek popular culture keep exploring immigration one hopes that heterogeneity will not be erased under a generalized narrative, and life stories will not be subsumed under the epic image of a heroic immigrant.

* Jacobson's book is entitled, "Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America" (Harvard U P, 2006), www.popmatters.com/pm/review/roots-too-white-ethnic

** For an earlier blog entry on Katsaros see, immigrations-ethnicities-racial.blogspot.com/2011/02/blog-post.html

*** It is interesting that a particular visualization of the song largely relies on the filmic visual archive of the immigration epic, www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8uxqzokc0w&feature=related. From this site I borrow the translation of the song in English:

"The place where I grew up nurses a secret grievance:
that the sea did not consent to wash its soil.
But for all that, I know that the ocean's black wave
takes you right into the deep, or all the way to China,
A! and to America, together with Marika, Dousia and Kostis.
The place where I grew up nurses a secret grievance:
that the sea did not consent to wash its soil.
But for all that, I know that the ocean's black wave
takes you right into the deep, or all the way to China,
A! and to America, together with Marika, Dousia and Kostis.

I watch them inside my eyes, on the old ship,
clinging to the deck like barnacles, all the emigrants:
mute women, unspeaking, saving their strength,
little children who do not realize what road they are walking.
A! Those were heavy cargoes, in the old days, leaving for America.

The curly hair of Katsaros flies in the wind
as he looks backwards to the place of his birth.
The wind brings to his ears beloved songs
that he used to play on his guitar, it has brought them to me too,
A! and to America, together with Marika, Dousia and Kostis.

And as the ragged ship unloads in the harbour,
the foreign policemen will stack them in rows.
Some will find their way and thrive,
and others will never quench their thirst until they die.
A! In America... Greece, like a wild weed, you took root there too.
I watch them inside my eyes, on the old ship,
clinging to the deck like barnacles, all the emigrants..."


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