Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Immigrant Women in the Work of Helen Papanikolas (II)

Women’s Culture and the Ethic of Empathy

Papanikolas’s work features women as active political participants in the labor conflicts of early twentieth century industrial Intermountain West. Women entered the contact zones of labor strife in solidarity to their laborer husbands, often leading the protests in defiance of danger. The confrontational tactics were diverse, ranging from direct assault to symbolic insult. In a “National Miners Union” protest women openly confronted deputies and threw pepper in their eyes in order to prevent the chasing of male strikers. In the aftermath of the clash, and while visiting their imprisoned husbands, “several women shocked the deputies by exposing their breasts and offering ‘suck to make humans’ of them–an old Slavic act of hostility” (1973:282). Subjected to the power of the state, immigrant women resisted their everyday symbolic and ideological defiance. Ideological commitments did not compromise women’s humanity. Papanikolas discusses an incident when a Serbian immigrant woman intervened in volatile contact zones against mob mentality. Mrs. Mike Dragos, an active participant in the 1933 Carbon County Coal Strike, capitalized on her moral authority as a fearless woman – “the only basis for respect given [to] a woman by rural Slav men” (1973:285) – and averted the lynching of her ideological enemy, Sheriff Bliss, by a worker’s mob.

In addition to addressing women’s active political participation in class wars, Papanikolas also situates women in a different kind spheres of exchanges, one defined by an ethos of humanitarian care. In her work, women transcend difference and bond on the basis of their common humanity and shared experiences. Poverty, loss of family members, childbirth, and the raising of children work as centripetal force that forge temporary or permanent inter-ethnic solidarity. Such a humanistic ethos occurs cross-culturally. When a pioneer Greek immigrant went into labor, for example, “the Italian, Yugoslav, and Mexican women rushed to help her. They could not speak to each other in a common language, but they knew what was to be done” (1989:23). In another instance, the wife of Dr. Claude McDermid, an Irish Catholic, “is remembered as a humanitarian. She brought food and clothing to [immigrant] mining families in the days before unionization and before welfare” (1981:93). Throughout Papanikolas’s work, empathy for the disenfranchised becomes a socially valued ethos.

In a socio-economic order where relations of domination and exploitation were prevalent, Papanikolas shows that women created alternative social spaces based on the ethic of empathy and care. While a narrative thread of early twentieth century American modernity in early twentieth century hierarchized immigrant groups, often relegating immigrants to a subhuman status, women formed cross-cultural relations on the basis of their common humanity. If capitalism sustained circuits of exploitation, women nurtured networks of collaboration. If racism bred animosity, women sustained an ethic of care. In her work, women connect exhibit an extraordinary capacity to connect, and transcend differences. In Emily-George, for example, Papanikolas explains how her mother’s profound empathy for human suffering and poverty translated to an ethic of giving. Emilia, an avid reader, “bought from every bookseller who came to the door,” and never turned down a transient’s request for a handout. “Both transients and booksellers knocked on our doors, the booksellers at the front, the transients at the back. To be hungry was the worst of calamities for my mother and transients begged her to hurry as freight trains chugged out of the railyards” (1995:5).

Papanikolas expanded on women’s culture of empathy in “Magerou, the Greek Midwife” (1970), an essay which folklorist Notariani characterized as “probably the earliest account of the life of an ethnic woman in Utah” (2003). For this work, Papanikolas collected oral testimonies to piece together a biography of Georgia Latherou Magerou (1867-1950), an immigrant woman legendary for her skills as a folk healer, midwife, and matchmaker. Attentive to the social contexts in which Magerou applied her folk expertise, Papanikolas portrays many facets of Magerou’s life. In doing so, she complicates a number of her early assumptions of immigrant tradition as a total way of life (Anagnostou 2003). First, the fact that Magerou’s household observed two religious traditions, Greek Orthodox and Catholic (Magerou’s husband was Croatian) illustrates that different traditions can coexist and accommodate each other. Secondly, we learn that Magerou gradually adopted a number of modern medical practices to supplement her traditional curing methods, showing that individuals do not blindly follow tradition but venture outside of it to adopt selectively alternative practices that work well for their purposes. Furthermore, the essay demonstrates that the abandonment of tradition does not necessarily mean its total rejection. Specific social and political circumstances can lead individuals to revitalize a tradition they had previously renounced. For example, many immigrant women returned to their traditional midwife, Magerou, when they were confronted with the fearful possibility that their doctors were members of the Klan. Here, the return to tradition ensures some measure of confidence among members of a despised ethnic group.

The essay on Magerou reverses the common view of tradition as an inferior system to modernity. In an era when company doctors in industrial labor camps were all too quick to amputate the legs of injured laborers, Magerou’s folk medical practices offered a humane alternative. She has been credited for saving the legs of two individuals when modern medicine offered no hope for treatment. This demonstrates that tradition could at times offer a more compassionate approach to human problems. Leg amputation meant the economic and social ruin of the immigrants and their families, yet it was often the method of “choice” because it was cost-effective. “Amputations were hastily performed” and immigrants “felt they were coldly treated, like animals, not human beings” (1996:163). In an era of unregulated capitalism sanctioning quick and inexpensive medical “solutions” in response to industrial accidents, the immigrants were subjected to a violent aspect of modernity. In this instance, traditions that were disparaged by modernity offered a humane, superior alternative.

Helen Papanikolas makes Magerou the symbol “of the color and uniqueness of Greek immigrant life” (1996:169). The representation of Magerou subverts stereotypes, humanizing immigrants as complex and multidimensional human beings. Her portrayal challenges misconceptions about the folk. Disparaged as backward, hated as inferior, and scorned as disposable labor, men and women immigrants possessed human qualities that were not recognized at the time. Even presently, they are not included in generalized histories of immigration, and they are often missing in ethnic narratives about early immigration. The portrait of Magerou helps restore the humanity of the immigrants, by emphasizing the immigrants’ profound capacity of empathy toward other human beings.

Magerou’s compassion for others extended beyond her professional dedication as a committed folk healer. Once “she spent four months with one Nevada family whose mother had died” (1996:167). Greek culture sanctions this kind of behavior and even has a specific term to connote it, psychika. ‘These were called psychika, acts of mercy that were good for one’s soul. Her [Magherou’s] life was a litany of psychika” (Papanikolas, 1989:22). Magherou was not the only one demonstrating such an uncompromising humanity. In Carbon County, where there was no midwife, another individual, Mrs. Haralambos (Angheliki) Koulouris, “selflessly and without pay cared for newborn babies and their mothers” (1971:77). Yet another immigrant woman, Yiannina, also stands out in Papanikolas’ folkloric writings, for her profound capacity to help others:

No child went without shoes or food if she knew about it and it did not matter if they were the children of immigrants or Americans. People remembered that she could set out with Uncle John’s bootleg money in her purse to buy her sons clothing; it was gone by the time she reached town. On the way she saw a child with worn-out overalls, another with ripped off shoe soles. When Christ Jouflas, future mayor of Helper, was orphaned, she raised him along with her eight children until his father married again (1981:86).

Women’s culture of empathy and mutual aid provided an alternative to the profit-based corporate ethic of the industrial frontier. Yet, a closer look at Papanikolas’s observations brings to our attention the limits in the political and social effectiveness of empathy. In the long term, women’s informal networks of mutual help could pose no serious threat to the capitalist logic of development. Translated into practice, this logic effects immigrant displacement. A resigned melancholy overtakes the ethnohistorian who records the effects of this phenomenon:

With people such as these [Ada Duhigg], with the vigorous life of which they were a part, and in the narrow, protected canyon that gave security, the immigrants found their new-world home. Their exodus in the early 1960’s, made necessary by the needs of the copper industry to expand their operations into the canyon, was their second uprooting. To leave their town was as hard for them as leaving of their native lands when they were young (1965:314).

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