‘Palikari,’ a Greek migrant’s story destined to echo in eternity
By Nick Malkoutzis
It could have been a scene from Orthodox Easter anywhere in Greece: Relatives, friends and co-workers gathering around the fire to roast lamb, share a drink and have a dance. This particular festive scene, though, is taken from a Colorado coal miners’ colony on April 20, 1914, at the height of the longest workers’ strike the USA had ever seen.
Within hours of the festivities, around 20 people lay dead after an onslaught by the Colorado National Guard. They included union leader Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant, who was beaten and then shot in the back.
For decades Tikas’s exceptional story of fortitude only existed within the contours of broader accounts about the Ludlow Massacre. A century later, a documentary called “Palikari” made by two Greeks, director Nickos Ventouras and researcher Lambrini Thoma, seeks to build on the single account of Tikas’s journey from Cretan migrant to working man’s legend and create a comprehensive account of this gripping tale.
The idea for the project came in 2007 when Ventouras and Thoma were preparing to trace Jack Kerouac’s journey across the USA, as told in his classic book “On The Road,” for a magazine article. During the research, Thoma came across an article about Louis Tikas and the pair decided to stop off in Colorado to find out more.
“At the time, to get to see Tikas’s grave, we had to climb over a fence,” Thoma tells Kathimerini English Edition. “The cemetery wasn’t open, there wasn’t a sense of memory or that people may travel from afar to visit the place. It was a local matter. But we saw that it was still alive, people hadn’t forgotten the story and they were making an effort to keep it alive.”
After meeting with folk singer Frank Manning and Colorado’s poet laureate David Mason, Ventouras and Thoma were convinced that Tikas’s story needed to be told to as wide an audience as possible.
Their work was cut out for them by Zeese Papanikolas, a Greek-American author who was the first to delve into Tikas’s past, elevating him from just a bit-part player in a cast of hundreds involved in the events in Ludlow to one of the main characters in this momentous event in American labor history. His 1991 book, “Buried Unsung,” transformed Tikas into a compelling historical figure, who left Greece as Ilias Spantidakis early in the 20th century and established himself as a mainstay of the Greek community in southern Colorado before leading a 14-month strike that pitted poorly paid and badly treated miners against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and chief mine owner John D. Rockefeller Jr.
“America knew the story of the Ludlow Massacre but only found out about Louis Tikas relatively recently,” says Thoma. “We owe this to Zeese Papanikolas, who in the pre-Internet age and starting with the memories of just two people created a seminal work of oral history. He dedicated many years of his life trying to uncover who Louis Tikas was. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for his work. He certainly made things much easier for us to make the documentary.”