Journalist and educator Irene Archos is an adjunct professor at Nassau Community College in New York, and founder of the well-known website Greekamericangirl.com. In this interview, Archos discusses issues faced by women and families of Greek diaspora, the difficulties and challenges of living between two or more cultures, and her plans for the launch of a new foundation which will unite “Ellinides” worldwide.
MN: Share with us a few words about Greek-American Girl. How did the idea for this blog first come about and what kind of content is featured on the blog?
IA: First it started with a deep need to express the issues and the triumphs and just the life of someone like me, someone who is a diaspora Greek woman trying to hold on to the roots of being Greek but at the same time trying to assimilate to a bigger, larger, dominant culture. I was frustrated with the traditional media for the Greek community, as it represents an older school, a different era of journalism, and I didn’t find that my voice and the voice of women like myself was being broadcast, was being heard, or even kind of given the freedom to express itself.
We have so many immigrant populations, it’s a melting pot in New York City, and I was looking at the other ones, especially as a female, and of course, they have their own version of a female publication or female journalists. Such magazines exist for Latina or Asian women, but we as Greek women do not have anything like that. I’ve been a writer, and I’ve been an English teacher for a long time, and I said “you know, let’s just do it, let me create an online website that tries to get the Hellenic woman’s voice.” Not just American, but global.
I was born in South Africa, I’ve lived in Greece, I’ve traveled and I did journalism in the Middle East and I grew up in New York…we’re always, as Greeks of the diaspora, we’re very global, so we’re always thinking…we’re not just in America, we’re everywhere. So I try to bring that perspective in there, and I didn’t only want to make it fashion and style and fluff, I wanted it to strike a balance between the serious and also the funny. And I also wanted to get a very broad spectrum of readers, so not just the old. I wanted to put a little bit of everything, so as women of various stages of life would find something to read to take home with. I also wanted to create a forum and a collective place where women could talk to each other, because I think it’s different when the conversation is public. It has to be a public dialogue, because only in a public dialogue can you expect change in your society and in the larger world. As women, we tend to talk, we go to the café, we vent with our friends, we have a lot of things to say, but we keep it always around the kitchen table. But I think in order to have a powerful voice, it has to be collective and it has to be public.
Those are one or two or three reasons why I tried to start this website, and to be honest, I’m not the first, there is a good colleague in Thessaloniki who did a historical research project where she traced women’s publications in the immigrant communities, in every part of the U.S., and there actually was a journal called “Ellinida.” It was in Greek and it was distributed as the female voice of Greek immigrants. So I feel like it’s new in that the internet and the social media have made it a new vehicle, but it’s actually been a long tradition.
I’m honoring a tradition that I didn’t know of, of Greek women’s writing and the Greek woman’s perspective in the larger society.
MN: One of the many pressures that are faced by young women and also young men of the diaspora is to marry Greek, to stay within the Greek culture. How do these pressures manifest themselves, and what are your thoughts on this issue more broadly?
IA: I think, being a hybrid-anything, a hybrid identity, whether Greek-Australian, Greek-American, Greek-British, it comes with a certain sense of conflict, because you’re residing in both cultures, you have two identities, and sometimes they’re bound to clash. Our new culture encourages us to be independent, to do your own thing, be bold, don’t listen to anyone, but our Greek culture focuses a lot on the family, on the collective benefit of the group, so it’s not so egocentric, it’s more collective, and that’s going to bring a lot of conflict when it comes time to make choices. For example, moving out. Moving out was unheard of in my house. When I would ask my parents when can I move out, they said that’s outrageous, that’s something that only the bad girls did, because there would be an ulterior motive for them going away. They saw independence as a way of rejecting the family, the family warmth and the family love and they took it as an affront to honor. So even the choice of moving out becomes hard. Or, even the choice of a career. I’m thinking, how much are we made to choose the professions we choose as women and how much is it our own choice? I think women are socialized different in the families, especially from the Mediterranean, so that has an impact on their career choice.
You mentioned marriage. That’s a really big conflict, both for males and for females in the Greek diaspora communities, but I think more especially for women, because women are the ones who keep the culture. You’re the depositor of the culture, so you are one responsible to pass on the culture and the religion and the traditions to the next generation. So there’s a great pressure to keep the Greek traditions through marriage, and because there is such a fear that we can lose those traditions, we can lose our sense of identity if we don’t keep the Greek culture, if we don’t marry within our ethnicity, it becomes of paramount importance, it becomes an obsession, and God forbid, there is nothing worse that you can do as a woman than to marry a non-Greek because you’re going to lose your identity. And at the same time, it is a real fear, the realization that one could lose your identity because, let’s be honest, there’s a joke that says “what would you want to be if you weren’t Greek?” and the answer is “dead.” We are very proud to keep our Greek identity, we don’t want to lose it, and in order for us to keep it, the pressure to keep the Greek culture through marriage becomes very great, so the conflict is even more heightened for us, but at the same time we’re not living in Greece, we’re living in this great, big, diverse community and as luck would have it, the chances of you falling in love with another Greek are slim if you’re not constantly surrounded by Greeks all the time. And to lose one’s identity is an anathema.
I felt this when for Easter one year, my parents visited my aunt in Vermont. There’s not that many Orthodox churches up there in Vermont, and I remember driving for miles and miles and miles in order to make it to this small Orthodox church somewhere in Rutland for the Easter service. And when we got there, I went in, and this was as a young girl, and I felt so strange because there were supposedly Greeks wearing jeans and baseball caps, and it wasn’t even a church, it was just a rented space in a storefront, and I froze right there, because I said “my gosh, if I stay here long enough, I’m going to become an American and I’m going to become one of these people.” Oh gosh, that’s the worst thing for a Greek, to become a non-Greek, and so the pressure for the young people to marry is so, so high, because of that loss of identity that comes through marriage. Yet on the other hand, and I posted an article by a young woman on my site who is having the same issues with her mother because she’s dating an Ecuadorian, and she says in her article that it comes from fear, that our parents keep us with this Greekness on us all the time because they’re afraid to let us go, but that’s the other side of it, that you have to be open to other cultures and you have to embrace yourself within the larger global community, and sometimes you can pick to have the best of both worlds and living them.
It’s a very delicate balance, you want to keep it Greek because you want to stay true to your roots and you know that your roots are so rich, and many times richer than the roots of your new home. But at the same time, you don’t want to become this very exclusive group that cuts everyone off and that doesn’t want to play with anyone. I think we have that in the Greek community. Sometimes we’re so focused on being Greek that we become autistic in a way, we’re so self-centered that we become provincial sometimes, we make our own little parties, and pat each other on the back like we’re these great people because we’re in this mini group. Sometimes you need to break that to become larger, to open up your perspective.
So while we are proud to be Greek, we have to go beyond just being Greek, otherwise we will be self-defeating and almost incestuous.
So I think that that’s where being bicultural or tricultural comes as a very big asset, because you get that global perspective, and then you can choose.
MN: Quite often in diaspora households, it’s actually the children themselves that are resistant to go to Greek school or to go to church, or who have mixed feelings about existing between the two cultures. What are your thoughts on this issue and how could these tensions be resolved?
IA: Well, speaking from my own process of assimilation, I think young people go through a process. When you’re young, you need to fit in, you need to reject everything that your parents are telling you that you should do, to melt into your bigger surroundings. I remember growing up, after elementary school, in my middle school and high school years, I did not want to be associated with anything Greek, because that was so uncool! My parents would stop on the side of the highway with plastic bags and knives and pick up the dandelions, and they were doing ridiculous things like baking their own bread instead of making sandwiches from the white toast bread. This is all the stuff that that movie is all about, I won’t mention it’s name, everyone knows it. But I think that as you grow older, you realize, you come to terms with both sides. When you’re young and immature and you’re still trying to find yourself, you reject that part that you’re given, in order to find your true identity. And once you get comfortable in your own skin, once you don’t feel like such an outsider because you’re an immigrant, then you come full circle again, and then you embrace your roots and your parents’ roots, and then you become, I think, a very staunch supporter of your original family. I find that it takes a while, but it happens.
Now I always had that question, sometimes some young people in immigrant families first-generation, second-generation, third-generation, eventually they assimilate to the point where Greek is only in their history. But I don’t know if there’s been enough study, sociologically, psychologically, enough research to trace that pattern. I think eventually, of course, we will all become “American,” but how long does that take, and why for some it comes after and for some now? That would need some kind of professor in some sociological school to do some research to answer. But I think personally, you do come full circle, and you kind of become happy being on that little see-saw of two, where you kind of go one way for one, and the other way for the other, and you do find a happy balance. I think it is possible to take the best of two worlds with them.
MN: We often also see within families and households of the Greek diaspora tensions in terms of the difference in the way girls are socialized as compared to boys. How do these pressures manifest themselves and how could they be reconciled?
IA: I think there’s gender role conflicts that happen, especially within the more older-generation families. There’s a clash between the traditional culture and the values of the greater culture, and the values of the adopted culture. I think that Greek women as a whole, either here or in the old country, I don’t think we’re appreciated as much or respected as much or publicly acclaimed for what we do, and for our strengths and for our accomplishments, as much as our brothers or fathers. Greek society has tended to be patriarchal, and so I find that that creates a lot of tension in a woman, in a little girl, because in order to be successful in the new world, they have to let go a lot of that baggage. I’ve spoken to many women who are dynamic and successful and professional, and they said that they have had that struggle, to get rid of their cultural baggage as women, in order to feel successful. Because, I think, inherently, unconsciously, our culture does not give the same credence, the same value to its daughters than to its sons. The people who are doing it the most, I think, are the mothers, the women, and I don’t think they’re conscious of it, how different, what different messages they’re giving their sons and their daughters. And it’s the idea of living in this culture, the dominant culture, the American culture, that really espouses gender role equality. In America, we grow up with the idea that men and women, boys and girls can be equal. And having that in the same body and soul of someone who is brought up to think that women are a certain way, they have to be nurturers, they have to tend to their families, they have to put themselves last or that other people have to come before them, that creates a very deep dissonance psychologically in the women who grow up outside of their home country.
I don’t think that my site would have happened, I don’t think we would be having this whole conversation had I not been a product of two cultures, because from talking to Greek women and my Greek counterparts, the issue of gender and equality in Greece is not an issue, because it’s not really pointed out, it’s not talked about or brought to the surface. But because in the U.S. it is, it is a major issue socially, it’s on the landscape, that we’re even speaking about it, and I think that because we come from an outsider’s perspective, that we’re able to see that, hey, daughters are not given the same respect as their brothers, and only because I’m coming from a different perspective can I call it out, whereas those who are living in the culture think it’s normal, women flirt, get their way by treating men a certain way and looking very seductive. That’s okay, that’s how it works here. So it’s complicated, but there’s definitely a lot more conflict and consciousness of the disparities between the sexes growing up in a non-native Greek family, than not.
MN: Some issues that are often addressed on Greek-American Girl have to do with matters that are sometimes considered taboo within Greek families in the diaspora, including domestic violence, mental illness, and drug abuse. How can families overcome these taboos and the silence that often accompanies these issues?
IA: Well, I think we have to be honest with ourselves, and I think a lot of it, the taboo of not speaking has to do with a few things, but one big one is the Greek ego. We’re so proud to be what we are that we are not willing to look at what we’re missing, at what we’re lacking and what are our faults. So we have to put our Greek ego down a bit, so that we can see that “no, honey, there are Greek drug abusers, there’s an incredible rate of domestic violence in the Greek community that is not talked about.” We have all the social ills that other societies have, but because of our ego, we don’t talk about it, and that’s a shame, because we’ll never be able to deal with the issue until we come face-to-face with it. So I think it has to do with our ego, I think it has to do with being honest with ourselves within our community, and being able to help each other, because that’s what we have to do, and we have to stop putting this “oh, it’s me, it’s my ego” over the collective good. I think Greeks do that often, they think of what’s good for themselves and what makes themselves look good, but then they don’t think of the community, what can we bond together as a real community, not pit one against the other and have rivalries and jealousies coming between giving us a collective sense so that we can address these issues. It goes back to ancient times, the city-states, they were fighting in every way possible, but there was no way to get them to think as one, because everybody wanted to be the boss, everybody knew what they were doing or what the other guy or other girl wasn’t doing right, and we have to change that, because we’re not being honest with ourselves. And I don’t think, frankly, we’re going to be as successful as a collective community unless we put our ego to the side.
We’ve done so much in this country and around the world as individuals. You can read so many examples of wonderful, successful Greeks all over the world. But we’re not at that point yet where we’re thinking as one. It’s each man in their own city-state, it’s each woman in her tent. So until we get to that kind of spiritual level, where we think as a community, we’re not going to see those problems, we’re going to deny them. And of course the other issue is what will the non-Greeks, the others say?. It’s the village mentality, keep it on the hush because you don’t want your bad news or your dirty underwear being talked about, because it’s a shameful thing to have someone who’s mentally ill in your family. It’s the shame, we’ve got to get over the shame factor. It happens to a lot of us, but we need to have the courage to come out of our individual stone huts and say “we’re in this together.”
MN: One of the initiatives that you are currently working on is the establishment of a new foundation which will be dedicated to the needs and the causes of Greek women worldwide. Share with us some details about this new foundation.
IA: I have this idea for a not-for-profit called the Ellinida Foundation, and its goals are threefold. It’s to educate, to empower, and to celebrate, and it’s going to be global, it’s not going to be just based in the U.S., it’s going to act as a vehicle to help women in all parts and stages of their lives, whether they’re young women growing up or professional mothers and working women, and even the grandmothers in the later parts of their lives. There’s many functions for each role, but just to educate, I’d want to create workshops where we can learn about our ethnicity and our roots and our Orthodoxy and to help the younger generation learn that we can keep it Greek. Then there’s the empowerment part, where I want to be able to help women in their professional careers and in their roles as mothers and nurturers in helping with the life-work balance, by offering networking opportunities, by also creating mentorship opportunities, by creating a clearinghouse for financial information, so women who want to be entrepreneurs can get information to open up their own businesses or to get ahead in their work lives.
I did some research for female entrepreneurship before and after the euro crisis in Greece, and it was phenomenal.
Before the euro crisis, I think Greece, in terms of how many women had businesses, was at the bottom of the European totem pole, bottom of the ladder.But then, after the crisis, I think Greece is either in the number one or the number two position.
I think that something like 30 percent of all new businesses now are being started by Greek women, in Greece. I think this presents an incredible opportunity for established women entrepreneurs in other nations, of Greek descent, to lend a helping hand to these women so that we can all go forward.
Finally, the last big pillar of this organization, the foundation, is going to help create celebration, to be a Greek woman wherever you find yourself. I’d want to create events where women would come together, either online or in person, and share stories and bring their histories together and celebrate the wonderful thing to be a Greek woman, an Ellinida, because we have so much strength, so many wonderful qualities, we are heroes, but we’re unspoken heroes, and it’s about time we gave each other a party, a real party, a celebration to honor us because who else will? One day of the year, Mother’s Day, doesn’t do it. That’s my idea of what the Ellinida Foundation, and I’m actively searching for sponsors or even people to help on the board, so that we take it one step further. And all that information you can find on my website at greekamericangirl.com.