Giota Tourgeli: Families split by the “American Dream”: Greek Emigration to the USA and Impacts on Marriage and Family Relationships (1890-1930)

This paper aims at describing the transnational families of Greek emigrants during the first decades of the 20th century, especially the social effects of transatlantic mobility on their marriage strategies and family relations.

At the turn of the 20th century and up to 1924 a total of around 400,000 Greek emigrants moved to the USA in search of better life prospects. Emigrants, mainly men, single and of a young age, following a family strategy for resources and security would leave for a short period, to make money and return, provide dowries for their young sisters and start their own families. To return was even more of an imperative for those already married. Nevertheless, for many emigrants the initial plan of return was constantly prolonged as labor conditions in the USA did not permit the accumulation of the desired capital or business obligations tied migrants even further to the new land. As a result, if some emigrants brought their families to the USA, several other families split up for long periods and members lived separated from each other, yet linked together through financial and reproductive relations, moral engagements and feelings of “familyhood”.

The paper will try to approach the transnational lifestyle as a normal choice for many Greek emigrant families and the way in which family structure, relations between couples and children’s values were affected by a prolonged separation. Family members who stayed behind encountered the emigrant with respect and admiration due to his contribution to their well-being; on the other hand, they were forced to live long absences and tolerate ‘voluntary’ silences from the breadwinner with regard to his activities abroad. In particular, wives who hardly knew the men they had married suffered not only from the geographical distance but also from a psychic and cultural gap during their rare contacts with them. Feelings of loneliness and estrangement alternated with fears of abandonment and the complex of inferiority towards men who were living the “American dream” and enjoying the freedom of the New World. Dependent on remittances, socially controlled with regard to their marital fidelity and other aspects of their lives, simultaneously charged with new roles and obligations, women were affected in a gendered way by labor emigration. Children for their part shared the familial burdens (care of the elderly, maintenance of the small family farm) and simultaneously enjoyed higher standards of life, better educational opportunities and marriage prospects. Socialized in a “migration culture” and in a “transnational mental space,” males aspired to migrate themselves to America while females planned their future on the basis of the economic and social capital gained overseas. The challenges of transnational space also included the role of the extended family (grandparents and unmarried close relatives) who assumed parental power, as well as responsibilities with regard to the supervision of the family property and the handling of remittances. There were also cases when family plans were upset due to the sudden death, illness or disappearance of the emigrant, the claim of the American inheritance by heirs in Greece, or their long legal battles for work-related accident compensations.

The paper is based on a rich and diverse archival material consisting of Greek newspapers and local magazines, provincial almanacs, travel writing, family archives (letters), foundation archives, i.e. the historical financial archives of the Greek National Bank, and secondary sources from the beginning of the 20th century.

 

Biography

Giota Tourgeli is currently a PhD Candidate at the Social and Educational Policy Department of the University of the Peloponnese, Greece. Her research focuses on the Greek emigration to the United States from 1890 to 1930 and its economic, social and cultural influences on the communities of origin. She also participates at the research project “Migration Management and International Organizations: A history of the establishment of the International Organization for Migration” funded by the European Social Fund and Greek National Resources (2012-2015).


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