Anyone who has seen the Percy Jackson movies knows what it means to be a demi-god—half-mortal and half-divine. Demi-gods are who I call the half-breeds, the cross breeds of Greeks with non-Greeks, that litter the five corners of the known world. In this issue, we delve into what it means to be a half-breed, a cultural mixed mutt, a demi-god by profiling a few famous and not-so-famous examples and then exploring what that means for identity. So whether you are 50% Greek, 25%, 15% or a slim sliver of a Hellene, you can still stake a throne in the pantheon of the immortals thanks to that drop of Greek blood that goes way back.
Athena Kottak: Tommy Lee’s little sister Athena is hard core demi-goddess. Born in Athens, her father was an American military captain and her mom a full-bodied Greek beauty queen (she was Miss Universe for Greece at one point.) While the family did eventually move to California, she is always proud to say she is Greek. Although she does not speak Greek, she was baptized Greek Orthodox and baptized both her children in a Greek Orthodox Church. Although thoroughly Californian, she keeps true to her Greek traditions. In her case, she does not feel any conflicts between her Greek or American side. (Could it be because she has the Californian side that mellows everything out?)
Nicollette Stephanopoulos and Nikki Sourelos: two seniors in high shool in New York City. Nikki is Colombian from her mother’s side but Greek from her father. Her mother stressed the Greek over the Spanish and she can speak it more fluently. Even though her father passed away when she was in junior high school, she identifies strongly with her culture. She tried out for the AHEPA “Ms Greek Independence Day” beauty pageant in which she would lead the float down 5th Avenue during the Independence Greek Parade. Nicollette comes from an Italian mother and a Greek father. Even though she did not grow up speaking Greek, has visited Greece only once and eats more pasta than souvlaki, when asked which side she identifies with more, “Greek” she blurts out. “I am more proud to be Greek than Italian,” she explains, “because I do not as much about my Greek side as my Italian so I am dying to find out about the Greek in me.” It doesn’t bother her if people confuse her for a full-fledged Greek due to her very long Greek last name. Could it be that her search for the Greek side has psychologically more to do with the search for her father, even if her father is dysfunctional? “Maybe,” she states. But at the same time she finds no difference between being Greek and Italian. In both cases the Greek side trumps the other.
Lise Condis: Lise comes from a long history of half-breeds. Both grandfathers were Greek but one married a French woman and the other a Syrian. Both sets of grandparents lived in Khartoum, Sudan and worked in the cotton industry. Her parents are half-breeds themselves so that makes her 50% Greek, 25% Syrian and 25% French. She was born in Geneva, Switzerland, moved to Greece, attended a French school for elementary until high school when she went to an international high school in Geneva. This cocktail of cultures has created a dynamic identity that is kaleidoscopic in its facets. Coming from so many cultures makes life more interesting but also more complicated. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” Lise explains, “It’s always growing but it is never whole.” When asked which language she thinks in (she is tri-lingual), “all of them,” she responds, “It depends to whom I’m speaking.”
When analyzing how her Hellenic side has forged her, she credits it with her outspokenness and boldness. “It is very contradictory to be Greek,” Lise explains. “At the same we want to take life easy, to always be in the sun, to be more relaxed, there is the need to prove something to the world.” Perhaps the need to prove she can accomplish something stems from the impetus to counteract the stereotypes of “the lazy Greeks” that were pitched against the Greeks during the Greek Euro crisis.
Lise has become a textile artist who dyes her own wools, both naturally and synthetically. She has recently launched her own site treslise.eu to showcase her hand-dyed wool.
Alexi: Alexi works for the American consulate in Athens and is a product of an American mother and a third-generation Greek father. Although she clearly defines herself as American, living in Greece as a Greek-American import has made it hard for her to shake the idea off. “When I tell people that I am American, they brush it off and say well you are Greek given your last name and your dark Greek looks.” They simply refuse to see her as an American. She explains this to the fact that ethnic Greeks are threatened at this point in their history by the growing wave of globalization at the same time they are losing their financial strong hold in their own country. She sees Greeks as being so proud of their culture that they want to make those who are not into Greeks. “They want to make me one of them even against my pleas, that ‘No, I am American,” she continues.
Belen: Belen’s father met her mother while at the port of call in Vigo, Spain. Her father, however, was a lusty Greek sailor who went on to visit other ports. Even though he married and had two daughters, he was mostly an absent father as he was out to sea often. He eventually abandoned the family but Belen never forgot her Greek father. She used to have an ongoing conversation with him just before she went to sleep. Belen had always identified with her Greek side, so much so that she made it her life’s quest to find her missing father. She embarked on a lifelong detective search making many frequent trips to Athens in the hopes of uncovering any of his relatives. Several years ago she made a chance encounter with a souvenir dealer near the archaeological museum. They got to chit chatting and as it turned out he knew one of her father’s brothers. The following year she returned and reunited with her father’s side of the family. The reunion, drenched with tears and warm embraces, felt like she had returned to where she belonged. For so many years she felt an outsider in her native Galicia. When she touched foot on the island of her father’s birth, she literally felt her roots. She was accepted wholeheartedly by his family, and she felt like finally she had come home.
Although thoroughly Spanish, she shows exceptional Greek pride: she returns to Greece each year to spend vacation time with her father’s family. She posts photos of Greece on her Facebook page incessantly. She studies Greek grammar and Greek dances in her spare time.
Anna Eliopoulos: Anna is the voice heard on Cosmos FM, the Hellenic radio for the NYC tri-state area as well as a radio producer for Fox News radio. She interviews many Greeks and Greek-Americans as part of “Hellenic Voices,” a program that is dedicated to finding connections to Hellenic themes. She grew up with a Greek father and a Mexican mother, yet she never felt lost in one culture over another. She credits her parents with raising her to have the best of both worlds as they wanted their children to fully grasp both sides of their cultural makeup. “Greek and Latino cultures,” she explains, “while they differ in the outward traditions, share many of the same core values of what is important—a work ethic, the family as the cornerstone of life, the value of education.” She visited both Mexico and Greece every year, spending Christmas with her Mexican side and the summers with the Greek. She would attend elementary school at the Greek Cathedral School in the morning learning Greek and about Greek culture, but she would return to speak Spanish with her Mexican mother who helped her with homework and kept many of the Spanish holidays such as The Day of the Dead. She found no conflict in growing up bi-cultural because her parents made a commitment to bringing up children in a mixed setting. Neither did she feel as an outcast or outsider in American society as they did not deprive them of feeling American. “My parents tried to instill in me and my sister that coming from two rich cultural backgrounds was a gift,” she states.
It was while attending high school in South Florida that she came to an understanding about her cultural identity. She came across many kids from both mixed marriages and two-sided Greek parents who surprisingly knew less about their culture than she did. “How close you are to your roots is not necessarily defined by both parents being Greek, it doesn’t matter how much ‘Greek’ you have in your blood,” she maintains. “If you don’t instill the cultural identity in your children or maintain it yourself, you will lose it.” She believes ultimately that “Greekness” stems from a person’s desire to connect to that identity, not just because it is in your blood.
Anna acknowledges that, especially in NY society, having an ethnic background is not as scary or suspect as it might have appeared to previous generations. In fact, with the changes in perception of identity due to diversity, she notes that more Greek-Americans will have the choice to delve out and identify with their ethnic roots. “Greece is not a faraway idea any more thanks to the reality of globalization and the Internet,” she states, thereby opening up the choice to upcoming generations to learn about their roots. Yet by the same token she believes that the trend to drift further and further from Greek roots due to mixed marriages of successive generations will remain. However, far from seeing “otherness” as something to hide, it will become an asset. “The concept of having an ethnicity will not make you different in a bad way but it will prepare you to be a citizen of world.”
Like the demi-gods in Greek mythology, it seems the hybrid offspring of Hellenic and other cultures tend to mix the qualities of their immortal and mortal parents in a way that benefits them in both worlds. The Hellenic identity will remain strong, perhaps even eclipsing the other cultures that mix in the breast. In the very least, it cannot be overlooked.