The day I was born in 1958 in New Jersey, the doctor turned to my father and asked, “What is your son’s name?” My father, being a proud Greek, replied, “Argyrios, after his grandfather.” The doctor, baffled, stared at him. “No, really, what’s his American name?”
My father thought about it. What is the American version of Argyri? Is it Eric? Archie? He didn’t like any of them. My father, also being a proud American, turned to the doctor and said, “I like Harry Truman. He’s name is Harry.” The nurse proceeded to write down my name as Harry and the rest, as they say, is history. To this day, many of my friends don’t even know that my Greek name is Argyrios. They think it’s Harialos or Haralambos and usually call me on those name days and I have to explain, “No, my name day is November 1.” And they look confused.
When you see people like me, American born of Greek parents from the 1970’s and back, you will notice that their names are usually Anglicized. My cousin is Bill, instead of Vasili. Another cousin is George, instead of Giorgo. There is also Gus, Mike, Ted, John, Kathy, Irene, Stacey, and the list goes on and on. Why? I do have a theory.
Prior to the 1970s’, immigrants to this country had it tough. They all did. The Irish, Italians, Poles and even the Greeks. I remember being in junior high and seeing a photograph in my Social Studies book of a sign hanging in a diner window around the early 1920s. It read, “No rats, no dogs, no Greeks!” Yes, my friends, we were not always loved.
Our parents and grandparents knew that to make it in this country you needed to work hard, don’t ask for hand-outs, and assimilate into the American culture. Assimilation didn’t mean discarding your heritage, but meant that you needed to blend in, become American. Although the Greeks in the United State were not accepted until after the Battle of Crete, during World War II, when the Americans began admiring Greek courage and what they did for the war effort, you still didn’t want to be different.
I remember in the 1960s going shopping and my mother telling me not to talk Greek outside the house… speak English. She didn’t want her children being subjected to taunts from others and being branded “a foreigner.” You may be appalled now, but it was real back then. My father lost his accent, except, of course, when he yelled at us kids, and my mother made sure that my sister and brother and I were involved with American sports and other activities, such as baseball, football and, for my sister, being a majorette.
That is why my generation, the “American-Greeks,” not Greek-Americans, have our American names.
In the 1970s, there was a wave of immigrants, not only from Greece, but India, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries. Suddenly, the country started going through a change. There were many more people entering whose names were hard to pronounce, but the deal was sealed with the name of one person… Arnold Schwarzenegger. Today he is a household name, but in the 1970s, no one could say his name and he didn’t change it and the rest of the immigrants didn’t change their names either. America started embracing diversity, whether you liked it or not, and it became “cool” to be foreign. For the Greeks, the American born Greek names remained Vasili, Giorgo, Kosta, Mihali, Theodoro, Yianni, Katerina, Irini, and Anastasia.
The stigma of being a foreigner may still linger in certain areas of the country, but for the most part, no one cares anymore. We American-Greeks grew up and had families and the funny thing is, we gave our children Greek names like… Demetra, Argyro, Konstandinos, Yianni, and Evangelia.
But then you ask, what about my last name… it wasn’t changed. Well, dear readers, there is a story. There is always a story. As you know, many of our patrioti did change their last names, for the same reasons I stated above and many personal reasons. But for my family, although my father gave me an American first name, he did put his foot down for the last name. When he became a naturalized citizen in the 1950s, the judge, before swearing him in, asked my father if he would like to change or shorten his last name, my father answered, “Judge, did Washington shorten his name? Did Roosevelt shorten his name? Karapalides has about the same amount of letters. So why should I? Besides, someday you’ll get use to saying my name just like you got use to saying Washington or Roosevelt.”
Dad was right. People have gotten use to saying my last name… well, almost. And, by the way, my father’s Greek name is Evangelos, but they call him Jerry. There’s a story behind that too, but that is for another day.
So whether your name is Harry or Haralambos, Ted or Eleftherios, Gina or Evgenia, it doesn’t matter… you can call me anything you want, except late for dinner!
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