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Old and New Can Blend Well : Heritage of Tragedy Doesn't Follow Greeks in New Homeland

One in an occasional series on immigrants in San Diego County.

March 09, 1987|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — "When America gets to me, I can go to the Greeks, and when being Greek gets to me, I can run to the Americans. It's like having a wife and a mistress--in love with both. In Greece, I feel a little of a stranger, rather Americanized, and here in America I can still at times feel like a foreigner."

Sitting in his office at San Diego State University, Minas Savvas, a professor of comparative literature, is surrounded by paintings and photographs of Greece. A small Greek flag is on the window, and a copy of a frieze from the Athens National Archeological Museum, a gift from the Ministry of Culture, is on one wall. The phone rings and he carries on an animated conversation in Greek, then hangs up and talks briefly to a student in his world literature class about work she missed.

It has been 34 years since Savvas, 47, left Greece, though Greece in many ways has not left him. Nor would he want that to happen.

But, he said, "Greeks have come to America because they chose to. It was not a biological accident. And Greeks make reliable Americans--good citizens. Their crime rate is among the lowest of any ethnic group."

One of Savvas' main concerns is that important aspects of Greek heritage be kept alive and shared, and that includes the literature, politics and history.

A poet himself, and translator of Greek poets, Savvas said, "Each year 2,000 poetry collections are published in Greece--and it is a country of 9 million. Greece has won two Nobel prizes for poetry in a 12-year span of time. Half of all Greek songs were poetry first.

"I love Greece because of its heritage and its suffering. To know about Greece is to see its tragedy and to feel wounded by that, and to then feel more in love."

Savvas, one of several thousand Greek-Americans living in San Diego County, keeps his heritage alive not only by going to Greek functions, listening to modern Greek music and eating Greek food, but by subscribing to four Greek newspapers and three Greek magazines, and by reviewing books in Greek.

"I can't escape my Greekness even if I wanted to," he said. "My Greekness is like my face. Perhaps both are imperfect, but they are inescapable, like fate or destiny."

Savvas also teaches Greek tragedies and the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" at SDSU.

Came to America Alone

Savvas' own odyssey to America and eventually to San Diego County began in one of the poorest suburbs of Athens.

"My father and mother were refugees, fourth-generation Asia Minor Greeks, expelled from Turkey in 1922," he said. "When people ask me why I came here, I say, 'We were four people living in a room 10 by 12'--and that's all I have to say. It was the size of my office."

As a child, Savvas endured World War II and the Greek Civil War. In 1945, when he was 6, his mother was killed by an explosion. At age 13, he left his father and older brother and came to America, alone, to live with an uncle in Chicago.

"Greeks migrate to places where they have relatives," Savvas said. "I was the epitome of the poor Greek. Those years from 1939 to 1952 were among the most horrible years Greece had in this century."

Eventually, his older brother came as well, partly due to Savvas' efforts. His father remained in Greece unti his death 20 years ago.

Savvas worked at various jobs during high school and college (as a bartender, waiter and salesclerk). The desire to learn and be educated was strong in him.

In time, he earned a master's degree at the University of Illinois and received a doctorate at UC Santa Barbara in 1970. Soon after that he began teaching at SDSU.

Cultural Traditions Kept Alive

Angeliki Savvas came from Tripolis, Greece, to the United States in 1967, where she taught chemistry and math in a Chicago area high school before coming to San Diego. Now she and Savvas have a 4-year-old son, Peter.

At home, the two keep some of the cultural traditions of Greece alive. But, said Angeliki: "I did more with my family in Chicago because we lived in a Greek community where most people were newcomers. For the Greeks in Chicago, the community is a more intense experience.

"But 9 out of 10 meals in our home are Greek, or rather Greek-American-Californian, and we watch some Greek movies and videotapes.

"I used to listen to Greek music four to five hours a day, but now with Peter I have two to three hours of 'Sesame Street.' At home we speak about 50% Greek and 50% English."

The Savvases belong to St. Spyridon's Greek Orthodox Church on Park Boulevard, but also on occasion attend Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff. The Greek community in San Diego County is centered on the two churches--St. Spyridon's, with 1,000 families, and Sts. Constantine and Helen, with 350 families.

The church plays a significant role in maintaining both the faith and the culture. Language classes are held at both churches for children and adults.

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