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Homeland: The Greeks of Utah

By on September 25, 2015
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

After visiting Greek communities in so many parts of the world, it only makes sense for me to “come home” to my own community. The Greek Community of Utah is both typical of Greek communities in the US and elsewhere, but also, due to the uniqueness of Utah, quite distinctive itself.

It is rather difficult to write about Utah, because it is my home state, and the Greek community there, my home community. I only attempt it because of my distance from Utah over so many years has created, perhaps, enough of an ability to be objective while knowledgeable. I also recently returned from a business trip there, and the nostalgia for the place put me in front of the computer.

The Greek presence in Utah is over a century old, with the first Greeks filtering westward in the last decade or so of the 1890s, as tens of thousands of Greeks fled a country bankrupt from financial mismanagement (a familiar tune) and the failure of the currant crop. From the railheads of Chicago, Greeks and Cretans (at the time, Crete was still an Ottoman possession) moved west, following the railways to the mines of Utah. As elsewhere in the saga of Greek immigration, a migrant chain ensued, with relatives bringing relatives, in Utah’s case Peloponnesians and Cretans. To this day, Cretans, often of the fourth generation, make up a very large proportion of the Greek community, and it is no accident that the recent Cretan Convention took place in Salt Lake City. The Cretans found a local community with a deep pride in their ancestral island, its culture, cuisine, and dances.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral, downtown Salt Lake City

The Holy Trinity Cathedral, downtown Salt Lake City

These Greeks in Utah found an environment unique in the United States. In a country with a fair amount of religious and ethnic diversity, the vast majority of Utahns were members of the LDS (Mormon) Church, a highly collectivized and distinct religious domination, and one at the time generally made up of people of British and Scandinavian backgrounds. In this environment, the Orthodox Greeks, with their Balkan culture and olive complexions, faced a great deal of bigotry. As a Utah Greek historian, the late Helen Papanikolas put it, the “Mormons [like the Greeks, she reminds us], were clannish, would not marry outsiders, and thought themselves an exceptional people with the only true religion on earth.”

This resulted in the Greek community being quite cohesive and, perhaps, more insular than Greek communities elsewhere in the US. As it often happens, though, things are more complicated and more interesting.

I am having breakfast with John Saltas, a third generation Greek Utahn. Saltas, publisher of Salt Lake City Weekly, an anchor alternative newspaper in town, reminds me of the diversity of the Greek community. There were miners, both coal miners in Carbon County (whose principal town, Price, still has a large Greek community with a large portion of Cretan descent) and copper miners in Bingham Canyon, where the town of Bingham disappeared as the world’s largest open pit mine was unearthed. Also some gold miners in Park City, now a world famous ski resort. Further north, in the town of Ogden, Greeks worked on the country’s key east-west railway line.   And in Salt Lake City’s Greektown (near the current Holy Trinity Cathedral, downtown), Greeks concentrated in small business, over 190 in 1916, “A higher number than today,” Saltas added. There were also sheepherders, using old world skills in mountains that often recalled those of Greece.

Like Greeks everywhere in the Diaspora, the Greeks of Utah quickly set to building Churches, fraternal and regional organizations, the more necessary, perhaps, because of the highly organized, religiously-based parallel society of the Mormon majority. “To be Greek is to be Orthodox,” really meant something among the Greeks in Utah. A former banking colleague in Utah, originally Mormon married to a Greek, said she “became Greek” upon conversion to Orthodoxy.

Greeks too, particularly those in isolated communities, and with a scarcity of Greek women, often became Mormon, “lots of them,” Saltas added, but those who converted rarely figure in the life of the Greek community. It is a shame, as their story is part of the Greek journey, and Saltas speaks with pride and love of his grandparents, one from Crete, the other a local Mormon lady, and though this was “not popular,” Saltas admitted, “both stayed side by side for 63 years and neither changed camps.” Recalling his Mormon grandmother, he adds, “She made the best kaltsounies.” As most immigrants were men, in the absence of mail order brides, many Greeks married foreigners or native born Americans. It is a mini story of America. Intermarriage, assimilation, and cross cultural sharing are what make us Americans.

Greeks in Utah, from that original immigration in the decade or so before the Balkan Wars, to post World War Two and 1960s immigration, evolved from an exotic minority to being mainstream Utahns. Greeks, though they assimilated local ways, remained deeply attached to their religion and culture. Greeks succeeded in business, politics, and culture, and a Greek judge from the small mining town of Price sits on the State Supreme Court.

Utah’s uniqueness changed the Greeks, but the Greeks also changed their state. Greek food is ubiquitous in town, either in Greek owned establishments, or as part of the fare of all sorts or restaurants, hip or humble. The Salt Lake City Greek Festival, every September, is a key date on any Utahn’s calendar, and in all the places I have lived in the US, no festival has even come close to the scale of the Salt Lake festival.

As I always do when I go to Salt Lake, I visit the graves. Those of my parents, who died 90 days apart in 2005. A hundred yards away, my uncle, further away, a sister who died as an infant over a decade before I was born, next to her uncle, my grandparents’ first born, who died in the influenza epidemic after World War One. Then, to my grandparents, William (Vasilis) and Avrokome Souvall (Souvaliotis), from the hills above Patras. My grandfather first immigrated to Salt Lake City in the years before the Balkan Wars, returning to serve his country in the second of those wars. He did not return home alone; marrying a girl from a neighboring village, he returned to the US. My mother jokes that it was more than patriotism that sent him back to Greece; he remembered my grandmother from a village festival before he immigrated.

My maternal grandparents raised five children and had thirteen grandchildren. Their children are all now gone as well, buried within a few yards of their parents, rooted in Utah soil. I forgot to, but ought to have, taken a bit of earth with me when I returned to Chicago. Cretans would wear an amulet of Cretan earth around their necks to remind them of their roots. Perhaps though, these words suffice, to recall my Greek roots in Utah earth.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.