The Real Greek Life Hellas in America: The Story of Alecos Hatzialexandris

Written by Claire Houlihan

Alecos Hatzialexandris was was born in 1894 in a Greek town under Turkish occupation. He immigrated to the United States around 1912, where he navigated the challenges of job security and assimilation to American culture. Alecos' story, recorded by a member of the Federal Writer's Project in 1939, is one of determination, migration, and hella cooking.

Alecos' Story

"I was born in Turkey...but I am Greek."

This is the first thing Alecos Hatzialexandris told Douglas Carter, the writer who interviewed him in 1939. Alecos was born three years prior to the Greco-Turkish war of 1897, a failed attempt made by the Greeks to reclaim their freedom from Ottoman rule. He was one of twelve children in a farming family that grew tobacco and raised livestock.

At the time, education in Greece was not public, so all schooling required tuition. After facing financial issues, Alecos' family eventually became unable to pay his fees. The school's tuition collector tried multiple times to remove him for this, but Alecos' father had other ideas. Each time, he had Alecos return to the school and remind them of a prior donation Alecos' grandfather had made. And each time, Alecos was let back in.

Eventually, he went to work for a baker in another town to help his family financially. But after the baker grew increasingly harsh and decreasingly willing to pay him for his work, Alecos quit. He then decided to tell his father of his desire to go to America. When his father replied that they didn't have the money, and that instead he should go work on his brother-in-law's farm, Alecos went on strike. Shortly after, he had a ticket to America.

Assimilation and Identity

Greek Ethnicity

When talking to Carter, Alecos used Greek terminology like Hellene for Greek and Hellas for Greece, but made sure to emphasize his pride and commitment to being an American citizen. He talked about his membership to AHEPA, or American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, and distinguished it from another Greek lodge by saying,

"[They put] Greece first - that's the Greek-American [lodge] - but AHEPA is American-Greek. We are proud to be American."

On his motivations for joining AHEPA, he said, "all Greeks that want to be good American citizens belong to it, and we put America first." In an article discussing American Hellenism over the years, Anagnostou argues that the type of Greek assimilation AHEPA strived for was less about balancing both Greek and American identities as it was about blending into American "whiteness." He writes about ethnic forgetting, and how discourse in the United States has suggested that, in order for immigrants to truly belong, they must abandon all ties to their native land. Many Greek Americans have been pressured to form identities separate from, rather than alongside, their Greek heritage. Anagnostou suggests that AHEPA often took advantage of the Greeks' ability to "pass" in order to reap the "social and economic privileges" of American whiteness (27).

It is interesting to note that on Carter's original write-up, next to "Alecos Hatzialexandris," the word "white" appears in parentheses. The name A.G. Alexander is the first name on the document, but it is not specified whether this was the Americanized version of his name that he chose to go by, or whether they assigned it to him for simplicity's sake.

First page of Alecos' narrative, with "white" white being the race assigned to him.
Communal Ties

The Greek community that had settled in Pennsylvania prior to his arrival acted as a main support network for Alecos. The Greeks there offered him housing, helped him find work in the mill and various railroads, and possibly made his transition from Greek to American life much less frightening.

When asked whether he'd been back to his native land, he replied, "No. I don't want to go back. I had enough of it." It is estimated that around 20 percent of Greek men living in Pittsburgh around 1912 returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars. Those that remained in America quickly realized that the American dream they'd been searching for would not come without self-initiated enterprise. Many opened coffee shops, restaurants, and bakeries (Popular Pittsburgh). In an analysis of factors closely associated with Greek identity, Moskos describes an immigrant's return trip to Greece as a "cardinal feature of Greek American ethnicity." (95)

Immigrants and Inter-Marriage in the early 1900s

In Boustan's Cultural Assimilation During the Age of Mass Migration, she identifies an immigrant's participation in inter-marriage as an indicator of cultural assimilation. Inter-marriage is a broad term describing marriage outside of one's "group," and regarding immigrants, it usually means marrying a non-immigrant or a member of another immigrant group (5).

When describing his wife, Alecos called her a "native American," but it's likely he meant it as "non-immigrant," rather than someone of Native American descent. This excerpt from his interview, where he was explaining Greek terminology, supports this idea:

"We only say 'Greece' and 'Greek' when we talk to Americans - native Americans, I mean. I am American, myself: I took out my papers years ago."

Regardless, Alecos' marriage was interethnic, which Bouston mentions was uncommon for first-generation immigrants in the 1930s (5). After studying marriage patterns from the 1920 and 1930 censuses, Bouston found that first generation immigrants were more likely to marry within their ethnic groups.

Internal Migration

Like many other immigrants at the time, Alecos had to migrate within America in order to maintain employment. Upon arrival in Pennsylvania around 1912, he began working in a steel mill. Soon, he heard of others heading to Pittsburgh to work on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad and decided to head there. He told Carter that the work at the steel mill wasn't very hard, but at the railroad, "we got better jobs there-better pay." Eventually, P&LE promoted him to foreman, where he had around 40 men working for him. More jobs followed in various locations across the U.S., but he ended up settling in Asheville, a city in the mountains of North Carolina. All in all, Alecos worked as a laborer, rail track layer, railroad foreman, construction camp manager, dishwasher, cook, and, finally, a restaurant owner. During his job changes, he'd moved throughout Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

A railroad employee sits outside P&LE Railroad's Ellwood City section house.

Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a division of the Works Progress Administration and was led by Henry Alsberg from 1935 to around 1939. The goal of the Project was to provide jobs to teachers, writers, historians, and other white-collar workers, while bolstering the economies of the areas being recorded by increasing their cultural and historical appeal (Library of Congress). A section of the FWP was dedicated to recording life histories, of which Alecos' story is one.

Douglas Carter was the one tasked with writing Alecos' life history, and his report on Alecos was unusually objective and transparent. Because of the varying levels of writing experience that FWP employees had, some accounts appear to be overly synthesized and strewn with writer opinion. As Bruce Stave described in his analysis of instructions given to FWP interviewers, some of the post-interview write-ups "sound suspiciously like edited manuscripts for a deposition" (20). He also comments on the varying dialect used in the narratives; some were written in "King's English", while others were written in accented English (20).

In contrast, Carter went as far as to include his questions as part of the write-up. This gives context and an added layer of credibility to the narrative. He wrote Alecos' narrative in a dialogue heavy, question-response format. Any time Alecos used Greek terminology, he spelled it out for Carter, which he included as well. He also didn't attempt to correct any grammatical mistakes Alecos made.

Works Cited

Abramitzky, Ran, et al. Cultural Assimilation During the Age of Mass Migration. 2014. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

AHFWP. Hellenic presence in western PA. 2013. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

Anagnostu, Yiorgos. “Project MUSE - Forget the Past, Remember the Ancestors! Modernity, ‘whiteness,’ American Hellenism, and the Politics of Memory in Early Greek America.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 22.1 (2004): 25–71. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

Constantinou, Stavros T. “Dominant Themes and Intergenerational Differences in Ethnicity: The Greek Americans.” Sociological Focus 22.2 (1989): 99–118. Web.

Dolinar, Brian. “The Illinois Writers’ Project Essays: Introduction.” Southern Quarterly 46.2 (2009): 84–128, 162. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

Library of Congress. “Federal writers’ project: New deal web guide.” Virtual Services Digital Reference Station. 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Moskos, Charles C. and Sofios, Nicholas. “Greek Americans: Struggle and Success.” Contemporary Sociology 10.4 (1981): 565. Web.

Popular Pittsburgh. “Greeks in Pittsburgh: From a small country to a large presence.” Pittsburgh Culture. Popular Pittsburgh, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

Stave, Bruce M. “‘The doctor told us what he wanted’: Sam Koenig’s Instructions to WPA Ethnic Group Survey Interviewers.” The Oral History Review 34.2 (2007): 17–25. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Images Cited (in order of appearance)

Header photo: Vachon, John. “Greek restaurant. Paris, Kentucky.” Library of Congress. The Library of Congress, Nov. 1940. Web. 7 Feb. 2017. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/newdeal/fwp.html>.

2nd photo: Rothstein, Arthur. A Greek Steelworker in a Coffee Shop, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. July 1938. Graphic. 6 Feb. 2017. <http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997009899/PP>.

Life History document: Carter, Douglas. Folder 314: Carter, Douglas (interviewer): Hellas in America: Federal Writers Project Papers. 16 Mar. 1939. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/753/rec/1>.

3rd photo: Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company Photographs. Car Repairmen. 19 June 1919. Graphic. 5 Feb. 2017. <http://images.library.pitt.edu/cgi-bin/i/image/image-idx?sort=hpicasc_nd;rgn1=ic_all;op2=And;rgn2=hpicasc_ci;med=1;q1=employees;q2=AIS.1982.23.PH;size=20;c=hpicasc;back=back1485531392;subview=detail;resnum=111;view=entry;lastview=thumbnail;cc=hpicasc;entryid=x-8223.2792.rr;viewid=2792RR.TIF>.

4th photo: Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company. Ellwood City Section House. 14 Aug. 1918. Graphic. 7 Feb. 2017. <http://images.library.pitt.edu/cgi-bin/i/image/image-idx?sort=hpicasc_nd;rgn1=ic_all;op2=And;rgn2=hpicasc_ci;med=1;q1=employees;q2=AIS.1982.23.PH;size=20;c=hpicasc;back=back1485531392;subview=detail;resnum=108;view=entry;lastview=thumbnail;cc=hpicasc;entryid=x-8223.a1529.rr;viewid=A1529RR.TIF>.

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