Greek-American scholar Kathryn Vaggalis has unraveled the complex racial identity of early Greek immigrants to America in her research on Greek “image brides.”
Illustrated wives, or women in their home country who have only been “associated” with a husband in America through a picture, are most commonly associated with Japanese and Korean-American history.
In the late 19th century, many men from Japan and Korea traveled to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations, and by the early 20th century there was a large Japanese and Korean community there.
Imagine wives associated with Japanese and Korean Americans, but also found in other immigrant groups
Soon, matchmakers began matching men in Hawaii with potential brides back home using only images.
Although most commonly associated with these groups, the practice was also common within the Greek immigrant community.
Vaggalis, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Kansas, has studied the history of Greek brides and the implications of this practice for the formation of Greek-American identity in the early 20th century.
Many Greek brides met their husbands for the first time at ports of entry like Ellis Island, using only a photo to recognize their new spouse.
During growing anti-Asian rhetoric in the United States, epitomized by the Chinese Exclusion Act, legislation passed in 1882 that banned all immigration of Chinese workers, Japanese and Korean wives became the source of controversy. major.
Many people have begun to portray the practice as an immigration scheme to bring Japanese and Korean women into the country rather than a legitimate means of matchmaking. Critics also feared that the laborers themselves would settle in the country and bear children once their wives arrived.
“Incoming wives meant that Japanese men were settling and starting families. The nativists used this fact to stimulate racist fears of migrants coming to steal their jobs and deprive them of American resources. They grossly exaggerated their numbers, denigrated their cultural practices and spread crude propaganda about their fertility and number of children,” Vaggalis said.
Japan stopped handing out travel documents to these “photo brides” under pressure from the United States, and the practice quickly died out among Japanese and Korean women.
But it continued with many European groups, with Greeks, Italians, Germans and Armenians using similar pairing techniques at the same time – without the same criticism directed at Asians.
This prompted Vaggalis to wonder why the standards were different for the two groups. Her own grandmother, Calliope Tavoularis, arrived in the United States as a Greek bride in 1949.
She wrote letters to her future husband for a short time before he bought her a plane ticket to Nebraska, where they were married.
Rather than criticize the couple, as was often the case with their Asian counterparts, local media referred to theirs as “an airplane romance.”
Greek brides are not considered the same as their Asian counterparts
However, this was not always the case for Greek immigrants. In the late 19th and early 20th century, many groups that would be considered “white” today were not then, such as the Irish, Italians, Greeks, and even Germans.
These groups, including the Greeks, even faced discriminatory attacks from racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan during the period.
Indeed, the Greek-American group AHEPA, or American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, was founded in 1922 to fight against discrimination and attacks from the KKK.
As anti-Asian sentiment grew in the United States and Greeks began to be seen as “white”, Greek brides were portrayed as virtuous, unlike Japanese brides, who were viewed with suspicion.
Vaggalis also notes that the Greek family pattern often relied on traditional gender roles, including women staying at home, which made them a model immigrant group in the eyes of some.
“The biggest strategy they used was the idea that ‘we are not them’, pointing out that the Japanese were the ones to be wary of”, not the Greeks, Vaggalis explained.
Through her research, Vaggalis hopes to show that such conversations about race, nationality, and gender still play a prominent role in current discourse on migration in the United States.
“In order to have a fairer migration system, we must recognize the ways in which race and racism still shape the system and our perception of who and what is considered American…To overcome our past, we must right our present wrongs,” she argues.