It was really nice to see my favorite Utah governor of the past several years, Gary Herbert, welcome the Pancretan Association of America (PAA) convention to Salt Lake City last week. It was as warm a welcome as one can expect, considering he was speaking to a group he knows little about. Hell, Greeks generally don't know a whole lot about their Cretan brothers and sisters outside the fact that they throw legendary parties. Herbert was thus an unwitting partner to unleashing on Salt Lake City a party for the ages. Don't ask.
Besides playing nice when being handed accolades from local dignitaries, Cretans also live longer than other Greeks (except maybe persons living on the island of Ikaria), eat more garden greens, consider snails a dinner main course, drink more moonshine (called tsikoudia), herd more goats (which yield both meat and the best cheese in Greece), dance longer and faster, and fire off more rounds of ammunition after weddings or on holidays than does the Utah National Guard during a war games practice.
Crete's beaches are legendary. Zorba and Zeus both called Crete their home. Crete's mountains rise to nearly 9,000 feet from sea level to mountaintop in barely a few miles, similar to our own Wasatch Front backdrop.
More than 100 years ago, thousands of Cretan men and boys—my grandfather among them in 1906—began arriving in Utah to work the coal and copper fields. To some, Utah looked a bit like home. It took my grandfather 27 days to reach America. Seventeen days were aboard a crowded, stinky and dark steamer. One day was for processing at Ellis Island, where a doctor marked his back with a pen, which scared him, since he didn't know what it meant. He was slid off to the side to join others with the same mark.
He found out what it meant when he and the others with the same mark were provided directions to the trains heading west. He was so relieved he cried. He never set foot in New York City, just Ellis Island, but set off across New Jersey, on through Chicago, over the Great Plains and ending up in East Carbon, Utah—the community of Sunnyside—on Day 27. The very next morning, he was digging coal with "100 boys from my veeelage." He left his village of Gavalohori at age 20. He never returned to Crete—a word that brought tears to his eyes every time he spoke of his dear island, "Kriti." All Cretans know those tears. When he died at age 94, he'd seen everything there was to see about the great Greek migration into the American West.
A few years after his arrival, a survey revealed that Greeks comprised around 10 percent of Utah's population. A few years more and World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army, though he was not yet an American citizen. A few years after that, he married a local girl in Vernal, Utah, the granddaughter of a Mormon Battalion member. Pioneers, both. A few years later, it was back to Carbon County, then finally to the copper mines of Bingham Canyon, where he raised his family. By any measure, he was a good man, a defiant Cretan and a proud American. He wore a suit and tie on Election Day.
Yet, many of the locals didn't take to him or his kind. The newspapers of the era were full of horror stories about the swarthy, unkempt men from southern Europe who were taking Utah jobs away from Utah boys, living 10 to a room in small boarding houses, spending whatever money they didn't send back home on brothel girls and whiskey. Those scorned men were Utah's first Italians, Slavs, Austrians and Greeks. And many in Utah didn't much care for them. Go back 100 years and substitute the word "Mexican" for "Greek" in the headlines, and you have Donald Trump decades before his hair went to crap. Some things never change. Fear is one of those things.
It's a fact of American politics that for political gain, the most vulnerable are treated with spite and distrust. Every immigrant family knows how hard it was for the first Greeks to come over, how poorly they were treated. How poorly? Well, being paid in scrip, working in the most unsafe conditions (hundreds of Greeks would die in industrial accidents in the Western coalfields and mines), knowing you could lose your job for any reason and not being welcomed into the mainstream culture were bad enough. But when crosses were burned on high hillsides by local elements of the Ku Klux Klan, it became clear that Utah was not the embodiment of the phrase, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If you're gay, it still isn't, in the governor's "disappointed" eyes, by the way.
The Cretans were especially used to bullies and to the imposed rules and biases of a religious order—when my grandfather arrived in Utah, Crete was still under Ottoman Turk (Muslim) dominion. He left his home, where Cretans fought for 400 years to keep their Christian identity, only to be told here that they were basically non-Christian apes. Say, what? These locals, they thought, are not so different, with their multiple wives, than was the harem culture they left behind. They fought back. In time, they won.
So, it was with some awe—and wonderment of what my grandfather would make of it—that Utah's governor was welcoming 1,000 swarthy Cretans to Salt Lake City. I'd be lying if I didn't wonder if the governor's ancestors were among those who didn't treat the Cretans—all Greeks and southern Europeans—so kindly 100 years ago, and what an irony that would be.