Migrant Letters: Building a Greek/American Archive

By Yiorgos Anagnostou

Modern migration connects with an extensive and expansive practice of communication—letter writing. Migrant letters are produced in the context of migrants crossing continents, countries, or regions, a movement that disconnects the migrant Self from significant others. Epistolary correspondence emerges as a response to the ensuing social fragmentation. Prior to the broad availability or affordability of technologies of communication such as the telephone and the internet, letters as well as photographs and postcards were the primary means for nurturing connections across the divide of space and time, fostering lines of communication across altered social networks, negotiating the effects of lives disrupted. Words written and images printed in paper address lovers, friends, parents, and members of the extended family who are removed from one’s immediate social environment. They animate threads, no matter how tentative, contingent, or tenuous, across dramatically reconfigured social worlds.

Migrant letters are personal archives until an owner consents to making this record public. A trove of private documents becomes a pool of public artifacts through a variety of means including selling, depositing to an archive, or passing them on to adult children, who render the record public. Antique and junk shops acquire letters and sell them for a price. The epistolary records of eponymous leaders often find a home in libraries and museums, a case that occasionally applies to letters associated with ordinary people. Letters may circulate across generations and find their way from the private realm to the public domain.

In addition to private homes, public institutions such as historical societies, museums, libraries, and universities make place for personal archives, bringing them together and making them accessible. A few examples of archival assemblages include the correspondence of two prominent cultural leaders, Theodore Saloutos, a historian, and Demetrios Callimachos, a journalist and priest, at the University of Minnesota. The letters of author Demetra Vaka Brown are housed at the library of the University of Virginia. The archive of legal scholar Phaedon Kozyris at the Greek Literature and History Archive (ΕΛΙΑ) contains correspondence. California State University, Sacramento, and University of Michigan hold numerous important collections. The Ottoman Greeks of the United States (1904-1924) project at the University of Florida is in the process of digitizing its material. In the domain of photographs, historical societies such the Lowell Hellenic Heritage Association and the Greek Historical Society of the San Francisco Bay Area hold great depositories, commonly posted on social media.1

The available archive points to lines of correspondence flowing across several planes of movement. Letters crossed countries as well as transnational urban­­–rural divides, as expected on the basis of historical patterns of migration. They may reveal the locations and connections of families torn between northeastern Ohio and islands in the Aegean. Or they may chart another vital circuit of movement, taking place within the host country: two migrant sisters making their lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and Lincoln, Nebraska, entangling their lives through occasional visits and letters; or an itinerant laborer in rural Utah connecting with an uncle, a confectionery owner in Charlotte, North Carolina. The routes of letters remind us that migration unfolds not only transregionally, across countries, but also intraregionally, within a national territory.

My own personal archive points to an additional kind of letter associated with migrants, beyond the correspondences produced in the context of international migration. I refer here to letters that a migrant already possesses prior to departure, and that he feels compelled to carry along in the migratory journey. In the list of objects that migrants brought to the new world—icons, amulets, photographs, musical instruments, plants, food, books—one must add letters, commonly by a beloved, valued enough to accompany the owner in migrancy.

But reverse circuits of artifact flows were also at work. Migrants sent or carried home an assortment of modern objects—sewing machines, gramophones, watches, jewelry, clothing, fountain pens, and perfumes. Letters already in possession must have been included as well, at least among repatriated migrants. Letters entail not only textual practices, but also the materiality of intimate artifacts that move the owners along personal trajectories of movement.

Migrant letters entail communication between a specific sender and an addressee, often a collective of addresses within a family, across certain geographic locations. When a letter written in South Bend, Indiana, reaches a parent in Vouno, in Arcadia, Greece, it positions named individuals, often in a recognizable social relationship, in relation to concrete places. Foregrounding the particular, letters document distinct trajectories of migrant mobility. This is a partial record certainly, given that not all letters are shared with the public, and not all letters survive. Not only the accidental loss, but the conscious discarding of letters haunts the archive.

Still, the epistolary archive offers a compass to conceptualize migration in terms of particular trajectories of mobilities and the experiences embedded within. This is to say that correspondence offers the material for charting a map, incomplete and discontinuous to be sure, a map-in-the-making through time nevertheless, crisscrossed by processes of dislocation and relocation, displacement and replacement, flight and dwelling, movement and anchoring, mobility and further mobility.

The content of correspondence may speak about the conditions generating movement for some or, alternatively, informing the decision to stay put for others. Motivating mobility: desperate poverty; despairing family situations; the necessity to escape dangerous realities; fleeing situations involving criminality, shame, and ostracism; dowry obligations; the marriage imperative; the longing for adventure; dreams longed for; and dreams deferred or achieved leading to return. Producing immobility: obligation to elderly parents; attachment to a locality; local love; reluctance to leave; a measure of economic comfort; and life’s contingencies.

In the Greek/American archive, the available testimonies by senders and recipients point to the letters’ profound social, economic, and psychological significance. A woman migrant speaks about letters received from family back home as a survival kit, a resource for coping with loneliness and nostalgia during the early years of migration. A male itinerant laborer migrant writes about the importance of keeping contact with familial networks within the host country, maintaining linkages that made a difference between homeless destitute and modest survival. For those left behind, letters and photographs served as an emotional center, treasured resources for participating vicariously in the lives of migrant kin and grandchildren never seen in person. Letters and photographs often served to patch ruptures of separation, or in some cases to magnify them; to piece together connecting threads within disrupted networks, keeping lines of communication open; to affirm promises for reunification or justify the reasons for returns deferred; to issue invitations of kin across the Atlantic, making pleas for help or seeking to lure prospective brides and negotiate arranged marriages. In many cases letters enclosed remittances; in others they did not satisfy this anticipation.

This is to say that migrant letters participated in various economies: the management of social relations, emotions, psychic energies, money, desires, sexuality, and reproduction. In cases involving the reconnection of adopted children with biological parents, letters often offered the initial step to directly negotiate the relationship.

Because of their economic, social, and emotional resonance at the level of the individual, family, and the collective, letters have been amply narrativized in the popular culture of Greece, a country defined by the experience of emigration for the larger part of the twentieth century. Artists recognized that letters that were generated due to a migrant’s move resonate with the collective. Songs, for instance, build on letters as a trope to reinforce xenitia, a narrative foregrounding hardship, nostalgic longing, separation, and liminality. In Effy Paspala’s poignant “Astoria” (1990), migrants who are caught between two worlds craft prayerlike letters, their wishes and pleas reaching out to the world left behind, so vivid in the imagination and so distant in reality. Letters may build linkages, though their limitations in nurturing connections can be severe. An aging mother requests her son’s return, as letters no longer offer solace in Keti Petrakis’ “Your Letters, My Son” (1961) [Μου Στέλνεις Γιε μου Γράμματα]. In Eleni Bartseri’s “The Last Letter” (1957) [Το Τελευταίο Γράμμα], a lover opts for the medium of a letter to state from afar her decision to terminate a romantic relationship.2

Migrant letters and photographs have been narrativized in memoir, biography, and film. In the United States, Efthalia Makris Walsh inherited a bundle of letters her mother received as an early migrant in South Bend, Indiana, from Greece, in the 1930s and 1940s, to produce a “biography of a family.” The film Brides, a product of archival research, utilizes letters and photographs as primary conduits for connecting lovers, producing personal and family documents, and serving activism against human trafficking. In the Greek diaspora, letters and photographs organize documentary narratives of migrant subjectivities communicating feelings and thoughts to the family back home.3

The Greek/American archive of migrant letters stills awaits large-scale analysis and theorization. In this gap it reflects an issue that appears at the practice of archiving in general: the privileging of documentation over analysis. Orienting itself toward the priority of salvaging for the public good in the future, archive-making—“a quintessential work-in-progress”—“creates a moral hierarchy in which acting to collect and preserve is usually privileged over thinking about the archival process, thus insuring that the ‘preliminary’ work of documenting never gets done ‘in time’ for analysis to become a priority.”4 The few available examples of reflective narrativization and analysis of the Greek/American archive point toward the great gains we stand to reap once we move toward that direction. Letters from America (1972), a documentary juxtaposing a trove of migrant letters, photographs and postcards (found in an antique shop in Athens), questions commonly held notions of migrant documents as mirrorlike reflections of social reality.5

Indeed, it will be erroneous to read letters as authentic conduits to experience and subjectivity. Letters may omit facts, manipulate narrative, including idealization, or self-censor themselves for political or personal reasons. Owners of migrant photographs may have reasons to retouch them. Gaps, silences, or manufactured additions within a letter mediate the social worlds that words in a letter brings into representation. Migrant writings and images are therefore mediated representations of reality. Hence migrant documents are now conventionally seen as constructions of the Self and Others, partial accounts casting valuable insights on values and ideas that their authors opt to communicate in specific contexts, for specific purposes.

Migrant letters offer resources to explore migration from the vantage point of particular perspectives within migration networks. They prompt close attention, as I have mentioned, to specific, named individuals, acting upon distinct conditions in concrete geographical places, in relation to recognizable social relations. As such, they foreground issues of class and gender; migrant negotiations within the host society; cultural change and identity; the impact of migration on individuals and families; literacy; and conventions of self-representation. The letters document the mundane as well as the impact of larger historical events—war or the Great Depression for instance—on the everyday. They communicate facts, feelings, concerns, values, motivations, and aspirations. They contribute to our understanding of the linkages between the personal and the collective, the relationship between mobility and immobility, and the ways in which connections were forged or disrupted across social and kinship networks. In this respect the letters narrate the Self in relation to local, national, and international realities. Herein lies one of their principal values: they invite attention to situated individuals and the manner in which migrants negotiated social, political, and economic worlds, shaping them and being shaped by them.

This introductory essay outlines a particular facet of a broader, newly inaugurated archival project, entitled Greek American Letters. The project aims to create a home for an archive of letters whose scope extends beyond migration, to include correspondences associated with sojourners, artists, travelers, politicians, scholars, expatriates, authors, and tourists, irrespective of ethnicity, who traverse the Greece­–United States field and bring it into epistolary representation. The archive aims to collect documents, spark public interest on the topic, and attract research and critical reflection.

One of my motivations for participating in this project is the potential of new collections of migrant documents for contributing to the re-collection of Greek/American history. By using the hyphen in the word recollection, I underline my interest in a collection process that will open up the historical record to voices that are hidden in official and mainstream narrations of history. Underrepresented demographics in the historical record and historiography include women—young migrant widows, laborers, artists and authors, professional, middle-class, stay-at-home mothers, or owners of small businesses—as well as working class migrants, political and cultural activists, community intellectuals, mavericks, migrants who led lives at the margins of society, authors and artists, migrants who loved the arts, migrants who loved or married across ethnic, religious, gender, and racial divides, and migrants who did not fit cultural or religious community norms.

This essay then is also meant as an invitation to families and individuals who are in possession of archives casting light on these demographics.6 Because letters are important historical documents, we urge you to consider contributing to this archive. Your material is vital for the public recognition of lives filled with meaning yet for a variety of reasons left out in accountings of the Greek/American experience. Following professional ethical practice, we ensure anonymity if this is desired. As documents narrating lives, personal archives are in position to expand our understanding of Greek/American history. We invite you to be part as active participants in this retelling!

Yiorgos Anagnostou is a professor of transnational Modern Greek studies at The Ohio State University.


1. For additional collections, see The MGSA Greek American Resources Archive.

2. For an example about migrant laborers in Germany see, Γράμματα από την Γερμανία.

3. For a documentary organized around a migrant coalminer’s letter to his mother from Belgium see, Γράμμα από το Σαρλερουά.

4. See Penelope Papailias, p. 13.

5. See Yiorgos Kalogeras. In the broader terrain of Greek/American letters beyond ethnicity, Artemis Leontis integrates analysis with reflection on the making and transnational circulation of an archive. Largely undertheorized, the migrant archive finds its best theoretical treatment in the work of Penelope Papailias analyzing the role of a migrant memoir as counterhistory.

6. See here for a call to contribute to another underrepresented archive, one associated with the Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox migrant communities.

Works Cited

Kalogeras, Yiorgos. 2011. “Retrieval and Invention: The Adaptation of Texts and the Narrativization of Photographs in Films on Immigration.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies Vol. 29. (2): 153–70.

Leontis, Artemis. 2019. Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. Princeton University Press.

Makris Walsh, Efthalia. 2000. Beloved Sister: Biography Of A Greek-American Family, Letters From The Homeland, 1930-1948 . Tegea Press. p. 43.

Papailias, Penelope. 2005. Genres of Recollection: Archival Poetics and Modern Greece. Palgrave Macmillan.

Works Consulted

Borges, Marcelo J., and Sonia Cancian. 2016. “Introduction: Reconsidering the Migrant Letter: From the Experience of Migrants to the Language of Migrants.” The History of the Family Vol. 21 (3): 281–90.

Cancian, Sonia. 2010. Families, Lovers, and their Letters: Italian Postwar Migration to Canada. University of Manitoba Press.