“Good” Immigrants

I grew up in a suburb on the north shore of Lake Michigan in Illinois during the 1970s and 80s that was much like the one in the movie that Breakfast Club was based on. The median income of my first high school , New Trier, today stands at an astonishing $178,581[1], more than double the median income of the rest of Illinois. However, I grew up on the ‘wrong side’ of the tracks if there could even be one in such a wealthy area. Basically I was solidly middle class and our neighbors were other immigrant families; Russian jews, Korean immigrants, and even one black family from Haiti. I was surrounded by other 1st generation kids who were taught that education was your ticket out of stigma and potential social status. Let’s just say we stood out, and my dad REALLY stood out.

A dark haired man in a military uniform standing with his legs spread, arms behind his back.
My handsome father looking intimidating during his compulsory military service in Greece, circa 1960s. His right cheek is swollen due finally getting his wisdom teeth out in his 20s. He didn’t have a toothbrush during WWII.

For my father, education was literally his ticket out of Greece. At the time, Greece was ruled by a military junta, a seven-year long dictatorship that started on April 21 (my birthday) in 1967. My father immigrated to the U.S. shortly after that on a cruise liner, not speaking a word of English. He has to hand signal to the New York doc crew that he needed to use the bathroom. He had received a Fulbright scholarship to study chemistry given his top ranking at the University of Athens. He got his masters in chemistry at the University of Chicago and then his PhD in immunology at the University of Illinois, all while learning English, meeting my mom, starting a family, and sending money home to support his family. I fondly recall the stories of my father trying to cook for himself because he had a mother who did everything for him all his life. He said that he would put frozen steaks and Brussels sprouts straight in the oven frozen and steaks were like shoe leather because the meat was so cheap.

Black and white photo of dark haired students in an auditorium posing for a photo
My father, Andreas Kapsalis, far left second row from bottom, with his head in the books. Circa early 1960s, University of Athens.

My father secured a job at a major pharmaceutical company and ended up at another company for the entirety of his career. He worked alongside other immigrants, mostly from India, who also received EB-2 green cards for ‘exceptional ability.’ These were some of the ‘undesirables’ of the 1970s in the U.S. Despite his exceptional ability, people in my neighborhood talked down to him because of his heavy accent which I loved to imitate. He was a scientist, not a linguist. I was ashamed of how people would speak loudly to him as if volume would overcome language differences. And I was frustrated that his own shame rendered me the translator on many phone calls and interactions at the bank or grocery store. He also closed the curtains when washing dishes, a sign of Greek masculinity conflicting with emerging expectations for American husbands and fathers.

A family posing in front of a columned temple.
My family on my first trip to Greece in 1979 in front of the Temple of Hephaestus. I am the younger daughter in front looking at my dad.

When I was clearing out his stuff after he died during the pandemic (my father returned to Greece in 2001), I was struck by a letter he composed with the help of a lawyer to his H.R. department at the company he worked at for the majority of his career. He claimed that he was passed over for a promotion and given poor performance reviews despite having received praise for his patents and developments as a research scientist. Was he a victim of 1980s corporate cost cutting? Or was it the fact that he had a hard time communicating? Or was it that people looked down on this guy who was just a couple of decades earlier, the top of his class?

I took this letter back home along with the plaques commemorating his patents and a statue he received when my uncle and he pulled over on the road to save a family trapped in a burning car in Wisconsin in the 1970s – artifacts that barely show the history of this Greek American immigrant, my father. My father whom I couldn’t be with as he died during the pandemic.

Two men with dark hair, both in sunglasses, in front of a steel structure smiling.
My father (front) and my favorite uncle, his brother Takis, in front of a rollercoaster at Great America Amusement Park in Illinois, circa 1970s.

Fast forward to June 16, 2022 when I gave a presentation to the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations (OIR) about a program I led in that launched in 2020, Smithsonian Open Access, where the Smithsonian released 4 million 2D and 3D images into the public domain for computational, artistic, research and educational reuse (I talk about it here). As the OIR staff introduced themselves, I remembered the Smithsonian’s role as a cultural partner for the world and had the opportunity to meet the woman who runs our international fellowships and Fulbright program. I told the team that I wouldn’t be here without the Fulbright program and reflected on how my upbringing as a Greek American led me to believe wholeheartedly in the power of free, open, and balanced information, and further how it is critical to empowering democratic societies. I spoke about the early days of the internet in the 90s when I ‘fell’ into a job with a software firm as a content developer. It was the ‘wild west’ when new dot.com business ventures were bursting and busting every day. Everything was possible and you could get a job in the sector based on your ability to do things like code, design, and write. University degrees were less relevant. It felt like a reaffirmation of the American ‘promise land,’ of hard work equivocating new levels of assimilation and potential economic success…but only for some people, as I learned later in life. My grandmother actually thought money could be found on the streets in the U.S.

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I was thinking about my father today as I looked out the window at a young couple, or maybe it’s a brother and sister, who’d been at my house for the last two weeks, at the crack of dawn to put up our new siding. I live in Silver Spring, MD where new immigrants surround me. I feel at home once again since I just left D.C. where immigrants can’t afford to live there. The people who worked on our kitchen are Korean immigrants and the siding installers are Latinx. I debated about whether or not to ask them where they were from but withheld for fear that I would make them feel I was going to judge them depending on their answer. I also felt that familiar shame of not speaking better Spanish despite having lived in Latinx neighborhoods for a good part of my adult life in Chicago. Memories of people looking down on my father flooded back so I simply gave them cool drinks, smiles of appreciation, and space to do their work.

I remember the last time I was in Greece pre-pandemic in 2019, which was also the last time I saw my father in person. I was in a cab going to the Greek National Library where staff had grabbed some of my vacation time to talk to them about the Smithsonian’s digital strategy. The cab driver noticed I was American and started peppering me with questions about current U.S. politics and the proposed U.S/Mexico border wall. The cab driver felt it was good to keep out all those ‘undesirables’ and criminals. Greece was experiencing its own wave of refugees via the Mediterranean Sea which was taxing a country already under austerity restrictions imposed by the European Union. Today gas costs $10/gallon and families are truly struggling.

I reminded him that my own father, a Greek, was considered somewhat of an undesirable when he arrived. This made no sense to him. My father was likely a hard worker and educated, and Greeks are of course desirable in today’s standards. I made an impassioned, broken Greek speech that today’s immigrants are just as hardworking and doing the ‘undesirable’ jobs that Americans no longer wanted to do. I failed to impress him partly because my vocabulary is so limited and the shame returned.

I thought of this as I watched the contractors work from 7am to 6pm so they could hustle to the next job and make money to bring more family to the U.S. They were careful and skilled. They impressed me and I felt for them and the prejudice they likely face at the grocery store, the bank, and at their children’s schools when they bravely raise their hands to ask questions while other parents stare at them and say they can’t understand them. So much shame being the newcomer.

This reminds me of how important it is to capture ‘everyday’ people and the immigrant experience in the American history narrative. The new National Museum of the American Latino’s Molina Gallery opened today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. When I think about their job of conveying the American Latinx experience in one gallery until their building is standing in about a decade, it feels overwhelming. It feels overwhelming to think about how to convey a multiplicity of women’s experiences as I am developing the virtual museum strategy for the upcoming Smithsonian American Women’s History museum, a museum that is also at least a decade out from having a permanent physical space. These two new museums will stand separately from the National Museum of American History, however, the goal has never been to cede telling Latinx and women’s stories across our multidisciplinary suite of 21 museums.

How can we as a sector make all people feel represented in what we do so people feel empowered to build a more inclusive and equitable future? How do we bridge divides and show commonalities in experience like that of my father’s with today’s immigrants, with that of African Americans during the great migration, and those displaced from small town America when big companies move overseas? How do we use storytelling and common experiences to heal and build communities of understanding? Since my role is digital, what affordances of technology can we use to reach and engage wider swaths of the public in contributing and preserving cultural memories without perpetuating bias and absences in history? These are all things I hope to explore with the virtual museum strategy for the Smithsonian’s new museums.

[1] Census Reporter, New Trier Township High School District 203, IL, accessed June 17, 2022, https://censusreporter.org/profiles/96000US1728200-new-trier-township-high-school-district-203-il/.

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Effie Kapsalis is an awesome-age cultural heritage professional who came of age in the 1990s dot com boom and bust. She is a first-generation Greek American.

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Effie Kapsalis

Effie Kapsalis

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Effie Kapsalis is an awesome-age cultural heritage professional who came of age in the 1990s dot com boom and bust. She is a first-generation Greek American.