The Quest for a Better Life
Mike Rokkas’s journey from Athens, Greece to pursue a better life
essay written by Justin Hoogenstryd
This paper is written Mike Rokkas. He was born in Greece in 1943 and decided to leave Greece for America thirty years later in order to get better opportunities and to make a better living. He arrived in New York where he settled in a Greek community. Eventually he met his wife Renee, married her, and moved to California where he currently resides. When one talks to him about America, one can tell he is truly grateful to be here.
Mike Rokkas is perhaps one of the best examples of immigration to the United States of America and the pursuit and the fulfillment of the American Dream. His experiences are the ones optimistic immigrants dream about when they consider immigrating to the United States of America, hoping to establish a better life for themselves or to help their family members who have to remain in the old country because they have spent all their money to allow him to go. He did not become Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller; but, after being born in a “nice peaceful little town”1 during the year 1943 in Greece, or the Hellenic Republic, Rokkas eventually decided to pursue a better life for himself and come to America in the pursuit for happiness. With very little hardship, as he went to the right place at the right time, he was able to become a successful carpenter and start a family of his own, while simultaneously keeping many of his homeland’s traditions and periodically return to Greece to see his extended family that is involved in almost everything in the town they live in. One of the happiest men to be an American, this is his story.
Born in 1943 as Cosmos Rokkas, part of the eighth generation of the Rokkas family in Athens, Mike Rokkas did not have any memories of the Second Great War because it ended only two years after his birth. However, Greece is a country full of history that a person does not have to have experienced to appreciate. Known as the “Cradle of Western civilization,” Greece defended the ideals of freedom and democracy multiple times against the mighty Persian Empire, the most famous incidents being the Battle of Marathon and the Battle of Thermopylae. In the Battle of Marathon, the legend of the runner who died after running from the battle site at Marathon to Athens—a distance of twenty five miles—after the battle to tell its leaders of the victory inspired the idea for the Marathon run; in the Battle of Thermopylae the vastly outnumbered three hundred Spartans led a valiant but doomed rearguard action for long enough a time for the rest of the Greek army to retreat, regroup, and rally for eventual victory, causing the retreat of Xerxes’ war host from Greece. Ancient Greece was mother country to many great men, such as the philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, as well as perhaps one of the greatest military minds in history, Alexander the Great. It is also the country that created the Olympics in 776 BC. Though it is no longer considered a world power as it was during those times, it is still an interesting and beautiful country. As Mike Rokkas puts it when describing the weather, “Greece is California”2. Because it is part of the Mediterranean, people in Greece virtually live outside, as it is usually too hot to do many activities inside, even at night. The night clubs are outdoors and most people eat outdoors when they eat at a restaurant. In addition, Greeks are very superstitious. For example, in Greece, though it is not official law, a person is not supposed to pass sharp objects and should exit the same door they entered because it is bad luck to do otherwise. Throughout its existence, Greece has been an interesting country.
Mike grew up in a small, upper class town and since the war ended, “it was quiet”—there was nothing to endanger him during his childhood. He completed all his schooling in Greece and though the education system was not as advanced as the American system, he says the teachers seemed more concerned about their students’ education and were more required by the government to make sure their students learned the material than what he experienced when his daughter received her education in California. By the time Rokkas was a teenager, the destruction of buildings and land caused by World War II was mostly rebuilt and things improved, which caused an increase in the amount of available jobs. Greece requires citizens to serve time in the military, and at the time of Mike’s necessary term, the duration was two years. Though some people would believe this would be bad, Mike states it was “the best school I [had].”4 There he learned self discipline, discovered how to be himself, and met friends he even keeps contact with to this day. A couple years after Mike’s term was finished, the result of thirty years of national division between the forces of the Left and the Right that can be traced back to the time of the resistance against Axis occupation of Greece during World War II, there was a military take over of the government. Known as “The Regime of the Colonels,” “The Junta,” or “The Seven Years,” the government tortured people and restricted rights of its citizens by suspending Article Fourteen of the Greek Constitution which granted the freedom of thought and the freedom of press. Still, Mike did not feel negatively effected by this; maybe he was lucky, but he always followed the philosophy of “if you don’t bother nobody, nobody bother(s) you.”5 In 1974, the Junta would be overthrown, a year after Mike left the country, and Greece is currently a parliamentary republic, headed by a president who serves terms of five years. In Mike’s experience, life in Greece was good and he had no complaints, even during the turmoil caused by the military regime.
Still, Mike decided to leave his homeland—not because he believed there was anything wrong with Greece, but because he believed there were better opportunities in other countries that would help him provide for his family. As he grew up, World War II was still fresh in the minds of those who lived during the turbulent times. During the war, Europeans saw American soldiers so well equipped and comfortable, which was so unlike most other armies during war time at that time period. People began thinking about “how [America soldiers] have everything, even in a war, you see them dressing, eating, they have everything like he is in a home, and people say look, think about it, how the life is in the United States in his home.”6 To see men go to war with chocolate—something many civilians did not have—in their pockets and to wear warm clothes really impressed many Europeans and convinced them that America could offer a life better than the one they currently lived. People would also hear about life in the United States by talking to Americans visiting Greece. Since most Americans visiting Greece were probably on vacation, they would spend high amounts of money and this convinced Greeks this was common in America.
Another factor that convinced Mike Rokkas that the United States of America would be better was the local movie theaters playing American films in Greece. Mike had more interest in films about city life than war movies, cowboy movies, or any other kind of movie because they showed him what life could be like on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. These films convinced Mike that to come to America meant to “come to the better life and better opportunities.”7 His one expectation for America was that it would give him even more opportunities. He did not expect chances to be handed to him, or for the work to be easy, but just for opportunity to be there for those willing to work for it.
Before coming to America, Mike did some work in Germany. Though there were more opportunities there than in Greece, he still believed the United States would provide him with even more. Because he immigrated in 1973 and commercial aircraft were very common by then, his journey was very easy. He embarked on a plane at a Greek airport, and ten hours later, he arrived in New York City. However, even though he did not have to wait days cramped in the stowage of a boat to arrive in a hopefully better place just to be taken in by factory workers planning on exploiting them as cheap labor like many immigrants before him, he states “you can’t wait even the ten hours; it’s a long time, because you think too much when I’m going, what I’m going to see.”8 The ten hours from Athens to Greece felt like an eternity. However, when he finally arrived, he no longer worried. He went to Astoria, which during the 1960s receive a large number of Greeks, which made them the majority ethnicity in the city, so was received with open arms.
By going to a Greek section of town, he did not face any hardships in being accepted, as they had all gone through what he had just experienced, and were from his home country, so shared the same customs and beliefs. His brother had arrived in America six years before his arrival, so instantly he was able to see how the American life style had affected his brother; he could see that his brother had “a lot of things he don’t have back [in Greece].”9 However, it was not just his brother. He saw “the people back then, comfortable, to have everything, not worries”10 Right away he was able to tell coming to America was the right choice; he knew that he would not regret leaving his home country and the majority of his family. With some family in America, anything he did not understand could be explained to him without too much complication and therefore he could be rather successful from the beginning of his new life in the United States.
Mike did not have any hardships assimilating into American culture. By living in a Greek town, he could still continue his Greek traditions, but could also participate in American traditions. He made a lot money working with his brother doing carpentry for stores and restaurants. This job forced him to be constantly on the move. Every two to three months they would have to change neighborhoods for work. This caused Mike to learn the specifics, like the best places to visit and street names, of the city faster. New York City is very diverse since many people who immigrate to the United States arrive in the city. By exploring all throughout the city, even the state, and into New Jersey on some occasions, he believed he got used to the rest of America because he saw “new things, different areas, different people.”11 By seeing such diversity in New York City, he became accustomed to the melting pot that would be the United States of America. He was able to slowly branch out of the Greek section of the city.
The only thing he had not become accustomed to from merely watching videos was speaking English. Because he lived and worked mostly with Greeks, he did not need to learn English too quickly. He did take classes, but he was not motivated to learn. He learned English slowly “Little by little, with friends, friends from my brother, friends with Americans.”12 He does met and fell in love with an American woman, which motivated him to learn to speak English so he could communicate with her. This woman would eventually become his wife. His wife’s brother and sister moved to California earlier; they had decided to move there for work. Since he came here from Greece, the move was very easy for him as it was a lesser distance and not to a different country. In fact, it was almost like he moved back to Greece, since the weather and the life style reminded him of his homeland. He gets to live the best of both worlds; he gets to maintain his Grecian life style while gaining all the benefits of being in the United States.
His final adjustment came when he had time away from work—he became an American citizen. By the time he went through the application process, he had been in this country for a little over thirty years, which made him believe that “if you live here so many years, it’s not hard to become American.”13 Because he had been here so long, experienced every holiday and celebration, and learned the history of this country, he was essentially American. The application process was very easy for him and merely a formality.
Mike still follows the main traditions of Greek culture. He celebrates Greek name day, and Greek Easter, but when he moved to California he had to give up Greek Independence Day, the celebration of the day Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, because it is not celebrated here. Greek name day is essentially an extra Greek birthday. Each saint has a specific date as their day, if a person has the same name as the saint, he gets presents and there is a party. Greek Easter is exactly the same as Easter in America, but because the Greek Orthodox Church uses the Old Testament calendar, their Easter is one to four weeks later. Both of these holidays are very easy to celebrate no matter where you are as they are basically reasons to get together with the family and they do not involve any traditions that cannot be done in the United States. However, they do not celebrate Greek Independence Day, the Greek version of Fourth of July, because they cannot light fireworks legally and because it is not an American holiday, there are not events for it. Because Mike still followed Greek traditions, his daughter Peggy also learned to participate in them. In fact, ever since she was six, Mike sent Peggy stay with her family in Greece to “look at the language, learn the culture, and… feel comfortable to go there.”14 In fact, during her last vacation there, she decided to take the English proficiency test, and has moved there in order to give private tutoring lessons for English until she can start her own school.
Mike Rokkas is now sixty five. He hopes to retire and live in Greece again; however he cannot leave his new home that he loves so much forever, since he has spent more of his life in America than he has in Greece. He hopes to spend half a year in each country. The United States of America has been so good to him and has given him the life he now enjoys. He believes the United States of America is the greatest country on this planet. To him, it is the country that if you are “smart enough to catch the opportunity, no body stop you.”15 He has no regrets coming to the place he believes to be “the only place in the world, you can do things the way you think it.”16 It is truly inspiring to see how much he loves the United States of America and it makes one realize how too many people born in the United States of America take this country and its ideals for granted because they did not have to work for their freedoms at all. Even though his journey was easy and there are many stories of much harder times than his, he was lucky and truly appreciates everything America has done for him.
1. Rokkas, Mike. Personal interview. 5/21/09. Pg 1.
2. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 11.
3. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 1.
4. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 3.
5. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 4.
6. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 3.
7. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 5.
8. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 5.
9. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 5.
10. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 6.
11. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 7.
12. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 9.
13. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 14.
14. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 16.
15. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 18.
16. Rokkas. 5/21/09. Pg 18.