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Greeks in Albuquerque

History of Greeks in Albuquerque, 1900--1952

By Katherine Pomonis

The first Greeks started coming to Albuquerque around the late 1890s.  This is their story from 1900 through 1952. This 52-year period was the era when the Greeks of Albuquerque established their community and the St. George Greek Orthodox Church.  To better understand the history of the Greeks in the United States and in Albuquerque, one needs to understand the geopolitical and historical context of this period.

In 1821 the people of Greece began their war of independence from the Turks after being ruled by them for 368 years.  Few Greeks came to the United States during these early years: Only young orphaned boys, boys who were sent to this country by American missionaries or lovers of Greek culture who known as Philhellenes.  These boys were to be educated and then returned to their homes in Greece where they would contribute to the reconstruction of their native country.  Some did return home while others stayed in the United States and achieved success in American politics, medicine, in the military and as educators in universities.

In 1848, one Greek arrived in New York compared to 100,000 Irish and about 50,000 Germans. According to the Annual Reports of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service only 2,496 Greeks journeyed across the Atlantic to the United States between 1821 and 1890.Why were there so few immigrants coming into the US at this time: Possibly because the Greeks, after 368 years of foreign domination, wanted to enjoy their newly acquired independence.

However, in 1890, nearly 16,000 Greeks came to America, mostly from Sparta.  Their departure from Greece was precipitated by the decline in the price of currants, Greece's principal export crop. France purchased between 60,000 to 70,000 tons to supplement its own harvest that had been decimated by disease but when its vineyards were replanted and their yield increased, they enacted a protective tariff on Greek currants. Russia followed suit with its own protective tariff against Greek currants. These tariffs brought disaster to the Greek economy.  Greece had earlier destroyed many of its olive trees in order to profit from the active currant trade and restoring them would require about 10 years before they would again be productive.

Greeks came to America because of acute poverty in the countryside of their homeland. Greece was beginning to rebuild after the many years of sustained neglect during Turkish rule and people were being taxed heavily.  The rebuilding was mostly occurring in the large cities and an indifferent government squandered public funds and ignored the welfare of the peasants.  Greece at this time was in an unhealthy state economically.

It would not be an overstatement to say that the motive for Greek migration to the United States was purely economic.  Most Greek immigrants intended to make money and return to Greece with sufficient funds to enjoy life in their home villages. The major migration of Greeks began in the early 1900s: 167,519 Greek immigrants came to the US between the years1901-1910; my father was one of them!  Total Greek immigration to the US to that date was 184,201. The majority of these Greek immigrants were young males between the ages of 15 and 45. They were mostly single and had few technical skills, but they were ambitious and were willing to work.

In 1924, the US government placed a quota on the number of immigrants allowed yearly into the country. Only 52,000 Greeks came between to the United States between1921 and 1930; my mother was one of them!  Greek men found jobs following three major routes:  They went to large cities, the factory towns of New England, or they traveled west. The big cities included those in the Middle Atlantic and Great Lake states: New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, and Milwaukee. The Greek men preferred to live in the cities, where they could find employment quickly, receive wages weekly, be in the company of their compatriots, and enjoy social life denied them in more isolated areas. It was in these cities that they learned about commerce and entrepreneurship, about business. In the 1880s Greek immigrants worked as peddlers selling flowers and fruit from a tray hung around their necks until they were able to buy their own pushcarts and eventually go into their own wholesale and retail produce and or flower businesses. They worked as bus boys in restaurants, where they learned the restaurant trade from the bottom up and eventually opened their own fine eating establishments. They worked as bootblacks and many eventually opened their own shoe shine parlors and hat cleaning businesses. Some Greek immigrants worked as confectioneries and in ice cream parlors where the ice-cream sundae was first invented in a Greek-owned ice cream parlor in Chicago! Greeks have a sweet tooth and had experience working with confectioneries in Greece

Greek immigrants also migrated to the factory towns of New England including Boston, Lowell, New Bedford, and Springfield in Massachusetts; Manchester in New Hampshire and Bridgeport and Norwich in Connecticut. Many worked in the textile mills starting out as janitors, sweeping the factory floors or doing the heavy work in the dye room and in shoe factories. But some worked in restaurants and other establishments such as import/export houses, tailor shops, bakeries, and saloons eventually opening their own businesses.

Early on Greek men moved west: By 1907 the Greek Consul General in New York estimated that there were between 30 and 40,000 Greek laborers in the West. They worked as railroad construction crewmen throughout the West and in Alaska; they found employment in the mines and smelters of the Rocky Mountain region, especially Colorado and Utah, and eventually New Mexico; and they worked in the lumber mills of the Northwest and in the vineyards of California. Farming and cattle raising and herding appealed to a few Greek immigrants who said that the mountains and valleys in the West reminded them of their patrida or birth place but farming and cattle raising was unprofitable and moved on. Mike Argeanas of Albuquerque said that his father raised goats and sheep in Colorado and made feta cheese that he shipped around the country but he too, found it unprofitable during the depression and had to move on.

Many of the men who came to work as construction crewmen on the railroads had been recruited from eastern European countries including Greece. The transcontinental railroad which helped to unify this vast country was completed in 1869 and traveled west from Omaha, Nebraska, through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and ended on the West Coast but it wasn't until ten years later, in 1879, that the primary southwest railroad, the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad entered northern New Mexico and a year later arrived in Albuquerque. The old Albuquerque city directories, starting in 1896, contain the names of Greek men who worked on the railroad as machinists and painters and in the supply department for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad.

With the railroad, new towns emerged along the rail routes including Raton, Springer, Clovis, Las Cruces, Deming, Silver City and Gallup: All requiring new services. The population tripled in the state and when Albuquerque was established as a principal locomotive repair center between Chicago and Los Angeles, businesses began to sprout up along Railroad Avenue (Central). These included hotels, cafes, shoe shining and hat cleaning establishments, bakeries, confectionery establishments, ice cream parlors, tailor shops, and real estate businesses, many of which were owned by Greeks by 1917 including the Mecca Cafe, City Cafe, Pullman Cafe, Parisian Bakery & Ice Cream Parlor, Liberty Cafe, DeLuxe Cafe, Court Cafe, Vendome Annex Hotel and Real Estate Company, New Mexico Candy Kitchen, and Union Hat Works. These Greek-owned businesses were located in and helped form the heart of downtown Albuquerque.

The first Greek to become naturalized in Albuquerque was Alexander Dimitri Kassimis in 1912. He was a telegraph operator for the national transcontinental telegraph system, a bi-product of the railroad. Born March 15, 1885 in a small village in northeastern Greece, Kasimis moved to San Francisco in 1905 at the age of 20 and in 1906 he moved to Albuquerque. To become a telegraph operator Kasimis must have known English which he may have learned at night school, studying the language to become a citizen.

The railroad did not arrive until late in New Mexico for a variety of reasons. The Southwest was generally undeveloped. It was an immense landscape, mostly isolated from centers of population and was sparsely populated. The Apache and other tribes inhabited many parts of the territory of New Mexico and were fierce warriors who raided Spanish and Mexican settlements and any others who encroached on their territory. It wasn't until the United States conquest of the territory of New Mexico in 1846-1848 and the building of military forts that the US began to control these raids and attacks.

The West and particularly the Southwest lacked abundant water for train steam engines and New Mexico had less water than most other states. Trains could go only about 50 miles before they had to stop and replenish the water for their steam engines.  To bring the railroad through New Mexico, sufficient sources of water had to be found. Once they were found, water tanks were erected and towns sprang up around them.

On the other hand, coal to run train locomotives was long recognized in New Mexico and the mining of coal increased immeasurably when the railroad came through.   The coal mined around the canyons near Raton in Colfax County in northeastern New Mexico was far superior to that mined near Gallup in McKinley County in west central New Mexico because it would produce good coke.  Coke was used for smelting copper ore and many coke ovens were found extensively in Colfax County.  These two counties, Colfax and McKinley, produced 90% of the state's total coal output which, in turn, supplied most of the coal used by locomotives en route to California.  By 1918, the coal industry in NM produced more than 4 million tons of coal a year from 61 mines by 5,000 workers.

The coal mines of New Mexico became a mecca for miners from all over the world with immigrants arriving from Italy, China, Poland, Germany, Britain, Austria, Croatia, Finland, Sweden, Mexico, and Greece. At Dawson, in Colfax County in northeastern New Mexico, all that remains of this large coal mining town is a cemetery with 350 iron crosses. Of those 350 crosses 69 bear Greek names.  There were two deadly coal mine explosions, one in 1913 and the other in 1923.   Helen Chirigos who had lived in Albuquerque since 1935 remembers the 1923 disaster.  Her father was a miner in Walsenburg, Colorado. Helen was only five years old at the time but remembers coming down from Walsenberg with her father and hundreds of other Greek miners to the funeral of those killed in the explosion and remembers the Greek Orthodox priest going from coffin to coffin blessing them. 

The book entitled Mining Disasters in New Mexico; 1894-1925 contains the names and ages of the 69 Greek men lost in the mines.  Their ages ranged from 19 to 50 and they all died violent deaths:  crushed skulls, a broken neck, falling down a shaft, suffocation and of course mine explosions. The first Greek documented to have died in a New Mexico mine accident was George Takao on July 20, 1908 in Dawson.  The last Greek killed in a mine accident in NM was in Gallup in 1923.  In that same year, the year of the last major mine explosion at Dawson, there was an influx of Greek men moving into Albuquerque.  The immigrant came to the United States because they had heard the streets were paved in gold.  Most did not find the American Dream but instead found hardship and peril. Their lives were not easy ones! Wherever the immigrant labored --- employers sapped them of their energies before replacing them with fresh recruits. 

Immigrants from around the world including Greece lived with industrial accidents where men lost arms and legs, their sight and often their lives.  Their lungs were damaged while working in the mills and breathing the foul factory air.  In many factories the heat was unbearable from the scorching flames and men choked from the smoke and soot.  Men were bent over and wasted with toil in search of the  American dream.  In the cities, young boys slaved in shoeshine parlors. They worked from 6am to 8pm and afterwards cleaned the stores before being allowed to return to their barrack-like dwellings for a supper of stale bread and watery soup and to sleep on roach-covered mattresses on the floor. City streets were manure littered, garbage piled in front of the buildings, and several laborers shared one room and one outhouse and a water hydrant as the only plumbing facility available. The rooms were unfurnished and dirty.  In the west, railroad workers slept in boxcars with eight or ten bunks where roaches and bedbugs covered the mattresses.  There were no windows for ventilation in the summer and no heat in the winter.  They engaged in menial work with picks and shovels in the searing and agonizing heat of the summer and at other times they worked in a steady rain. They were paid $1.10 a day for a 10-hour day. They cleared land, hacking at trees in the high mountains, hauling earth and rocks and laid track. They worked in blizzards in the high Rocky Mountains and the miners, who worked in the most dangerous of jobs, worked day and night, winter or summer. They worked hard and many hours, lived as economically as they could, and did not eat well so that they might send money home to their families in Greece: They had come to America to better themselves economically.

Aside from the hardships of their work life, many immigrants were exposed to the dreaded White Plague otherwise known as TB (tuberculosis) or consumption, which was communicable. Jake Spidle in his book Doctors of Medicine in New Mexico says that TB dominated medicine during the 18th and 19th centuries and it was not the cattle and mining industries that were the most important factors in the peopling and development of the state: it was the TB business.  New Mexico became known as “nature's sanatorium for consumptives” where the high altitude possessed diminished humidity; there was dryness of soil, relative absence of man-made and natural pollutants, and a greater number of clear days.  TB did not discriminate between rich or poor, black or white, Greek and Italian.  It was the most fearsome killer of the Western World. 

Many folks came to New Mexico for the “cure.” Some were cured, others were not! One such person was James Galamos.  He came from Greece though no one knows from where or when.  He was 28 years old, had worked in Phoenix, Arizona as a waiter and was a resident of Albuquerque for “a few days” according to his Certificate and Record of Death.  They found his body across the river, in a brush shanty.  He is one of the 42 Greek men and women who are buried in pauper's graves at Fairview Cemetery on Yale Avenue in Albuquerque: The date of their deaths range from 1909 to 1941.  In that section of the cemetery there is no grass, few tombstones remain and some of the graves have collapsed because the individuals were buried without coffins.  According to some of the death certificates and obituaries most, if not all, died of TB.

By 1913, the U.S. Public Health Service concluded that 20% to 60% of all households in Albuquerque had at least one family member who was tubercular.  By 1915, Albuquerque's population was 11,020 with an estimate of 1,500 being consumptives.  The city was receiving 350-500 consumptives yearly in the 1920s and 1930s and they were predominantly young, 15-45 years of age, and mostly male.

Privately run TB sanatoriums were appearing throughout the state. St. Vincent in Santa Fe opened in 1865.  In Albuquerque, St. Joseph's Sanatorium opened in 1902, Presbyterian Sanatorium opened in 1908, Albuquerque Sanatorium in 1909. 

There were no state sanatoriums for “tuberculars.” The privately owned sanatoriums charged $50-$100 a month.  Some could afford to live in bungalows that were screened in and they could bask in the sun's curative rays.  Those who could not afford to pay these prices, rented rooms from local residents, or rented rooms in boardinghouses and hotels. Others lived in tents.

Doctors were promoting New Mexico as a haven for consumptives in national and local professional journals starting before 1900.  There was a Greek organization in New York known as the Greek-American Inter-Collegiate League which consisted of leading Greek physicians, lawyers, engineers and literary men who met regularly to discuss scientific topics.  One of the topics discussed was the necessity to spread information to the newly arrived Greek immigrants about TB. They did so by circulating a pamphlet on tuberculosis written in Greek.

In interviews several Greek families have stated that most of the early Greeks who came to Albuquerque came because they had tuberculosis.  Their doctors told them to “go west.”  Some folks who were on their way to Arizona to seek the cure, stopped in Albuquerque to visit friends and decided to stay because there was a growing Greek community and the mountains reminded them of their birth place.  Others passing through Denver, Colorado in search of a cure felt it was too cold there and came to New Mexico instead.

There are many stories of how “seekers” found their way to New Mexico and what they found when they arrived: “He couldn't believe his eyes—the sky was blue—like the color of the flag from his homeland.  And the clouds were magnificent as they hung over the mountains and reached into the sky.  They reminded him of those near his village in the Peloponnese.  There were sheep grazing in the fields.....just like home.”  They left places like Chicago that were crowded, noisy and gray.  Chicago, where doctors had told them that they had TB and must go west, or they might die there in Chicago. Some did die, alone, and others survived and began a new life in the land that so much reminded them of their patrida—New Mexico.

Some health seekers came with their families but others, such as the single Greek men and women buried in Fairview Cemetery came alone.  Harry Kanelos was one of them. He was born in Amalias, Greece in 1892 and migrated to Chicago where he was a cook. He died at 516 E. Central Avenue, possibly a boarding house, on June 30, 1925 at age 33.  Many of them died alone in hotels and boardinghouses or in a brush shanty like James Galamos.

Greeks immigrants found stories such as Galamos' death unacceptable and attempted to remedy the situation by opening their own sanatorium. They purchased the Albuquerque Sanatorium which had opened in 1909 and was later taken over by the Lutheran Church in 1931 and operated as a private sanatorium.  It was located on a large lot on the northeastern corner where Presbyterian Hospital's parking lot is now located off of Central Avenue. The sanatorium had stood inactive for several years before it was purchased in 1936 by the national Greek fraternal organization American Hellenic Education Progressive Association (AHEPA). Their plan was to make the Albuquerque site “a nucleus for a large national institution to care for tubercular Greeks on a charity basis.” They did not want to hear another story about a Greek dying alone in a brush shanty.

The grounds extended from Spruce to Sycamore and from Central, a block and a half south.   The sanatorium was purchased for $50,000.  AHEPA spent $15,000 on improvements and opened in 1937.  Their plan was to spend $100,000 yearly for upkeep which was to be paid by AHEPA organizations throughout the United States.  Some of the money was raised by holding benefit dances including one in Albuquerque which was advertised as “A Classic Charity Ball” with Tommy Tucker's Nationally Famous Orchestra. The Ball was held at the University of New Mexico’s Carlisle Gym. 

Leading the movement to purchase and open this sanatorium in Albuquerque was a Greek immigrant named George Ades wjp was the first mayor of Grants, New Mexico and the owner of a hotel and restaurant in Grants.  However, in1942, due to financial problems, the depression, WWII and the realization that rest, rather than climate was the key to recovery from TB and the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin,  the sanatorium closed its doors.  In the Albuquerque Journal, dated November 6, 1942, Gust Bruskas, proprietor of the Liberty Cafe on Central Avenue stated that out of the 20 total patients, those who were able to return to their homes were released and the others were transferred to other sanatoriums or hospitals at the expense of AHEPA.  They left all the equipment intact with hopes of resuming after the war.  They offered the 50-bed institution to the Government for the duration of the war and in 1944 the New Mexico Intensive Treatment Center leased the facility until 1951.  In 1957 it was leased to the US Army and Air Force Recruiting Center until 1963.  No address for that building appears in the city directories after that date and it may have been purchased by Presbyterian for its hospital campus. 

The early Greeks who immigrated to the United States and to Albuquerque were mainly unskilled laborers though they brought with them the sturdy quality of the peasant which was a willingness to work and persevere. They displayed an ability to engage in business and commerce with energy and resourcefulness, considering their peasant backgrounds and lack of education.  They arrived with no liquid assets and no experience in the restaurant business or any other line of business.  They were freedom-loving individuals who thrived in a society that honored these qualities.  They had a determination to succeed and hard work was not a deterrent.  They realized that here, in the United States, by virtue of long hours, thrifty living and keen business sense they were able to acquire a little money which they could invest, succeed and become independent.  Seldom do Greeks venture into fields where none of their compatriots have dared to venture.  They may go to work for a friend in the restaurant business, learning the business from the bottom up.  When they have saved enough money they may break away and start their own business enterprise in a different location.

This is probably how two Greeks started their restaurant business in Albuquerque.  Anthony Pavlantos and Paul Psaltis went into business together in 1917 as proprietors of the Mecca Cafe.  This same Anthony Pavlantos, in 1919, opened the Liberty Cafe.  Paul Psaltis continued to own the Mecca Cafe, but in 1920 became the President of the Southwest Lunch Company too.  William Psaltis, relative of Paul Psaltis, became manager of the Southwest Lunch Co. Then Theodore Pavlantos, relative of Anthony Pavlantos, and William Psaltis became proprietors of the Mecca Cafe.

In 1920, Alexander, Triandes and Kouteles were proprietors of the DeLuxe Cafe.   And in 1921, Kouteles was replaced by John Pappas. In 1921, Charles Poulos worked as a hatter for the Union Shoe Shining & Hat Cleaning Parlor, and in 1924 he became the proprietor of the business. In 1921, Gus Bruskas was Proprietor of the Southwest Lunch Company and in 1923, he and Anthony Pavlantos became proprietors of the Liberty Cafe.

By 1952, Greeks in Albuquerque owned 11 restaurants, one radio and appliance company, one cleaning establishment, three real estate companies, a trailer court, a candy making establishment, a dress shop, a shoe repair shop, a clothing store, a wholesale outlet, an import company, hotel and apartments, a jewelers shop, and three bars. A review of the addresses of the Greek men in the city directories indicates that they were marrying and moving away from rooms in the areas around the railroad.  They were purchasing houses in the Huning Highland District which was the new suburb of Albuquerque and many were enjoying considerable economic success.

As the men prospered they began to think of marriage.  Some married non-Greeks and others journeyed back to Greece to find a wife.  There were arranged marriages and also picture-order brides or bridegrooms.  Nick's Place on 4th Street is owned by Nick Manole.  His mother “Niki” came to the US as a young girl with her two brothers and lived in Las Vegas with their uncle. Niki decided that she wanted to marry a Greek and remembered a man in her village.  She wrote to her mother and pictures were exchanged, the marriage was arranged and Tom Manole came from Greece to marry Niki.  They moved to Albuquerque and opened a restaurant.

This new economic life brought about the establishment of the Greek community and the desire for a church.  “The church has always been an important element in the loyalty and unification of the Greeks.” The following story from interviews tells of the beginnings of that church:

In 1918, John Raynolds, President of the First National Bank, had a “mansion” built in the Huning Highland area at 312 High Street for $4,000.  On December 23, 1936, he and his wife, who were socially prominent, were planning a Christmas party for friends and were having their house painted.  According to Exerlona Bramlette, the couple often entertained. Mrs. Raynolds asked Mr. Gay, a house painter from Taos, to paint a closet in the house but he refused and told her she needed to pay him first.  She told him to go home as he was drunk.  They argued and he went home and returned later and the two of them continued their argument.  Mr. Raynolds came into the room and asked Mr. Gay to come into the living room to discuss the situation.  They all went into the living room and continued the argument.  Mr. Gay said “I have something for you,” and pulled out a gun and shot Mrs. Raynolds in the stomach.  Mr. Raynolds grappled with Mr. Gay. Their youngest daughter went into the other room and returned with a gun.  Mrs. Raynolds, who was still on her feet, grabbed the gun and shot Mr. Gay in the head and then collapsed.  She died that evening and he the next day. The house stood vacant for a number of years as it would not sell and in 1944 Mr. Raynolds went to Gust Ellis, a Greek real estate agent, and asked him to try and sell the property and house.  Ellis tried to sell the property for several months.  The asking price was very good and Ellis talked to several prominent Greeks about purchasing it.  A meeting of the Greek businessmen was called which took place in Gus Bruskas' Liberty Cafe on Central Ave.  The meeting was held in the prestigious Governor's Room, a room reserved for special occasions.  The pros and cons of establishing a church were debated and after many hours and meetings of careful deliberation, the Greek businessmen reached an agreement.  They would purchase the property which would be used as a church for the Greek community.

Many of these business men traveled around the state asking for donations for the Greek church. They went to Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Raton, Roswell, Grants, Gallup, Carlsbad, and even Trinidad, Colorado. They were able to raise the needed amount of $10,000 for the purchase of the entire block which included the house, plus two lots in the back.  It was described as a beautiful large ranch-style house with a grassy back yard, having a “Garden of Eden” like atmosphere.  Luscious grapes, vegetables, trees and plants were in abundance.  The vibrant color of green abounded.   The house was converted into a church and used as such from 1944 to 1948 when the Byzantine-style St. George Greek Orthodox Church was completed just north of the house.  The house was raised in 1957and a community center was built in its place.  This is the site where the yearly Albuquerque Greek Festival takes place.

Many of the children of the first Greek immigrants in Albuquerque have been successful; some continuing in their parent's business.  Nick Kapnison has continued in his father's footsteps and owns Yanni's Restaurant and the Opah Bar on Central Ave. Ike Kalangis became president of the Sunwest Banks throughout the state and other have studied to become organic chemists, physicists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, professors, financial advisors, dentists, bookkeepers, teachers, computer experts, and morticians.  They are graduates of MIT and Harvard and other prestigious universities around the country.

Greeks in the United States have proudly served in the military responding enthusiastically to volunteer in the armed forces during WWI.  They bought victory bonds estimated at $10 million, an amount said to be the highest of any national group.  It came in small amounts thus representing the sacrifices of many individuals.  Military service often led to American citizenship.

During WWII the U.S. Treasury Department gave AHEPA the special privilege of selling war bonds.   They raised $162 million dollars in 21 months, an honor achieved by no other civic organization.  Many Greek-Americans stated “this war is our war and its financing is our problem too.” They served proudly and some lost their lives.  This is one story of the Greeks in Albuquerque from 1900 to 1952.  They assimilated well into America.  They learned English, served in the military, became homeowners, intermarried, worked and became business owners, and became U. S. citizens.