When Maria and Christos Govetas immigrated to the United States in 1978, the opportunities for education and successful careers were far beyond their dreams. Maria was 20 and Christos was 17; they had grown up in a small agrarian village in Greece.
The Govetas family history can be traced from as early as 1820 when a Macedonian ancestor named Elioudes was in trouble, accused of killing a Turk and fled to Macedonia. He eventually met a woman from Naousa, Greece, who had been abducted by a Turkish pasha. The two met and settled in the Serres prefecture of Greece northeast of Thessaloniki. Elioudes changed the name to Govetas which in Bulgarian means cowboy or herder of livestock and may possibly indicate the work of Maria and Christos’ ancestors.
Their paternal grandparents, Christos and Maria Govetas, were from Micro Souri and Proti Serron in the Serres prefecture of Greece. Proti Serron was previously called by its Turkish name Kiupkioi derived from the red clay in the area used to make clay storage jars. Before that it was called Evthomista as it contained 70 households. It was also the home of Constantine Karamanlis, the conservative politician, four-time Prime Minister and twice President of Greece. In the early 1900s there were over 5,000 residents as a result of the successful tobacco industry. It was here that Athanasios, Maria and Christos’ father, was born.
Pantelis Yianoussis and Zoe Dolgera are Maria and Christos’ maternal grandparents. Pantelis was from Arnea, Greece, in the northern region of Khalkidhiki. Pantelis’ mother, Sultana, was twice widowed by the age of 27. One of her sons came to America in the early 1900s, worked on the Panama Canal and never returned. Another son died in World War I when captured by Bulgarians. She then had two more sons, Costa and Pantelis. Pantelis was given as a servant/slave to his uncle and, from the age of nine, worked selling flokati (hand-made shag wool rugs). In the early 1920s Pantelis and his brother opened a lumber business and began cultivating tobacco, an industry that had begun as early as 1905. Times were good with an abundance of money.
Zoe Dolgera was from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria. Zoe’s father, Lazos Dolgera, was a Greek-speaking Bulgarian widower who came to the Greek area. He was a builder who married into a wealthy land-owning family and married the family’s daughter, Eleni Nanasi. He became very successful in his lumber and construction business. Zoe was one of their 14 children and the mother of Maria and Christos’ mother, Eleni.
Athanasios Govetas and Eleni Yianoussis were engaged in 1955 and married in 1957. She was ten years younger than him. Athanasios, a georgos (farmer), was born in 1924, had fought and was injured in the Greek Civil War. As a result, he was granted a license to operate a periptero (cigarette kiosk) where tobacco products, snacks, magazines and other items are sold. The periptero is still owned by the family. He also owned a small meadow at the foot of the mountain near Proti Serron where he raised tobacco. On holidays and in the summer his family helped harvest the crop and haul it back to the village on a donkey or on a tractor. He is described by his children as introverted, sensitive and very well-read. He loved to engage his customers in conversation, many of whom were college students, to discuss what they were reading. Athanasios tended the periptero from as early as 7:00 am until 10:00 pm, and was thus away from home much of the time. He became ill with cancer when his children were 15 and nine years old, leaving their mother and oldest child, Maria, to help with the periptero.
Eleni (nee Yianoussi), one of five siblings, was born in 1936 and, according to her children, is “way ahead of her time in sophistication” and has “street smarts” but is still attached to the simpler ways of the village. In 1962 her older brother Kostas Yianoussi was mayor of Proti Serron and immigrated to the Boston, Massachusetts, area in 1974. Her sister Eirini Mylonas had preceded him in 1970.
Irini’s husband, Agamemnon “Menos,” and Kosta worked in a shoe factory. When the factory moved to China, Menos and Kosta worked at Malden Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a fabric and upholstery company where Polartec, the original synthetic fleece, was created. During her time in the States, Eleni was able to take college night classes in English and art. Eleni is now retired, visits Seattle in the winter months and returns to the village in the summer. There she cares for her “castle,” the old, remodeled, neoclassical family home and enjoys time with relatives and friends in the tightly-knit community. Eleni’s two younger siblings, Lazos Gianousis and Ioanna Manazi still live in Greece.
LIFE IN GREECE
Maria Ling (nee Goveta) was born in Drama, Greece, on August 8, 1958. She remembers her father buying a set of books and that she spent much of her early years reading Russian literature. Growing up during World War II, neither Athanasios nor Eleni were able to receive a formal education but Maria has been able to live the dreams of her parents. Her father’s communistic leanings and love of reading along with her mother’s educated parents have been inspirations for her pursuit of knowledge. As a child, she and Christos were encouraged to educate themselves and avoid the dirt and sweat which are part of growing kapna (tobacco) and agricultural products.
Maria lived with her grandparents and, from the age of nine when not in school, worked processing tobacco, picking it by hand, shredding it and putting it out to dry. She was a good student. Then, when Athanasios died, she began working afternoons in the periptero while attending school. This was her life until the age of 18 when she completed the challenging examination process and began attending the Aristotelion University of Thessaloniki. There was some thought of pursuing a medical career, but the prospect of 10 years of time and expense, plus the challenge of math and science, found her studying psychology with a minor in education. Maria also had the benefit of learning English at the frontistirio (tutoring classes) and in high school and college. Plus, her eight years of Latin helped immensely.
Christos Govetas was born in Drama on November 14, 1961. He was the “prince” of the family as he was the only boy among many women and was raised by all the elders in the community. He was the “affable kid” in the neighborhood and could be found chatting with customers in the local cafes from an early age. He was just nine years old when his father became ill but still lived a carefree life, running around with friends, chasing birds, swimming in cisterns to cool off in the summer and enjoying Boy Scout excursions in the mountains. With Athanasios demanding much of Eleni’s time, Christos was able to be the rebellious kid while his mother’s attention was diverted. He remembers receiving his first guitar at the age of 10 and learning the kantades (traditional Greek music) with friends. The guitar gave him an escape from the unpleasant situation at home where his father became increasingly ill. Christos had received five years of English instruction in Greece and says he was a mediocre student through the 11th grade when the family left Greece in 1978.
LIFE IN MASSACHUSETTS
It was just one and one-half years after Athanasios died when Eleni Govetas’ sister in Massachusetts invited Eleni to come to America. Eleni was 44 years old, spoke almost no English and had little formal education when she brought her two children to the United States. However, her strong feminist personality, experience managing a business and a quest for knowledge gave her the ability and courage to adjust to a new life in America. Maria and Christo’s impressions of the United States had been taken from reading cowboy comic books and encyclopedias in Greece. She imagined tropical rain forests in the Pacific Northwest and he perceived desert and rock formations in Arizona. When their relatives met them in Massachusetts in a big Oldsmobile, they were astonished at the size of refrigerators, supermarkets, freeways and the choices available. Maria was just 19 and returned to Thessaloniki to finish her schooling while Christos’ educational future was to be in the United States.
In consultation with his school advisor, Christos was reluctantly held back one year to improve his English. He remembers being given the Americanized name of “Chris Gavitas” by some and how his theo (uncle) Costa “Charlie” affectionately called him “Chrrrreest,” with a heavy rolling “r”. He finished high school in 1980, at the same time Maria finished college in Greece and returned to join her family.
Christos became his big sister’s guide and translator as he had done his best to assimilate quickly to his new life. He had even purchased his uncle’s old Chevrolet Vega for $32.00, the cost of a new battery. In November of 1980, Maria arrived and began working the night shift at the semi-conductor company ITT and during the day Christo would drive them to Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, for more English classes. Maria began attending Boston University in the summer of 1982 while working 14-hour shifts at the Athens Pizza Parlor. She also took a job as secretary at St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church with Fr. George Karahalios. She had considered becoming a counselor but when another priest, Fr. Spencer Kezios, invited her to visit St. Nicholas, a private school in Northridge, California, her life took another turn.
Christos had always been interested in architecture and even with good grades in high school he lacked the credits to meet the college requirements. After his time in Haverhill, he learned of the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and began classes there in September of 1981. About that time, through Maria, he met a number of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston University who had recently come from Greece including Stavros Kosmathakis, Savvas Daneilas and Thymios Kaksiras and shared a room with one of them. Christos spent two years at Wentworth then transferred to the Boston Architectural Center where he found very useful course work at a reasonable price. Along with his work in pizza places and his musical performances, he was able to spend the next eight years, on and off, taking applicable courses without a specific degree in mind.
Among the young Greek students, Stavros Kosmathakis became Christos’ mentor. Christos was comfortable playing his Greek folk music but was inspired by the rebetika (contemporary and somewhat rebellious music) which his new friends had brought from Greece. As his skills developed, Christos began playing music at the Middle East Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, earning money and living a good life while attending school. It was there he met Beth Cohn, a classically-trained violinist with whom he shared the Turkish, Greek and other middle-eastern musical interests. She helped Christos expand and improve his musical abilities. Their group, Taximi, was able to play at several venues and Christos began playing the clarinet and oud and singing in a number of concerts, many of which were sold out. It was a fascinating and interesting time during which musicians were brought from Turkey, when he met the historian and dance teacher, Joe Kaloyianides Graziosi and participated in the first Balkan Night in Boston in 1988. A major highlight of Christos’ musical experiences was attending a Balkan music camp in West Virginia in 1989 where he met a singer, the beautiful Ruth Hunter. Six years later, on July 28, 1995, they were married.
MARIA’S LIFE IN SEATTLE
Maria’s circuitous trip to Seattle began when she was invited to California. She had considered pursuing an advanced degree in counseling. Instead, she accepted a position teaching the seventh and eighth grades at St. Nicholas School in Northridge. She began work in the fall of 1984 but found that disciplining her students was not her strong suit. However, while spending time with Greek students from University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Southern California (USC) she met Steven Ling who was teaching at nearby California State University with Greek graduate students. Their relationship developed and Maria decided to remain in California for another year. She and Steven were married first in a civil ceremony in California, in July of 1986, then again in Boston at St. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. At a relatively young age and as the first of her immigrant family to marry, Maria admits to some naiveté but accepted the opportunity to marry an older, professional who had lived in Europe with Air Force parents and had an appreciation of the European life style.
In California Maria did some counseling with women clients and considered a PhD in clinical psychology until the financial and work requirements faced her. With the perspective of her Greek village upbringing and reluctance to make that investment, she instead took a job in the Apple School in Los Feliz Hills, near Hollywood, California. In 1987 she and Steven took a road trip up the Pacific coast and came into Seattle on a gorgeous August day (with no traffic). There was some consideration of settling in Colorado but Maria favored the coast. They moved in June of 1989 with no one in their address book in Seattle, other than their landlord in the Ballard neighborhood.
In Seattle Maria worked at Taki’s pizza restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, then at a Norwegian donut and bakery shop where elderly Scandinavians could be found paying 99 cents for half a sandwich with soup and coffee! In 1989, with her emergency teaching credential from California, she secured a position teaching kindergarten for the next five years at Latona Elementary (now John Stanford International School). From there she transitioned to a non-profit program called Latona School Associates http://www.latonaschoolassociates.com/ which offers a variety of activities including homework support, arts and crafts, cooking, drama, cooperative and competitive games, field trips and summer camps before and after the regular school day. She has been the executive director of the program since 1995 and looks forward to completing 30 years in the educational field.
Maria’s love of romantic Russian literature instilled by her father and connection with the World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP) combined with her and Steven’s desire for a family, led them to adopt their daughter, Natalie, who was born near Vladivostok, Russia. Natalie celebrated her 18th birthday on December 14, 2016. Tragically, Maria and Natalie lost Steven when he passed away in 2009.
CHRISTOS’ LIFE IN SEATTLE
After meeting Ruth Hunter, Christos became involved with Folk Dancers of America, which holds an annual Balkan music and dance camp in Mendocino, California. His role there as a teacher has continued for the past 28 years. In 1992 the Seattle Greek community invited his group to perform at the Northwest Folklife festival. Having a sister in Seattle and paid travel expenses made it easy to say yes. He wanted to leave the Boston area, was considering California but came to love Seattle. A member of the Balkan Folk Dancers of America owned a raspberry farm in Puyallup, Washington, south of Seattle and invited Christos to live on the land where he designed a series of buildings. Since that time, he has operated his own design and construction business, Govetas Designs, out of his home for the past 19 years.
Christos and Ruth have performed extensively in the United States, Canada and Greece and, for the last ten years, taught and performed Greek regional music in camps on both coasts. They are currently members of the nationally acclaimed band Ziyia. They perform regularly with Pangeo and Pasatempos, a rebetika group, in the Seattle area. Christos is the 1999 recipient of the prestigious Northwest Folklife Fellowship Award, honoring his cultural contribution to the Greek-American and folk dance communities. For him, music and the Greek folk culture are the glue that binds his family together, along with the “force to be reckoned with,” his wife Ruth. Their children, Eleni, born in 1997 and Bobby, in 1999 are both musicians who join their parents in the musical traditions.
With the exception of one minor incident, Christos’ assimilation into American society has been relatively easy. He and Maria both feel somewhat “out of place” whether in Seattle or in Proti Serron. Like many immigrants with close family in Greece, they never feel they completely belong in either setting. Maria has strong feelings about growing up in a village as a female with few opportunities which she has been able to pursue in the United States. At the same time the close connections of a simpler life in a Greek village, despite the lack of efficiencies, is very comforting when she returns to the family home. Their mother, Eleni, also visits her Seattle family regularly, another means of maintaining the close ties. After moving to Massachusetts and as the Greek economy began to improve through its association with the European Union, Maria and Christos thought they might have been mistaken in leaving Greece. Now, with the education and employment benefits they have received, they know it was the right decision.
Maria’s home has several quotes written above doorways and on the walls. Her favorites are gnothis safton (know thyself) and ezisan ki afikala ke mis kalitera (they lived well and so did we, but better) and, from her uncle, ta loulouthia mes ta agragatha (we are the flowers among the weeds or don’t forget how special you are). Christos and his family have become steeped in Greek culture through their music and folkways in a way he never anticipated. Exploring the musical roots from all over Greece is his continuing passion.
Christos’ and Maria’s children may not be fully fluent in Greek but their appreciation of the culture and the comfort they feel when visiting their yiayia (grandmother) and family is testimony to the continuation of their Greek heritage. Maria appreciates the rare privilege of leaving life in an agrarian society, considered by some to be the bottom social class, to living a full and productive life in Seattle. She did not always appreciate her cultural and spiritual inheritance when building her life and career in the United States but knows now how important it is to have the enormous gifts of tradition provided by her family and Greek background. Christos understands the problems for those in Greece who benefited from a growing economy but must now adjust to a much simpler way of life. When one leaves the sweat and dirt from laboring in the village, reversing the move is very difficult. Maria and Christos feel fortunate to have left the village and realized their dreams but hold dear the values they brought from Greece.By John and Joann Nicon, March 2017 PHOTOS
1 Christos and Maria with a tobacco plant, 2016
2 Kosta, Christos, Zoe, Pantelis, 1928
3 Govetas grandparents, Christos and Maria, 1921
4 Eleni and Athanasios engagement, 1955
5 Athanasios and Eleni wedding, April 1957
6 Athanasios and Eleni bring Maria home in a basket, 1958
7 Maria as a baby, 1959
8 Maria and Eleni with Athanasios in the periptero, 1959
9 Maria, 1960
10 Friends Kiki, Maria and Olga, 1975
11 Athanasios, Christos, Maria and Eleni, 1965
12 Christos as an Evzone, 1968
13 Maria and Christos, 1969
14 Cousin Effie, Christos and Maria, 1971
15 Maria at the periptero, 1975
16 Maria and theo Menos, 1978
17 Maria’s birthday, 1978
18 With cousins on Christos’ Vega, Maria in the middle, 1978
19 Maria and Steve wedding, 1986
20 Steve, Maria and Natalie, 2002
21 Natalie and Maria, 2016
22 DROMENO: (l-r) Bobby Govetas, Christos, Ruth, Nick Maroussis and Eleni Govetas, 2014
23 Christos and Ruth, 2016
24 Bobby, Natalie, and Eleni with yiayia Eleni, circa 2008
25 Bobby, Ruth, Maria, Natalie, Eleni, Christos in Greece, 2016
Photo 1 by John Nicon; 22 courtesy Beacon Arts; all others from Govetas and Ling family collection SOURCES
Video interview by John and Joann Nicon, August 2016