The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Mary Cardaras, Heritage and the Greek Diaspora

Ruins of ancient stone columns and structures under a blue sky with a cloud.

Dr. Mary Cardaras is an Emmy-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker, professor, and writer. She holds a Ph.D. in Public and International Affairs from Northeastern University in Boston. She is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at California State University East Bay. 

Dr. Cardaras serves as Director of the Demos Center at Deree – The American College of Greece, a program dedicated to advancing democracy through engaged citizenship within the historically rich context of Athens. Born in Greece and herself an adoptee, she advocates for the reinstatement of Greek citizenship for around 4,000 Greek individuals who, as children, lost this status when they were taken out of the country following the Cold War. Cardaras outlines her and other Greek adoptees’ stories in her book Ripped at the Root: An Adoption Story.

Maher: I understand that you were born in Greece and adopted by Greek Americans. Was Greek culture a part of your upbringing?

Cardaras: A part of my every waking moment upbringing—yeah, it was. I mean, I had a certain amount of religious education and I went to Greek school.

Maher: So, what has your experience as a member of the Greek diaspora been like? Have you been connected to others like yourself?

Cardaras: You know, I read, or rather I heard, about a study which said that the Greek community, the Greek diaspora, has the strongest connection to its country than any other ethnicity in the world. And so we have a connection to Greece that’s special. Uncanny, organic, everybody is connected to the country, the village they’re from.

People return all the time. They have ancestral homes. It’s very much a part of our DNA that we have this longing to return to the motherland. It’s a homecoming. And the relatives here, the people here are all always embracing of us. I mean, they can’t wait for us to come back and they want us to stay.

Maher: How have you seen Greece and Greek culture change over time? 

Cardaras: Oh, God. Vastly. We have to remember that Greece was devastated during World War II. Devastated. There was a civil war right afterward which also divided the country. It was crippling. And then the Junta. It was a dictatorship where there was censorship, and people were hurt. People were in prison, people were exiled. And through all that, there was little efficiency in the country. The foundational systems in banking were sort of arcane. Greek village life was even more of a village life—you know, no electricity, no plumbing, all of that. And so, there was an economic crisis.

Now, I really believe that it is now on the path to prosperity, modernization. You see it everywhere. This cafe that we’re in, young entrepreneurs doing their thing. There’s more efficiency in the country. It’s easier to do things. Tourism is up. They’re really modernizing the country in terms of renewable energy—wind, solar, water, all of that. And there’s a lift in the steps of the young Greeks. You see it. They’re happier. 

I think one big problem is the multiculturalism here is difficult. There’s racism. There’s been a huge influx of refugees. They need to figure out what to do about it. I have some advice for them which I write about all the time, but that needs to be settled so the country can be peaceful, unified, all of that.

Maher: That’s part of my second question, what advice would that be?

Cardaras: Right now, what I want for the country is for them to assimilate fully this refugee community. It’s not their fault. Many of them, especially the children of refugees, have settled here, have friends here, are educated here, speak Greek, and really are as Greek as I am. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the basketball star, for one. He’s as Greek as I am, and I’ve met so many young people in that situation. They love Greece. But Greece doesn’t love them back. And somehow, someway, these people need to be made full citizens of the country. Because it’s an untapped resource to help the country grow.

Maher: Why do you think so many people are paying companies like 23andMe and Ancestry to find who they are? 

Cardaras: Good God. I think it’s fundamental to who we are. You know your birth story; you know your parents; you know your grandparents; you know who your great-grandparents were. You know your mother and father’s story and your grandparent’s story. Your mother and father have told you the story of your birth, when you were a little baby, and how cute you were. There’s a desire, a longing to connect to who you are, to who you were. For me as an adoptee, there’s an envy in me toward you that you know all that about yourself. Did I answer your question? 

Maher: Yeah, you did. 

Cardaras: We can talk through these egg bowls. 

Maher: Yeah, definitely. Thank you!

Server: Do you want salt or pepper? 

Maher: I’m alright. 

Cardaras: Both. 

Maher: See while you may not know your upbringing, your ancestry, you are in touch with your cultural heritage in a way that I’m not, which I almost envy, you know? 

Cardaras: What’s your cultural heritage? 

Maher: I’m like 90% Irish. 

Cardaras: Do your folks have a connection to Ireland? 

Maher: My dad’s 100% Irish. He’s not from Ireland, his great-grandparents are. He has some Irish pride, I’d say, but not in a way that it’s a part of our lives. I went to Ireland in the fall when I was abroad and that felt like a homecoming almost, cause I felt very connected to the land, honestly. 

Cardaras: Well, I was just going to tell you, if you go to Ireland, you’re going to feel connected.

Maher: I totally did. 

Cardaras: You also look like an Irish lass. So you probably saw yourself in a lot of the people there, right? 

Maher: It was really nice. I would love to go back and learn more about my family. 

Cardaras: And do you know where they’re from? 

Maher: No, I know like barely anything. Just from talking to you and being here and learning more about cultural heritage has made me want to learn more. There’s been a disassociation from people’s identity and modern society. Going back to those actual roots is becoming important for people to form identity and a home and family. 

Cardaras: I’m connected to an adoptee who was raised by, I think — I can’t remember exactly — a father from Poland, a mother from Britain. Mm-hmm. The adoptee finds out he was from Crete and he talks about going back to Crete for the first time in Greece and seeing people who looked like him. He said the features, the face, the color of the skin, and then it was very meaningful for him to not be looking like he didn’t belong somewhere.

Maher: I wanted to ask you about this newer phenomenon of people finding out about their entire genetic background, how that might affect tourism in the future and an alternative tourism that is like a homecoming. 

Cardaras: What an interesting thing. You see that here in Greece among Greek people for sure. And among adoptees, Greek adoptees, I think there’s a boom in it. But isn’t that interesting? I think there’s a good study in that Natalie, to see if that’s true; I would certainly do it.

Maher: You could start a business. 

Cardaras: Yeah, I know. I was thinking that. I mean, you’ve got to be able to like pay someone to help you find your family, find your village. You do. Like someone to trace it back. How do you like the egg bowl? 

Maher: It’s awesome. 

Cardaras: Isn’t it good? 

Maher: I love it. 

Cardaras: So healthy. 

Maher: It’s really good.

Cardaras: Really good avocado. Super fresh. That’s what I love about all the food here. The food. So fresh. This food is the healthiest. It is. So, did I answer that question? 

Maher: Definitely. I have just like one last question: how do you think Ecogenia aligns with the future of alternative tourism and ecotourism, and the idea of connecting with your roots? 

Cardaras:  Ecogenia is actually developed by a Greek American woman who doesn’t speak Greek, and Erica, a Greek-born woman who was educated here. They’re a really good team. They’re trying to modernize the country by instilling volunteerism in people, you know. Payment for work. Devotion to the job.

I think that Ecoyenia will inspire other such initiatives in ecotourism. The islands, although beautiful, have a lot of issues. Some tourists are taking four showers a day on Santorini. Water’s an issue. Garbage is an issue. 

Maher: I feel like it’s so important what they’re doing because Greece thrives on tourism, but they also get pummeled by it environmentally.

Cardaras: Right. It has to be about the collective, right? This collective mentality where we need to float all boats. To young people, certainly from the United States where I teach, and the young people in Greece, I try to instill in them this message: you have so much power, you don’t know how much power you have, but you can’t sit back and waste it.

And, we can’t be cynical and negative. I get it, you know, things aren’t happening the way they should. But the only way forward is to do something, right? Do something about it. Citizenship means more than casting a vote. It means engaging in whatever it is you think is important, something greater than yourself.

Don’t you find that when you get away from your culture, your environment, your school, you know, there’s space to think and reflect when you’re swimming in the water of the pristine water of Greece? You start to get your head out of your phone and look around and you start to think of things maybe you didn’t think of before.

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Louisiana State University

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