It could have been a scene from Orthodox Easter anywhere in Greece: relatives, friends and co-workers gathering around the fire to roast lamb, share a drink and have a dance. This particular festive scene, though, is taken from a Colorado coal miners’ colony on April 20, 1914, at the height of the longest workers’ strike the USA had ever seen.
Within hours of the festivities, around 20 people lay dead after an onslaught by the Colorado National Guard. They included union leader Louis Tikas, a Greek immigrant, who was beaten and then shot in the back.
For decades Tikas’ exceptional story of fortitude only existed within the contours of broader accounts about the Ludlow Massacre. A century later, a documentary called Palikari, made by two Greeks, director Nickos Ventouras and researcher Lambrini Thoma, seeks to build on the single account of Tikas’ journey from Cretan migrant to working man’s legend and create a comprehensive account of this gripping tale.
The idea for the project came in 2007 when Ventouras and Thoma were preparing to trace Jack Kerouac’s journey across the USA, as told in his classic book On The Road, for a magazine article. During the research, Thoma came across an article about Louis Tikas and the pair decided to stop off in Colorado to find out more.
“At the time, to get to see Tikas’ grave, we had to climb over a fence,” Thoma tells Kathimerini.
“The cemetery wasn’t open, there wasn’t a sense of memory or that people may travel from afar to visit the place. It was a local matter. But we saw that it was still alive, people hadn’t forgotten the story and they were making an effort to keep it alive.”
After meeting with folk singer Frank Manning and Colorado’s poet laureate David Mason, Ventouras and Thoma were convinced that Tikas’ story needed to be told to as wide an audience as possible.
Their work was cut short for them by Zeese Papanikolas, a Greek American author who was the first to delve into Tikas’ past, elevating him from just a bit-part player in a cast of hundreds involved in the events in Ludlow to one of the main characters in this momentous event in American labour history. His 1991 book, Buried Unsung, transformed Tikas into a compelling historical figure, who left Greece as Ilias Spantidakis early in the 20th century and established himself as a mainstay of the Greek community in southern Colorado before leading a 14-month strike that pitted poorly paid and badly treated miners against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company and chief mine owner John D. Rockefeller Jr.
“America knew the story of the Ludlow Massacre but only found out about Louis Tikas relatively recently,” says Thoma. “We owe this to Zeese Papanikolas, who in the pre-internet age and starting with the memories of just two people created a seminal work of oral history. He dedicated many years of his life trying to uncover who Louis Tikas was. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for his work. He certainly made things much easier for us to make the documentary.”
Papanikolas features heavily in the documentary, along with Mason, Manning and a few more select experts. The film consists of a series of interviews with these commentators that are split into themed sections which are also arranged chronologically. The documentary makers made a conscious choice not to narrate the film in order to allow the interesting characters they found to tell the story from their perspective. There is also limited use of archive footage, which proved to be scarce for such an old event and also costly for Ventouras and Thoma, who funded the project themselves, to use. It makes for a pared-down film that succeeds in its mission to focus on Tikas’ poignant story – one that was part of an embarrassing moment in American history that saw women and children, as well as workers fighting for their rights, being murdered by private guards.
“We weren’t aware of how the memory of Tikas had passed to today’s generation [in Colorado], which is making an effort to preserve it,” says Thoma. “This was a revelation for us. Perhaps this is the thing that authority and official history ignores: communities can create a protective ring and even keep alive things that those in power would rather were forgotten. This was a story that they wanted to snuff out but they didn’t manage it.”
Tikas’ story, though, was also in danger of being lost because of a reluctance among Greek immigrants in the USA to speak about their darker experiences. Palikari is as much about the hardship and exploitation that migrants faced in Tikas’ era as it is about the labour movement that emerged at the time.
“Members of the Greek community told us that many migrants from Greece worked in the coal mines and then moved to the East Coast, where they set up business with the money they had earned, but never spoke about their previous experiences,” says Thoma. “They were embarrassed that they had to work as coal miners or in other jobs where they were essentially treated like slaves.”
Palikari is also a biographical account of Tikas’ brief life in Colorado. It was a story that could have gone to the grave with him. “Although he became a US citizen shortly before being killed, Tikas, as with countless other immigrant workers, was essentially a foreigner who died leaving no family behind.”
The documentary attempts to flesh out parts of Tikas’ past and to inform viewers about what motivated this 28-year-old man to put his life on the line for workers of different nationalities in a country that was not his own. His courage, after all, provided the inspiration for the documentary’s title.
Palikari is a particularly evocative word in Greek that can be used to describe a young man but also someone who is courageous, honest and dependable. The film leaves viewers in no doubt that this is the best word to describe Tikas.
“There is a sense of bravery about him that springs forth from his tradition,” says Thoma. “We found out that his ancestors were killed in the slaughter at Arkadi Monastery in Crete [during a fight between rebels and Ottoman occupiers in 1866] and, a generation later, two members of the family were executed by the Nazis. That period produced a tradition of Cretan heroism and we wanted this aspect of Tikas’ persona to come across in the documentary.”
A century later, as Orthodox Easter falls on the same day as it did in 1914, when Tikas and between 18 and 25 others lost their lives in Ludlow, the resonance of Palikari may depend on whether viewers feel it weaves together a fascinating personal story with the broader account of a pivotal moment in labour relations. Thoma insists that what happened to Tikas and others does speak to a modern audience.
“The story has a contemporary relevance,” she says. “As long as workers continue to have their rights taken away and immigration takes on great significance as an issue, then for Southern Europe especially this is a very didactic story, but one we didn’t want to tell in a didactic manner.
“I think any smart person watching this documentary can deduce things about the position they find themselves in today and what Louis wants to tell them from where he is.”
Palikari is not so much a documentary as it is a historical document, bringing together lively expert accounts of a story that deserves to be heard by a wide audience. In an effort to achieve this, Ventouras and Thoma plan to make the documentary available for free.
“Whoever wants can visit our website – palikari.org – and ask for permission to arrange a screening of the film,” says Thoma. “We don’t want money, we just want it to be seen by as many people as possible. Whether it’s unions, schools or any organisation, we’re happy to help.”
A series of screenings, where Papanikolas and Elliott Gorn, a professor of American urban history, will also be present for discussions with the audience, are to be held in Greece next month. In Athens on May 4th, Rethymno on the 7th, Iraklio on the 9th and Volos on the 14th.