Reflections on Collingwood: interview with Anthea Sidiropoulos

By Ajak Mabia

This is my second article in this series looking at the lives of other migrants who came before us.

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Anthea Sidiropoulos

Anthea has tasted and seen it all; the bitterness, the sweetness, the poor and the rich. She knows what it was like to grow up in Collingwood in the 1960s and 1970s. If new migrants think they are doing it tough now, they need to find out about the lives of previous migrants who lived in Australia in 50s and 60s.

Anthea is a singer-song writer and community leader, who has enjoyed a music career spanning over 15 years as an indie-artist.

Anthea’s father was the first non-Australian born person who went into Parliament after serving in local government as a Collingwood councillor. Her mother was a hairdresser (see Interview with Pipo).

Living in Collingwood meant Anthea had to deal with the complex and contradictory environment of a multiethnic society. “It’s not easy being a teenager and trying to find your spot in society, let alone being picked on by peers because you look different”.

“I was a rebel as a child”, she says, “but I just wanted to be a normal Aussie girl”.  She changed her name from Anthea to Julie, and wanted to be blonde.

As a singer, her influences were Australian music, American blues, American rock, and Greek music. “I listened to pop music, such as the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and the early Tina Turner. My influences were from American music in the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Soul music for me was very positive and non discriminatory. All the lyrics were about peace, love and brotherhood, always having a good time and living together harmoniously as a community”.

Her experiences as a child seeing aboriginals in Collingwood and Fitzroy were formative.

“There were pubs on every corner on Gertrude Street. I was 10 years old and my father was concerned with Aboriginal issues. He had no idea how to deal with it. There were many Aboriginal people living there, but they were not really present – they were only in pockets in Gertrude Street, and they always lay on lawn and there was beer everywhere. I was not allowed to go there because of the alcohol. We had a shop there and indigenous people always came to our shop and my parents were very helpful to them, on a basic level”.

Anthea has a theory about the way aboriginal people are treated: “The Australian Government wants to sabotage the indigenous race so if they are on alcohol they will be disempowered, they will not be educated, they will lose their identity and language, and therefore you have zombie community”.

Anthea remembers as a young girl she had many questions about the Collingwood community she lived in.

“We lived in a mono-culture, but I grew up bi-cultural. I had my school life which was English but my home life was Greek.  I had to juggle the two.  At the same time I was exposed to the horrible ways some people treated human beings; firstly because of their colour and secondly, because they were poor. It wasn’t just black people, it was poor white people too”.

“There was a little girl I used to go to school with, and her parents were so poor, she lived in a shelter. I visited her house one day and her wall was made of paper. I remember asking my father, ‘how come we have our walls solid with no holes and I just came from my friend’s house and her wall is made of paper and there are holes in it?’ ”

Collingwood was originally an industrial city. “If you at look Collingwood’s original houses, they were very tiny and were built to accommodate the workers. They used to chuck them in there, where they ate and slept. The Yarra River was lined with factories and the workers used to pump water from the river to make the machinery work. It was terribly dirty; it looked like a hurricane on the Yarra River. That’s all changed now. When the human rights and socialist movement arose, they demanded the Council address these issues. They didn’t care whether you were black or white or yellow – they just wanted the fair treatment of the worker and environment for all the residents in Collingwood. They were committed to working towards a better life in the area for every resident, rather than getting themselves into a political career. That’s why my father got in to the Council”.

“An elderly man called George, who was in Council, wanted my father in Council. But nobody else wanted him. They wanted an Australian-born person. My father was officially Australian, but he wasn’t Australian enough to be considered a Council position. He could speak English, but with an accent and with his looks, it was obstacle. This was in 1963.  It took George five years to convince the Council to consider him”.

“My father’s position in Council made him very popular in the Greek community. He became skilful and he knew how to address the community issues and help the community with their bills and so on. It was a struggle and a tough time, and it was very exciting because there were social changes, which had never happened before”.

“It’s easy sitting back now and telling the story as 52 year old, but at the time, I don’t think they had any idea how much impact they made in Collingwood’s community. My father was responsible for Collingwood, Fitzroy, Clifton Hill, North Richmond, and Abbotsford. There were so many different nationalities living there, but the majority were Greeks”.

“The household was very busy. There were meetings every night. Mum was always cooking, with me on the sink from a very earlier age, washing dishes. I witnessed a lot of frustration. I didn’t completely comprehend what the frustrations were at the time. I understand it now, as a older person. There were mixed feelings at same time among the residents: sadness and positives. Then the Vietnamese refugees arrived and that was another interesting story. Again different; there were so many frustrations but positive outcomes”.

“Coming from first migrant parents who worked 7 days and 7 nights a week because they couldn’t find a decent job, working hard so their children could have a better education. It was the last thing they wanted to hear that one of their children wanted to become an artist or musician. When I was 16, I applied to the Alliance Music Competition and won a scholarship for a whole year of singing lessons. I went home very happy, but my mother said, ‘No I didn’t have you to become a theatre singer’. I was very upset. The next day I turned up with a saxophone and drove my mom crazy, as revenge. I was in a school play and my teacher tried to convince my mom, but she still said ‘No’. I pursued my music career and went on to sing in cover band, singing Aretha Franklin songs”.

“I did all this to be accepted. I didn’t want to be a Greek at all. I had my cares at school because I am dark, even though I changed my name my when I was 6 years old and wanted to be blond. But I couldn’t change my colour. And it breaks my heart to see these issues are still exist and continuing to”.

Anthea said somethings have changed for better compared to 60s and 70s. “It is great time to be alive. But there are challenges ahead of us that need to be solved in the 21 Century. When is segregation going to end? When is gap between poor and rich going to close? When are human rights abuses going to end? How far is a piece of string?”

“We just have to get on with life, and regardless of what I’ve said, I am very optimistic and sceptical at the same time”.

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