For Many Armenians America was Like ‘Coming Home’

WHO ARE THE REAL ANGELINOS … AN ONGOING SERIES-It is hard to know where to start when we talk about the Armenian culture in general and our Los Angeles Armenians in particular.  Although this proud group of people comes from a European history over 4,000 years old (most of which time the populations were enslaved), its American experience has been much shorter. 


In keeping with my ongoing series, “Who Are the Real Angelinos?” this article addresses the influences of the Armenian-American experience on our greater community and how it has provided a connection that has made us better off for its presence. 


In California there is a large population in and around Fresno but the City of Angeles has welcomed this group as well—hence Little Armenia (in the eastern region of Hollywood) which early on became a center of Armenian activity in Los Angeles.    Many Armenians have also migrated “westward” to suburbs like Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena, La Crescenta, and other areas in the San Fernando Valley.  In fact, the Armenian-Cultural Foundation is currently designing a site for the Encino Youth and Community Center that will accommodate the continuously expanding Armenian community. 


Concerned about passing on their history, traditions, and values, they have their own day schools which teach language and customs in addition to the core curriculum.  Their church history includes the original Apostolic founded by Saint Gregory in 301 ACE and to which most Armenians belong.  The Catholic and the Protestant sects include the Congregationalist, Evangelical, and Presbyterian branches.  Armenian businesses (like the Masco Corporation) abound and leaders have become quite politically involved.  Certainly we recall when George Deukmejian was Governor of California, when Walter Karabian was a State Senator, and we similarly are familiar with our current Los Angeles Councilmember, Paul Krekorian


You may have wondered about the suffixes to most Armenian names, such as the ones I mentioned above.  As with any language, overlapping cultures from other nations have always influenced linguistic development and left their imprint on new dialects.  Today we recognize


the –ian and –yan variations and ponder the differences.  Those Armenians who lived in places like Russia and nearby East European countries usually carry the –yan suffix, but those from Western Europe and the Diaspora often end with –ian.  Although other ethnicities carry these or similar endings, they are most closely associated with Armenians. 


For Armenians, the recent Diaspora represents a nightmarish period, one that has never been forgotten and whose pain has never been mitigated.  Incidentally, Raphael Lemkin (a Polish-American and famously known within the Armenian community) is actually the person who first coined the term, genocide, to apply to this event (and, of course, the term has come to be used with reference to many other similar acts that wipe out whole populations).  Although other ethnic groups (such as Assyrians and Greeks) under the subjugation of the Ottoman Empire were brutalized and murdered, the Armenian experience has had the greatest and most enduring impact on its victims:  more than one million men, women, and children were tortured, raped, and murdered while another million were driven from their homeland (whose territory, even then, only represented a very small part of what is now Turkey).  

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This excruciating part of history is never far from the minds and hearts of contemporary Armenians and, therefore, continues to keep the horrors of that earlier area alive and raw.  I think the rest of us need to make every effort to understand what they are feeling and be a little more empathetic to their grievances.  


On the other hand, we must keep in mind says Roxanne Makasajian, “When Armenians first arrived [in America], seeking safety from the persecution and abuses they faced in the Turkish Ottoman Empire, they were met with significant discrimination, both informally and formally. In the Fresno area, in particular, there were measures prohibiting Armenians from buying property and insurance, using certain public facilities, among other discriminatory policies. Armenians were routinely referred to as "dirty Armenians" and [by] other slurs. These experiences parallel those of other ethnic groups in California, and while they've mostly been overcome by now, it's important to remember that they're also part of the American immigration experience.”


[Nevertheless is removed here] Says writer Harold Takooshian, “Traditional Armenian culture so closely resembles American values that many Armenians feel they are ‘coming home’ to America and make an easy transition to its free-market and social values.” 


Nevertheless, Armenians still continue to face an ongoing challenge:  They have been willing to acculturate quickly but have been slow to assimilate.  There is the need (partly based on their history when efforts were made to exterminate them altogether) to hold on to, perpetuate, and become “proud guardians charged with protecting their ancient, highly-evolved culture—its distinctive language, alphabet, architecture, music, and art—from extinction.” 


When the first-generation immigrants arrived, they were willing to take on whatever jobs were available (despite so many of them having higher education levels).  They worked at wire mills, garment factories, silk mills, and California vineyards.  More of second-generation Armenian-Americans joined the professional and managerial forces.  By the time the third-generation emerged, its members filled the ranks of entrepreneurs and chose fields in engineering, medicine, the sciences (Varaztad Kazanjian is known as a “Pioneer of Plastic Surgery”), and technology. 

Armenians have become a significant and indispensable part of our Los Angeles family.  Their members are among the most educated.    Early on, many Armenians were drawn to such suburbs as West Adams, Boyle Heights, the San Fernando Valley, and Hollywood, but the City of Glendale has become home to one of the largest Armenian populations outside of Armenia itself.  Glendale, in fact, has served as a gateway for Armenians coming from abroad.  It has been so welcoming that as recently as 2005, the majority of the City Council is of Armenian background.

Glendale’s Central Avenue is lined with bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants from which emanate tantalizing fragrances and aromas and, of course, there are a variety of ethnic shops where one can shop for clothing or art.  In addition, there are a variety of Armenian-language newspapers.  Local cable TV offers an array of talk shows and public affairs programs. 

Armenian foods (dating back over a thousand years) have whetted the palates of so many gourmands that there is great demand for these delicacies (keeping in mind that many of the foods overlap with other Middle Eastern and East European cultures).  Think of humus (in all its variations—yummy) and tabouleh, rice pilaf, and falafel as well as lamb kabobs.  There is string cheese and yogurt soup and what about pita bread, baklava, and a range of espresso coffees and oghi (a type of raisin brandy)?  

Education has traditionally been of paramount importance to Armenians.  They have been described as “school crazy.”  California’s pupils, in general, and Los Angeles Armenian-American students, in particular, tend to test higher on standardized tests than many other groups.  The results are reflected in the high numbers who go on to college and other schools of certification. 

As for religion, Armenia is said to be the first Christian nation—“a source of pride” for so many of this ethnic group.  It follows that they would bring with them to their new land their religious philosophies and traditions as is reflected in their current Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox practices. 

It is no surprise, then, that they are eager to celebrate a number of holidays—a great number of which are already familiar to many of us:  Armenian Christmas on January 6 (the traditional day of the Epiphany); Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.  St. Vartan’s Day (the freedom-fighter) and Martyrs’ Day (in remembrance of the Armenian Holocaust) and independence days (the short-lived liberation from the domination by the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey) and the more recent Independence Day (from the Soviet Union).  These events are generally accompanied by a variety of parades, often culminating in speaking events which pay tribute to these leaders and events. 

Wonderful artists abound.  One can find in the Armenian district a park which contains an inspiring arts center. A visitor should take the time to check out thenotable mural in Little Armenia (off Vermont and between Fountain and Santa Monica Boulevard) which colorfully illustrates the history of the Armenian motherland.  Another outstanding mural (by Miles “El Mac” MacGregor who is famous for his spray-paint creations) advertises “The Bridge”—a current television series.  It graces the façade of the bodega, J & J Grocer and Liquor (“offering the finest of imported Middle-Eastern foods”) and is located on Santa Monica Boulevard off Normandie.  The prominent face of a woman is depicted in stunning detail in various gradations of red.  El Mac’s works combine “the sublime and the humble” and adorn many interior and exterior walls throughout Los Angeles. 

Many other intriguing and unique muralists, such as Eliseo Silva and Vasily, also seek out the walls in Little Armenia to tell their stories. 

One of my favorite authors is William Saroyan (whose writings I always taught my students).  He is perhaps best known for his first novel, The Human Comedy, which is in fact a metaphor examining what life really is as compared to what it ought to be and can be.  It is a poignant story of a slice of Americana during World War II.  Saroyan wrote many novels and short stories as well as his famous play, The Time of Your Life.  Throughout his life he lived in Fresno, a prominent Armenian community in California. 

Armenian-Americans are part of nearly every kind of venture.  The arts abound with a multitude of contributors such as Arthur Tcholakian and composers, instrumentalists, and singers like Raffi, Lucine Amara, Lili Chookasian, Ivan Galamian, and Maro Partamian.  Then there are actors, directors, and screenwriters, like Academy-Award winning Steve Zallian (known for Awakenings and Schindler’s List), Eric Bogosian (writer of such works as Talk Radio and Notes from the Underground as well as acting in shows like Dolores Claiborne and Wonderland and Law and Order), and Rouben Mamoulian (who brought to us the modern Broadway musical, Oklahoma!). Kirk Kerkorian has been involved with both MGM and Columbia Pictures but, perhaps of even more importance, is known for his philanthropy, especially providing aid to Armenia after the major 1988 earthquake there.  Michael Krikorian was for years a prominent LA Times journalist.  

The Armenian community is also represented by past and current sports figures--football player Garo Yepremian and coach Ara Parseghian; Jerry Tarkanian, coach of college basketball; race-car sponsor, J. C. Agajanian; Steve Bedrossian, baseball pitcher; and Adrian Sarkissian of soccer fame.  

The older Diaspora generations have generally done quite well for themselves—they are well-educated leaders and role models, often living in the wealthier neighborhoods, but not all Armenian-Americans are doing as well and are struggling like the rest of us to achieve the American dream. 

It should be obvious that we have a lot in common.  We need to embrace what the Armenian community has done for the rest of us and, conversely, what we have done for them.  Our interactions have been significant.  We also need to learn more about their history and culture and embrace both as part of the overall American Experience—as a vital part of what Saroyan (and much earlier, what Balzac) would call the human comedy. 

● Read other articles in the Who Are the Real Angelinos series and other columns by Rosemary Jenkins.  

(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Alliance. Jenkins has written Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems,  and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch. This piece is part of an ongoing CityWatch series … Who Are The Real Angelinos … exploring the myriad peoples and cultures that define Los Angeles.)


Vol 12 Issue 72

Pub: Sep 5, 2014

Updated: Oct 23, 2014