A student runs up the new entryway to Hoover High School on Thursday. / by Roger Wilson/Glendale News-Press, via Hoover High School

A student runs up the new entryway to Hoover High School on Thursday. / by Roger Wilson/Glendale News-Press, via Hoover High School

Culture Clash: Armenian and Hispanic Relations in the Past, Present and Future

by | July 6th, 2010 | 14 comments
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On any given day in mid-city Los Angeles, A. Partamian Bakery is bustling. Treasured Armenian delicacies, like lahmajune, boreg, sarma and even parag hatz [thin bread], are all freshly made in this modest and popular shop that has been open since 1948. The customers rave about the food, the bakery is busy and all around L.A. there are content bellies full of hot Armenian pizzas made of ground lamb, tomatoes and bell peppers.

Everything about A. Partamian is Armenian – from the name, to the menu, to the customers and the parag hatz – except the bakers. Francisco Rosales and Jose Gonzales, two childhood friends with roots in Zacatecas, Mexico, began working in the shop more than 20 years ago, learning owner Leon Partamian’s family recipes so perfectly that when he unexpectedly died in 2007, his family honored Partamian’s wishes and left the business to them.

A 62-year old bakery in the heart of Mid-City Los Angeles, A. Partamian bakery has customers driving far and wide to pick up Armenian delicacies, which live harmoniously with the Tapatio sauces on the shelves. A. Partamian makes kufda, boreg and even "parag hatz" all by two friends from Zacatecas, Mexico who inherited the business they had worked at for more than 20 years after Leon Partamian died in 2007. /photos by Liana Aghajanian

A 62-year old bakery in the heart of Mid-City Los Angeles, A. Partamian bakery has customers driving far and wide to pick up Armenian delicacies, which live harmoniously with the Tapatio sauces on the shelves. A. Partamian makes kufda, boreg and even "parag hatz" all by two friends from Zacatecas, Mexico who inherited the business they had worked at for more than 20 years after Leon Partamian died in 2007. /photos by Liana Aghajanian

Food is a great uniter, as they say, and in this bakery, the lines between Armenians and Hispanics become nonexistent, never standing in the way of delicious baked goods.

Outside of this humble shop on West Adams Blvd., however, it’s been a different and rocky story, from discrimination and name calling to violent confrontations and murders that have strained relations between the two ethnic groups for years.

Brewing Violence

The most well known incidents have involved students from Herbert Hoover High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, about 40 minutes northeast of the bakery. Herbert Hoover’s student body is almost 60 percent Armenian and 25 percent Hispanic/Latino.

Students, polarized by their ethnicity, have tended to fragment into ethnic groups, and petty arguments have often escalated, says Kevin Welsh, Hoover High’s principal, who, after 28 years, will be retiring this year.

The most significant one occurred in 2000, when senior Raul Aguirre, who had no gang affiliation, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death while intervening in a fight between rival Armenian and Hispanic gang members. Aguirre’s death and that of Avetis “Avo” Demirchyan, who was shot in 1998 in an inter-Armenian-related dispute, tainted the Glendale school’s image for years, even though none of the events occurred on campus.

Welsh, the principal, who is affectionately known as “Baron Welshian,” called the events tragic.

“They were the darkest days I have lived as an administrator,” he said, adding that they lead to the unfortunate stereotyping of “dangerous Armenian kids” by the community.

Hoover High School is located in a city containing the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia and Russia, but ethnic friction between Hispanics and Armenians has been problematic in nearby communities as well.

To the west of Glendale, nestled in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys, Grant High School, whose population is 65 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Armenian according to Principal Linda Ibach, has gone through a series of upheavals between Armenian and Hispanic students that has caused lockdowns and required law enforcement.

In 2005, a brawl involving 500 students erupted at the school, possibly related to Hispanic and Armenian tensions according to Sgt. Hector Fernandez, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. More recently, in 2008, a shouting match broke out at an Armenian memorial assembly when a group of Hispanic students began squaring off with a group of Armenian students, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Though no arrests were made, two-dozen school officers were called in to the campus due to fears of violence.

The violence isn’t isolated to schools. The 2008 Los Angeles Hate Crime report put out by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission reported that while crimes against Armenians and Middle Easterners fell, Armenians were targeted by Latinos in 80 percent of the cases. In one case, three Latino males in a vehicle stopped an Armenian motorist, ordered him to get out of the car and give them his wallet, the report said. When he failed to comply, they beat him and struck him with a hammer. One suspect who was later arrested admitted to police that they selected their victim because he was “obviously Armenian” and “they think they are better.”

“If people think race and ethnic and racial issues are limited to schools or geographic areas,” says Welsh, “just listen to the political campaigns of the people in the highest offices of this country. What would make you think that a 14-year-old that lives at a poverty level in this district would think any different than a politician?”

A Changing Landscape

Just what fuels hate between these two ethnic groups that share similar cultural cornerstones — rooted in family, food and religion? The answer may lie not in immigration statistics, but cultural attitudes.

After Armenian immigrants came in waves to L.A. in the ‘90s and beyond, the landscape of the sprawling city began to change. Glendale, once home to a considerable Hispanic population, began to see an increase in its Armenian population. In 1990, the city was home to 30,000 Armenians and 37,000 Hispanics, and while the start of the new millennium saw that number of Armenians increase to 50,000, the Hispanic population increased by a mere 1,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You had these tremendous upheavals in the world – the breakdown of the Soviet Empire, you had a cataclysmic, tragic earthquake in Armenia, and lots of movement coming into the school district and into the city of Glendale,” says Welsh.

Naturally, turf situations began to develop, spilling over into the schools where kids spend the majority of their days.

Narek Khachatryan, who is now in college, noticed there were tensions between Armenians and Hispanics when he was growing up in Glendale.

“I felt uncomfortable, there was just this unspoken barrier that you just felt,” says Khachatryan, who was born in Yerevan and has two very close Hispanic friends he’s known since middle school.

“I remember one time, as a kid, I had a Hispanic neighbor and I asked him what high school was like, and he said, ‘You better watch out, Mexicans are on one side and Armenians are on the other.’ He made it sound like a war zone.”

Khachatryan, who says that ethnicity wasn’t a cause but was used more as an insult during fights, feels that if people just talked to each other one on one, they’d realize that there’s really nothing to fight about. He also credits his parents’ open-mindedness as the reason why he made friends with people of all ethnicities.

William Archila, a poet and teacher of El Salvadoran descent, sees the conflict as a manifestation of self-hatred.

“It seems like you have a lot of kids who are trying to do to another group what has been done to them,” says Archila, whose wife, poet Lory Bedikian, is Armenian.

“Many come to this country with a lot of anger, or they learn anger here. They seem to have this colonized mentality and inferiority complex; they can only bring negativity on somebody else who they consider below them.”

Ara Mgrdichian, co-director of Herbert Hoover High School’s Student Resource Center and a violence prevention specialist, has similar sentiments.

“You just got here, someone looks at you wrong, what do you cling to? You cling to your identity,” he says, adding that because many from both ethnicities live in quasi-poverty, this type of behavior gives them a sense of empowerment.

Cultures Entwined

Michael Sarkissian, who is of Salvadorian and Armenian descent, experienced discrimination while growing up as a child of two cultures, even though his parents saw past their own backgrounds enough to marry.

“It was hurtful and, at the same time, thought provoking,” he says, adding that insults were thrown his way. “There were teachers who said we must marry within our race or it would be tantamount to committing genocide on ourselves. I can see the logic, but at the end of the day, what we really need is to learn how to identify good people, loyal friends and loving spouses. Being Armenian or Salvadorian is not a qualifier for any of these values.”

Sarkissian, who attended Chamlian Armenian School, says he will always respect the school’s administration for treating him no different than any other students, despite his background.

While Armenian and Hispanic Diasporas are located in major metropolitan cities all across the world, it’s possible that high tensions between Armenians and Hispanics are special to the concrete jungles of L.A.

Ani Istanbul, a Canadian of Mexican and Armenian descent from Toronto, never felt discriminated against while growing up and did not see any tensions in the Armenian and Mexican communities of Toronto. However, she did hear through friends about the arguments and violence that occurred in L.A.

Like Sarkissian, Istanbul was subjected to indoctrination from community leaders about the notion of a homogenized community.

She recalls a lecture by an Armenian priest who spoke of the importance of Armenians sticking together, by marriage and otherwise.

“He said anybody that marries and has children with an odar (non-Armenian), that child is not considered Armenian. I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, so I got up and left.”

Both poets, Lory Bedikian is of Armenian descent and William Archila is of Salvadoran descent and they never considered their ethnicity an issue when deciding to get married. / photo courtesy Lory Bedikian

Both poets, Lory Bedikian is of Armenian descent and William Archila is of Salvadoran descent and they never considered their ethnicity an issue when deciding to get married. / photo courtesy Lory Bedikian

Unity Through Diversity

After the incidents at Hoover High School, Welsh and the administration spent an enormous amount of time and energy to not only smooth out relations, but also prevent sordid events like those from ever happening again.

After applying and receiving a federal grant, the school took kids to camps in nearby Big Bear and Catalina where they learned communication and life skills together.

The school also received a community violence prevention grant and brought on two consultants – Mgrdichian and violence prevention specialist Alex Garcia.

It was an appropriate yet surprising coincidence that one happened to be Armenian and the other Hispanic.

Both Mgrdichian and Garcia, who are more like brothers than just colleagues, have made positive changes at Hoover through counseling, group therapies and plain old discipline.

At Grant High School, peer meditation and other processes to help educate students have been implemented to connect the two cultural groups, says Principal Ibach.

“With good policies and good expectations, kids can be ok together,” she says.

The attempt to bridge the communities has also been made outside of the educational system. Less than a year ago, the Armenian American and Hispanic American Chambers of L.A. organized a joint event with the Consulates General of Armenia and Mexico to host Arturo Sarukhan, Ambassador of Mexico to the United States, who is of Armenian descent.

Mexican consul general Juan Marcos Gutierrez-Gonzalez and Armenia consul general Grigor Hovhanissian announced the creation of a Mexican and Armenian task force to promote harmony between the two cultures in sectors of the community in L.A., a gesture that some might consider long overdue.

For Ara Soudjian, a filmmaker of Armenian and Mexican descent, the road to understanding someone of a different background starts with dialogue.

“Give it a try, talk to someone who is Hispanic, see that you guys are more similar than you are different,” he said. “It’s just communication, open hearts and open minds, engaging in conversation and sparking a friendship somehow.”

Poet Lory Bedikian, who is married to Archila, says it really is as simple as your outlook on life.

“There was no hesitation. I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, that’s what gave me the freedom to make my choices,” she says about marrying her Salvadorian husband.

For Sarkissian, the push to establish relations between two cultures, which have more in common than otherwise thought, is a symbolic one.

“The word Armenia triggers ‘All Men From’ as in Noah’s descent from the Caucasus Mountains to repopulate the world,” he said. “The word ‘El Salvador’ triggers ‘The Savior.’ The day Armenians and Salvadorians respect each other for the family-oriented, loyalty-driven individuals they are, ‘All Men From The Savior’ will be content with his devoted people.”

Comments

  1. Dr. Paula Nelson, Toll MS Principal says:

    Liana-The work of bringing kids together to celebrate and appreciate each others diversity and similarities is also happening in our middle schools. I invite you to also take a look at the good work we are doing at Toll, with the help of community partners like AGBU! I feel we are making a huge difference in our community and the lives of children and families in our school.

  2. MIKE ADAJIAN says:

    Excellent story, LIANA & ARARAT & all. Thank you for telling the tale, for doing the work, for taking the heat, FOR CARING. The very same to ARA ARZUMANIAN & friends for your fine LOST KIDS story. More later.

  3. Dr. Harry S. Bedevian says:

    My 2008 USC doctoral dissertation was about School Violence–specifically, Reasons for Ethnic Conflicts Between Armenian and Latino students. All interested parties were sent a copy in GUSD (Toll, Hoover, Glendale High, Board of Education) as well as other schools (Hollywood HS, North Hollywood HS, Grant HS) and Local Districts in LAUSD (LD1, LD2, LD4).

    Feel free to email me for a copy if interested: hbedevia@lausd.net

  4. Emma says:

    I grew up in the US, did my bachelors and masters here, have worked in corporate America and private industry for more that 30 years. We have friends, neighbors, and even family members that are odars. Yet, it is so difficult to imagine what could possibly be inevitable – that my children marry odars.

    I have a deep love for our Armenian people. Growing up with “you must marry armenian” discipline from my parents, really only made me look for Armenians. Sure I dated odars (hid this from my parents), but my heart was looking for an Armenian. I honestly felt as if I lived a dual life: one with Armenian friends and one with odar friends. In college, I found my love and have been married now for over 27 years to an Armenian.

    Now, with my adult age children I am doing the same thing my parents did “you must marry armenian”. And my gut rentches as I think about the odar girl friend or odar boy friend. We are comfortable with Armenians and grew up with them. Thank goodness my children love Armenians and being Armenain also. So that is what we are comfortable with. I have a much more open relationship with my kids than my parents did with me. But still it is closed, because I although they love being Armenian and want to marry Armenian…they are open to love even if it is from an odar. I never really considered marrying an odar.
    Whereas, they want to marry an Armenian but are not closed minded about odars.

    As an Armenian mother who loves being Armenian and upholding our values, I find I am really struggling and have the innate fear that my children will marry odars. Sure I want them to marry Armenians because of our similarities in backgrounds, upholding our culture, similar religions all ultimatley make marriage easier because of the similar upbringings. I want to be continue to be close to my children. But the whole concept of marrying an odar goes against the true nature of who I am. But I also want them to marry someone they love, who respects them and loves them and that they have a true relationship with for the rest of their lives.

    Will I survive or will it break my heart if they marry an odar? I can tell already it would be tough. Will we be disappointing my parents and my ancestors? Will my nationality die ultimately? Will we ultimately lose ourselves and our love for being Armenian? Will our heritage and culture be lost? Will my children have a tough marriage if they don’t marry someone of their background?

    So, I should probably get mentally prepared (or I will go mental). At the end, it is my children who need to be happy. It can go either way, and frankly I am realizing that I have no control over it.

    Thanks for your writing. It really stirred my emotions. I know many mothers who are thinking the same thoughts I am. After all, we are proud Armenians. Does anyone agree? Is there any advice for us Armenian moms?

    • carlos says:

      in response to your comments. I’m not Armenian but Hispanic. I do understand of your pride of your country. We hispanic are proud people as well. I understand your fears or concerns; I don’t blame you because I know this types of ideas were given to you by your parents and people within your culture. Times have changed, though. My advice is that let things happen naturally. You can’t avoid the inevitable. Down the line people in your family will mix with other races. It happened in my family. I’ve never had a problem with mixing races; it’s expected since we are living in other countries and in different times. Just be prepared for what might happen with your kids. We’re all humans and just try to instill love to your kids toward other people. I love history and learning of other cultures. It was interesting to know of many latin-armenian connections thru marriage. There many Armenians living in lating America and they seem to get along well; to me that’s great. I know they have suffered a lot and why raise our kids to only marry their own race? Thank you for your attention…we are God’s children

  5. Elise says:

    Really a wonderful article. I currently live in San Francisco but lived in LA many years. I had heard that there were tensions between the 2 groups in Glendale from a friend who did documentaries on Gangs. I think this article was really relevant in that it explained the history of how the population grew and changed. Whenever people feel that they are loosing their foothold, especially in neighborhoods, there can be tensions. I have to say that racial tensions seem to be much more of an issue in LA. People seem really segregated. In San Francisco people pretty much live together. They easily embrace other ethnic communities. Neighborhoods are a melting pot. The shared belief in the importance of family is the strongest thing that guides all ethnic people and makes us who we are. I hope that the community leaders really continue to celebrate and promote the qualities that culturally make us the similar. Throw some food in the mix and you can solve anything, and maybe even change the world with a little homemade pilaf.

  6. Garen Mailyan says:

    I think this whole issue of Armenian vs. Hispanic is overblown. There is some conflict between kids, but it does not carry over to adults. I would say there is more understanding between adults than conflict. Certainly speaking of some kind of imaginary hatred between the two groups is inaccurate to say the least. Almost all groups in schools given certain percentage relations conflict with each other. It is not specific to Armenian-Hispanic relations. There are more than enough examples of intermarriages, romances and peaceful co-existance between the two groups. There is no need to blow the whole thing over the proportion. We relate to each other on religious level – being within Christian civilization. We relate to each other on racial level to some degree on Armenian-Spanish connection. No wonder many Armenians are confused for Hispanics and vise versa. There is more uniting us than dividing. All this imaginary hatred talk makes me think that the writers themselves are indirectly expressing their own convictions. There is no hatred on adult level. There is, however, some divide among high-schoolers, but it is not limited to Armenian-Hispanic relations only. It is assing period in people’s lives. Armenian-Hispanic relations should constantly improve, but I don’t see any major conflict or hatred between the two. People should be careful not to inaccurately describe situations driven out of their own fears, insecurities and inconfidence. God bless all Armenian and Hispanic. Happy New Year and Merry Armenian Christmas to all Armenian and Hispanic. Salut.

  7. Linda says:

    This was a very interesting article. I found it as I was browsing through the internet and looking for answers if Armenians marry Mexicans.

    I was born here but my parents are 100% Mexicans. When I’m asked what nationality I am I say Mexican. I’m very proud to be Mexican, I’m very family oriented and culturally orientated as well. My parents have been married for 29 years now. I’ve noticed that Mexicans in the States are not as culturally orientated as I am, they never experienced the feeling of living in Mexico and they easily get white-washed by living in the States. I’m not opposed to embracing the American Culture but it would be nice to be proud of the roots as well.

    I lived a couple of years in Mexico attended Middle School and High School there and then moved to California to attend College where I got a degree in Law and Society and then went on to get my Masters in Business Administration and I’m now considering Law School.
    I met my boyfriend during my MBA and I have dated him for 1 year. His parents dislike me obviously for being Mexican and dating him, I once called his house and his mom told me to never call their house again. Previously to this phone call she had met me once but not as a girlfriend. After she found out we were dating they threatened him with disowning him and fighting with him all the time. She really makes his life miserable and tells me every day. He spends every single day with me either at my house or on the phone with me. He has rebelled against them and says he is going to marry me.
    Although his parents hate me I truly respect them and would never disrespect them because regardless of how mean they have been to me I still think they have made a wonderful son who I truly love.
    I don’t think I’m a bad person, I actually have a lot going for myself it’s sad that Armenian’s base this strong belief and instill this guilt if they son dates or plans to marry someone outside their culture.

    Of course my parents would prefer and love for me to be with someone they can relate to, speak Spanish and understand our culture, but are they going to disown me for deciding to date an odar like mentioned above? I didn’t decide to fall in love with him and he didn’t decide to fall in love with me. Why make us suffer when we didn’t choose to be Armenian or in my case Mexican. Can someone provide some advise?

  8. Lovely says:

    Linda,

    I feel for you in this situation but hope your relationship is going well. The Armenian people have endured so much through out the centuries and after the genocide at the beginning of the last century they were almost annihilated. The need to reconnect to their roots, to recover what they lost has contributed to the mentality of sticking to your own.
    If you read about the picture brides, the slave girls in the harems, or the broken families that were a result of the genocide might help you to understand why Armenian parents have a sense of obligation to teach their children to marry Armenian.
    If you inquire, you will find that there is still a close connection to the genocide victims or/and survivors.
    I know that when you are in a relationship and love that person you hope they accept you for who you are and their family loves you for loving them. Unfortunately, that is not the case in all Armenian families. But there are Armenian families that will value you for your heart and not your nationality of ethnic descent.

    I wish you well in your relationship, may you have more good days and no bad moments. you give yourself your own value don’t let anyone take that away.

    Take care

    • Our Armenian Mexican ambassador Arturo Sarukhan says:

      My dear Linda,

      I am from Mexico, of Jewish stock, I do not understand why you being Armenian, your parents are so racist, you are in Russia considered non white people up to this day, Armenians suffer a lot of racial discrimination from the blond blue eye Russians, they get beat up by Neonazis in Moscow, Enclosed the biography of the Ambassador of Mexico to the US a Mexican Armenian, who says that mixing people is wrong, what kind of Christians you guys are?

      Editorial note from Ararat: All comments should be concise and clear. We have edited this comment that reposted a whole newspaper article that was not excerpted by reproduced in full. We request our commenters respect netiquette and provide links to material that may be of interest and related to the discussion.

  9. Edward Demian says:

    I am a Cilician Armenian. Since our family has been Catholic for centuries, and not a recent convert from around late 1800, I assume that we are descended from Catholic and Armenian unions since the time of the crusades. My father never thought about this, he called himself 100% Armenian. Fate chose a Moldovian /Austrian Lady, my mother. Althoug neither my Grandparents n’or my Mother spoke Armrnia, my father and I do speak Western Armenian, read write . My wife in French and Scott, so my two sons are only 1/4 Armenian. When asked they always respond: “Armenian” I live in a remote desert area, it’s rare to meet an Armenian. Yet the boys are striving to learn. Notice they don’t answer American, or 1/8 Moldovian, 1/8 Austrian, 1/4 Scott, 1/4 French, 1/4 Armenian. There is something about Armenian blood that seems to run thicker. And by the way, they are beautiful to look at. Tall straight, intelligent. If there is a point to be made, it is that sometimes, there is more Armenianness in a mixed background person than in a pure blood one.

  10. MARCOS says:

    I’m Mexican, Spanish ancestry, when I got to certain areas where Armenians are greater in number such as in Glendale and North Hollywood, people think I’m Armenian. Armenians and Latinos, look very similar in bone structure, olive skin, dark har and even stature, height, weight. It does not bother me one bit. Since I’ve been confused for another group, I read about ti and their culture, how do I blend in, its a rich culture, older that originated in the Caucasus Mountains that is situated north of Iran and south of what is modern day Russia. I say, there are a lot similarities between Latinos and Armenians and even other Middle Eastern cultures. We can be seen as olive and brown people by people who want to classify us in an ignorant manner ethnically, but above we are all human and need to surpass this in order to be a progressive society not about culture but about becoming educated about one another.