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