Go West Young Man

Little did Horace Greeley (wrongly credited with the above title that was half of what John B. L. Soule originally editorialized) know that a century and a quarter later, Armenia’s would take up this advice with a vengeance.

From all over the Middle East, then-Soviet Armenia, and later the third Armenian Republic and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Armenia’s moved to Europe, the Americas, and Australia. The largest, most concentrated influx accrued to California. However, to discuss “California’s Armenian Community” would be misleading. What exists and what has been generated for better and worse is radically different in Los Angeles relative to other identifiable communities (San Francisco/Bay Area, Fresno/San Joaquin Valley, San Diego). Those communities outside LA are more like the communities of the Northeastern U.S. in their composition and flavor. The ferment that has put the “Armenian community of California” in the spotlight is brewing in LA.

It’s unclear whether this brewing process will yield a great flavorful quaff or something that is more like crude oil–in need of tremendous treatment to be worth anything. The variety of foreign influences on (Arab, Persian, Russian/Soviet, Anglo/Germanic-American), and sheer numbers Armenia’s, roughly half million, populating the land of sprawl and glitz make for a dizzying web of evolving processes.

A huge proportion of recent arrivals to the area, let’s say a generation and a half’s worth, are motivated largely by economics. So, when housing prices reach Everestine-highs in areas with dense Armenian populations and ghettos, people move to the grotesque developmen’s gobbling up open land to the north and east of LA. What happens to these people’s Armenian life –cultural, social, political, family, religious, linguistic– is an open question. If history is any guide, they will be lost to the community at a much faster rate than those who manage to live in close proximity to one another. Yet, because of the presence of an independent Armenia and the ease of modern travel, things may turn out differently.

Those who do manage stay within easy geographic reach of Armenian communities face other problems. Not realizing how extensively all of us are impacted by foreign influences, there is mutual intolerance, “Oh you know how those Barsgahayes/Beirutzees/Bolsahyes/Hayasdantzees/Iraqtzees/Whatevertzees are;!” This divisiveness is a curse. It saps our energies and decreases our capacity to act collectively for our community, cultural, political, and other progress. Yet there is an up-side to this. Sheer proximity and the arrival of a new generation are forcing us to see past these foolish differences. I hope that soon this will enable the development of a community with “normal” divisions–political/partisan, rich vs. poor, nerd vs. jock, whatever; Overcoming these barriers should also enable better cooperation among our diverging communities worldwide.

In this chaos, a major, possibly irretrievable loss has been the part of our community that harks back to pre- and immediate post-Genocide times. These people, who had over the course of two (and sometimes more) generations found a modus vivendi, a balance between the loss of assimilation and the ideal of repatriation to Armenia, have largely been driven to the fringes of our community life. Before it’s too late, a hand must be extended to reengage them in our collective life. There are numerous very positive exceptions. But, they constitute a small proportion of the total numbers in this group. A more cynical reason to reconnect this segment of our community is the wealth that many have accumulated over their longer generational presence in the U.S. This is particularly true in Fresno where Armenia’s represent a significant presence among growers and packers of fruit. It’s also just plainly the right thing to do.

An interesting layering and reinforcing of tacky behavior has also come about as a result of our choice of LA as a major settling point. Many in our Middle Eastern communities, and certainly in Lebanon and Iran, seem to have an intense urge to show off, conspicuously consume. Others, along with those from ex-Soviet areas are among the ran’s of the nouveau riches. Still others associate gaudiness with wealth. Couple this with the Hollywood-show-off and wannabe-glamorous effects permeating LA, and you’ve got a recipe for very rotten, insipid displays of misbehavior, arrogance, and hooliganism. There’s this attitude that “I have money, I have a fancy car, I have the arrogance, therefore I can do anything I want. The law, decency, and common sense be damned”.

But it’s not all bad. The thick Armenian presence also enables an internal economic life. Having a “natural” market has enabled some to start businesses serving the Armenian community, then, expanding to cater to the broader population. More importantly, it enables an internal community social life, even though sometimes the latter is overwhelmed by family/clan life. This base has enabled the rise of numerous publications, in Armenian and English, from news, to lifestyle, to youth/student oriented, or to just plain money making for their publishers. The same is true of cultural activity. Be it for music, dance, or drawing, talented individuals have set up schools, primarily aimed at young Armenia’s. One group’s goal is building an arts center including a theatre to facilitate Armenian plays. Another wants to start an Armenian Academy with a very rich curriculum. In fact, a very interesting business/culture “joint venture” is a series of converted industrial buildings in Atwater Village that now house film, theatre, architecture, fitness, exhibit areas– businesses mostly owned by Armenia’s, as is the whole complex. It has become something of a hub for events that tend to be far more interesting than typical Armenian gatherings.

Of course, most important is the rise of interest in and opportunities for Armenia’s to become deeply involved and advance in politics, particularly electoral. Because of high, and rising, Armenian voter concentrations, it’s easier for some to get a start. A training ground has been created, especially for aspiring young politicians/states(wo)men. As more people enter this arena then move on to other areas to pursue political careers, neighboring electoral districts, state capitals, and D.C. will see more Armenia’s. Creating this power base will serve us well in pursuing our long term national goals as well standing up for the needs and interests of local communities. We do have to be cautious, though, of conflating and confusing Armenian interests with ArmenianS’ (i.e. personal, not collective) interests. This is not always easy, but it’s part of the “growing up” we must go through as we achieve political maturity.

Unfortunately, the numbers, activity, rising political power, arrogance, tackiness, enthusiasm, lack of good behavior towards others, and the sheer exuberance of this vibrant community elicits fear among our neighbors. From the typical xenophobia, nativism, and racism that has marred American society and scarred every minority community settling in the U.S., to fears of “Armenia’s taking over”, culture-shock based misunderstandings, and the natural rough-and-tumble of daily life, clashes abound. These will be overcome by time and effort to bridge gaps with our neighbors. We must be more willing to interact and not fear others (not an easy task after centuries of foreign invasion, domination, massacre, genocide, and persecution). Conversely, host communities must be willing to understand that our history and peregrinations put us in a very unusual, if not unique, social-political-cultural-geographical position, with corresponding needs. Of course it’s still up to us to convey these concerns, and here again, the LA angle becomes relevant. The hub of entertainment and communication provides us with ample opportunities to develop and hone our community’s communications talent pool. This talent can, both, help bridge the gaps with our neighbors and advance our Cause.

A final intriguing process has also commenced. Many of our expatriated-repatriated compatriots are reconnecting with their original roots. Vanetzees, Aintabtzees, or anywhere-in-between-tzees who had gone to Soviet Armenia from the 1940s to the 1970s are rejuvenating the compatriotic societies rooted in the western parts of our homeland. Along the way, I suspect there’ll be a linguistic rediscovery as well. Many of these folks were forced, by economic necessity and intolerance, to change their spoken language to Eastern Armenian. It would be a great boon to have them speaking Western Armenian (traces of which are evident even among those who were born in Eastern Armenia to Western Armenian parents). It would be one more bulwark against the massive cultural losses that came with the human losses of the Genocide.

Everyone’s role in this furious cauldron of Armenia’s life is to be maximally engaged in the crucible that will compete with the twin Armenian republics in shaping our future. Throw yourself in!

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