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Around the Foothills

'Only through perseverance have they been able to survive.'

January 10, 1991|DOUG SMITH

The comment was made in a year-end review a few days ago that Glendale celebrated its cultural diversity in 1990 almost as much as it waved the flag.

Though that phrase was intended as a metaphor, it turns out to have some literal meaning as well.

The Glendale Chamber of Commerce, it seems, is in the market for a set of some 50 foreign flags, one for each national group represented in the city. It intends to fly them at its functions, to underscore the international face of business in Glendale.

Flag-waving, of course, is at best only a symbol of cultural exchange. The real thing requires people to meet, talk, learn each other's ways and, in the view of those who join chambers of commerce, do business together.

Toward those ends, the chamber has established a cultural exchange committee that gets together once a month in the chamber building across the street from the Central Library.

The purpose of the committee, said chairwoman Isabel Ibarra, a Cuban, is to "try to identify the richness of each community and to learn from each other."

About 30 businessmen and women were present at the group's meeting Monday. Seated around a large horseshoe conference table in the chamber's conference room, they included several Latinos, Filipinos, Anglos and Armenians as well as one Japanese and one black. They were realtors, accountants, insurance agents, builders, educators and a magazine publisher as well as two City Council candidates, Bob Torres and Eileen Givens.

After the routine announcements on coming events and networking opportunities, the floor was given to John Krikorian, who publishes Business Life, a glossy-cover news magazine that focuses on Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank.

Monday's topic was the Armenians; his assignment was to tell their story in about 20 minutes.

Krikorian noted that 5,000 Armenians went to Glendale's St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church on Sunday to celebrate Armenian Christmas.

"Who are they? Where did they come from?" he asked. "Can you imagine 5,000 trying to get into a church where there's only room for 2,000?"

Krikorian delegated those weighty questions to two helpers.

The first, Raffi Hamparian, was from the Armenian National Committee, which he described as a political organization advocating human rights and self-determination for Armenians and all people.

Pacing like a professor in a gray plaid suit, Hamparian leaped right into the 4th Century A.D. when King Drtad II brought Christianity to Armenians and the cleric Mesrop Mashdots devised their alphabet.

These two events, Hamparian said, gave Armenians "a cohesive character where they could build a national identity they never had before."

They would need it over the next 15 centuries when they faced assault from the Zoroastrian Sassanids to the south and later subjugation under the Ottoman Empire.

"It's been a test of will for the Armenian people," he said. "Only through perseverance have they been able to survive."

A renaissance of Armenian arts and letters under the Ottoman Empire was short-lived as hard times at the end of the 19th Century brought 20 years of oppression under Sultan Abdul-Hamid II and, after 1909, his successors, the Young Turks.

"It was on April 24, 1915, that the intellectuals living in Constantinople were rounded up, taken outside of Constantinople and murdered," he said. "The Armenian people, henceforth, were leaderless."

From the poorer interior, "the laborers, young children, women and the elderly" were driven into the desert, where hundreds of thousands perished, he said.

"My grandmother walked through this desert with no provisions. She made it. She walked over 100 miles with little or nothing. She had to leave several children behind. She's a survivor. The Armenians who have made it to America, they're survivors."

The next speaker, Krikorian's son David, picked up the threads of the story with Armenians streaming out of their homeland from 1890 to 1921.

"Some came to America, like my family, and some came to Lebanon, Beirut, Iran and mostly Soviet Armenia," he said.

Two later waves brought Armenians to Glendale from 1970 to the present; the first were from the wealthy classes of Iran and Lebanon, displaced by religious turmoil and war.

Then, in the 1980s, came poorer, socially disoriented Armenians fleeing economic hardship, natural disaster and border wars in the Soviet state of Armenia.

Although not so well prepared, they will add to their community, Krikorian vowed.

"The Armenians have come to Glendale because they are basically hard-working, industrious people," Krikorian said. "Glendale in the 1970s and today, of course, has presented itself as being an entrepreneurial town, an industrious town, which matches what Armenians are."

Inevitably, there is omission and distortion in such sweeping accounts of a people's millennium and a half of history.

Yet, the message should be clear enough that from the tortuous roads to Glendale, this immigrant group brings a tradition of history, politics and governance far deeper and more intricate than the bedrock American culture onto which it has settled.

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