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Ethnic Friction Disturbs Peace of Glendale

June 25, 2000|ERIN TEXEIRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The women are remarkably similar.

Two opinionated 19-year-old college students, lifelong residents of Glendale with dark, flowing hair and bright eyes. Both are from close-knit immigrant families, both fiercely loyal to their protective, nurturing communities.

In a different time and place, they might be best friends.

But they don't know one another and, if they did, they would be unlikely to become close: Lorena Aguirre is Mexican American, and Takuhi H. Fidanian is Armenian American.

In parts of Glendale, the girls admit separately, that's the way it is.

"The Armenians and Latinos, you know, they have this thing between them," said Aguirre, whose brother was killed last month, allegedly by Armenian teenagers. "I guess it's racist."

Said Fidanian: "The mix--I don't think it's ever going to happen."

So it goes in parts of the small, ethnically diverse city cradled by mountains just 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

For generations, the place that calls itself Jewel City had been strikingly homogeneous, almost entirely white.

Now, after two decades of demographic shifts, the city is about 30% Armenian, 25% Latino, 25% non-Middle Eastern white and 16% Asian, according to census and city data.

In some schools, Armenians and Latinos make up about three-fourths of the student body. Many are taking the changes in stride: Youths have become willing teammates in sports, neighbors cooperate on community projects and some have developed deeper relationships.

But, many, especially longtime residents, are uncomfortable with the changes. Hundreds have moved out. Many grumble, not so quietly, that outsiders are taking over their city.

Though Glendale is one of the safest cities in California, occasional fights break out, almost always involving Armenian and Latino youths. Last month, Aguirre's brother Raul was stabbed to death outside his school.

As part of a push to curb the ethnic tension, Glendale city officials acknowledge that there is a problem, and they're crafting wide-ranging programs to address it.

For now, Glendale is an otherwise unremarkable suburb forced to deal with cultural clashes and turf battles, machismo that escalates into violence and occasional gang problems that spill over from Los Angeles.

It is a city trying to absorb two large, fresh immigrant groups into a place not accustomed to making such changes.

It is a place struggling to craft a new kind of community.

"The East Coast went through this at the turn of the century, and now here we are with 67 languages in our schools," said Dave Weaver, Glendale's mayor. "It's going to take time to assimilate--probably a generation or two. It's a city in transition."

Seeking Quiet, Safety, Good Schools

Like many immigrant groups, Latinos and Armenians have been pushed from their homelands by hardship--poverty, ethnic hatred, wars--and pulled to America by opportunity.

Mexican Americans began trickling into Glendale in the 1960s in search of middle-class quiet, safety and good schools. The pace of the influx picked up in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

By last year, a quarter of Glendale's public school students were Latino, many of them immigrants. More than two-thirds take classes to help them master English, Glendale Unified School District data show.

Those numbers are even higher for Armenian students.

Armenians fleeing violence and oppression at home began arriving in Los Angeles around the 1940s. Most settled in Hollywood--once called "Little Armenia"--and aspired to homes in Glendale, among other cities.

The current wave of Armenian newcomers began arriving from the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Many had family and friends in Glendale who helped them settle in town.

"In five to eight years, the [Armenian] community went from a few thousand to about 40,000," said Rick Young, a spokesman for the Glendale Police Department.

Hollywood and North Hollywood still have large communities, as do other parts of the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena and Montebello.

But by the early 1990s, Glendale overtook Hollywood as home to the most Armenians, said Levon Marashlian, who teaches Armenian history at Glendale College. Now, except for Armenia's capital, Yerevan, Glendale has the largest concentration of Armenians in the world.

With such changes, residents and experts said, it is almost to be expected that some people might butt heads.

Victim Tried to Break Up Fight

Raul Aguirre was caught in the middle May 5.

The shy, 17-year-old baseball outfielder was at Herbert Hoover High School that afternoon when three Armenian teenagers drove by flashing gang signs, apparently looking for a fight, Glendale police said. The youths found one when a Latino boy, whom police have not identified, reportedly flashed a sign back.

Dozens of students watched as two Armenian youths allegedly pummeled the Latino teenager. A 14-year-old Armenian girl, the driver, watched and cheered, police said. None lived in Glendale. All four are gang members, police said.

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