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The Armenian Diaspora in South America

September 4th, 2020 Ravenna, Italy

The Armenian Diaspora in South America

With its population at just under three million, Armenia, like Israel, holds the distinction of having a diaspora which is substantially larger than its number of inhabitants residing solely within their respective national borders; with regard to the aforementioned countries, there are very specific reasons for this population imbalance—genocide and discrimination in general being the main factors that drove people away from the places in which they were being persecuted—the search for a more peaceful life somewhere else.

In the Middle East, the UN-approved partition of Palestine in 1947 ultimately led to the creation of Israel in 1948. Since this establishment of an independent state for the Jewish people, more than three million individuals have made the decision to move.

The Law of Return, passed in 1950, played a large part in this process, essentially giving Jews the right to come and reside in Israel, along with gaining its citizenship. These efforts were incredibly successful, which is why, as of today, the country’s population stands at approximately five million—and still its diaspora around the world is far greater.

A similar decree for Armenians was enacted by Stalin in 1945, authorizing individuals living abroad who wished to return the right to do so. Those who had been displaced by the First World War and the genocide, thus, began to arrive in large numbers, but the program wasn’t as successful as its more famous Israeli counterpart. The photo below (dated 1947) shows a group of Armenians waiting in Naples before their scheduled departure for Armenia on a Soviet Rossiya ship.

Armenia’s diaspora—when viewed in relation to its home population—is even more pronounced than the Jewish one, constituting more than ten million people—three times the amount residing within the homeland’s borders. More recent events, such the 2018 Velvet Revolution, which brought about the peaceful dismantling of Serzh Sargsyan’s corrupt government, have actively encouraged further repatriation from the Armenian community, but it hasn’t been substantial; and perhaps this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing as this article will attempt to demonstrate.

The fact that countries like Ireland, Italy, and Lebanon also have diasporas which are much larger than the population living within their own respective national borders illustrates that migration is multifaceted, complex, and can’t simply be reduced to genocide alone. Although famine and lack of economic opportunity did drive Irish migration in the 19th century, many Italians, for example, wanted to purchase land—they, hence, migrated to America in order to this earn this money and subsequently repatriated after achieving their goal. As it did for the Irish, however, the lack of economic opportunity also played a large part in driving permanent migration for those arriving from Italy. When the country was finally united in the 19th century—officially becoming the so-called nation of Italy in 1861—not everyone went on to feel “Italian” as a result.

It’s important to understand that even today, the people we call Italians generally associate themselves more with their respective regions than the country as a whole; the presence of countless dialects (many of them different enough to be their own language) are evidence of this incredible variety. Even the dialects themselves have variation—there’s a difference, for example, in the way Sicilian is spoken in Palermo and how it’s spoken in Catania. Hence, the popular joke people often make is that before unification (which resulted in the imposition of a standard “Italian” language on the whole territory), people from Naples and Milan, for instance, would have to speak French in order to understand each other. Furthermore, the famous line delivered shortly after Italy’s unification by Massimo d’Azeglio further emphasizes the idea of how nations really are artificially constructed, and, in fact, not as old as we believe them to be: “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” Thus, we can say that while the aforementioned territory witnessed the rise of ancient civilizations like the Romans and Etruscans, the united “country” of Italy itself is less than 200 years old.

Why this long aside, which, at best, only slightly relates to the topic? The answer is that contrary to the current position of the Armenian government, too much repatriation may not be a good thing because while it would most likely benefit Armenia as a nation, it still remains to be seen whether those who return home will feel “Armenian” themselves. More importantly, the positive influences and impact which the diaspora makes on other cultures would also greatly diminish, if not disappear as well. The way Italian-Americans like Amadeo Giannini (founded Bank of America—the largest bank in the country) and Antonio Meucci (credited by the US Congress with the invention of the telephone) have gone on to create a positive image of their people abroad, so, too, Armenians have done a great deal in cultivating a good impression of their people outside the respective borders of the home nation.

The contribution of Armenians towards the betterment of US society is already well-known: Raymond Damadian, for example, invented the MRI machine, which has given countless medical professionals around the world greater capabilities to diagnose and treat patients. Thus, Damadian (pictured below with a prototype of the machine) is known as “The Father of the MRI.”

Apart from civilian contributions, Armenians have also made positive contributions in America’s armed forces—Ernest H. Dervishian is one such example. For his service in WWII, he received the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, incidentally for his heroic actions “in the vicinity of Cisterna, Italy,” according to official military documents. The photo below shows General Eisenhower meeting with Lieutenant Dervishian on his visit to Richmond in the 1940s.

Dervishian and Damadian are but two of the lesser known figures of Armenians making positive contributions towards the betterment of North America (in particular the US); therefore, the aim of this article will be to highlight the contributions made by Armenians in South America, a continent which has received less attention in this respect.

The largest Armenian community in all of Latin America is in Argentina and numerous prominent individuals have come out of there as a result. Perhaps the most notable figure is Alejandro Yemenidjian (also known as Alex); although many people are familiar with him, few know that he was actually born in Buenos Aires and not in the US. Furthermore, those who have absolutely no idea who Yemenidjian is will surely know the company for which he once served as director from 1989 to 2005—MGM. He was also the co-owner and CEO of the famous Tropicana Las Vegas resort. A good friend of the late billionaire Kirk Kerkorian—who himself purchased MGM in 1969—Yemenidjian was essentially employed by the man responsible for building the modern Las Vegas. As the executive, Yemenidjian’s duties were to oversee the day to day operations of MGM studios, and as director, he was also responsible for managing the operations of MGM Resorts International. At the time of its opening in 1973, the MGM Grand was the biggest hotel in the world, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, which also wrote the following about Kerkorian: “In Las Vegas, he built three hotels that were the largest in the world in their time,” further highlighting the role which the late billionaire played in shaping the city. The Tropicana Las Vegas lies in the heart of Las Vegas Blvd, not far from the neon-green lights of the MGM Grand.

Armenians in Argentina also excel in sports and the most prominent athlete is tennis player David Nalbandian, who won the Tennis Masters Cup (ATP Finals) in 2005 after beating Roger Federer. Without a Grand Slam or Masters Series title to his name, Nalbandian became the first player to win the cup without having initially acquired one of the two aforementioned titles. His highest ranking was third in the world.

Despite the number of prominent Armenians which exist in South America, it would be improper to talk about their contributions without mentioning those of the ordinary people (I use this term in the most positive sense). Indeed, the vibrant Armenian community which exists in Buenos Aires is just one example of how the diaspora has secured its presence in the city outside of sports and entertainment. The Colegio Armenio De Vicente Lopez, for example, serves kids who are in preschool up to the secondary grades, providing kids not only with a quality education but also functioning as a cultural center where such arts as dancing and singing are promoted.

A street called Armenia, in the Palermo neighborhood of the city, traverses roughly twelve blocks, and likewise bears witness to the Armenian presence in Buenos Aires; nearby there’s an Armenian plaza and also the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator, along with a restaurant and various shops; there are three other Armenian churches in the city, but this one is the most recognizable.

The South American country with the second-largest Armenian population is Brazil. It should be noted that although they have a formidable presence in São Paulo, there aren’t many Armenians to be found throughout the entire country. The city’s diaspora community can be traced back to the 1920s.

One of the most notable displays of Brazilian solidarity was the renaming of a metro station—originally called Ponte Pequena but changed to Armênia in 1985, paying tribute to the Armenian immigrants who helped in its construction. In return, Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, renamed one of its squares after Brazil.

There are prominent Armenian personalities as well. Krikor Mekhitarian, born in São Paulo, won the Brazilian Chess Championship twice and he’s only 33 years of age as of today. Another recognizable personality is Stepan Nercessian, a Brazilian actor who also entered politics later in his career. As of 2019, he was still making movies, although he no longer seems to be involved in government.

Elsewhere in South America, in this case Colombia, a town with the most curious name exists. Nicknamed “Miracle City,” Armenia, is located approximately 300 km southwest of Bogotá, sitting at a height of almost 1,500 meters above sea level, with a population of over 300,000. Noted for its excellent coffee growing industry, it’s no surprise, then, that this town would be named after a country whose people are great lovers of strong coffee themselves. Despite thousands of kilometers diving the two Armenias from each, the city and country nevertheless share a history. When on January 25th, 1999, a strong earthquake rocked the capital of the departamento of Quindio, more than 1000 people died and over 200,000 found themselves homeless. The event, as scholar Vartan Matiossian wrote in his article, “An Enduring Myth: The Origin of Name ‘Armenia’ in Colombia,” put the name “Armenia” back on the map, given how just over ten years before, Armenia had suffered its own massive earthquake, killing thousands and leaving thousands more homeless. The photo below depicts a scene from the devastation in Armenia—Colombia, that is.

According to Matiossian, the fact that Armenia, Colombia “re-established itself with both speed and determination is a testament to the gritty fortitude of the Armenian population, many of whom played an active role, in literally, piecing the city back together,” hence the nickname “Miracle City.” Exactly why, however, the city bears a name of a country and people who are almost nowhere to be found in Colombia is a case that has puzzled the scholar as well: “Its presence in a South American country without a significant Armenian population has brought up various conjectures.” One hypothesis states that the town was renamed in honor of the Armenian Genocide victims, but this can’t be true because the place acquired its name in 1889; another theory is that it was named after the ancient kingdom of Armenia, but this is also inconclusive. What’s of greater interest, however, is the fact that, according to Matiossian, there’s actually another Armenia in Colombia, roughly 300 km north of the Quindio one:

Given that Colombia, as mentioned before, is a country where Armenians are practically non-existent, one does wonder: Why did the nation honor Armenia not once, but twice? In Brazil and Argentina, for instance, where the population is substantial, we find no examples of entire cities being named in this way—surely there are streets and even metro stations, but entire cities? That has yet to happen. It seems there really is no verifiable answer that Matiossian can give as to the reason for the names, except the case of Colombia’s love for coffee, which the Armenians do indeed share. As Matiossian writes, “Stocks in Colombian light coffee are known in New York’s Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange with the acronym MAM (Medellin, Armenia, Manizales)” and likewise the great writer Paul Theroux wrote the following in his book Riding the Rails with Paul Theroux, which was also used by Matiossian as an epigraph introducing his essay: “He worked in Cali but did not like picking coffee in Cali. The pay was poor and the coffee was not much good either. ‘Armenia is where the best coffee comes from,’ he said. ‘It is the best in the whole of Colombia.’ In Armenia the pay was better—the highest prices went for Armenia’s coffee.” I think coffee, at this point, may be the best explanation for why the Colombian town was given its respective name.

Last, but certainly not least, is Uruguay, which in 1965, became the first nation to recognize the Armenian Genocide on the fiftieth anniversary of the event. Although Armenian immigrants had been making their way to the country’s shores as early as the 19th century, it wasn’t until after the genocide that large numbers of people began settling there. Uruguay, in that sense, is home to one of Latin America’s oldest Armenian communities, with several churches, organizations, and cultural centers in existence.

By no means is this an exhaustive presentation of the positive contributions which Armenians have made in South America. In fact, many of these things are already widely known—the real aim of this article was to demonstrate that despite the improvements which the Velvet Revolution of 2018 made in Armenia with regard to human rights, political freedom, and the fight against corruption, it should perhaps minimize its focus on repatriation, given how much impact the diaspora has been able and continues to make all across the world. Indeed, Armenia needs all the talented people it can get; however, Armenians themselves likewise need a strong diaspora to ensure the survival of their respective cultures, all unique in their own way; thus, it’s precisely the community abroad which plays an essential role in exposing the customs and traditions of the respective nation to others—whether through art, scientific innovation, business, or politics; all this is being achieved as we speak.


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