A walk down Calle Armenia in Palermo can take you to the chicest of chic fashion shops, where extraordinary garments at extraordinary prices are pored over by hopelessly fashionable porteños. Walk further towards Avenida Córdoba, however, and something begins to look different. Fewer shops, larger buildings, signs displaying strange symbols and old men chattering in a language that you don’t understand but you’re pretty certain isn’t Spanish.
Welcome to what porteños affectionately call ‘Little Armenia’ – a small enclave of the city of Buenos Aires that was populated in the first half of the 20th century by thousands of Armenians and their descendants.
In 1984 the Porteño Deliberative Council renamed ten blocks of Calle Acevedo Calle Armenia in honour of its Caucasian residents. Based around the Catedral San Gregorio El Iluminador, the centre of Armenian life, this colectividad (collective) manages to harbour an intense community spirit while integrating themselves fully into Argentine life.
Armenia is a small land-locked country in the central Caucasus sharing borders with Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Populated since prehistoric times, it has been proposed as the setting of the biblical Garden of Eden. Despite this, the history of this small but strategically placed country has been hardly idyllic.
In 1915, with the onset of the First World War, the Turkish government believed that the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were siding with the Russians, and on 24th April rounded up and killed hundreds of Armenian community leaders. In May of the same year, they forcefully deported some two to three million Armenians from Anatolia, and many perished in what has become known as ‘the Armenian genocide’.
Turkish authorities maintain that the deaths were the result of a civil war coupled with disease and famine, with casualties incurred by both sides. There is still no official record of the number of deaths. The Turkish government insists it is somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 but the Armenians have always alleged that it is nearer 1.5m. In Turkey it is actually illegal to refer publicly to the killings as ‘genocide’.
Following the recent resolution in the US in which Congress formally recognised the killings in 1915 as ‘genocide’, I was very interested to know what the response among the Armenian community in Argentina had been. I met Adrian Lomlomdjian, a third generation Armenian immigrant who runs a weekly radio show ‘La Voz Armenia’. Adrian was frank with me: “It’s a subject that affects us greatly, because we are all descendants of the survivors of that genocide. It was a wound that never healed, because there was no recognition… there was nothing. Our grandparents died with that, our parents too.”
I ask Adrian if he thought the timing of the resolution was right, given the delicate relationship between the US and Turkey, and he responds, somewhat shortly, that the timing was more or less irrelevant. According to the Armenian diaspora, one of the world’s most dispersed communities, the ‘genocide’ still happened, and needs to be recognised internationally.
We talk about the Armenian community in Palermo today. He shows me the various charities in the neighbourhood, including the Union General Argentina de Beneficiencia (UGAB), and the schools. He greets his friends in the street in Armenian, and he appears to know everybody. He says that is the way it is in the colectividad; everyone works together, and most of the children go to school together, where they spend the mornings learning in Armenian and the afternoons in Spanish.
In 1979, in order to help the coming generations learn about their roots, a programme was organised to help the graduating high-school students travel to Armenia once they finished school. Every Friday, the UGAB hosts an Armenian dinner in order to raise money for the annual trip. All the students from the senior class work as waiters at the event, while parents and grandparents provide the delicious Armenian food.
I went along and stuffed myself full with fresh hummus, fantastic berenjenas armenias (grilled aubergines stuffed with a mixture of cream cheese and walnut paste), lehmeyun (described as an ‘Armenian empanada’) and shish kebab on enormous skewers. After dinner we were treated to an entertaining Armenian dance from a mixture of students and parents – Adrian tells me that the ‘dance ensembles’ are some of the most important socialising groups in the colectividad.
‘Wherever an Armenian goes,’ says Adrian, ‘the first thing he does is build a church’. I visited the Catedral de San Gregorio el Iluminador, built on a square base with a conical dome, characteristic of Armenian temples. Outside there is a monument to the ‘Martires Armenios’ (Armenian martyrs) who died in the ‘genocide’. Inside, all the statues and paintings are accompanied by Armenian writing, and the service is conducted in the language too.
The church remains for Armenians central to social life. Adrian points out that following over three hundred years of occupation, from the Persians, to the Turks, to the Tsarist Russians, the church is the only part of the Armenian community that has remained solid throughout its history.
Adrian and I step into Centro Cultural Tadrón for a cafe oriental. I make the mistake of asking for a spoon. Adrian corrects me – this is eastern coffee, a thick, black, slightly sweet drink; stirring it would mix in the borra (sediment) and make it, basically, disgusting. It’s more than just a beverage, however: invert your cup onto the saucer, and let a borra reader take stock of the sediment’s unique shape – like reading tea leaves, with an Armenian twist. Tadrón also has a small theatre upstairs where they occasionally show plays in Armenian, and also holds Armenian cookery courses.
We talk about national identity, and I ask Adrian if he feels the Armenians have done enough to integrate into Argentine society. Adrian insists the only thing that distinguishes the Armenian collective from other populations of immigrants in Buenos Aires is their connection to their past. Many of them did not leave their country to follow a dream in Argentina – they left, as he points out, ‘to find peace’.
Adrian says that in Argentina, “yes, I am Armenian, in the sense that I have Armenian heritage, an Armenian surname”, but “of course I am Argentine”, he has lived here his whole life, he loves this country. “In Argentina I am Armenian, but in Armenia I am definitely an Argentine.”
Find Little Armenia on Calle Armenia, between Av Santa Fe and Av Cordoba, in Palermo.
Centro Cultural Tadrón: Niceto Vega 4802; tel. 4777 7976 (Borra reading takes place in Tadrón on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 5.30pm and 8.30pm, and on Sunday evenings between 7pm and 9pm.)
Union General Argentina de Beneficiencia: Armenia 1322, tel. 4771-6500 (call for reservations at the Friday night dinners)
You can also visit the Restaurante Armenia, on the first floor of the Asociación Cultural Armenia, Armenia 1366, tel. 4776 2500; El Viejo Agump, Armenia 1382, tel 4773 5081; Panadería Armenia, Scalabrini Ortiz 1317, tel 4831 4571.