By Razmig Tchaghlasian
For almost a hundred years, Armenian Americans have been building communities all over this country that comprise of a church, a community center, and sometimes a school. These are the three key elements in building a sustainable community that can serve as a home away from our homeland. They also serve as levees against the tide of assimilation. The goal of minority groups in this country is to sow their uprooted culture and heritage into the more economically fertile soil of America.
But that is merely the foundation, and unfortunately, the Armenian American community has become content in just preserving the status quo. Simply maintaining the status quo is a recipe for the deterioration and eventual dissolution of a community. We have lost sight of the goal to expand and grow our culture beyond our close-knit church communities. Staying Armenian has been reduced to attending church and occasionally participating in a community event. Our culture is being left largely unappreciated. Ray Bradbury once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
The unified celebration of our rich culture is an important step forward for our community because it will help strengthen us politically, socially, and economically. Armenian Americans are on the losing side of a fight to preserve our identities as the progeny of an ancient, yet feisty people. We are mired in apathy when it comes to reviving our music, art, stories, and traditions. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the future of Karabagh serve as the only rallying cries for our youth. Ninety four years ago, major icons like Varoujan and Zohrab were killed, our structures were destroyed, our lands were taken, and the people who inhabited those lands were massacred. We remember the lives that were lost, and the lands that were taken, but rarely do we pay lip service to the way of life that was destroyed.
For a few decades now, our community’s resources have been largely dedicated to Armenian Genocide recognition. As the efforts to deny it have doubled and tripled, so has our dedication to fight. For my generation, the recognition of the genocide and the self-determination of Karabagh have been our calls to mobilize. But in this fight, a potent strategy has been left unused. The celebration of our culture in this country would serve to spark interest in our cause from sources previously untapped. Our rich culture would help us cast a wide net in gathering support to help Armenia become whole again. Support from other people who might share some of the same cultural traits would become an indispensable asset for our efforts to show the world that the denial of the Armenian Genocide is not just an Armenian issue, rather, it’s a human rights dilemma.
In order for us to accomplish this, we must first strengthen our own cultural identity. We must first allow ourselves to absorb our culture before we show others why it is truly special. Finding something in our history or art that moves us is one way to connect us all. A short story, a poem, a song, a dance, or maybe even a historical figure can help us to delve deeper into who we are and help us to see what lies ahead of us. Our 3,000-year history has no shortage of inspirational people and stories. From our fight at Avarayr to our stalwart efforts in Van and Zeytoun, we have a long history of people who have answered the call when our existence has been threatened. The fight to keep our identity has normally been waged on a battlefield with swords and guns. This fight is occurring in another arena. But this one is intangible. It’s a battle for the attention of this coming generation to show interest and appreciation in our culture and re-energize our identity.
Some of us have found that frequently visiting our homeland and investing in it is the way to preserve our heritage. Perhaps we need to spend some time and money reinvesting in our communities here in America. Armenians living in the diaspora used to use “Tebi Yergir” as our message to rally support for our cause. “Tebi Yergir” was the dream of a free and independent Armenia, and our desire to repatriate our lands. The first part of that was attained, yet the second part remains largely unfulfilled. As much as we dream of repatriating, neither the diaspora nor the independent Republic of Armenia made any significant strides to facilitate that sort of movement. We have spent a century away from those lands, and in that time, have evolved socially and economically to fit our environment. “Tebi Yergir” has evolved into “Tebi yergir over the summer.” Meanwhile, our communities here continue to flounder, with more and more of our youth becoming disinterested. We need to work to support our community centers, churches, and schools so that they can be strong enough for us to feel like our summers in Armenia are great, but our home life in the diaspora is not lacking in the celebration of our culture.
This fall, the Hamazkayin Armenian Cultural and Educational Association is putting together a cultural festival that unites all of the major Armenian organizations in the Greater New York-New Jersey community in celebration of our songs, poems, and dances. Although it is for one night, maybe it is a step in the right direction to get us all to work together towards a rebirth of the Armenian American.