By Marie Papazian
Barnard College of Columbia University Class of 2021
ANCA Hovig Apo Saghdejian Capital Gateway Program Participant, 2017
“If you don’t speak Armenian, are you really Armenian?”
On our walk to the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) offices under the warm D.C. sun, my peers were debating this question loudly. Passionate exclamations ensued, involving the assertion that losing one’s ability to speak Armenian was equivalent to assimilating altogether: ignorant and morally reprehensible.
I walked along quietly, pondering the various assertions of my peers. I appreciated where these arguments came from. Part of me agreed, part of me felt ashamed, and part of me began to question the validity of my “Armenian-ness.” Little did I know this was the same question my grandmother, as well as many other members of my family, have faced over the years.
I am fifth generation Armenian-American on my mother’s side, and third-generation on my father’s. My ancestors in the U.S. all managed to find marriageable Armenians. And so I am considered by some to be “100% Armenian,” or “full Armenian.” That is, before they learn that my knowledge of the Armenian language is at an introductory level at best.
My maternal grandmother, Marilyn Arshagouni, was born in 1935 to one of the earliest Armenian families to settle in Los Angeles—a shocking fact, given that the current Armenian population there is almost half a million. In childhood, she didn’t know many other Armenian families, and the language, though spoken by her father’s family, was not spoken in her home. Despite her lack of knowledge of Armenian, she was smart and hardworking, becoming the first junior at UCLA to be elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honors society and later graduating with highest honors and a BA in English. The English language was her first love, and she went on to study English at graduate school.
When my grandmother married my grandfather in 1956, he began bringing her closer to Armenian culture. He was born and raised in the Armenian Diaspora, in Greece, and so he was a native speaker and had a strong sense of community. Once my grandmother met Richard Hovannisian, a graduate student of Armenian history at UCLA, she furthered her great, though untraditional, contributions to the Armenian community. She helped edit his dissertation, which would become the classic Armenia on the Road to Independence. She then went on to edit the first volumes of his four-volume History of the Republic of Armenia.
For over 25 years my grandmother taught English and history at the Holy Martyrs Ferrahian Armenian High School in Encino, Calif. And she and my grandfather were on the Armenian Monument Council that established the first Armenian Genocide monument on public land in California.
Given her great influence on the Armenian community, I was stunned when I learned of the accusations that she bore the brunt of as an Armenian born in the U.S. It is an accusation that both of my parents have heard countless times. It is one to which I am just now being exposed.
My ancestors have lived in the U.S. for over 100 years. Despite this, my love of Armenian culture is strong, and my yearning to give back to my community even stronger. Ours is an important history and an important story. Each of our experiences is different. Some of us grew up in the midst of an Armenian-speaking community. Others, like my grandmother and me, grew up surrounded at home by an incredible library of Armenian books and culture and friends.
Although my grandmother was never fluent in Armenian as a child, her immersion into the community led her to pick up a considerable amount of the language. It was the same with my mother. I expect that it will be the same for me. I still plan to study Armenian in college. But, as I do so, I will remember that our goal as a Diaspora should be inclusiveness, as a nod to our shared, bitter, and rocky history. It is counterproductive to shun those who have not had the privilege of a strong cultural or linguistic upbringing. As Yeghishe Charents, the famous Armenian writer and poet, wrote, “Oh, Armenian people, your only salvation lies in the power of your unity.”
And so, I disagree with the assertion that one must speak Armenian to truly be Armenian. If that were the case, my grandmother would be an outcast in our greater community, despite her countless contributions. As members of a diaspora, exposure to the Armenian language isn’t all that unites us.
It is our love of community, our blood, our shared history and future, and our determination to help in any way we can. I am beginning to learn that. Although I will continue to face questions from my peers about the validity of my Armenian identity, I embrace my ethnicity wholeheartedly. And as my grandmother did, I will continue to do my part, not only as an Armenian but also as an Armenian in America.