The Armenian Community in Albuquerque

Overview and Brief History:
map-armenia2Historically, Armenia was located primarily in Anatolia, a large plateau that today forms the eastern part of Turkey, northern Iran, and part of the present-day Republic of Armenia. The original Armenians were Indo-European Urartu tribes who migrated 5,000 years ago from the Balkans eastward. Two thousand years later, the Urartu tribes were absorbed by the Armenian tribes. By legend, the first king was the great, great grandson of Noah, whose ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, in Armenia. Armenia makes the claim of being the first nation to adopt Christianity, (in 304 A.D.), supplanting pagan religions and Zoroastrianism.

The history of the Armenian people is very long (over 4,000 years) and complex. Strategically located at the crossroads between the Mediterranean countries and Asia, this culture has been the victim of many conquests. The Mongol drove the Turkish tribes westward and in the 11th century, the Turks occupied Armenia. Between the Romans, the Mongol and the Turks, the Armenian people have a long and tragic history of persecution, massacres, and ethnic cleansings. The result of this is that there have been many intense waves of emigration from Armenia spread over long periods of time.

From 1894 to 1896, systematic massacres of Armenians were organized by the Turks. Over two-hundred-thousand Armenians were killed as a result of these bloody pogroms. Many who could, fled the country at this time. However, the greatest out migration occurred between 1915 and 1923 as consequence of a genocidal attack on the part of the Ottoman Turks which resulted in the deaths of an estimated one-and-a-half million Armenians. Many who survived the massacres were deported to the Syrian deserts where the majority of them were murdered or died from hunger or sicknesses. Some Armenians were lucky enough to escape eastward to Russian Armenia in the Caucasus. It is this from these two periods that most Albuquerque Armenians attribute their immigrant ancestry.

Immigration to the United States and Albuquerque:
Prior to the Second World War, there were only a few Armenians living in Albuquerque. One family had a carpet business on Central Avenue. Another was a downtown jeweler. Following the war, many Armenians who had served at various military bases in New Mexico came to Albuquerque to reside full time. Most people we spoke with attributed the climate as one of their primary reasons for coming or choosing to stay in New Mexico.

Armenians were not identified as a separate culture in the 2000 Census and so the size of their population for Albuquerque could not be determined scientifically. However, one person we spoke with estimated that there are approximately one-hundred-and-fifty Armenians in the city and double that for the state as a whole.

Language and Cultural Traditions:
The Armenian language is of the family of Indo-European languages. It branched off early on with ancient Persian, but otherwise has no close relatives. Many Armenians consider their alphabet to have been divinely inspired in the fifth century. According to tradition, while meditating in a cave near the village of Palu, the Armenian Saint Mesrob had a vision in which the hand of God wrote the alphabet in letters of fire. This soon lead to the translation of the Bible into the Armenian language.

arm-cross1Armenian language classes were available during the 1980’s but were discontinued for several years until recently renewed by the Armenian Cultural Association. Several older people in the community continue to speak the language but most of the grandchildren of the earlier immigrants don’t really speak the language. However, many of these non-speakers do know what the Armenian language sounds like, even if they don’t understand what the words mean.

The Armenian Church is considered to be integrally connected with many aspects of Armenian Culture. Armenians are very proud of the fact that their country was among (if not the) first nations to adopt Christianity and introduced many people to new arts. For over one-hundred years in the United States, an agreement has been in effect with the Episcopal Church to act as a sister church to provide services to Armenians when no Armenian Church exists, which is currently the case in Albuquerque.

Traditional foods of Armenia are typical of much of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, involving many vegetables with a small amount of meat, such as shish-kebab. Lamb and yogurt are common staples in the Armenian diet.

Arts and Culture:
rug1The Caucasus region in general and Armenia in particular have been cited by scholars as the place where rug and carpet weaving originated. A few Armenians have continued this tradition in Albuquerque. As noted earlier, one of Albuquerque’s first Armenian families were renowned importers of Oriental rugs. Today there is one Armenian man who is weaving rugs here in Albuquerque. Armenian rugs are knotted, not woven, and it is estimated that a typical rug contains over eight million knots. The patterns are geometric and balanced. In Armenia, rugs were usually named after the town that made them and each town had its own distinctive borders. Because of this, a knowledgeable rug dealer should be able to look at an old Armenian rug and have a pretty good idea of where it was made. Oddly, however, the Albuquerque man interviewed for this survey does not adhere to any specific border pattern.

The art of jewelry making, which is very common in Armenia, continues in Albuquerque. One Armenian family who was among the earlier twentieth century immigrants to Albuquerque had a jewelry business. They hired Indian artists and became a major producer of Native American jewelry sold worldwide. One woman we interviewed noted that the squash blossom introduced to the Navajo silversmith by the Spanish was similar to the Armenian stylized elongated pomegranate, which she claimed was carried to Moorish Spain by Arabs. This symbol is common in religious iconography and in folk belief of the peoples of the Middle and Near East and it is used widely in Armenian craft items. The letterhead design of the newsletter and other publications of the Armenian Cultural Association of New Mexico contains this stylized frieze of pomegranates.

There are many fine and unique artists in the Albuquerque Armenian community. One member of this community was the former head of the Tamarind Institute and also served as chair of UNM’s Fine Arts Department. One recent immigrant artist, a young Armenian woman, has had recent exhibits at the Harwood Art Center. Among some of the noted visual artists are Garo Antreasian, Paul Sarkisian and Richard Tashjian the last of whom organized an exchange of works by artists from the U.S. and Armenia.

knotted1There were several elders living in Albuquerque who continued the tradition of Armenian knotted. One former resident was featured in a book on “Armenian Needlelace and Embroidery” and who also had an exhibit at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. Traditionally Armenian girls made lace for their trousseaus as well as for sale. During the tragic days of the genocide, many orphaned Armenian girls made lace, which was sold by the orphanages in order to feed them.

The Armenian community in Albuquerque used to have a very vibrant dance group, but it was disbanded after the woman who made all the costumes and taught the dance steps died and the young people moved on. The community is interested in reviving the traditional dances, but doing so will require someone who knows the dances and can maintain the group.

Annual Events and Celebrations:
armenianstone1Many Albuquerque Armenians observe Martyrs’ Day on April 24th to commemorate the people who died in the 1915 Genocide. A sycamore tree has been planted in front of the Albuquerque Museum by a plaque on a travertine stone to mark this event. This plaque, placed in 1981 by the Armenian Cultural Association of New Mexico states: “This tree presented to the Museum of Albuquerque, a living commemoration to the 1915 genocide of the Armenian nation.”An Armenian priest is usually brought in from outside the community to conduct the Martyrs’ Day ceremony and religious service.

armenian-plaque1The Cultural Association maintains a booth annually at the New Mexico State Fair and also facilitates historical presentations for students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. They also bring in occasional speakers to the city to speak on Armenian issues. There is also an exhibit about the Genocide at the Holocaust Museum in downtown Albuquerque prepared by local Armenians. In the past they have conducted Armenian food and lace making demonstrations at the Maxwell Museum at UNM.

Armenian culture is being maintained in Albuquerque, but it can hardly be called flourishing. While there are currently more Armenians living in Albuquerque than in the past, there are less traditions being practiced. Of those we spoke with, the loss of the language was deemed to be very important and many expressed interest in developing methods to facilitate its continuation. Many also want to revive the Armenian dance classes for youth. The discontinuation of Summerfest was also felt to be a major loss by this community. The opportunity to bring members of their community together in order to showcase their culture to the people of Albuquerque is sorely missed. A few members of the community also would eventually like to have their own Armenian Christian Church in Albuquerque, ideally with hall that can be used for language and dance classes and social events. The Armenian Cultural Association of New Mexico does have a hall, which has a chapel room, and it will continue to be used for social events and for classes in language and dance.