Argentine-Armenians Undaunted

Argentine Armenians

Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 18 February 2015

They might be in the distant South Atlantic, many thousand miles away from Armenia and other major Diaspora centres (except for the miraculous Uruguay), but the 110,000-strong Armenians of Argentina are making every effort to preserve their culture, identity and community in a continent with a population of 400 million.

Avo Naccachian placed the Armenian tricolor along with the Argentine flag at the peak of Aconcagua in 1981

The overwhelming majority of Armenians of Argentine live in Buenos Aires, the capital.

The heart of the community is Armenia Street in the fashionable Palermo neighborhood where internationally-known writer Luis Borges lived for many years. The main church, the secondary school, the AGBU, the RAG, the various committees of Tashnagtsoutyoun, the Armenian Communist club, three compatriotic (Hayrenagtsagan) associations of Marash, Aintab, and Hajen, two weeklies, cafes, restaurants, a theatre and several concert halls are huddled on or around Armenia Street. Decades ago, when Armenians arrived to the city many of them settled in Palermo because real estate was not expensive there. Years later when Palermo became a chic district, the Armenian community benefited as property values sky-rocketed and Armenians found their Little Armenia now situated in one of the most-desired parts of an already elegant city.

The community boasts two bilingual weeklies—“Sardarabad” and “Armenia”.  The first is published by the RAG. Its editor is Sergio Nahabetian, the son of legendary journalist Nahabed Nahabetian who was at the helm of the weekly for many decades. “Sardarabad” has correspondents in Montevideo, Sao Paolo, and in Cordoba (western Argentine) where 5,000 to 7,000 Armenians live.

The “Armenia” weekly, founded on April 24, 1931, is edited by Jorge Ruben Kazandjian and is published by the Armenian Cultural Association, a division of Tashnagtsoutyoun. Like “Sardarabad” it has 12 pages of bilingual text. “Sevan” is another local publication.

There are four Armenian churches and two chapels in Argentine’s capital. The city also has seven Armenian schools. While at one time the students were all Armenian, nowadays a significant percentage of the student body is non-Armenian: since the schools need government subsidies they can’t restrict attendance exclusively to Armenians.

The busy anthill on Armenia Street even has a theatre—“Tadron”—which shares premises with a café where you might see Armenian coffee cup readers tell the future to avid customers. The “Tadron” and the café are owned by actor-director Kalousd Jansezian and his Argentine-born Armenian wife Hermineh, a theatrical director.  Beirut-born Jansezian settled in Buenos Aires after a visit in 1971. His productions—often monologues—have taken him several times to Armenia and to North America.  The monologues are pastiches from Armenian literary pieces.

Two other Armenians who are prominent in the local theatre are Armenia-born Vahram Hamparian, the maestro of the world-famous Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires. His wife is also a prominent figure at the same theatre.

There’s no doubt that the most prominent neighborhood restaurant is “Armenia”. Its menu is Armenian and Lebanese. In addition to serving food it’s also an informal centre where young adults congregate, socialize, and sample traditional dishes late into the night.

The spiritual centre of the community is the Sourp Kevork Church on Armenia Street. It’s headed by Archbishop Gissig Muradian of the St. James Brotherhood of Jerusalem. He has been here since 1975. He is assisted by Armenia-born Father Maghakia Amirian and brother Kahanas Mesrob and Yeghishe Nazarian.

The community also has five or six choirs (Gomidas, Arax, Arevakal) and dance groups (Nayiri, Kayane, Masis, Nareg).

When Armenians first settled in Buenos Aires they often pursued traditional trades they had learned back in the Middle East. Nowadays their children and grandchildren are textile, leather, and shoe merchants and factory owners. Many of them are also prominent in the jewellery district on Libertad Street. Others have also entered the professions—medical doctors, dentists, accountants, engineers, psychiatrists, pharmacists… At least six hotels are owned by Armenians. However, the most prominent Armenian-hotel is EuroBuilding on July 9 Avenue, the main street of Buenos Aires. Owned by Armenians in Venezuela, the hotel is managed by president Jorge Vartabetian.  Lawyer Roberto Malkassian, who teaches law at a Buenos Aires university, is a working colleague of Vartabetian. He is also active in the National Congress of Western Armenians where he provides valued advice on Armenian demands from Turkey.

An unsung Armenian-Argentine hero (at least in the Armenian Diaspora) is Avo Naccachian. In 1981 the Buenos Aires native climbed Aconcagua, the highest mountain in America, and placed the Armenian tricolor at its peak, along with the Argentine flag. The Armenian flag was sewn by his mother Mary Mekdjian.

Of course, two internationally-most famous Argentine-Armenians are tennis champion David Nalbandian and airport builder and philanthropist Eduardo Eurnekian who is the second richest Argentine citizen.

  1. Argentina Armenians

    It's so nice to see a close-knit established community carry on with traditions and contributing to the host country.

    It started with very humble beginnings, according to a colleague born in Argentina. Early Armenians in Buenos Aires are remembered as mostly peddlers pushing their carts and wares from street to street as were the early Jewish settlers of NY just about the same period. Another famous peddler who stated his tobacco trade was none other than Aristotle Onassis  selling 'Turkish' tobacco, probably grown by Armenians as was our author's ancestors.

    I don't know if it's still the law but the first name was to be Spanish/Argentinian.

    1. It is Still the Law

      It is still the law that the first name has to be Spanish. But after the 1980s, when the Armenian Church started to issue certificates about this or that name being Armenian, it became possible to give Armenian names. You find the under the 35-years generation who have first and second names in Armenian, or at least one or the other.

  2. Very Informative

    Thank you for the very informative article that provides quite a lot of fresh information about Armenians in Argentina. For the benefit of the reader, allow me to make a few minor corrections:

    1) The name of the Armenian cathedral of Buenos Aires is St. Gregory the Illuminator and not Surp Kevork (name of a small church in the suburb of Vicente Lopez). The primate of the Armenian diocese of Argentina is Abp. Kissag Mouradian (and not Gissig).

    2) Vahram Hampartzoumian (or Ambartsoumian, not Hamparian) is a dancer and permanent member of the dance ensemble, not the "maestro" of Teatro Colon.

    3) The third local publication you mention is called "Nor Sevan." "Sevan" was the predecessor, which ended its run in 1990.

    4) Cordoba is located in central Argentina, not the west.

    1. Argentina

      Thank you for your kind words.
      Apologies re the church name.
      The archbishop's name was given to me by a person who has an Eastern Armenian accent. Thus Kissag sounded Gissig to me.
      Vahram Ambartsoumian/Hampartsoumian/Hambartzoumian/Ambartsoumyan is again the Eastern/Western Armenian pronunciation diversion. I was told by a Buenos Aires resident that he was the concert master at Teatro Colon.
      Thank you about the difference between "Sevan" and "New Sevan" publications.–Editor

  3. Bedros Hadjian

    Last year I read an in-depth presentation of the Argentinian-Armenian community in a book by Levon Sharoyan who was invited from Aleppo to be the main speaker at a testimonial where the community paid homage to one of its prominent members, Bedros Hadjian. Mr. Hadjian passed away on Sept. 3, 2012. A biography of the eminent writer, educator and journalist is found in Wikipedia.

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