by David Zenian
MONTEVIDEO: Armenian communities in Latin America take pride in their schools, sports facilities and cultural centers, but are envious of fellow Armenians in Montevideo for their broadcasting success.
If the schools are there to educate and enhance Armenianism in the youth, the radio stations play an essential role in maintaining the sense of community in a land where assimilation has taken its toll.
“Six out of every ten young Armenians marry non-Armenians, and each year, the number of Armenian speakers decreases. Montevideo’s two Armenian radio stations are essential to fight the assimilation process,” says Harutiun Rupenian, the undisputed grandfather of Armenian broadcasting in Latin America.
Rupenian, now eighty years old, began his broadcasting “career” fifty-six years ago “because the community was young and homesick.”
“That was in June 1935 when I was a tailor by profession. One had to be mad to do what I have done, but I was in love with broadcasting. I still am and will continue my work for as long as I can,” Rupenian said during a recent interview.
A self-made man who came to Montevideo from Ainteb via Aleppo, Rupenian built his Radio Armenia station from a back-room operation into an institution which over the years has become an integral part of Armenian community life in Uruguay.
For two hours every day, Rupenian sits behind his old RCA microphone in a second floor antiquated studio to reach out to not only the Armenians of Uruguay but also neighboring Argentina, home of Latin America’s largest and most vibrant Armenian community.
“Uruguay is like a lake where a small and humble Armenian community settled after the 1915 Genocide. As you know, large fish cannot live in small creeks or small lakes,” Rupenian remarks with the smile of a person who has endured a lot to keep his dream alive.
The ten kilowatt station costs 60,000 dollars a year to keep on the air. A budget covered by Rupenian and his two sons, broadcasting giants in their own right.
“We would have been off the air a long time ago if we had relied on advertising. We do not take donations from any organization and we do not beg for funds. I look at what I am doing as a community service, and I will keep it as long as my health permits,” Rupenian says.
On more than one occasion, Rupenian has successfully mobilized the Armenian community for various fund-raising drives.
“I recall an instance when an elderly lady came to the radio station seeking help to go and visit family members in Beirut. Our broadcasts helped raise the money for her airline ticket and part of her other expenses.”
“I also remember the incident involving an elderly Armenian who passed away and the family did not have enough money to bury him. Our fund raising drive produced enough money to pay for the funeral and set up an additional fund for the widow,” Rupenian adds with a glitter in his eyes.
Rupenian, a controversial figure who will not hesitate to lash out at his critics and embarrass his opponents on the airwaves, says he cherishes his independence too much to pamper anyone.
If Radio Armenia has played a leading role, Radio Gomidas, has been just as important an element in the lives of the Armenian communities of Uruguay and Argentina.
As if by coincidence, Radio Gomidas, the mouthpiece of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or the Tashnagtsutiun, was also founded in 1935 to serve the Armenian communities in Uruguay and Argentina. And like Radio Armenia, it too has done a successful job in enhancing Armenianism within the community.
The very fact that two “rival” radio stations have managed to remain on the air for more than fifty years, in itself reflects their dedication to the service of the Armenian community.
Without the two radio stations the community, which has seen little or no new immigrants since the early 1930′s, would have lost its cohesion. “Armenian poetry, songs and literature have survived thanks to the radio stations. The community depends on the radio stations for news from Armenia and Diaspora as well,” continues Rupenian.
“We are not as fortunate as fellow Armenians in the United States, and particularly Los Angeles where thousands of new immigrants are constantly rejuvenating the community.
But Rupenian, like his “competitors” at Radio Gomidas, agrees that the struggle remains an uphill one.
According to church records, an estimated 15,000 Armenians live in Uruguay. But the same sources do not hide the fact that not more than 4,000 are involved in community affairs.
It is this 4,000 which sustains Montevideo’s two Armenian schools operated by the Armenian Church and the Armenian General Benevolent Union. The community also has a number of cultural associations and an old-age home.
“Montevideo is a microcosm of Armenian life in the Diaspora. The active community is shrinking and mixed marriages are on the rise. The schools, the Church and the radio stations are vital to keep Armenianism alive. In the absence of a numerical strength, these institutions become even more important,” Rupenian says.
In a country where public education is rapidly sliding in quality, and the cost of private education is on the rise, the Armenian schools are finding themselves in an indispensable position.
“We are not here only to teach Armenian as a language, but also give the youth an education in an Armenian atmosphere,” says AGBU school Principal Ohan Bodroumian.
“No student is turned back for financial reasons. The community has a responsibility toward the youth. We are here to look after the academic and moral needs of the new generation,” Bodroumian says.
According to recent statistics, from the more than 300 students enrolled at the AGBU elementary and secondary school, at least 228 made only “partial payments toward their tuition,” and twenty-three “were on full scholarships.”
The same is true with the Nercessian National Elementary school.
“We have great difficulty finding enough Armenian language teachers and coping with the cost of education, but thanks to generous donations and the budgetary assistance from the AGBU, we will continue,” Bodroumian said.
Like Argentina, Armenian life is centered around the neighboring schools and church complex which also includes sports facilities and a heated swimming pool.
“This is a very tight knit community where everyone knows everyone else. The radio stations keep us informed and the schools and church keep us active,” says AGBU Chapter Chairwoman Dr. Verquin Devirian.