For much of the 20th century, the prevailing force shaping the various Armenian organizations that made up diasporan life had been hayabahbanoum—literally, “Armeno-preservation.” Whether it was church, dance troupes, schools, newspapers, or scouts, the main point of such activities was to ensure that Armenians stayed Armenian, meaning the language was spoken, the food was eaten, and young Armenian men and women met and married one another.
Living a life as Armenian as possible, so to speak, was perceived as a duty, coming as it did in the wake of a rich and vibrant culture being almost completely annihilated in 1915. In some sense, this was a natural reaction. How it played out depended a great deal on where a given community ended up. In the case of Brazil, four generations in, the Armenians have become more than just inhabitants in a host country, rather they are fully actualized citizens of a nation, if not citizens of the world.
As a leading scholar and founder of the discipline of Diaspora Studies, Khachig Tölölyan of Wesleyan University has written about how, in this ever-globalizing world, the “exilic nationalism” exemplified by hayabahbanoum has given way to “a new diasporic transnationalism, in which considerations of subjectivity and personal identity play a major role.” How one thinks about ancestry and its significance for one’s present sense of self, tensions between imaginations about homeland and hostland, and identities that do not fit in neatly with political borders have become more prevalent, more acceptable than in the preceding decades. The struggle of fitting into a mainstream environment has vanished in many respects. The challenge of manifesting Armenianness has taken more fluid and nuanced forms across a spectrum of possibilities.
Three Brazilians shared their stories and perspectives on this front. Their insights speak to universal themes which all diasporans will recognize—identity, integration, assimilation, pride, and engagement. The snapshot of the Brazilian-Armenian community they offer reflects on the past, present, and possible future of the Armenian experience.
Armenian by Birth
“I did not have much of a chance to escape an Armenian identity,” says well-known Brazilian architect and photographer Norair Chahinian more than once. He represents perhaps a dying breed. Growing up, he had four Armenian grandparents, spoke the language at home and ate the food. He was involved with the churches, clubs, and other community bodies in an already-vibrant and cosmopolitan São Paulo.
For Chahinian, it seems like a typical ambivalence when trying to articulate one’s relationship to identity. “I am of course Brazilian, a citizen of Brazil with Armenian background,” he says. “Most of my day-to-day life involves being more of a Brazilian, like when I travel. And I have traveled extensively throughout Brazil. It is a place I understand, I feel good in, I accept. At the same time, I never wanted to escape my Armenian side, because it also feels good.”
...I have traveled extensively throughout Brazil. It is a place...I feel good in...At the same time, I never wanted to escape my Armenian side, because it also feels good.
What does it mean to “feel good” in an identity? For some, it’s a sense of finding one’s self naturally so, a belonging, an affiliation, an affinity that just couldn’t be otherwise. It helps, of course, that Brazil is a highly diverse country populated by the descendants of waves of immigrants from all over—not unlike being American, Canadian, Argentine, or Australian, though with its own unique flair and colonial and political history. The ethnic community itself must have a presence to make one “feel good,” be it a dance recital here, a football match there, a banquet with endless rounds of lehmejoun and other community and identity-building exercises.
At the same time, some outside recognition and affirmation of one’s ethnic roots goes a long way to find one’s “feel good” zone. “Wherever you meet a non-Armenian and mention your Armenian ethnicity, you are more than likely to get a positive response—yes, I know an Armenian,” notes Chahinian with pride. “Maybe it was a childhood friend or a favorite Armenian restaurant. Even though Brazil is a country of 200 million people, and there are relatively only a handful of us, ask any Brazilian with a little bit of standing in São Paulo. For sure, they’ve heard of or know Armenians.”
Armenian by Chance
For Marcelo Mirzeian, a business professional, discovering and expressing an Armenian identity took a different path. He comes from a younger generation and a family with roots from a few different places. “I only discovered my Armenian ancestry when I was seventeen, when my history teacher told me about the Armenians and the Armenian Genocide. Before that, I only heard it a few times by someone who recognized the suffix on my last name,” he remembers. “The last generation born in Armenia was my great-grandparents, in the city of Urfa. When I was born, only my grandmother was alive, so all the stories I have from my family were from her. I grew up without any contact with the Armenian community.”
He began his Armenian explorations pretty much from scratch, and although he found a welcoming community, there was something lacking. “The first thing I did after I talked to my history teacher was a search for Armenians on the Internet. The result was disappointing,” Mirzeian recalls. Most sites had scant information about Armenian places and almost none had updates on activities or events in the community. Most of the content was about the history and culture of Armenia, and all in English.
Mirzeian decided to do something about it. He created a web page of his own that has more content in Portuguese for others who are curious about their ethnicity or just interested in things Armenian. A couple of years later, he upgraded the website to a portal, which disseminates up-to-date news on Armenia, the Diaspora, and events in Brazil.
Portal Estação Armênia, named after the metro station by Praça Armênia (“Armenia Square”) in São Paulo, has been up and running since 2010. Mirzeian works with a handful of friends and active community members. “Our main goal is to provide news of what happens around the world and in Brazil that’s related to Armenia. But we also have new projects that intend to create a bond with Armenian culture and history.”
Add to this their online radio show, a T-shirt webstore, Armenian film exhibitions, a podcast, and a YouTube channel. They even brought “The 100 Years, 100 Facts Project” to Brazil, among many other initiatives that have found a following.
Armenian by Choice
Historian genocide scholar and lecturer Heitor Loureiro does not have any Armenian ancestry at all. Yet he tells anyone who asks that he was first drawn into the Armenian world through the rock group System of a Down and cemented the connection by marrying a Brazilian-Armenian woman later in life. Loureiro insists that, if it weren’t for the Internet and social media, young Armenians in Brazil would have much less space in which to express their Armenianness.
“I believe there is a ‘lost generation’ within the Armenian community in Brazil, one that grew up in the 90s, when Brazil was facing a massive crisis in the economy, and the Armenian institutions were unaffordable for a great number of Armenians. Some of these institutions closed their operations. The web and social networks changed all that,” he explains.
New Links to Identity
“Back in the 2000s and early 2010s,” Loureiro elaborates, “social medias were used to gather Armenians from different cities, being a kind of virtual agoump, where relatives were found, childhood friends connected, and recipes, songs, and photos were exchanged. Armenians had the chance to gather in demonstrations and activities and this organization became less ‘virtual’ and more ‘real’. People started attending April 24 demonstrations, concerts and lectures and even meeting wannabe dates, forming new nuclear families.”
Mirzeian adds his own recollections about how online forums “revolve around Armenian descendants trying to get Armenian citizenship or asking to translate a word to Hayeren so they can tattoo it.” The networks were most active from January to April, during which time Armenian Genocide commemorations were organized—flyers, t-shirt designs, who does what, where, and when. However, people would only actually meet in person in April.
Over the same period, however, a significant generation gap has also arisen between older members of the community who are still in charge of the clubs and churches, and younger Brazilian-Armenians, who spend less and less time at mass or playing belote or tavli. It is an ongoing tension, though not necessarily a destructive one.
“Now that we are at a fourth generation, yes, we are sort of spread thin,” Chahinian admits. “But there is also a slow kind of renaissance among the youth these days, a kind of interest: ‘Okay, so my grandpa was Armenian. What is that? What does that mean? What Armenian things are there in São Paulo?’ I do not feel that the clubs or community organizations are offering the relevant opportunities to these young people. I think there is something going on, though, for the last five to ten years, as the youth have become interested. There are some programs, such as with Birthright or the AGBU Discover Armenia tours for youth. The bishop organizes a youth group to travel to Armenia every year. They return impressed.”
Mirzeian agrees that although he has been in contact with the community for a little over a decade, it is possible to see cycles of renewal in the young Armenians. “Even though they are less physically present in the clubs than the older generation, they are still connected to each other through social media. Just like any living culture, the Brazilian-Armenians adapt to the culture they’re in, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that the younger generation cares less about their Armenian heritage, we just need to learn new ways to communicate with them.”
Just like any living culture, the Brazilian-Armenians adapt to the culture they’re in, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that the younger generation cares less about their Armenian heritage, we just need to learn new ways to communicate with them.
Finding ways to connect with successive generations has been a key goal of AGBU in Brazil, since it was founded in Sâo Paulo in 1964. Its strong influence continues today. Some university students are awarded AGBU scholarships or participate in the AGBU Global Leadership Program, while others have joined the growing network of AGBU Young Professionals, which organized the highly successful four-day “Focus 2019” global event attracting attendees from over 26 countries and mobilized over 3,000 volunteers worldwide to raise funds for the AGBU Women’s Entrepreneurship Program.
AGBU also offers educational videos on Armenian history as well as the Armenian Virtual College (AVC) to help those seeking to connect with their identity online language learning, history and cultural experiences.
The Feel Good Zone
For any Armenian community anywhere, there is an ongoing dynamic of negotiating a space between integration and assimilation. Each generation must discover its own way to “feel good” as Chahinian does, sometimes carrying on old traditions whether or not through low-tech means, sometimes adding to or modifying them, and other times blazing entirely new trails. Fortunately, there is plenty of richness to the Armenian experience to discover that path and to find one’s place in it.