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Life as a ‘half immigrant’: growing up Armenian in the Central Valley

Historian Richard G. Hovannisian talks of straddling two cultures — and the ‘forgotten genocide’

Richard G. Hovannisian
Richard G. Hovannisian, a UCLA emeritus professor, recently joined USC Shoah Foundation, helping to prepare nearly 400 Armenian genocide testimonies. (Photo/Dan Avila)

Although he was born in the San Joaquin Valley, Richard G. Hovannisian considers himself a “half immigrant.”

The child of Armenian genocide survivors, he grew up straddling two worlds — “the world of my home and the outside world.”

“The challenge,” says the 82-year-old historian, “was to navigate between the immigrant culture, ways and mores, and that of the idealized Anglo society to which we aspired to be accepted.”

A leading authority on Armenian history, Hovannisian is a UCLA emeritus professor who recently joined the USC Shoah Foundation, helping prepare nearly 400 Armenian genocide testimonies for inclusion in the foundation’s Visual History Archive. The goal is to have 40 of these testimonies translated, transcribed, indexed and digitally accessible to scholars globally by April 24, 2015, the centennial of the Armenian genocide.

In a lively conversation with USC chair of history William Deverell, Hovannisian talked about his “half immigrant” experiences and the Armenian diaspora. Some highlights:

On the mid-century Armenian community of the Central Valley:

“You would go to these huge Sunday outdoor picnics along the Kings River where up to 5,000 Armenians from all over the San Joaquin Valley gathered. You could smell kebabs from about a mile away and hear the sounds of oriental Armenian music and dancing.

“It was a time people did things as families. You didn’t have a telephone so you got in the car and went to the first Armenian neighbor’s house. There is this ritual: The men segregate onto the screened porches to play cards or backgammon; and the women sit in the parlor chatting. And the children, who knows where they are?

“My father had built a special table that would seat about 40 people. We could carry it into the house, with portable legs, and set it up in this long dining room. And the guests that came were not only people we knew. People we didn’t know would come and stay with us for two or three days.”

A child’s-eye view of the genocide:

“I hung out with the women more than the men; they were more interesting to me. Some of them had these curlicues, these medallions, all over their faces, and their lips were entirely blue. They had been taken in by Bedouin tribes, and those Bedouin tribes tattooed their women in a particular style. It was a time when tattooing was not ‘in’ for women, but there was no way of removing it.

It took some years for me to realize the enormity of the calamity that had occurred.

Richard G. Hovannisian

“They gossiped a lot, they told stories. Among the stories they told were stories of deportation. They had been through unspeakable atrocities. I heard those stories all the time, but I didn’t internalize them. I didn’t feel that was my personal experience. It took some years for me to realize the enormity of the calamity that had occurred.”

On a resurgence of interest in Armenia:

“There is a higher consciousness of Armenian-ness, of Armenia, today than there was 40 years ago. By 1939, the Armenian genocide had become what is virtually a forgotten genocide.

“My parents’ generation did not have a large megaphone. They had a little paper megaphone that no one heard. So it had to be my generation that took up the obligation, the burden to become their voice.

“When I started my academic career, there were no more than 10 reliable books on Armenian history and culture in the English language. Now there are hundreds of them.”

On work at USC:

“After a half century of rooting for UCLA, I was approached by Dean Steve Kay and recruited to come work with the USC Shoah Foundation, which had received a significant collection of Armenian survivor testimonies. We are now in the process of preparing these for translating, transcription, indexing and putting them on web for use for scholarly purposes. We have two or three up on the web as a sample, and by April 24th — which is the 100th anniversary of the genocide — hopefully 50 of these will be there for use by the general public.”


The entire conversation between Deverell and Hovannisian can be viewed here.

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Life as a ‘half immigrant’: growing up Armenian in the Central Valley

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