The line at Zankou Chicken in Glendale, California, a northern suburb of Los Angeles, is out the door, even during Covid and social distancing. Taped Xs on the ground indicate where we should stand to keep away from other customers, especially important since we are all salivating. Zankou is known for their rotisserie chicken, served in or with pita, pickles, and a garlic sauce that can only have been divinely inspired. I have been coming here since childhood, and am just as excited today as ever before.
Zankou is probably the best known Armenian restaurant – it is now a chain with stores all over Los Angeles – in a city full of Armenian restaurants, groceries, and more. Glendale, in fact, has more Armenians than any city outside of Armenia itself, about 60,000, making up almost a third of the population of the city. Growing up here, I took for granted that so many of my peers had last names ending in -ian or -yan, hallmarks of Armenian nomenclature. I learned about the Armenian Genocide, during which 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks between 1914 and 1923 – for which Turkey has never taken responsibility or even acknowledged, along with the horrors of the Holocaust. It was only later, as an adult, that I came to realize that this was unique to my town.
But why Glendale? Why did so many make the journey from Armenia to here?
Suren Hazarian has been a deacon of the Armenian Apostolic Church – also known as the Armenian Orthodox Church – since childhood. We meet in the basement of St. Mary’s Church in Glendale. The room serves as a reception hall underneath a truly stunning church interior, and given Covid, we are the only ones there, masked up for safety.
The interior of St. Mary’s
Asked to speak to me by the bishop of the church, Suren tells me that Glendale was not the first place Armenians settled in the US. He says that the oldest Armenian church is actually in Watertown, Massachusetts, built in the 1890s. Armenians quickly made their way west, and Fresno’s church was constructed in 1895. As for Los Angeles? Not until much later. After the genocide, the Armenian diaspora began in earnest, mostly to Europe, and a sizable population came to Hollywood (an area now called Little Armenia) in the 1960s. Some families from there ultimately moved to Glendale, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, an early 1990s wave of Armenian immigrants joined them there.
Today, of approximately 11 million Armenians in the world, 3 million live in Armenia, and approximately 500,000 in the US. Glendale, though, remains the focal point here, and is so famous in Armenia that there is actually a city called Nur Glendale (New Glendale) there!
But why Glendale? Suren tells me that family and community are the reasons. He says that once those first few families came, the community infrastructure (grocery stores, businesses, restaurants, churches) soon followed, and with those things being so important to the Armenian community, people simply stayed. And given the choice, new immigrants preferred to move to an area where those things already existed, which makes perfect sense to me. And like any close-knit ethnic group, those feelings of community keep younger generations here as well.
St. Mary’s Church was built, in its current location, in 1988, as the Armenian community in Glendale was starting to explode in population. Suren tells me that the Armenian Orthodox Church is very similar to other Eastern Orthodox churches. They celebrate Christmas on January 6 and hold mass in their language – in this case Armenian – rather than Latin, although the mass itself is largely the same as a Catholic service. The largest difference outside of language? In the Armenian Church, first communion is taken immediately following baptism, rather than – in many cases – years later.
St. Mary’s Armenian Church in Glendale
Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion when, according to tradition, St. Gregory converted King Tiridates III in the year 301. Today, a whopping 97% of Armenians are Christian, most belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is no wonder church life is so important to Armenians in the diaspora.
Suren, like so many others of Armenian heritage born in the United States, lives a bit between worlds. Cultural identity is huge for him, and both that and his religion seem to favor a life outside of the American norm. But he says that despite all that, he is an American, and this is home, and he believes most of his generation feel the same way. He credits the church for keeping the Armenian language alive and relevant to the future generations, and hopes that even with further assimilation Armenian culture lives on.
So what does being Armenian mean to someone like Suren? “Being Armenian is about history, culture, ethnicity, and is only possible because we have survived all of the impossible devastations perpetrated against us,” he tells me. “It’s a testament to our people, to our willingness to adapt, and to our desire to make positive change anywhere we have been.”
It’s a beautiful message.
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