What Does It Mean To Be Armenian? Among LA's Diaspora, An Ongoing Search For Identity

Schoolchildren run around the campus during a physical education class at the Rose & Alex Pilibos Armenian School in the Little Armenia neighborhood of Los Angeles, on April 13, 2015. Los Angeles is home to one of the largest populations of Armenians in the world outside of Armenia. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

What makes someone Armenian? It's a complicated question for many Armenian Americans living in Los Angeles, whose heritage was endangered and scattered by the 1915 Armenian Genocide. But a century later, younger Armenians are working to connect with their cultural identities in new ways.

Thousands of scholars, policy experts and Armenian Americans from the L.A. area unpacked the many global issues shaping their identity on a recent Saturday at USC, at the fourth "Innovate Armenia" festival and conference, hosted by the university's Institute of Armenian Studies.

The Armenian nation is physically scattered but many feel a deep emotional connection to it. Just 3 million Armenians live in Armenia. Another 8 million live elsewhere around the world. Southern California has the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia or Moscow, but it's difficult to know just how large it is.

The 2000 census counted about 150,000 Armenians in Los Angeles County, but USC's Institute of Armenian Studies estimates there are somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million Armenians in Southern California. Some were displaced by the genocide. Others settled in L.A. after events like World War II, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and '80s.

A sign on Hollywood Boulevard Little Armenia, which went up in July 2009. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

"Los Angeles is such a unique Armenian diasporic community because of how many layers there are," said Shushan Karepetian, deputy director of the Institute for Armenian Studies. "You have Armenians from Armenia. You have Armenians from the Middle East, from South America, from Turkey."

Inside USC's Bovard Auditorium, many panel discussions focused on the past, exploring topics like genealogy and the importance of memory. But others looked to the future, like education and security policy in the Republic of Armenia, where one year ago, a peaceful revolution brought down former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan.

"Both Armenia and the diaspora are in the process of redefining what it means to be Armenian," Karepetian said. "And I think what we're trying to do at the institute and with this event is to release the boundaries. That being Armenian isn't a checklist of four or five items. That you can invest in your own sense of Armenian-ness. Everyone is open and free to contribute to that notion."

Visitors to the "Innovate Armenia" festival dance along with the Richard Hagopian Family Quartet. (Aaron Schrank/KPCC)

Salpi Ghazarian runs the Institute for Armenian Studies.

"The first generation is one who absolutely believes that their own personal identity is one thing and the identity of this new place they've come to is this other thing," Ghazarian said. "And it's a binary, and they have to choose, their children have to choose. I think by the second and third generation, we realize that that's not so."

That shift was on display in the USC courtyard, where Armenian folk musicians, the Element Band, kept an intergenerational crowd entertained. Chessmasters challenged children to games on life-size boards. Baristas poured free samples of unfiltered Armenian coffee. Well-known brewer Charlie Papazian, who is Armenian American and authored "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing," gave a talk about Armenian beer culture.

Armenian chessmasters challenged festival goers to games on a life-size chess board. (Aaron Schrank/KPCC)

"The generations before us, with the whole Armenian genocide, they felt very oppressed by the Turkish government, so they couldn't really practice their Armenian identity," said Sev Kazarian, 25, of Pasadena. "So I think we're lucky here to have that freedom, to come to these types of events, to show our art, our culture, our politics, and be able to have a connection to our motherland,which is so many miles away."

The concept of cultural preservation is deeply ingrained in many young Armenian Americans by their families and schools. 17-year-old Johnny Kamakian is a senior at a private Armenian school in Canoga Park where he studies the Armenian language.

"A lot of the old guard will say you have to be able to speak Armenian, read Armenian, you have to know everything precisely, to be Armenian," said Kanakian, in between bites of a kebab burrito. "Especially in a country like here, that's hard to maintain because there's so many different ideals."

Hrag Karakashian was born in Boston, grew up in Lebanon, and now lives in Germany. His band Garabala, known for modernizing traditional Armenian songs, played the outdoor stage at "Innovate Armenia."

"I think if you ask 100 people, 'what is the Armenian identity?' you'll get 100 answers, maybe 200 even," Karakashian said. "It's a tough question, but we have a sad history. Being related to that history genetically gives you somehow this common memory that you share with others."

It's a question Hasmik Baghdasaryan has been grappling with. She was born in Armenia, but moved to the U.S. at age 12.

"I never really had to question my identity until that point," Bagdasaryan said. "When I went back to Armenia at 19, I was referred to as 'the diasporan.' That was a weird experience for me because because I always thought of myself as an Armenian. So I've been trying to define for myself what that means for me. I don't think I have come to a conclusion yet."

Michael Abassian, 23, said he's frequently reevaluating what it means to be Armenian.

"It's never like a fixed thing,"Abassian said. "Depending on what age I am and where I'm living, the narrative for me of identity, of who I am as an Armenian American kind of shifts."

Abassian's parents are from Yerevan, Armenia, but he was born and raised in Glendale. He said Armenian dance has connected him to his Armenian heritage. The activity taught him communication and confidence, as well as culture. He was part of an Armenian dance group at UCLA.

Vic Chouchainan is president and brewer at San Fernando Brewing Company. (Aaron Schrank/KPCC)

For Vic Chouchanian, beer is part of the connection to Armenia. The president and head beermaker at San Fernando Brewing Company brewed a special pomegranate-flavored beer for the USC event, an homage to the popular fruit that's one of the most recognizable symbols of the country.

"Obviously the first generation to come over are very Armenian-centric," said 39-year-old Chouchanian. "This is the way it is, this is the language, old world ideas. I was first generation born here, so I was really into technology, American culture. I watched Sesame Street growing up, and things like that."

Chouchanian wants his infant son to learn the Armenian language, and hopes he'll strike a balance between connections with both past and future ties to his Armenian heritage.

"And that's kind of at the top of my list, is to make sure he gets a lot of what my parents gave me,the food, the ideas. But also letting him get in the modern era of Instagram and iPhones," he said.

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.