By Carene Rose Mekertichyan
My father and his family immigrated to the United States in 1991, in the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the last major war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
If my father had been drafted before our family’s immmigration paperwork was finalized, I would not be here. By the same token, if Armenia had been in a state of prosperous peace at the time, my family may never have emigrated.
My mom had moved to Los Angeles a few years prior from Chicago for a job opportunity. She met my dad when they were working at what is now the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City. As the old Armenian proverb says, “Chakatagrits ches karogh khusapel,” or “You cannot escape destiny.” So here I am, after the stars aligned, allowing my passage into this world.
I am a proud Angeleno. I grew up in Silverlake, back when it was vibrant and diverse. Before I started kindergarten, I could speak basic Armenian because I spent my days at my Tatik and Papik’s (grandparents) apartment while my parents were working. Once I started school, however, I lost the words I had known and my understanding of the Armenian language is still remedial at best.
Here in L.A., I’m surrounded by the largest diasporic Armenian population and yet I’ve struggled to feel connected to this community in which I felt I wasn’t seen or wanted. I remember walking through the Glendale Galleria holding hands with my parents and seeing the stares from other Armenians as they turned to whisper with each other.
‘BUT I’M BOTH!’
This was not the case with the Black community. I remember my first day at Ivanhoe Elementary School, when my soon-to-be friend Aliya came over to me and said, “We are the Black girls. We have to stick together.” This unconditional acceptance has remained true throughout my life.
When we would visit my mom’s side of the family on the South Side of Chicago, my light skin resulted in some hurtful taunts. There were girls on the playground who said they didn’t want to play with a “vanilla ice cream girl.” My cousin Ayanna set them straight as I left the park crying. I was called everything from “yellow” to “Lite-Brite.” Family members would playfully joke about my last name, calling me “McKetchup” because they couldn’t handle the pronunciation.
All those otherizing experiences aside, I navigated Black spaces with an ease I still don’t feel anywhere else. Both my parents ensured I understood the history and the suffering of my ancestors. I remember my mother sitting me down one day when I must have been five years old or so and explaining the history of slavery in the United States and our continued struggle for justice. While I don’t remember what sparked that conversation, I remember it knocked me right out of my California bubble. The idea of someone hating me because of my skin and features was foreign to me.