Ethnic Friction Disturbs Peace of Glendale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The women are remarkably similar.

Two opinionated 19-year-old college students, lifelong residents of Glendale with dark, flowing hair and bright eyes. Both are from close-knit immigrant families, both fiercely loyal to their protective, nurturing communities.

In a different time and place, they might be best friends.

But they don't know one another and, if they did, they would be unlikely to become close: Lorena Aguirre is Mexican American, and Takuhi H. Fidanian is Armenian American.

In parts of Glendale, the girls admit separately, that's the way it is.

"The Armenians and Latinos, you know, they have this thing between them," said Aguirre, whose brother was killed last month, allegedly by Armenian teenagers. "I guess it's racist."

Said Fidanian: "The mix--I don't think it's ever going to happen."

So it goes in parts of the small, ethnically diverse city cradled by mountains just 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

For generations, the place that calls itself Jewel City had been strikingly homogeneous, almost entirely white.

Now, after two decades of demographic shifts, the city is about 30% Armenian, 25% Latino, 25% non-Middle Eastern white and 16% Asian, according to census and city data.

In some schools, Armenians and Latinos make up about three-fourths of the student body. Many are taking the changes in stride: Youths have become willing teammates in sports, neighbors cooperate on community projects and some have developed deeper relationships.

But, many, especially longtime residents, are uncomfortable with the changes. Hundreds have moved out. Many grumble, not so quietly, that outsiders are taking over their city.

Though Glendale is one of the safest cities in California, occasional fights break out, almost always involving Armenian and Latino youths. Last month, Aguirre's brother Raul was stabbed to death outside his school.

As part of a push to curb the ethnic tension, Glendale city officials acknowledge that there is a problem, and they're crafting wide-ranging programs to address it.

For now, Glendale is an otherwise unremarkable suburb forced to deal with cultural clashes and turf battles, machismo that escalates into violence and occasional gang problems that spill over from Los Angeles.

It is a city trying to absorb two large, fresh immigrant groups into a place not accustomed to making such changes.

It is a place struggling to craft a new kind of community.

"The East Coast went through this at the turn of the century, and now here we are with 67 languages in our schools," said Dave Weaver, Glendale's mayor. "It's going to take time to assimilate--probably a generation or two. It's a city in transition."

Seeking Quiet, Safety, Good Schools

Like many immigrant groups, Latinos and Armenians have been pushed from their homelands by hardship--poverty, ethnic hatred, wars--and pulled to America by opportunity.

Mexican Americans began trickling into Glendale in the 1960s in search of middle-class quiet, safety and good schools. The pace of the influx picked up in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

By last year, a quarter of Glendale's public school students were Latino, many of them immigrants. More than two-thirds take classes to help them master English, Glendale Unified School District data show.

Those numbers are even higher for Armenian students.

Armenians fleeing violence and oppression at home began arriving in Los Angeles around the 1940s. Most settled in Hollywood--once called "Little Armenia"--and aspired to homes in Glendale, among other cities.

The current wave of Armenian newcomers began arriving from the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Many had family and friends in Glendale who helped them settle in town.

"In five to eight years, the [Armenian] community went from a few thousand to about 40,000," said Rick Young, a spokesman for the Glendale Police Department.

Hollywood and North Hollywood still have large communities, as do other parts of the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena and Montebello.

But by the early 1990s, Glendale overtook Hollywood as home to the most Armenians, said Levon Marashlian, who teaches Armenian history at Glendale College. Now, except for Armenia's capital, Yerevan, Glendale has the largest concentration of Armenians in the world.

With such changes, residents and experts said, it is almost to be expected that some people might butt heads.

Victim Tried to Break Up Fight

Raul Aguirre was caught in the middle May 5.

The shy, 17-year-old baseball outfielder was at Herbert Hoover High School that afternoon when three Armenian teenagers drove by flashing gang signs, apparently looking for a fight, Glendale police said. The youths found one when a Latino boy, whom police have not identified, reportedly flashed a sign back.

Dozens of students watched as two Armenian youths allegedly pummeled the Latino teenager. A 14-year-old Armenian girl, the driver, watched and cheered, police said. None lived in Glendale. All four are gang members, police said.

Raul Aguirre tried to break up the fight. The Latino youth fled but Aguirre was beaten, clubbed with a tire iron and stabbed four times, twice in the heart, police said.

"People who were there told me the girl was yelling, 'Finish him off,' " said Lorena Aguirre.

Three hours later, her brother was dead.

The three teenagers charged with Raul's killing are being tried as adults. They are scheduled to be arraigned July 6.

A week after the killing, in an apparent retaliation, police said, an Armenian teenager was shot in the leg, allegedly by a Latino youth.

The incidents come amid increasing youth violence in the community as a whole. Two Armenian students at Hoover have been killed--one in 1995, another in 1998--in fights with other Armenian American teenagers. Latinos were not involved in either of those cases.

Many suspect that Raul Aguirre's attackers went to Hoover looking for a fight with Latinos that Cinco de Mayo afternoon.

Had it been an Armenian youth in a random fight with three other Armenians, would he probably be alive today?

"Absolutely," said Jim Brown, superintendent of Glendale Unified. "I think it was a gang issue, but it was also--what I know about it--I think there was that ethnic hatred there as well."

Police throughout Los Angeles County said such sentiments are not confined to Glendale.

In recent weeks, conflicts between Armenians and Latinos have erupted in other neighborhoods where the communities are concentrated.

On May 22, an Armenian 29-year-old was shot and killed, allegedly by Latino gang members, in North Hollywood.

On May 26, two Armenian teenagers, including one from Glendale, were arrested in Burbank on suspicion of committing a hate crime against a Latino teen.

Last weekend, a Latino man from Ventura County was shot and killed in Hollywood in a post-graduation fight. Again, the suspects--who have not been arrested--are Armenian.

At the San Fernando Valley's Grant High School, where Armenians and Latinos also are the largest ethnic groups, long-standing resentment explodes into annual back-to-school fights, school officials said.

Last October, tensions erupted into a lunchtime brawl, with more than 200 teenagers shoving, screaming and hurling bottles and trash cans. Five students were arrested, 40 detained and at least 10 slightly injured, police said.

"It's a sad tradition," said Joe Walker, Grant's principal.

Statistics Indicate a Safe City

In the weeks since Aguirre's killing, Glendale residents--Latino, Armenian, white--have recoiled in shame and struggled to make sense of the incident. Many said it was a tragic accident, nothing more than bad kids making trouble.

They insisted that Glendale is the same safe, clean suburb it's always been.

The city, according to FBI data, is the safest in the country with a population of more than 150,000. There are only a handful of homicides each year, and recently the annual number has dwindled to two, Young said.

Such tranquillity is reflected in various arenas, including many schools.

At Hoover High, students of all ethnicities routinely join forces to organize Associated Student Body events or play sports.

Kirt Kohlmeier, head coach of Hoover's boys basketball team, said his players--white, Latino, Filipino, Armenian and black--play together as any team would.

"It doesn't matter what color you are; you all sweat and you're all trying to do the same thing, and that's win the game," he said.

Likewise, Glendale residents insist that most neighbors get along. There are not routine clashes on the neat lawns or in bustling shopping districts of the city, they say.

Leticia Aguirre, Raul's mother, echoed many residents: "I've taken English classes with the Armenian people and we made good friendships. I don't have anything against them. There are good people and bad people in each race."

Though residents say it's unusual--taboo in some circles--for Armenians and Latinos to date, there are at least a handful of inter-ethnic families.

Hilda Carabes, a native of Mexico and a longtime Glendale resident, is happily married to an Iraqi-born Armenian and has Latino Armenian children from a previous marriage.

At first, she said, "it was very hard." But she realized that her culture is remarkably similar to her husband's on such issues as food, religion, family and cultural pride. She is delighted that her children bridge the cultures, speaking Armenian, English and Spanish.

But, she says, her family is rare, and many in Glendale make it clear that they are unhappy with the way the city has changed.

"I hear it in the supermarkets all the time," she said. "They say . . . it's not what Glendale used to be. There used to be a different kind of people here. The Armenians are taking over. The Hispanics are taking over."

Other residents echoed such sentiments, both privately and openly.

One city employee said his wife vowed never to shop at a newly opened market again because the clerks don't speak English.

When city officials lowered the American flag to mark Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day on April 24, "they got an earful" of protests from longtime Glendale residents, Brown said. The day recognizes the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923.

The Glendale News-Press was flooded with letters of protest: The genocide didn't even happen in this country, some writers said. Others responded, pressing for more tolerance.

Hostility toward Glendale's newcomers is deep and wide, even among those who recently attended a peace march held at Hoover after Raul Aguirre's death.

"I see it myself," said Blanca Tompkins, a registered nurse who volunteered at the march. "They [immigrants] cut me off all the time [while driving]. Twenty years ago, it was much better."

Many longtime residents say they simply want their new neighbors to be more like them. More American. Some take note that Armenians have many of their own organizations and clubs, that Latinos often prefer to socialize among themselves.

"Look at the Kiwanis clubs, the Rotary clubs," said Young. "Look at all the charity groups; they're all little old white men and women. They're struggling [to survive] because the minority groups are not participating," Young said.

Experts said Glendale's newcomers are caught in an age-old immigration tug-of-war: pressure to assimilate versus loyalty to homeland and compatriots.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, likened Glendale's immigrants to 20th century Jewish arrivals, who often relied on strong community ties for survival.

The banding together of immigrants, he said, "is a very natural thing."

"The whole idea was: The extended family was taking care of each other," he said. "The instinct of maintaining those ties runs very deep."

Among many Armenians, the genocide still casts a horrifying shadow. Cultural assimilation often is seen as another threat to the group's survival, experts said.

"If you assimilate . . . it's another drop in the bucket toward the extinction of a whole nation," Marashlian said.

As Hovsep M. Fidanian, a Glendale insurance broker, explained to his 10-year-old son one recent evening, "You can have a great salad with all the different vegetables. But if the cabbage and carrot become one another, the salad is not as good. Everything would taste the same. The culture is best in America if everyone maintains their own identity and contributes to society."

Many Glendale residents have begun to take it for granted that Armenians and Latinos have, in Lorena Aguirre's words, "this thing between them."

Police said cultural friction between the communities escalates into neighborhood assaults about twice a month.

It surfaces nearly every day in Glendale's schools, where different cultures come into intimate contact. Hoover High has one of the district's highest rates of minority enrollment and has fights a few times a week.

Principal Kevin E. Welsh has analyzed how simple disagreements often become ethnic conflicts.

"In a school this diverse, when you have a fight, statistically you're going to probably see interracial conflict," Welsh said. "Is that a racial problem? Not yet."

But when the fighters reconvene at lunchtime, he said, they bring friends as backup--friends who are almost always of the same ethnicity. Suddenly, dozens of Latinos and Armenians are fighting, "and they don't even know what the [original] argument was about," he said.

At Glendale High several years ago, an annual multicultural day was permanently canceled after wide-scale fighting broke out between ethnic groups. Fights across the school district escalate more frequently on Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day and on Cinco de Mayo, a holiday of Mexican American cultural pride, school officials said.

"Events that are intended as celebration bring out resentment on the part of other people," Brown said.

On the simplest level, members of both groups blame strong strains of machismo running through Latino and Armenian cultures for the tensions. Such tendencies make it hard for teenage boys to back down from perceived slights.

"Shame has everything in the world to do with this," said Linda Maxwell, who with Jose Quintanar runs We Care for Youth, a Glendale nonprofit organization that took the lead in defusing ethnic tensions after Aguirre's death.

"The opposite of being cool is shame, which is the root cause of violence," she said. "If somebody says, 'Your country is blank' or 'Your people stink,' the reaction to that shame is violence."

Efforts to address ethnic issues in Glendale have been brewing for a few years. In recent weeks, many people have stepped up their endeavors.

Glendale residents have met by the hundreds in community centers, City Council chambers, churches and school auditoriums to air their concerns.

Business leaders, led by City Councilmen Rafi Manoukian and Gus Gomez, have met to brainstorm. The council last month approved the hiring of eight additional police officers. Four will be assigned to schools and four will reactivate a gang-control unit disbanded a few years ago.

A communitywide meeting on violence called Planting the Seed for Peace is planned for Thursday. A follow-up meeting on nonviolence will be held at Glendale College in September.

We Care for Youth has organized an annual Raul Aguirre Peace Scholarship. This year, two Hoover students, one Armenian, one Latino, each received $250 scholarships.

Today, as the school community enjoys a much-needed summer vacation, many are focused on healing.

A group of Hoover students--Armenian, Latino and white--gathered in Principal Welsh's office earlier this month to talk in sad but hopeful tones about Aguirre's death.

"I really believe," said Anna Moskovyan, a senior at Hoover, "this brought the races closer together."

And her classmates nodded.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
72°