Armenia Town. Does the name ring a bell? For any Armenian who is from Fresno or has spent any significant amount of time here it certainly should. Though very few residents of this area of downtown Fresno, once highly populated by Armenians still remain, the memories made here will live on forever.
On the weekend of March 20 and 21, 1998, many students chose to investigate the history of the Armenian community in Fresno through a course taught by Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian; Armenian Studies 120T: Armenians in Fresno. Armenians in Fresno you ask? Perhaps the common perception is that if you live in Fresno then you already know everything there is to know about Fresno Armenians. Maybe. Maybe not. Nonetheless, there are still some who are unfamiliar with the area and the Armenians in Fresno course provided them with the perfect opportunity to learn more about the community they call home. “Because I wasn’t born in Fresno, I wanted to learn more about the city that I am living in now,” said Taqui Semerjian. Other students had similar reasons for enrolling in the course. “I enrolled in the course because I wanted to learn more about my community. I was also interested in learning about who the first Armenian settlers were in Fresno,” said Armen Ghanbarian.
Though Armenians are said to have first set foot on North American soil in the 17th cenyutry, it wasn’t until the late 1870’s that Armenians were recorded living in Fresno. The first Armenian to arrive in Fresno was Frank Normart (formerly Mardiros Yanukian). Yanukian took the name Normart, literally meaning “New Man” upon his arrival in the United States. Indeed, the arrival of Armenians in the United States and the Central Valley began a new chapter in the history of Armenians living throughout the world. Even before the forced creation of a Diaspora as a reult of the 1915-1923 Genocide, Armenians had established themselves here in California as well as in other areas.
Despite hardships in making it to America, those Armenians who arrived in Fresno and the Central Valley were determined to get ahead. Bringing with them a strong work ethic and an even stronger will to succeed, they proved that the Armenian people could survive even under the harsh persecution that they received. The San Joaquin Valley, with its rich agricultural opportunities was indeed a land of “milk and honey.” But other Armenians who also called Fresno home achieved great success in the areas of arts and entertainment. Fresno is proud to have been the birthplace of William Saroyan, as well as home to many other Armenians who made tremendous contributions to the community and the world. The famed sculptor, Varaz Samuelian and the well-known actor Mike Connors also called Fresno home. Many students in the course were interested in learning about these famous people. “I think this course was fun, I would even take it again. It was interesting learning about some of the people that have lived in Fresno,” said Taqui Semerjian.
Students enrolled in the course for various reasons, but one thing remained constant, a genuine interest in learning more about the history of Armenians living in Fresno. “My grandmother encouraged me to enroll in the course because she grew up in that area [Armenia Town] in the 1930’s and 1940’s and I was interested in learning about the roots of the Fresno Armenians,” said Gerad Bagdasarian. And some students learned that some of the deep-rooted traditions of the Armenian community here in Fresno still live on today. “I enjoyed watching the videos from the picnics, some of them from sixty years ago,” said Michael Kazarian.
Overall, students who participated in this fun-filled course agreed, it was a weekend well-spent. From the Asbarez Club to the Arax Market, students found themselves back in time, though only for a short while. Nevertheless, they still received an important lesson in history. They learned that we as Armenians can never forget where we’ve come from, even though we’ve moved so far ahead. For the memories made in that little area known as Armenia Town will live on for eternity, in fact, with courses such as this, they may even grow stronger with time.