The Armenian Square in Montevideo (Dr. Asadur Jorge Tchekmedyian photos)

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — About 8,700 miles separate the Uruguayan capital and Boston. However, it seems the Armenian community there can bridge this impressive distance with their warmth.

One of the people interviewed for this overview of the Armenian community there, Dr. Asadur Jorge Tchekmedyian, had initially been interviewed for an earlier story on a conference organized by doctors in the diaspora to help their fellow physicians in Armenia and Artsakh to advance their medical training and certification at no expense.

As it turns out, Uruguay has a proud and rather large Armenian community (in proportion to the population of the country). Perhaps that is one reason Uruguay was the first country to recognize the Armenian Genocide in 1965, on its 50th anniversary.

The four representatives of the Uruguay Armenian community interviewed — Tchekmedyian, Daniel Karamanoukian, Dr. Gustavo Zulamian and Archbishop Hagop Kelendjian — agreed on a couple of things regarding the community: the number of those active in the community is fairly small and there is a rapidly decreasing number of Armenian speakers.

Uruguay gained its independence in 1830 and ended up receiving a lot of Armenians after the Genocide.

“Uruguay has around 12,000 Armenians,” Tchekmedyian said. “There are different estimates. No official numbers but not everyone is involved. Those deeply involved are around 2,000, 3,000.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

“The Armenian community has been doing a terrific job here,” said Tchekmedyian, an active member of the community, from his Montevideo home. “During all the years, Uruguay has become the first country to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The Armenia Square is the most beautiful Armenian square in the world. It is the most expensive and beautiful part of the county.”

In fact, it is located on the harbor, where “per square meter it is the most expensive part of the country,” along the coast with boats in the harbor, “we have a huge square, not a small square. We have one statue that was done during the 50 year anniversary of the Genocide.”

The area was also the backdrop for a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in which many danced Armenian dances at the harbor.

More recently, they brought a khachkar to the square. “Uruguay is a country with no state religion. And so no religious symbol can be present in the square. The Armenian community worked on that and said that this is not a religious symbol but a cultural symbol,” said Tchekmedyian.

Dr. Asadur Jorge Tchekmedyian

World renowned in his field of gastroenterology, Tchekmedyian is the Chief of Endoscopy at Asociación Española, Montevideo-Uruguay and President of the Interamerican Society for Digestive Endoscopy. He was involved in GI education and endoscopy activities as Assistant Professor of Gastroenterology at the state university in Uruguay for many years. He was President of the 24th Panamerican Congress of Digestive Endoscopy (March 2020) and co-chair of the LoC for the 2nd World Congress of Endoscopy – ENDO 2020.  He has often worked with the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding radioprotection for patients and staff. In addition, he is an Aurora Forum Goodwill Ambassador.

Karamanoukian added that in Montevideo one can see the Rambla [Boulevard] Armenia, Yerevan Street and Nersés Ounanián Street (sculptor). There is also an Armenia Plaza in the city of Punta del Este and another in Piriápolis, the two main tourist centers on the coast. In addition, there is a public school in Montevideo that bears the name of “Armenia” and another in the city of Salto called “Republic of Armenia”.

In Montevideo and the city of Maldonado there are many Armenian restaurants. Armenians introduced Armenian and Middle Eastern foods into Uruguayan society. Karamanoukian said, “there is no inhabitant of Uruguay who has not eaten a lehmeyun [lahmejun], a shawarma with lavash, a bastermá, hummus or Middle Eastern desserts.”

The ties between Armenia and Uruguay date back to 1920, when the Uruguayan Foreign Minister participated in the Peace Conference of the League of Nations meeting in Paris. Currently, Uruguay has a consulate in Yerevan (Consul General Eduardo Rosembrock), which after the last visit of the Uruguayan Foreign Minister Bustillo to the Armenian capital, announced the opening of an Embassy. To date, Armenia has not announced the opening of either a Consulate or an Embassy in Uruguay, and the Armenian representative for Uruguay is Ambassador Hovhannés Virabyán based in Buenos Aires. In Montevideo, an honorary Consul Ruben Aprahamián was appointed in 2009 and currently his daughter Alicia Aprahamián is the Honorary Consul of Armenia in Uruguay.

Dr. Gustavo Zulamián and his wife and daughters in Armenia in 2015

Organizations in Montevideo

Kelendjian, speaking this month, said that he had been in Uruguay for the past 38 years, as the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, after serving a few years serving in Germany. The Syrian-born cleric is a graduate of the Gevorkian Seminary in Echmiadzin.

Kelendjian said he saw a big change in the community. Currently, the newcomers are from Armenia rather than the Middle East. He lamented that the majority of the Armenians — 95 percent, he guessed — did not speak Armenian.

In addition to the Armenian Apostolic Church, there is an Armenian Catholic Church and two Armenian Evangelical churches (the First Armenian Evangelical Church and the Armenian Evangelical Brotherhood Church).

The Surp Nerses Shnorhali Cathedral, where Kelendjian serves, has been open for service every week, even during the pandemic.

Like many communities, the Armenian community attends church primarily during the high fest days, but he added, he loves the community, whose members are cooperative and helpful.

“I am very happy because it is a very welcoming nation. The Armenians are very kind here and have a lot of human values,” he said. “They are very good people and it is wonderful to be among them.”

Noted Zulamian, “The Armenian community of Uruguay, like others in the diaspora, is going through a major crisis, which has to do, on the one hand, with assimilation into Uruguayan society, but also due to fatigue, problems in local Armenian institutions and also economics. The interests have been changing and the institutions have not found a formula to summon the Armenian families. Before, the community space was practically the only one in which Armenian families participated, and today the new generations do not see the link with the community or with Armenians as a priority. Armenian churches perform few baptisms and very few marriages. Armenian schools are no longer an option for parents. No newspapers are published or books are printed periodically. Sur have not been done to determine how many Armenians live in Uruguay, but there are probably about 20,000 Armenians. The community was made up of the descendants of the survivors of the Armenian genocide.”

Karamanoukian said there are many organizations. The AGBU, which in addition to its own activities, runs the Nubarián School. In addition, from the early 1970s to 2016, the Alex Manoogian high school was in operation.

AGBU Manoogian High School

The Nersessián Primary School operates under the aegis of the Central Administrative Council of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Uruguay.

The Armenian National Center, founded in the 1930s, continues to operate with cultural activities.

There are two Armenian dance groups: Shiraz dependent on Hamazkain and Gayané from the Armenian National Center.

In addition, he noted, the Uruguayan Armenian Cultural Association -ASCUA carries out cultural activities in defense of human rights and policies on Armenian claims. It has organized seminars with the participation of prestigious international researchers.

In addition, there have been Armenian radio programs since. Currently the Gomidás Armenian Cultural Audition (Founded in 1935, official voice of the ARF) has daily programs. And on weekends the Armenian Radio Arax Audition (founded in 2007 by Diego Karamanukian).

All Armenian institutions in turn are gathered in a body called CADU (Colectividad Armenia del Uruguay) which was formed in 2013-2014.

Daniel Karamanoukian

Karamanoukian added that he was in the first generation who graduated from the Manoogian High School, where he later taught and participated in the school’s leadership. He has been a dedicated supporter of recognition of the Armenian Genocide and Armenian land claims, as well as a member of the Commission for the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide of the Armenian organizations of Uruguay.

Zulamian said the Armenian community, despite the existing crisis, has an active community life, especially around the commemoration on April 24 and the fight for the Armenian Cause. The AGBU also has a Youth League, Scout Yerevan 50, Choir Polifónico Grunk, Young Professional (YP), as well as social groups and sports teams, and a new proposal called UGAB (AGBU) Tech.

The community was made up of many families from Marash and the Armenian Compatriotic Union of Marash maintains a large community presence. They also work in the Casa Armenia Hnchakián community, the Uruguayan Armenian Cultural Association, the Armenian Ladies Charity Association and the National Armenian Center of Uruguay.

The Armenian Square in Montevideo

Karamoukian said that according to a census carried out in 1931, most who arrived there were from Marash (460) followed by Akshehir (212), Amanós (190), Sis (182), Hadjin (164), Adaná (154), Harunié (147), Zeytún, Deurtyol, etc.

“The Armenian community is mainly concentrated in the capital, Montevideo, and since the early 1920s it has organized around regional, religious, political, educational, cultural and charitable organizations,” Karamanoukian said.

Zulumian was the editor of the last publication, Hay Endanik (1993-2001). Recently, the Armenian National Center of Uruguay has launched a digital newsletter (Avarair), published quarterly.

In recent times, an attempt has been made to bring the Armenian language and culture outside of traditional community structures. In this sense, university students, of any orientation, can access the Armenian language and culture through the courses taught by Hovhannés Bodukián at the Center for Foreign Languages of the Faculty of Humanities and Educational Sciences. On the other hand, a cooperation agreement was recently signed between the AGBU of Uruguay and the ANEP (National Public Education Administration), to promote the so-called heritage languages such as the Armenian language, for which the teaching of language and culture is taught Armenian in courses taught for the community and the general public through the Language Policy Directorate, at Public School 156 “Armenia” and at Escuela Técnica del Cerro, a traditional immigrant neighborhood in western Montevideo.

But Why Uruguay?

During the time of the Armenian Genocide, Tchekmedyian said, both Uruguay and Argentina were powerful, with strong economies. “The economic situation was very strong. Most of the people after the Genocide moved to Lebanon or France, and then this part of the world was very attractive to them, mostly in Argentina.” Boats arrived in Buenos Aires or Monte Video and “both communities started to develop.”

Tchekmedyian praised the nation’s education system. “We have a very powerful education system, or at least we used to have. Everyone, doesn’t matter if they came from, very poor places,” he said, they could still become a doctor or lawyer.

Now, it is changing, he said, adding they are more from the elite, but before, everyone came from wherever and whatever, doctors and other professions.

This kind of openness helped the Armenians too.

“The Armenians did the same. They pushed their children to go to university. It happened in my family too,” Tchekmedyian said. “We have 11 medical doctors in three generations.”

Also there are Armenian politicians, such as Liliam Kechichian, a Senator who formerly served as minister of tourism, and Alvaro Hagopian, who is the conductor of the Montevideo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Armenian community in Argentina is obviously much more powerful, much bigger and richer, Tchekmedyian said. Yet, he added, “despite the fact that we are not so rich or powerful, we are deeply involved in the community.”

“There has always been contact with the Armenian communities of South America. More fluid among those that bring together the Armenians of Buenos Aires and Córdoba in the Argentine Republic and Montevideo. And also with the Armenians of Brazil, although to a lesser extent in recent years, with the Armenians of Sao Paulo,” Karamanoukian said.

Tchekmedyian’s family, like so many in the diaspora, spans from Uruguay to the US and France. His youngest uncle, Simon Tchekmedyian, an oncologist, moved to California in the 1980s.

Zulamian said, The Armenian community of Uruguay was formed with the Armenians who survived the Armenian genocide and who after living for some years in the Middle Eastern countries, mainly Syria and Lebanon, reached the Río de la Plata and settled in Montevideo.

“My paternal grandparents Artín Zulamián and Azniv Darakjián had been born in Marash. My grandfather was a miller,” he said, grinding pepper and chili peppers, among other spices. “After surviving the Armenian Genocide, with the arrival of the Turkish nationalist forces of Mustafa Kemal to Marash in December 1919 and the withdrawal of the French army in February 1920, the city was left without Armenians. My grandparents came to Aleppo, where they got married and had three children.

“My grandfather came to Montevideo in 1930 and in 1932 he brought my grandmother and their children. Here they had four more children, including my father, Antonio,” he added.

His maternal grandparents were Artín Ohanián (born in Mersín) and Armenuhí Domburián (born in Adaná). “My grandfather Artín Ohanián was the only one in his family who came to Montevideo in 1926 after the capitulation of Turkey in October,” he added.

Surp Nerses Shnorhali Cathedral

Zulamián was born in Montevideo in 1973 and is a graduate of the AGBU Colegio Nubarián and Alex Manoogián High School. He is a dentist specializing in orthodontics and maxillofacial orthopedics. He is a member of the Uruguayan Dental Association and the Dento Maxillofacial Orthodontic and Orthopedic Society of Uruguay. He had previously served on the Faculty of Dentistry of the University of the Republic. He has a private practice, as well as serving in public and private health centers in the country.

Zulamian has also been deeply involved the community.  He was editor of Hay Endanik magazine between 1992 and 2002, a publication directed by his mother, Prof. Dr. María Ohanián. He is the author of Between History and Memory: The Armenians of Marash in Uruguay (2018). He also wrote the preface for the third edition of the book The Armenian Church: Source of Faith and Patriotism (2021) of the Primate of the Armenian Diocese in Uruguay Archbishop Hagop Kelendjián. He is regional editor of the Spanish translation of the book A Century of History of the Armenian General Benevolent Union by Prof. Raymond Kevorkián and Vahé Tachjián.

He is a correspondent for the weekly Sardarabad of the Armenian Liberal Democratic Organization in Argentina and participates frequently as a guest on Radio Arax.

He founded and directed the Armenian Audiovisual Center of Uruguay (1992-1998) and made several documentaries. The center has an important archive of images of the Armenian community with more than 20,000 photographs and old films, having collaborated with its collection in different literary projects, book presentations, photographic exhibitions or the Government House Museum, the Museum of the Armenian Catholic Church, as well as with programs and documentaries for television.

In 2015, together with Karamanoukián, he put together the photographic exhibition “A hundred years after the genocide, Uruguay and the Armenians make history”, at the Prado Photo Gallery, with the Montevideo City Hall Photography Center.

He was president of the local AGBU between 2009 and 2011 and received the President’s Award granted by the Central Council of the AGBU at the World Assembly in Armenia in 2012.

Karamanoukian was born in Uruguay in 1962. He is Italian on his mother’s side, and Armenian on his father’s. His mother’s side, he recalled, have been in Uruguay at least three generations while his Armenian grandfather, Hagop Karamanoukián arrived in Montevideo on March 12, 1926 at the age of 24. Like many other immigrants who made their way to South America eventually, he was in Beirut before ending up in Marseille. He was joined months later by his wife Ieghsabeth Aintablián, who traveled with their little daughter Vartanush (born in Beirut shortly after Hagop’s departure for Uruguay), who arrived on November 15, 1926. The young family settled in Montevideo and had 4 more children born in Uruguay.

Karamanoukian served as one of the community spokespersons during the last wars of aggression against Artsakh and Armenia. He studied anthropology in Uruguay and Armenology at Yerevan State University as a fellow (1988).

“In Armenia I took an active part in the mobilizations for the reunification of the N. Karabakh Region with Armenia,” Karamanoukian said. He has published several articles on the subject.

Armenia Plaza in the resort Punta del Este in 2018

Integrated Members of Country

Added Tchekmedyian, “We are very well integrated into the community and we have a good image in the community. People like Armenians. They have Armenian friends. Armenians are very  open and very hospitable, like everywhere. When you go to an Armenian family, they give you food and open their house.

Uruguayans were more shy and the open doors were much appreciated.

Added Zulamian, “Despite the cultural differences, language and religion, and bringing other customs and traditions, the Armenians were integrated, I would say quickly. The country with doors open to immigrants and the secular state, facilitated integration, especially for the first generation born in Uruguay. This integration, however, had for the generation of immigrants and their children, the fear of assimilation and the possible loss of the traits of an Armenian identity that was also in danger in the Ottoman Empire and in the Middle East in general. And it is true that on the one hand there has been integration and on the other an assimilation of the Armenians in this country. “The characteristics of Uruguay as a democratic and secular country, allowed the recognition of the existing diversity as Armenians, with the freedoms to develop all kinds of practices. So, the Armenians built churches, schools, sports clubs, cultural centers, dance ensembles, choirs, and orchestras. It even allowed that starting in 1953, the Armenians could modify their documents. Where Turkey said, now it would say Armenia, that is, that the document would bear the nationality of ethnic origin and not territorial. In Uruguay, Armenians have that double identity, Uruguayan by birth and Armenian by inheritance.”

Zulamian further explained that  Armenians, mostly settled in Montevideo, would soon go on to lead the market for neighborhood shops, as well as shoe workshops and shoe factories. In 1946, one in seven Montevideo grocers was Armenian. Shoe-making has been a tradition among Armenians, particularly in the Marashtsi families. The first professionals were Surén Keulyián and Yervant Andonián, both dentists, and obtained their degrees in 1943 and 1944, respectively. Kourkén Aharonián received his medical degree in 1945. A decade later, women began to obtain their university degrees. Over time, Armenians have held important responsibilities in universities. Such is the case of Prof. Roberto Markarián (Rector of the University of the Republic), Prof. Esc. Dora Baghdassarián (Dean of the Faculty of Law) and several professors such as Prof. Dr. Vartán Behesnilián and my mother Prof Dr. María Ohanián (dentists), Prof. Dr. Vartán Tchekmedyián, Prof. Dr. Carlos Ketzoián and Prof. Dr. Yester Basmadjián (doctors), or Isabelle Chaquiriand (Dean of the Faculty of Business Sciences of the University Católica del Uruguay), among others. Armenians have excelled in other areas such as construction. My cousin, Dr. Daniel Zulamián is the owner of Zulamián Desarrollos Inmobiliarios, one of the most important companies that builds and sells luxurious real estate in Punta del Este, the main tourist city in Uruguay.


Genocide Recognition

Zulamian said that in 1965, after intense efforts by young Armenians through the Coordinating Group of Armenian Youth Organizations of Uruguay, managed to get the Uruguayan Parliament to pass a law which declared in its first article April 24 as a day of remembrance. of the Armenian Genocide. Uruguayan Presidents, Ministers, Senators and Deputies have actively participated in the successive commemorations of the Armenian Genocide and the Uruguayan people show solidarity with the Armenian nation, participating in the acts of remembrance.

Tchekmedyian added, “The Turks and Azerbaijani governments  are now putting a lot of money and pressure here, and they are succeeding,” because Armenia and Armenians lack the resources to match them. “The pressure from the enemies is very, very strong,” he said.

“The society and the community in the end are the ones that put the vote in during the elections,” he said.

Therefore, the government is still supporting the Armenians.

“We are deeply involved in the government and the people that are involved feel their Armenian heritage in a strong way,” he said.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: