Hamazkayin Ani Dance Company (photo Ara Babayan)

Festival Celebrates Armenian Culture with Food, Music and Dance in Rancho Mirage

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By Ani Gasparyan

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (DesertSun.com) — Coachella Valley residents were able to enjoy a bit of Armenia over Veterans Day weekend. St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church of the Desert hosted an Armenian Cultural Festival on Saturday and Sunday [November 12-13]. It is the 14th annual festival for the church, attracting hundreds of guests to enjoy Armenian food, music and dancing.  [The festival committee reported on November 14 to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator that in fact, this year a new record was set for the number of visitors, which reached 3,385 in total over the two days of the festival.]

Guests enjoying Armenian food and music at the 14th annual Armenian Cultural Festival on November 12 (photo Ani Gasparyan)

Vartan Nazerian, chair of the parish council, said the church was established 17 years ago but its building was built 11 years ago. The festival was held on the land before the church was constructed, he said.

The inside of Saint Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church of the Desert on November 14 (photo Ani Gasparyan)

“It’s basically, this festival is the source of income for the whole year for the church,” he said.

Guests grabbing food at the Armenian Cultural Festival on November 12. Saint Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church of the Desert’s Ladies Auxiliary members prepared most of the dishes (photo Ani Gasparyan)

The church asks for a $3 donation to enter, though children under 12 and veterans can enter for free. Booths at the event sell items like jewelry, clothing and hair care. Hamazkayin Ani Dance Company performed traditional dances and there was live music from David Samuelian, Aram Lepedjian and DJ Greg.

Garbis Hindoyan, vice chair of the parish council, said it makes them happy to see many of the festival attendees include non-Armenians. He said the church is expecting around 3,000 guests on Saturday and Sunday.

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“We feel so good that we’re introducing Armenian food, dancing, pretty much everything Armenian — how hard we work! … It gives us a sense of pride and joy,” Hindoyan said.

He praised the church’s volunteers, citing how its Ladies Auxiliary members prepared for months and made almost all of the food offered at the festival.

Some of the dishes include cheese boreg, stuffed grape leaves, paklava and khadayif. The men of the church prepared barbeque — a staple of any Armenian gathering.

Houry Sonia Matossian, former chair of the parish council and volunteer, has attended all 14 of Armenian Cultural Festivals and was one of the women who made the dishes. She said each festival has been more successful than the last, resulting in them extending the event from one day to two.

“We attract a lot of non-Armenian people because they are crazy about our food,” she said. “They wait for this all the time.”

Matossian spoke about the significance of having an Armenian church in the Coachella Valley. She estimated there are around 400 Armenian families here.

Hasmik Sarkissian lights a candle inside Saint Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church of the Desert on November 14. She was attending the church’s 14th annual Armenian Cultural Festival (photo Ani Gasparyan)

“You go all over the world: if you have two Armenians there should be a church,” she said. “This is what Armenians are all about; they love their church.”

Many Armenians also come to visit from cities with larger diaspora communities, like Los Angeles. Four buses brought guests from sister churches in Glendale, Pasadena and other cities in the San Fernando Valley, according to Hindoyan.

Guests appeared to be enjoying the event on Saturday, many of them carrying bags of Armenian food they had bought and walking around the festivities to speak to each other.

Tables were set up underneath the shade for people to eat and children could play in a bounce house. The church was open for guests to walk in and either sit in the pews or light candles.

Hasmik Sarkissian said she has been attending the festival for many years. She said it’s crucial to have the festival because Armenians are a small minority in the valley.

“Through this, when you attract the attention of non-Armenians, then you can introduce April 24, then you can talk about the genocide, then they will have an understanding when they see in the news Armenians are protesting something, they won’t just switch the channel,” she said. “It might ignite some memory and they might say ‘Oh, these people have a right, have a reason for doing what they do.’”

Sarkissian is referring to the Armenian genocide that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and is commemorated annually on April 24.

Robert and Leanne Pilcher had seen the festival advertised for weeks. Leanne Pilcher said they visited the booths and bought some food to take home.

Tavit (David) Samuelian singing accompanied by Aram Lepejian (photo Ara Babayan)

“It’s well worth the time and it’s fun to listen to the music,” she said. “The music is festive and wonderful.”

Lusine Poghosyan’s daughter is performing as part of Hamazkayin Ani Dance Company. She said she didn’t know there was an Armenian church or community in the Greater Palm Springs Area.

“It’s new, it’s a new experience and it’s really nice to see that there’s so many of us so different and yet so — there’s a lot connecting us,” she said.

(Ani Gasparyan covers the western Coachella Valley cities of Desert Hot Springs and Cathedral City. Reach her at ani.gasparyan@desertsun.com.)

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