Photo of Hagop Kupelian in his workshop in Havana, ca. 1965 (Kupelian family collection, Havana)

Armenians in Cuba

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By Carlos Antaramian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The image of Cuba has long been tinged with the exotic: beautiful beaches, swaying palm trees, people dancing, enjoying fine rum while smoking a Havana cigar, placidly enjoying life. “In Cuba, one enjoys life,” say Cubans smiling, but that idyllic image has not resulted in the island being viewed as a favored migration destination, since what most migrants seek are better work opportunities or conditions that facilitate starting up a business and improving their material conditions of life. In colonial times, however, Cuba did receive a constant flow of migrants, mainly people coming from various regions of Spain and others forcibly expelled from several areas of Africa during the time of the slave trade. Much later, toward the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, Cuba was not a major destination for the large migratory waves that departed Europe or the Middle East, their eyes set on the Americas. The main target, by far, was the United States (72%), followed, well behind, by Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Other countries in the Americas, among them Mexico and Cuba, received only very small numbers of international migrants.

As a result of World War I, the US government launched a campaign to establish firmer control over the flows of immigrants crossing its borders by stipulating, among other measures, that all immigrants had to have a passport and visa. Then, in 1921, the US Congress set quotas, plagued with racism, which limited the influx of migrants from several countries in Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, including ethnic Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Jews, Lebanese, Greeks, and Armenians, who from that date onwards saw their possibilities of entering the US severely curtailed. Those circumstances forced them to look to other destinations.

Photo of Shahin Khodigian on the streets of Havana, ca. 1927

Early on, these included countries seeking migrants like Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Some opted to go to Cuba or Mexico, often with the idea of settling there only temporarily before taking advantage of their proximity to the US to obtain the required visa and migrate definitively northwards. One option consisted in purchasing false documents in Havana or Mexico City and trying to use them to enter the US. For example, according to reports by migration agent Feri Felix Weiss, a thriving clandestine market in Havana provided passports and visas to Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Syrians, and Lebanese, among others (Libby Garland, After They Close the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965, The University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 90).

A second was to move to the border area and cross into the US illegally through one of many poorly-guarded border points. This practice, of course, would be utilized by countless thousands of migrants. A third possibility was to travel as a stowaway on boats from Cuba, reaching the shores of Florida clandestinely.

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Those restrictive immigration policies resulted in many immigrants entering Cuba after 1922, as at the time the country had no limitations on, or obstacles to, immigration. In fact, in 1924 the Cuban government had reached an accord with the US to receive numerous Armenians who were being expelled from Greece in those years (“Canada and Cuba Offer Refuge to Armenians. Near East Relief Plans to Assist 50,000 Who Must Leave Greece,” Washington Post, September 1, 1924). This led to the momentary formation of an Armenian community that may have numbered over 2,000 individuals, though their numbers decreased as people obtained visas allowing them to enter the US and settle there (especially in Providence, Rhode Island, Waukegan, Illinois, Watertown, Massachusetts, and New York, among other cities). Important peaks of migration occurred in the aftermath of World War II and at the end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, by which time only 15 or 20 Armenian families remained in Cuba, most of them in Havana (perhaps 10) but some in Las Tunas (around 5), and one in Holguín.

As an anthropologist interested in that migratory movement, I have carried out fieldwork in Cuba on three occasions and conducted interviews with descendants of Armenians who lived there before migrating to the US. This article presents a small sample of findings from a larger project that I plan to develop in the coming year.

We do not know the identity of the first Armenian who arrived in Cuba. Perhaps, as occurred in Mexico, some itinerant friars or merchants arrived there when the island was still a Spanish colony, but determining this will require extensive explorations in the Migration Archives in Havana, the same source that may also make it possible to obtain lists of entries to the Port of Havana in the first decades of the 20th century and allow me to compile a register of the Armenians who sought temporary refuge in that city.

Available statistical sources in Cuba identify only 2 such Armenians, one in 1907 and one in 1908. Most Armenians were registered under other nationalities, including 299 as Greeks, 5,971 as Syrian-Lebanese, and, notably, 4,960 as Turks (Victoria Novelo, “Yucatecos en Cuba: Etnografía de una migración,” CIESAS, Mexico, 2009).

Arrival

With the enactment of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, the shipping companies that normally covered routes from various European ports to New York (Ellis Island) opened new routes, setting sail for cities like Havana in Cuba and Tampico or Veracruz in Mexico. The vast majority of Armenians on those ships were refugees from Syria, Lebanon, or Greece who had made their way to France or Spain to undertake the voyage to Cuba. Almost all of them entered the country between 1923 and 1929 and, having settled in Havana, took up various trades.

As in other Armenian diaspora communities, the shoemaker’s trade was predominant. Men active in that work included Bedros Arakelian, Sarkis Azaryan, Vartan Haboian of Kharpert – who would migrate to Chicago in 1949, and Hagop Kupelian, who arrived in Havana on June 26, 1927, having set out from Saint Nazaire, France. Kupelian would spend his entire life making shoes in Havana.

Others worked in diverse fields. For example, Alicia Boyadjian, today a resident of Las Tunas, told me that her maternal grandfather, Haigaz Mamasian, began as a stevedore on the docks, later worked as a door-to-door clothing salesman, and finally established a store. In the 1930s, he bought a house in Arroyo Naranjo, in the “Reparto Cuervo” area of Havana.

She also said that her father, Stepan Boyadjian, settled in Las Tunas where he ran a store named El Sol de Oriente, travelling frequently to Havana where an organized Armenian community held collective activities. On one of those trips he met Ana Agavni Mamasian and they decided to marry in Las Tunas in 1936, where their daughters, Siran, Isabel, and Alicia, were born.

Another man who moved to Las Tunas was Kevork Khachadurian, working first as a street peddler, then as a barber. Upon the death of Khosrob Chantikian, he acquired a textile store called La Nueva Armenia. He would later migrate to the US, selling the store to Hagop Haladjian, whose children remain in Las Tunas.

Institutions

Although the Armenian community in Cuba never managed to build enduring institutions, like churches, members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnaksutiun) did establish two Committees (Gomidehs), one in Havana called Ishkhan (founded on June 17, 1925), the other in Las Tunas named Shant (founded around 1926). Those two Committees were in constant communication with the Central Committee in Boston to report the quotas sent and activities carried out and to request seals, books, and diverse articles that they required to function correctly.

In one of their letters, we learn that Hagop Kevorkian and Dikran Moskenderian were requesting the Committee’s authorization to move from Havana to Las Tunas. The chairman of the Ishkhan Committee in Havana in 1927 was Sahag K. Nigolian, who decided to move to Las Tunas in the 1930s, where he set up a store called Casa Nigolian that sold hardware and watches and remained in operation into the 1960s. I have also learned that in 1928, a resident of Mexico named Nerses Odabachian, who was very active in the Tashnaksutiun in Mexico City, spent a few months in Havana directing the Ishkhan Committee, before returning home. In the 1940s, he too succeeded in moving to the US, settling in Fresno, California.

The Armenian Red Cross had an affiliate in Havana that, in 1930, had some 50 members, including the executive officers Azniv Joukjoukian, Arshalooys Aslanian, Zabel Jerahian, Makrouhi Zakarian, and Noyemzar Kimatian.

Around 1934, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation founded a school called Armenia. A magnificent photo, property of the Rafaelian family of Rhode Island, shows 49 children there with their teacher, Nouritza Tavlian, and the Committee’s Board of Directors: Manuk Nahabedian, Aram Mikaelian, Zabel Basmadjian, Markar Khimatian, and Arshag Topalian.

Photo of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party chapter in Havana (photo: ADL Archives, Baikar Building, Watertown, MA)

The members of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL, or Ramgavar) also created an affiliate in Havana. Around 1929, it had its own locale where over 70 people would gather, as a photo conserved by the Kasparian family in Havana, the Partamian family in Havana, and the ADL Archives in Watertown, Massachusetts, indicates. The image includes members of the Pilibosian family.

Associations of compatriots from the same village, city or region (compatriotic unions) were another key element in maintaining the Armenian identity and in preserving links with relatives or countrymen in other parts of the world. One of the first associations created in Havana was that of Armenians of Baghin (Palu; see History of the House of Baghin (in Armenian), published by the Baghin Reconstruction and Educational Union, Hairenik Press, Boston, 1966, pp. 125-128).

On Sunday, April 3, 1927, the home of M. Nahabedian was the site of a meeting of the Council of Natives of Baghin where the decision was taken to create a chapter of the Union for the Reconstruction and Education Lovers of the People of Baghin, which would have close ties to the Baghintun group in Providence, Rhode Island. At that meeting, Mkrtich Khboyan was elected president and Khimatian as secretary. Members included Sarkis and Vartan Azarian, Hovhannes, Manuk and Grigor Nahabedian, Hrach and Grigor Zorabedian, and Hovagim Khotoian. The chapter was dissolved on July 3, 1930, but re-established in 1934, enduring until its final dissolution in March, 1943, after almost all members had migrated to Providence.

The chapter ran a small school and helped Armenians of Baghin who were sick or in need. Always short on funds, it received support from the seat in Providence. Another member of that compatriot group was Shahin Khodigian, who had arrived in Havana at the tender age of 10. At first, he supported himself and his mother by dying shoes. On September 6, 1937, he married Marie Sadjonian and, a few years later their daughters, Diana and María, were born in Havana. The family migrated to the US around 1961.

The Dikranagerd compatriotic group (Dikranagerd Hay Mioutiun Havanayi Masnajiugh) was founded in Havana around 1930. Members included Boghos Kebabjan, Levon Sudjian, Ashod Yaghlegian, Mgrdich Shaljian, Garabed Chilinguirian, and several men from the Bardakian and Soojian families. It is important to note that this group included some Assyrians and some mixed Assyrian-Armenian families.

Those were the strongest compatriotic organizations in Havana, and the ones with the largest membership, but there was also a group called the Educational Union of Charsanjak (Kharpert), which began to function around 1928. One of its members included Levon Kassabian. We can assume that other compatriot groups were formed in those years.

Though there was no Armenian church established, there were some pastoral visits, including the 4-week stay by Fr. Mesrob Semerjian (at age 30) from the US, financed by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) (see Christopher Hagop Zakian, ed., Fr. Arten Ashjian contributor, The Torch was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church of America, St. Vartan Press, 1998, p. 40).

Clearly, the Armenian community in Cuba created numerous groups and organizations of various kinds. The number of surnames and individuals registered in their files allows us to estimate that the population may have exceeded 2,000 people. I am currently compiling a census and documenting the Armenian presence in Cuba with the intention of authoring a book on this topic.

Dear reader, if you have information, documents, or photos on Armenians who may have lived in Cuba, please contact me at the following e-mail address: cantaramian@gmail.com.

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