In Southern California, There are Many Words for Genocide


Did you know April was genocide month? That's more or less what I found out when a Long Beach councilman sent me an email about his proposal to declare April as "Genocide Awareness Month." He detailed how the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and the Cambodian genocide all had their beginnings in one way or another in the month of April.

There are a lot of Jews, Armenians, and Cambodian who either lived through these genocides or whose ancestors died in the various killing fields. How do the youth of these communities learn about the genocide? I produced three radio stories trying to answer the question.

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During the reporting I was able to sit among these youth as they heard the stories for the fist time, for the upteenth time, as they sobbed, as they wondered why their parents and grandparents didn't talk about the killings, as they seethed in anger against the perpetrators, and as they heard the shame of survivors describing the perpetrator as another person of the same nationality.

At a rare remembrance event at Long Beach City College, Cambodian Americans in their twenties told me they didn't know the Cambodian word for genocide. Their parents and grandparents, when the subject came up in bits and pieces, talked about the targeted killing in the 1970s of anyone perceived of being educated as "the time of Pol Pot." Having a word is significant. Having more than one word is important. The genocide is the reason there are so many Cambodians in Southern California. Many survivors don't want to talk about what they saw, what they did to stay alive. They want to forget. That's not how the mind works. A psychologist at the event talked about genocide survivors passing on post traumatic stress disorder symptoms to their U.S. born children.

I drove up to Adat Ariel, a private Jewish elementary school in the San Fernando Valley on April 19. That day and the night before Jewish synagogues observed Yom HaShoa. Shoa means total destruction, holocaust, in Hebrew. An instructor with the Jewish education group BJE talked to a room full of 4th and 5th graders. He asked them where their ancestors were from; Poland, Germany, Israel, Australia, and Mexico were some of the answers. He then projected pictures of a pilgrimage he took to a Nazi death camp and he told the story a survivor had told him about how he saw his brother hanged by the Nazis. All the kids eyes were wide open. There was no time wasted denouncing the Nazis for their effort to exterminate all European Jews during World War Two. The remembrance is focused on the souls of the individuals killed and the extinguishing of a precious life, during the war and after.

In Glendale I sat in the cavernous Glendale High School auditorium as Armenian American kids sang nationalistic Armenian songs of war, sacrifice, and the mother land, as the high school's choir sang the Star Spangled Banner, and the Armenian national anthem, and as a student recited a poem by Paruyr Sevak, Armenia's best known chronicler, in verse, of the 1915 killing of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In the auditorium lobby, a few of the high school students began, unprompted, a vigorous argument for the United States and the current Turkish government to officially recognize the killings as genocide. Their debate quiver is full of historically-based arguments and counter arguments that they learn at home and in after-school Armenian clubs. Armenians believe they wouldn't be in the United States, in Lebanon, in Iran, or Argentina if it wasn't for the genocide, therefore Armenian identity is woven into the same fabric as the effort to win recognition for the genocide.

That's what I saw, the ways in which hundreds of thousands of the people -- the ones we work with, stand in line behind, watch Lakers games next to, and sit in traffic with -- carry the genocide of their ancestors.

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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