How Three Pioneering Immigrants Forever Changed the Course—and the Culture—of L.A.

Before Oaxacans would become an engine in L.A.’s restaurant industry, before Koreatown would reshape Mid City, and before Armenian traditions took root in East Hollywood, Asael Gonzalez, Hi Duk Lee, and Kevork Parseghian led the way

In 1967, a short, dark-skinned Zapotec Indian was sent by a downtown temp agency to the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant in Westwood, which needed a dishwasher. Asael Gonzalez was from the village of Yatzachi el Bajo in the mountain range known as the Sierra Juárez, which rises 10,000 feet above sea level in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. He had arrived in Los Angeles a few months before to join his wife, Emma, who was working as a maid, hoping to save money for a restaurant back home. They knew of only one other Zapotec family in town.

Gonzalez was living near downtown in Pico-Union. He had worked briefly at a car wash and for a while endured the abuse doled out by the owners of a Chinese restaurant. But by the time the temp agency sent him to the far-off land known as the Westside, Gonzalez wanted a permanent job.

He had wandered into a local institution. The original Hamburger Hamlet debuted on Sunset Boulevard in 1950, serving burgers to diners in leather booths late into the night. Its owners, Marilyn and Harry Lewis, were the first Westside restaurateurs to hire blacks as waitresses, busboys, and cooks, whose labor turned the restaurant into an after-hours eatery for movie stars. The Westwood Hamlet was the Lewis’s second. By the late 1960s, though, other jobs in Los Angeles were opening to blacks, and the Lewises were looking for a new pool of employees.

Gonzalez worked hard that first day. The Lewises asked him back, and soon he had a full-time job. “It was my first,” says Gonzalez, a soft-spoken 79-year-old today. “There I planted myself, and that was it.” Nothing came easy. Seeing him as competition, black workers picked on him, hoisting him by his collar and ordering him to bus tables while they took cigarette breaks. He spoke no English, and no one spoke Spanish, much less his native Zapotec. But he showed up an hour early every day and worked twice as hard as everyone else.

Asael Gonzalez. Photograph by Maarten De Boer.

It wasn’t long before Harry Lewis pulled him aside and asked whether he knew of others who wanted a job. “Find and prepare people,” Lewis told him, “because we’re going to open more restaurants.” Gonzalez spread the word, and highland Zapotecs heard. Before long, the two-story home the Gonzalezes bought on Juliet Street, near Adams Boulevard, was a migrant depot. As the couple raised their three young children, a half dozen newly arrived Oaxacan Indian peasants were often sleeping in the family’s basement. Each morning they piled into Gonzalez’s Chevy station wagon as he trundled them off to a Hamlet, where he invariably found them jobs.

“He filled that company with Oaxacans,” says Adelfo Francisco, who worked at various Hamburger Hamlets for several years in the 1980s and now owns a restaurant and café on Pico Boulevard. “Everyone in the mountains knew of him.”

Within a few years Gonzalez made supervisor, recruiting workers to staff each restaurant the Lewises opened. Emma had a job in the chain’s central kitchen, making chicken salad, rice pudding, and ratatouille. A decade after Gonzalez showed up, Hamlet kitchens were entirely Zapotec.

Drawing on this inexhaustible workforce, the chain expanded steadily over the next two decades. By 1990, there were 24 Hamburger Hamlets. During that time, hundreds, probably thousands, of Zapotec peasant farmers from unpronounceable villages—Yohueche, Zoogocho—swept down the Sierra Juárez Mountains and into Los Angeles. “Many had rented out their lands back home to come here or taken out loans,” says Gonzalez.

Back home, these men wouldn’t enter a kitchen, much less cook an egg. That was women’s work. But in Los Angeles, the traditional machismo of rural Mexico withered. Hamburger Hamlet was a Zapotec Ellis Island, receiving the immigrants and teaching them restaurant basics, their first words in English (“mustard,” “ketchup,” “relish”), and confidence that they could navigate this new world. The Lewises paid relatively little, so once a worker had an understanding of the job, he also had motivation to find work in other restaurants, which created more openings at the Hamlet.

Today the high-end restaurants of Santa Monica, Malibu, and West L.A. depend on a vast network of well-trained Zapotec cooks, kitchen workers, and busboys. The first of them started their education at Hamburger Hamlet, in jobs they procured through Asael Gonzalez.

The streets of L.A. hide many stories like that of Asael Gonzalez. Historians often view what they study in terms of social movements. But the tales of immigrant groups usually begin with one person, usually a humble Odysseus who travels here across culture and time, knowing few, confronting hazards with wits and work, urged on by ambition and memories of humiliation as he molds this new city as profoundly as it changes him.

………

In 1970, Los Angeles was still a provincial place, composed mostly of whites, blacks, and some Mexican Americans. Only 15 percent of L.A.’s 2.8 million people were foreign born. Twenty years later the city was the country’s second largest, a global capital with about one-third of its population (at the time 3.5 million) born abroad. The world had come to L.A.’s sidewalks, fleeing revolution in Iran, dictatorship in Korea, civil war in Central America and Lebanon, economic collapse in Mexico, and the end of the Soviet Union. But those paths were hewn years before by solitary immigrants who braved a region then unaccustomed to foreigners. Their stories lured others. With that, the modern Los Angeles of those census numbers took shape.

A lot of this happened on or around Normandie Avenue, which shot like a spine through an emerging immigrant Los Angeles west of downtown, where people from around the world were crammed together with little but the street in common. In the early decades of the 20th century, the area quilted farmland, bungalows, and single-family Craftsman homes into the first suburb of downtown Los Angeles. Things began to change in 1921, when the Ambassador Hotel opened on Wilshire. The hotel attracted the upper class from around the country and around town. Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Louis B. Mayer, and the rest of Hollywood’s firmament hung out at the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The buzz accompanying the Ambassador “led to Los Angeles’s first boom in apartment development on what was then its western edge, much of it for middle-class tenants,” says Todd Gish, an architect and urban historian who teaches at USC’s Price School of Public Policy. Real estate ads called the area nearby on Wilshire the “Fifth Avenue of the West.”

With the Ambassador bustling, brick apartment buildings and squat garden apartments were planted among the single-family homes on what had been farmland. One block of Normandie in particular—between 7th and 8th streets and two blocks from the Ambassador—drew developers’ special attention. The owners of a chunk of that parcel, who were the heirs to an early L.A. landowner named Gottfried Schmidt, had kept it vacant, resisting pressures to build. But as apartment buildings rushed in, the family sold. Instead of houses, developers put up stately apartments that had high-ceilinged lobbies, Spanish-tile floors, and names reflecting the genteel aspirations of prospective tenants: the Langham, the Barclay, La Granada, the Chalfonte. The eight-story Langham, at 7th and Normandie, is believed to be the first building in the world with a rooftop pool.

Normandie’s heyday lasted about as long as it took to build out farther west along Wilshire and offer sweeter digs to the well-heeled. By the mid-1960s, Normandie cut through a depressed village of junkies, hookers, and vacant storefronts. Those 1920s-era apartments dropped their rents and hustled tenants.

The rooms were filled by the first gathering waves of immigrants and especially by three groups that kick-started the city’s transformation: Koreans; Armenians, mostly from Syria and Lebanon; and Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juárez, who’d heard that a paisano named Asael Gonzalez could get them work at a place now known across the isolated mountain range as “El Hamlet.” In a span of about five years, their lives unfolded around a stretch of Normandie, and, with them, today’s Los Angeles.

………

Not long after Asael Gonzalez knocked on the door of El Hamlet, a man named Hi Duk Lee arrived in Los Angeles. The son of farmers, Lee had left his town of Tae Jung in South Korea in 1965 with an engineering degree, fleeing dictatorship, and migrated to Europe. He traveled through several countries and worked as a miner in Germany for a time. Then, in 1968, the United States eased visa requirements for Koreans, and he figured he’d give America a try. Los Angeles, with its weather, sounded good.

Hi Kuk Lee

Hi Kuk Lee. Photograph by Maarten De Boer.

California didn’t have more than 5,000 Koreans. But he assumed others would come. “This was just the beginning,” says Lee, a thin, tall, smooth-skinned man of 76, who still smokes. “Everybody wanted to leave Korea. In Korea the government power was the army. They come for freedom.”

In Los Angeles he found a job as a line worker at a can manufacturing company and invited a Korean woman, Kil Ja, whom he’d met in Germany, to join him. They wed. She worked as a hospital nurse. He later found a job as a welder at a company that got him a green card. About three years in, though, Hi Duk Lee decided he was done working for others. It was 1971.

He gathered some savings and opened the Olympic Market—the first large Korean-owned grocery store in Los Angeles—a few blocks off Normandie on Olympic. With his wife working at the hospital, Lee ran the store. The business struggled for a bit, but by the mid-1970s, the Korean population was growing. From behind his cash register, Lee gauged their swelling spending power and saw an atomized community with no good restaurant, no place to meet—nothing that defined them in Los Angeles.

Walking through Chinatown, he envied how the Chinese had brought part of their country with them. He liked that the traditional architecture, the restaurants, the jewelry shops showed off China to the rest of the city, and he imagined a district for Koreans just like it. He yearned for the comforting familiarity of his homeland in that way, too. It was strange, this longing for the country he had been forced to leave. But there it was. He was gripped by this idea of building something entirely Korean in Los Angeles.

“I try to make Koreatown a center of Korean culture,” he says. “I wanted to build Korea in the United States.”

Koreans were difficult to organize, Lee knew. He believed years of Chinese and Japanese occupation and dictatorship had left his countrymen with an intense focus on money and a reluctance to work together. But they were now in America, where more was possible and, he assumed, old ways could fade.

In his optimism he and Kil Ja bought a spacious home with large windows in the Los Feliz hills, where Koreans were moving to escape the blight of the flatlands. There he built his first monument to Korea: He dug a pond in the front yard in the shape of the two Koreas, with the concrete walkway to the door as the demilitarized zone. He plastered a massive photograph of North Korea’s snowcapped Mount Paektu across a long wall in the living room. A Koreatown in Los Angeles, he thought, could be this kind of reminder of home.

Lee’s first halting attempt at creating one was more of a pan-Asian idea he called Oriental Village. He put down $50,000 to rent a building near the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, thinking he might convert it into shops with various Asian themes, anchored by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants. He lost his money when the building’s owners declared bankruptcy.

In 1975, Lee went to Mayor Tom Bradley, whose office put him in touch with David Cunningham, who had won the mayor’s former city council seat. We want a Koreatown redevelopment district, Lee told them. He held campaign fund-raisers for Bradley at his Los Feliz house and donated $50,000 to several other city politicians so they’d feel Koreans’ emerging political power. The politicians were willing, Lee remembers. Rather, it was the Korean property owners who balked at his redevelopment idea. The area was run-down. The other Koreans grumbled about having to pay higher taxes or sell their properties, which a redevelopment district would have required. They were, he felt, afraid of change.

Lee tried to rally them. He held cocktail parties at his home, inviting property owners from all over the district. He described his vision of a Koreatown along Olympic. Just like Chinatown, he told them, but with Korean roof tiles and architecture, and gates on the boulevard announcing the district to the city. Yes, they might end up paying higher taxes as the area shed its junkies and hookers, but business owners would also do much better in the long run. That night everyone agreed it was a terrific idea. “But,” Lee says, “after they go home…nothing.”

He never could get them to pitch in money for those gates or support that redevelopment zone. So Hi Duk Lee saw the truth and decided to go it alone. Instead of a Koreatown, he imagined a smaller place where Koreans could eat and shop—the VIP Palace and the VIP Plaza—and next to them, a Korean-themed hotel where travelers could stay. A Korean Village, the beginnings of something grand, something to rival Chinatown. His fellow Koreans would follow his lead once he showed it could be done.

………

At about this time a man from Soviet Armenia walked into a small photo shop with an audiotape of music from back home. He asked the store’s owner, Kevork Parseghian, whether he could make a duplicate for him. Balding and bespectacled, Parseghian was short and driven. He had been in the United States since 1966. He and his wife, Mary, had grown up in Syria, where their parents had fled to escape the 1915 genocide in Turkey. From Syria they moved to Lebanon, where Kevork opened a photography studio. The couple raised their daughter and first two sons in Beirut—“the Paris of the Middle East.” But in the early 1960s, the Parseghians sensed civil war looming. Kevork put together $35,000 to prove to U.S. authorities that he would not be a burden and applied for a visa. The family found housing on Normandie, near Santa Monica Boulevard, in one of those garden apartments that were built in the 1920s for the city’s middle class. Cheap rents had made the area a landing strip. New people came and went, and no one knew, or cared, what an Armenian was.

Kevork Parseghian

Kevork Parseghian. Photograph by Maarten De Boer.

Two of Kevork’s brothers were already there; one owned a gas station on Santa Monica. By 1970, Kevork’s parents, six siblings, and their families had left Lebanon and Syria for the few blocks brimming with Armenians near the intersection of Normandie and Santa Monica. These Armenians brought the world with them. They came from a global crossroads connecting the west with the roiling Levant. They had witnessed two world wars, two genocides. Most, like Kevork and Mary, spoke five languages—Armenian, Arabic, French, Turkish, English—which was rare in provincial, monolingual Los Angeles. Centuries of being pushed out of Muslim countries had forged in them a fierce attachment to their Armenian culture, language, and Christian church.

Mary found work as a substitute teacher. Kevork held a day job in a machine shop for the next 11 years, devoting the rest of his time to photographing weddings and taking portraits at the little storefront he opened on Santa Monica. The store was burglarized before its first day and was broken into about twice a year for the next decade. Still, the business got along. Armenians from Syria and Lebanon were making the district around Normandie and Santa Monica their own. The community began erecting a church, and Parseghian filmed its construction.

Then that fellow with the recording from Soviet Armenia happened by. The music was known in Armenia as rabiz—Soviet Russian slang for “worker’s art.” The songs alternated between drunken professions of love, plaintive tunes about heartbreak, and festive grooves that urged partygoers to get up and dance. An underground rabiz scene was materializing in Soviet Armenia, despite the communist regime’s restrictions on recording. People had somehow found ways to tape the music being played at restaurants and weddings. From there the songs were transferred to cassettes, which were just emerging as a medium, and passed hand to hand.

After Parseghian made a few duplicates for other customers, word spread in Armenia of Parseghian Photo in L.A. He left his machine shop job. He bought equipment that could create three duplicates at a time. When a customer came by, he would call his sons, who would take the tape and race on their skateboards to the family apartment and make copies, including one for themselves. It wasn’t long before Parseghian realized he could put out records on his own. The first two artists the family actually recorded were up-and-coming Armenian pop stars Paul Baghdadlian and Harout Pamboukjian. But soon the rabiz market began to grow. Parseghian had heard of a singer named Glakho Zakaryan gaining fame back in Armenia; he phoned the singer and arranged to pay $100 for a master of his recordings. That became the store’s first rabiz record. Another—with singer Alik Guneshian—would follow.

Kevork Parseghian

Kevork Parseghian’s shop in East Hollywood. Photograph by Maarten De Boer.

By the late 1970s, a parade of rabiz singers was filing through the tiny storefront with tapes from Soviet Armenia. One was a guy named Tatoul Avoyan, whose work the Parseghians had duplicated several times from bootleg tapes. Parseghian bought the rights to his recordings and put them out. As the years passed, the photo shop-cum-record label run by Kevork Parseghian became the world’s largest purveyor of recorded Armenian music, fueled, above all, by the underground music from Soviet Armenia.

“We were producing LPs and eight-track tapes,” says Parseghian’s son Dan. “This was at first a photo shop with a little music, then it was music and photo equal, then it was music and a little photo.”

………

As Kevork Parseghian was exploring the business of underground Armenian music, 15 blocks down Normandie those 1920s apartments were filling with Zapotec Hamburger Hamlet employees—and a second phase in the transformation of Asael Gonzalez began. His wife, Emma, went with her sister-in-law into a nearby church, Iglesia Canaán, which was among the first Latino Protestant churches in the area.

In the Oaxacan highlands, village Catholicism had echoed another century, stressing obedience to priests, who prohibited parishioners from reading the Bible. Townsfolk cast eyes downward and doffed their hats when the priest visited. Annual Catholic fiestas involved lots of alcohol; paying for the celebrations forced peasant farmers into debt. Asael had always had trouble with alcohol. On Christmas Eve 1974, the couple argued. Emma was sick of cleaning up the vomit after he and his friends got together. That night they went through the house pouring out bottles of booze, and just as Asael had followed Emma out of Mexico, he followed her into the new church. As with a lot of Mexican Indians who convert from village Catholicism where heavy drinking is part of religious tradition, the couple’s lives quickly improved.

Zapotecs found Protestant churches in Los Angeles open and egalitarian. The churches let migrants chart their own religious lives in the same way that those migrants were learning to steer their economic futures. Pastors prohibited alcohol and urged congregants to read the Bible for themselves. These new Protestant storefront churches also served as reception centers for the newest migrants, who, after an arduous journey, could find kind words, coffee, and job leads, if not an immediate posting at a Hamlet. Thus, for thousands of Zapotecs, that trip down the Oaxacan mountains and into a new life in Los Angeles involved a Protestant conversion as well. “They would come here to the church, and in time they’d convert,” says Osea Martinez, from the village of Yojovi, who worked at Hamburger Hamlet as a busboy.

Protestantism had a long history of encouraging parishioners to start their own churches—something unimaginable in the traditional Catholicism of Oaxacan Indians. That, too, was liberating. Congregants searching for their own private relationship with God proselytized in public and at times disagreed with pastors about biblical teachings. They aggressively formed new churches, splitting from them and forming new ones when those grew large.

A network of Latino storefront churches, supported mostly by Sierra Juárez Zapotecs, expanded in step with the expansion of the Hamburger Hamlet chain. Churches were dividing like amoebas and taking names: Zarza Ardiendo (Burning Bush), Fe Esperanza y Amor (Faith Hope and Love), and four branches of Cristo Es la Respuesta (Christ Is the Answer), among others. Each congregation was filled with Hamburger Hamlet workers and their families. As Iglesia Canaán—more than half Zapotec—continued to grow, the Gonzalezes broke off to create another church, Faro de Luz (Lighthouse). When that filled up as well, they formed a Bible study group that developed into a full church: Nueva Jerusalen (New Jerusalem) on Venice Boulevard.

Asael Gonzalez’s ability to find people work made each church he attended a magnet for Oaxacan migrants. Every day at his office at the restaurant, a dozen new arrivals from Oaxaca sat before Gonzalez’s desk as he fielded calls from Hamlets needing workers that day. In between calls “I’d preach to people as they waited,” he says. “Many of them thought that because we were Christian, it would be easy to get a job if they came to our church.”

Just as El Hamlet gave birth to Zapotec men who became chefs as the years passed, Gonzalez’s conversion was “like a tree from which grew teachers, missionaries, pastors, and evangelists,” some of whom have returned to Oaxaca to preach, says Alex Martinez, a Zapotec from the village of Yatee and a born-again Christian who worked for Hamburger Hamlet for eight years.

The spirit that infused Asael Gonzalez wasn’t all that different from the fever that gripped Hi Duk Lee: No matter how little support Lee found in his community, he couldn’t shake the idea of building a cultural gathering place for Koreans. With his market thriving, he bought four blocks of apartments on Olympic, from Normandie west to Harvard Boulevard, and demolished them.

In May 1975, Lee opened a restaurant and called it the VIP Palace. It was the first building in Los Angeles with a swooping roof of Korean tile. Korean customers flocked to it, and the restaurant was for several years the center of Korean immigrant life. Newcomers held their birthdays and wedding receptions at the VIP Palace. Then-dissident and soon-to-be South Korean president Kim Dae-jung visited once. Lee held victory parties for state Republican politicians and used the place to continue to fete local politicians, hoping for an official Koreatown designation.

Encouraged, he planned a shopping center. The VIP Plaza, a matching two-story strip mall, opened in 1979 on Olympic, across Irolo Street from the restaurant. The upstairs tenants had spent time in America, working in menial jobs; they knew the system and paid rent without hesitation. “The downstairs people bring money from Korea,” he says. “They are different. They are more Korean,” and they behaved as if they hadn’t left. They stiffed him on the rent, forming an association that battled him over every penny. He had $30,000 a month in debts, and they hired a lawyer. The fight went on for years.

It irked Lee that he was trying to establish a monument to Koreans’ native land so that all might feel at home, yet the biggest obstacles were his fellow Koreans. His project was something none of them—the children of peasant farmers or small merchants—could ever build in Korea. “Chinese people work together. If they have a good partner, they support him,” he says. “Korean people are individually very smart. But it’s difficult for them to work together. Nobody can do partnerships. Each one wants all the power and money.” He concluded that this was true in the United States, too. In this new place, many remained in the old country. Or maybe they had become too American and reminders of Korea didn’t matter to them. But Lee couldn’t let go of his vision, even as he lost money on the VIP Plaza. It was a complicated immigrant tale, involving the heart as much as the pocketbook.

He plunged ahead with plans for his Korean-themed hotel: five stories, 230 rooms; a home for Korean travelers. He was paying for architects and blueprints when interest rates began climbing. He hoped they would drop. Instead they rose from 9 percent to 20 percent in two years. Everything stalled, and he limped along, postponing his hotel as he struggled to pay his debts. The city’s Korean population had started to sprawl, yet no one followed his lead to build in traditional Korean style.

In 1982, as his dream collapsed around him, Hi Duk Lee stood with the South Korean consul on the Santa Monica Freeway to watch Mayor Bradley officially designate the area as Koreatown and install that supreme emblem of ethnic recognition in Los Angeles: a freeway sign. Posted near the Normandie Avenue exit, it was the region’s first announcement of an immigrant community. That year Lee, exhausted, sold it all: the VIP Palace, the VIP Plaza, the land for the hotel that never moved beyond blueprints. He was tapped out and sick of his fellow Koreans. He went off to South Africa, thinking maybe he’d get into tea.

………

The city was fragmenting with the mix of new folks who brought with them new customs and ways of thinking. L.A.’s pop music industry was doing the same. It churned away from the centralized control of major record labels, studios, promoters, and established radio stations. A rambunctious ethos gripped music makers as L.A. went through spasms of DIY outcast music.

White kids in Hollywood had punk rock. Bands spread like viruses, releasing 45s and EPs made by record companies formed in garages while putting on shows in American Legion halls and dive bars. Blacks had gangster rap, forged in the mid-1980s in Compton by kids using SP 1200 drum machines. Mexicans in southeast L.A. County had the narcocorrido, a renovation of the age-old Mexican corrido, or ballad, crafted by a rough Sinaloan immigrant named Chalino Sánchez. In the few years before his murder in 1992, Sánchez recorded cassettes of drug ballads that he sold at swap meets in Huntington Park and Paramount, spending nights singing at narcoclubs in South Gate and Lynwood.

To much less notoriety, rabiz was Armenian outcast music. Its popularity was fueled by massive numbers of Soviet Armenians who moved here during the 1980s and turned Los Angeles into the center of the Armenian diaspora in America as Mikhail Gorbachev loosened things in the U.S.S.R. The music caught fire “because they all came here,” says Dan Parseghian. “The market came to us, and this music is what they were used to.”

The shop that sold it was like their welcome mat—part of a mosaic of Armenian-owned businesses offering new immigrants a taste of home. Yet rabiz and its lifestyle would become a very public and controversial part of Armenian immigrant life. Syrian and Lebanese Armenians, who had migrated here first and were now settled, abhorred the music of their Soviet cousins and the brand of jarbig associated with it. “Jarbig” is an Armenian word that means a combination of shrewd and clever; it describes someone who doesn’t let life happen to him but acts and finds a way ahead. Jarbig was an admirable quality employed by those who survived the Turkish genocide and became essential as Armenians were pushed from country to country through the 20th century. However, in Soviet Armenia, with the nepotism, corruption, and government controls of communism, the term came to denote the scamming and fraud essential to getting by.

Soviet-era jarbig and rabiz music seemed to go hand in hand, and in Los Angeles a sound became a way of life: loud, brash, coarse. The Web site Urban Dictionary once described the typical rabiz guy as one who wears “sunglasses day and night” and has “over-confidence of ‘picking up’ girls regardless of location, occasion, or setting.”

It irked Hi Duk Lee that he was trying to establish a monument to Koreans’ native land so that all might feel at home, yet the biggest obstacles were his fellow Koreans.

“It’s the hairy chest, the gold chains, driving with an arm hanging out, with the cigarette, and the seat tilted way back,” says Dan Parseghian. “That’s the rabiz lifestyle.” The rabiz guy has his counterpart in the sagging, gold-toothed gangster rapper and the narco from the hills of Sinaloa in ostrich-skin boots.

In Los Angeles rabiz seemed to distill all that divided Soviet Armenians from the earlier Armenian immigrants. Like the Parseghians, the immigrants who’d established themselves here in the 1960s and ’70s had held tight to their Armenian culture. Yet after generations of exile and trauma elsewhere in the world, in Los Angeles they also felt comfortable enough to assimilate. “Through the 20th century, every couple generations they have to pack their bags and move, starting with the genocide,” says Eric Nazarian, a filmmaker who was born in Armenia and grew up in Glendale. “There’s always this ingrained awareness that anything could happen at any moment. With the exception of L.A. In L.A. nobody cares who your father is. Here you can actually sigh—sit down and sigh and say, ‘This is as far as we’re ever going to have to go.’ ”

Soviet Armenians disrupted that. They came in such numbers, the welcome mat was so broad, that they could live as they had back home, learning little English. Some percentage of them survived by the jarbig code they grew up with. Local newspapers ran stories of Armenians accused of welfare or Medicare fraud, which brought shame to the community. More established Armenians saw this lifestyle, transplanted from gray Soviet rule to the sun-splashed freedom of Los Angeles, as corroding their culture in a way no shah or dictator had ever achieved—and in the very place they were finally able to relax.

Nowhere was this tension felt more acutely than at Kevork Parseghian’s store, which had helped spark the rabiz movement. “A microcosm of the Armenian diaspora in L.A. is in that shop,” says Nazarian. Today, at 88, Kevork Parseghian is almost apologetic. He was a businessman, he says, selling what people wanted to buy. He found the music boorish and untutored and didn’t like how it reflected on Armenians. He also sells choral music and classical Armenian music by renowned artists such as Aram Khachaturian. But the newcomers wanted rabiz. What was he going to do? Not sell it?

With demand rising as immigrants flooded Los Angeles from Soviet Armenia, Parseghian sought out a reliable recording studio. Quad Teck Studios, on 6th Street, was owned by Hank Waring, an engineer and forensic sound technician who had mixed Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” By the time Parseghian found it, Quad Teck was a studio for music on the margins of the record industry. It offered low rates and attracted engineers with wide musical tastes. Early scratch hip-hop acts and some of the region’s best-known punk bands—Rank and File, the Angry Samoans, the Flesh Eaters, Gun Club, and the Blasters—cut albums there. Plucking aspiring singers from among the Soviet Armenians landing in Los Angeles, Parseghian would “roll them in and roll them out,” says Bob Brown, a Quad Teck engineer back then. “I’d be working on Armenian records four or five days a week.”

For a good long time nothing sold quite so well in Armenian music as rabiz, and customers lined up in Parseghian’s store to buy every record he released.

………

As the news of Los Angeles restaurant jobs wafted up to the highlands of Oaxaca in the mid-1970s, so too did news of a park in the far-off city. Zapotec restaurant workers congregated and spoke their native language there. Usually a basketball tournament was under way on the courts. This park, people said, was where you could find Oaxacans to show you what was what in the new land. You could hear who had rooms for rent, and where the bus lines ran. It was as if you really hadn’t left the mountains.

Indeed, by the end of the decade, Normandie Park—at Normandie and Venice—was where traditional Oaxacan Indian culture was re-created most weekdays, and all of it centered on basketball.

Oaxacans are among Mexico’s shortest people. Yet they play basketball with a devotion resembling prayer. In the 1950s, the Mexican government found it difficult to place soccer or baseball fields in the steep terrain of the Sierra Juárez, but basketball courts fit just right. Over the next decades basketball became as much a part of Oaxacan Indian culture as the centuries-old churches. At annual village fiestas, it was basketball tournaments that brought people out.

Shiny, modern Los Angeles—with its better-paying jobs, access to schools, good weather, and parks with outdoor basketball courts—was built for traditional Oaxacan Indian culture to flourish. As Zapotecs from Hamburger Hamlet crowded into the apartments off Normandie and into newly formed Protestant churches, Normandie Park became a Oaxacan basketball shrine. Games happened every weekend: Zoogocho, maybe, versus Yatzachi el Bajo, with food sold by people from both towns and music from the brass band from Solaga. In time, migrants would use the tournaments to raise money for village improvement back home. This harmonized, too, with the Mexican Indian culture of communal assistance.

In Zapotec guelaguetza means “sharing” or “cooperating.” Years ago the word was appropriated by government officials in Mexico for a festival intended as a way to show tourists the food, dance, and flowery dress of the state’s seven Indian regions. The Guelaguetza festival happened only in Oaxaca City. Most mountain folk heard about it over the radio but had never been to a Guelaguetza. It was, instead, at Normandie Park where the swelling numbers of Zapotec migrants, most of whom were restaurant workers, first came in contact with this celebration of their culture.

In 1989 at Normandie Park, Zapotecs put on the first Guelaguetza in Los Angeles. Migrants prepared food and clothing, and for weeks they rehearsed after work the dances—bailables—that were presented on stages that they built themselves. With no Oaxacan government help, the festival was as DIY as it comes: funky and spare, with a few tables of food and a creaky sound system. But it fulfilled the meaning of guelaguetza and reflected the lives of immigrants who had ventured out of their villages, where political and economic control denied them so much, and followed Asael Gonzalez into El Norte, where, tough as life was, they at least could wrest some agency over their futures.

Koreatown’s Guelaguetza got it’s start as Hi Duk Lee’s VIP Palace. Photograph by Maarten De Boer.

“Here in L.A. is where we put on a real Guelaguetza,” says Lucas Cruz, a Zapotec from the Sierra Juárez, who helped organize that first festival and many thereafter. “We worked. We donated our time, rehearsed on our own time. It was of the community and grew from the heart of people.”

………

In 2000, the City of Los Angeles designated a Little Armenia district around Normandie north of the 101 freeway—just about the time most Armenians had decamped for Glendale and North Hollywood. “We were one of the first Armenian businesses to open here,” says Dan Parseghian, “and we’ll probably be one of the last.”

Rabiz has morphed, absorbing Turkish musical influences, and thus has remained intensely controversial among Armenians. Many of the singers Kevork Parseghian first recorded have returned to Armenia, where they can make huge amounts of money. The Internet has crippled the Parseghian record business, and these days the store focuses on digitizing old audio- and videotapes.

Fifteen blocks south, at Normandie and 7th, the Langham and the Barclay are slowly gentrifying, but Sierra Juárez Zapotecs continue to occupy buildings on the rest of that block. Asael and Emma Gonzalez years ago retired from Hamburger Hamlet and moved to Tecate, Baja California, where rents are cheaper and where they ran a mission for street kids. The churches they helped found remain in and around Pico-Union and Koreatown.

When Congress passed the Immigrant Reform and Control Act of 1986, it granted legal residency to 3.2 million people, including most of Hamburger Hamlet’s Oaxacan workforce. With more options, many Oaxacans left for higher-paying restaurant work. The Lewises sold their company in 1987, and it changed hands a few times. Competition came from dozens of new chains in the casual-dining sector that Hamlets had pioneered, including the Cheesecake Factory, where many Zapotecs went to work. The chain faded, and the last Hamlet closed in 2014, before the name was recently resurrected by new owners.

Part of Hi Duk Lee’s Koreatown vision eventually did emerge. Business expanded; city tax coffers were enriched. The district has Korean clubs, restaurants, banks, car lots, and cafés. It even has some small gates and thematic lampposts along Olympic. But there are few of the traditional reminders of home that Lee imagined. He hasn’t been back in years. “He doesn’t want to go,” says his wife, Kil Ja. “It hurts.”

The VIP Plaza that he built is home to an optometrist, a dentist, a travel agency, a bakery—all serving the now middle-class Korean consumer. The VIP Palace, however, went through several owners and, as Koreatown sprawled, lost its cachet as the center of Korean immigrant life. In 2000, a Oaxacan restaurateur named Fernando Lopez Mateos saw it as a space to serve the district he viewed more as Oaxacatown. La Guelaguetza, operating under a roof of Lee’s finest Korean tile, this year won an America’s Classics restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation.

Hi Duk Lee spent several years traveling China and Africa, looking for good tea. He wrote a 520-page memoir in Korean. He later went into the cosmetics business. After that and several other businesses faltered, he sold his Los Feliz house. The new owner filled in that pond shaped like the two Koreas.

Not long ago, with gangs receding from Highland Park and rents rising, Lee leased a parking lot on York Boulevard and opened a nursery. The man who imagined Koreatown spends every day of the year alongside his wife, contentedly tending ferns, ice plants, and potting soils, his once jet-black hair, under a baseball cap, now a thin and snowy white.


Sam Quinones is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. His latest book is Dreamland: The True Tales of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury).

This feature appears in the December 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine
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