Since the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 Africans have immigrated to the US, accounting for just 3.3% of total immigration. Although Black History Month observances typically focus on native Black Americans whose ancestors came to the US by means of the Atlantic slave trade — and Africans can be of any race — I’m never the less using the opportunity to shed light on the contributions of more recent African immigrants in Los Angeles. For this entry of the No Enclave series, the focus are Eritrean-Angelenos.
Eritrea is a country in the Horn of Africa, which it shares with Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland. It is separated from the Arabian Peninsula by the Red Sea, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait of which is only about 40 kilometers wide. Eritrea is a multi-ethnic state with nine recognized ethnic groups. The most numerous people, the Tigrinya, comprise roughly 55% of the total population and speak a Semitic language of the same name. Smaller populations include the Tigre, Saho, Kunama, Bilen, and Rashaida. Eritrea is about 117,600 km2 in area, making it a bit smaller than hte state of Pennsylvania and a bit larger than Ohio. The capital and largest city is Asmara.
A BRIEF ERITREAN HISTORY
Eritrea’s Red Sea coast is believed to have been inhabited by humans more or less continuously for more than 125,000 years. The Land of Punt is mentioned by its trading partners, the ancient Egyptians, in writing from the 25th Century BCE. Between the 10th and 5th centuries, the Kingdom of Dʿmt flourished, with its capital believed to have been located near the modern city of Yeha. The Ona culture arose in the vicinity of Asmara between the 9th and 5th centuries.
The Kingdom of Aksum existed from roughly 100–940 CE and covered Eritrea and the Tigray region of Ethiopia. A major player along the trade route between Rome and India, the Aksum was regarded by Mani (the Persian prophet and founder of Manichaeism) as one of the four great powers of his time (the others being, Persia, Rome, and China). After the decline of Aksum, the Kingdom of Medri Bahri (Tigrinya: ምድሪ ባሕሪ) arose and dominated the Eritrean Highlands from 1137–1890, when Italy created its first African colony, Colonia Eritrea.
The British army conquered Eritrea during World War II and the victorious Allies debated about Eritrea’s status for several years after taking banishing the Fascists. The UK and US favored ceding most of the country to Ethiopia whereas the USSR favored returning it to Italy. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia wished to annex Eritrea and Somaliland and in 1952, created the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Soon afterward the Ethiopian emporer revoked Eritrea’s autonomy, igniting the Eritrean War of Independence which lasted for three decades and claimed the lives of an estimated 230,000 people.
In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) toppled the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) from power, ending Ethiopian control of Eritrea. In April 1993, in a referendum supported by Ethiopia’s new government, a vast majority of Eritreans voted in favor of independence. Independence hasn’t yet signaled the flourishing of a new democracy, however. The EPLF immediately established a one-party state in which there have been no elections in the quarter century of independence.
Although the economy has improved in recent years, remittances from overseas Eritreans account for an estimated 32% of the gross domestic product. Furthermore, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea undertaken in 2015 alleged that the Eritrean government engages in “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations.” Human Rights Watch described Eritrea as a “dismal human rights situation, exacerbated by indefinite military conscription” which has “led thousands of Eritreans to flee every month.” The government banned the private press in 2001, and the Committee to Protect Journalists granted Eritrea the top position in its “10 Most Censored Countries” managing even to edge out North Korea.
With an estimated population of 4,782, California is home to the largest population of Americans born in the 24-year-old nation of Eritrea. However, since people with roots in what’s now Eritrea were previously counted as Ethiopians, estimates of the Eritrean-American population are possibly somewhat inaccurate. As with Ethiopians, the metropolitan area with the largest population of Eritrean-Americans is that of Washington, DC. Los Angeles is home to the nation’s second largest Ethiopian population, though — by some estimates 96,000. Presumably, some of those Angelenos are of Eritrean or mixed Ethiopian-Eritrean heritage.
ERITREAN-LOS ANGELES AND SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Unlike Ethiopian-Angelenos, Eritrean-Angelenos have no titular ethnic enclave along the lines of Midtown‘s Little Ethiopia. And whilst the local Eritrean diaspora maintain a comparatively low profile, there are several prominent local Eritreans and important cultural contributors.
One of the highest profile Los Angeles-born Eritreans is Ciham Ali Abdu, believed to be currently imprisoned in Eritrea. When just fifteen years old, the American citizen was abducted near Eritrea’s border with Sudan, possibly as retaliation for her father — the country’s former minister of information — fleeing the nation. Her exact whereabouts and condition are unknown.
One of the fourteen killed in the 2015 San Bernardino attacks, Isaac Gebreslassie Amanios, was Eritrean. He moved to California in 2000 to escape the violence and oppression of his homeland. Amanios worked as a San Bernardino County environmental health specialist and shared a cubicle with one of the attackers. He was survived by his wife, Hiwet, and children Bruk, Joseph, and Milka.
Several actresses of Eritrean ancestry live in Los Angeles. Ella A. Thomas was born in Asmara in 1981 to an Eritrean mother and an American father. Tiffany Sarac Haddish was born in South Los Angeles in 1979 and is of both Eritrean and Ethiopian ancestry. Producer/director Sabrina Aman was born in Virginia to Eritrean parents, raised in Qatar, and now lives in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is home to at least two Eritrean singers, Habtom Debessai and Aron Tadesse, the latter of whom owns the Industry Jazz Café in Culver City. Half-Eritrean (his mother’s ancestry is West African) Nipsey Hu$$le (né Ermias Asghedom) — rapper and owner of The Marathon Clothing — was born in 1985 and raised in the Hyde Park neighborhood. [UPDATE: Nipsey Hussle was murdered on 31 March 2019]. Rapper Sador “Sandman Negus” Fasehaye was born in Bulgaria to Eritrean parents but lived in Hyde Park from the age of seven until his murder in nearby View Park in 2012. DJ Axubela is half-Ethiopian/half-Eritrean.
Los Angeles poet Magdalawit Makonnen is also of mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean ancestry. Long distance runner Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi was born in Asmara in 1975. His family moved to San Diego in 1987 and he attended school at the University of California, Los Angeles. Eritrean-Angeleno blogger Neyat Yohannes is a Los Angeles native who now lives in the San Francisco Bay.
Eritrean cuisine resembles the better known cuisine of Ethiopia. Most meals feature a spicy stew called tsebhi in Tigrinya (wat in Amharic) and accompanied by a sour flatbread called taita (injera in Amharic). As a primarily coastal region, seafood plays a larger role in Eritrean cuisine than it does the cuisine of its larger, landlocked neighbor. Eritrean cuisine also bears signs of its colonial relationships with the Ottoman and Italian empires, especially in the prevalence of tomatoes and the existence of Italian Eritrean cuisine — exemplified by dishes like pasta al sugo e berbere’.
The most popular caffeinated beverage is coffee, first cultivated in Ethiopia and a centrally important part of the daily life in several countries in the region. Popular alcoholic beverages include suwa (tella in Amharic), a beer made from fermented sorghum, teff, and sometimes other grains; and the honey wine, mes (tej in Amharic).
There are at least two local restaurants serving Eritrean cuisine. The aforementioned Industry Cafe & Jazz offers Eritrean dishes as well as Ethiopian, Southern/Soul Food, and live music. It’s located in Culver City’s McManus neighborhood and is served by Culver City Bus’s 1 line and LADOT’s Commuter Express 437 line.
There’s also Zula Restaurant. Naturally it’s located in Inglewood, the capital of Los Angeles’s African restaurant scene. It’s currently served by Metro’s 212/312 line. Provided it remains in the same location, it will be served by the under-construction Crenshaw/LAX rail line, expected to open in 2019.
ERITREAN COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS
There are a handful of local organizations serving the Eritrean-American community. The United Eritrean Association was organized in 1993 and oversees the School of Eritrean Languages in Los Angeles. There are a couple of Eritrean churches including, the Bisrat Wengel Eritrean Church Los Angeles, founded in 1999, and the Medhani-Alem Orthodox Church in Inglewood.
Aside from religious observances, the two main Eritrean holidays observed locally appear to be Eritrean Martyrs’ Day (20 June) and Independence Day (24 May). In Los Angeles County, Martyrs’ Day observances have typically taken place at either Rogers Park (Inglewood) or Eucalyptus Park (Hawthorne). In Orange County, observances seem always to have taken place in Twila Reid Park in Anaheim.
Eritrean Independence Day celebrations typically take place in the South Bay region — in the past at Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel in Westchester, a Hollywood Park Casino, which is in Inglewood, not Hollywood.
Mesghina Ghebremedhin’s The Adaptation of Eritrean Migrants in the Los Angeles City Area (1997, Biola University, School of Intercultural Studies).
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.