Seattle Latvians reach out to homeland and beyond

Few historical records can be found about Latvians in Washington State before 1945. Osvalds Akmentiņš in his Amerikas latvieši, 1888-1948 mentions a Latvian socialist meeting organized by Jānis Kļava in Seattle in 1909, but no records have been located of ethnic Latvian organizations like those which existed elsewhere in the United States at that time. 

In 1930, the U.S. census reported 276 Latvia-born persons in Washington State (168 men and 108 women), most of whom (217) lived in cities. The number in the state grew slightly to 287 in 1940 (60 percent of them men), with an additional 160 American-born persons of “foreign or mixed stock” to yield a total of 447 Latvians in the state. In 1940, the only city with a significant population was Seattle, with 169 foreign-born Latvians (with no number available for American-born Latvians). These census numbers agree with those of Vilberts Krasnais, who in his Latviešu kolōnijas estimated in 1938 that there were more than 200 Latvians in Seattle, but noted that they had not organized into any societies or congregations.

An interesting event in the history of Seattle Latvians was the 1932 planting of the International Grove on the University of Washington campus. Among the thirty invited foreign representatives was the newly appointed honorary consul of Latvia, Hans Cron, who planted an oak tree at the site where the Allen Library stands today. The Latvian Consulate was located in the fashionable Henry Building in downtown Seattle. 

The new wave

A new wave of immigration began in the late 1940s, when World War II refugees (Displaced Persons) began to arrive on the West Coast, many of them settling in West Seattle, where they rented rooms for community events in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall or the YMCA. Their European university degrees in medicine, veterinary science and engineering were usually not recognized by employers in Washington, and so these Latvians found work on dairy farms, in the timber industry, in construction, loading freight or housecleaning. Long-time community member Žanis Elferts, for example, had studied chemistry in Europe. His first job in Washington was milking cows on a dairy farm, after which he became a janitor, then finally a machinist at the expanding Boeing airplane company. Many Latvians like him worked hard to move up the economic ladder. Parents and children strove to get higher education. Latvian graduates from the University of Washington often entered careers as engineers, pharmacists and doctors. Today, generations later, jobs related to building construction continue to be popular in the community. Many other Seattle Latvians have careers in information technology. 

Latvians also established businesses of their own. In construction, for example, Arvid Grant Associates (based in Olympia) has built numerous bridges in Washington State, while Kārlis Rīdzenieks constructed the Jefferson Building and many family homes in Seattle, among them about 15 that are today owned by Latvians. A Seattle icon, Upenieks Tires, was established by the two Upenieks brothers who invested in a train car full of auto tires soon after they arrived in Seattle; their company advertised regularly on radio and had a loyal clientele among the academic crowd. Many Seattle grocery stores today sell “cage-free” eggs produced by Stiebrs Farms. Opus 204 is a trendy, Latvian-owned fashion and décor store. Rauda Scale Models constructed three-dimensional maps on display at the George Bush Presidential Library and a recently constructed Grand Canyon visitors center. One can find a wide range of professional services within the Latvian community: doctors, lawyers, caterers, real estate agents and even a beautician advertise in the community. Latvian ethnic arts and crafts were formerly on sale at the community store of Aija Pakulis, and many items from Latvia are today available through CJ’s & Company. 

Latvians have also helped shape the Seattle-area landscape. Architect Kārlis Rekevics was a leader in the 1975 rehabilitation of the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and sculptor Valdis Zariņš has created art for numerous public spaces throughout the region. Other local celebrities are journalist Ērik Lācītis, mountain climber Ed Viesturs and chessmaster Elmārs Zemgals.  Scholars whose work is well known in the region include Juris Vāgners, an aeronautics professor at the University of Washington who designed and named the first robotic aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean, “Aerosonde Laima”; professor of architecture Astra Zariņa; anthropologist Astrīda Onat, and the founder of the School of Business and Accounting at Pacific Lutheran University, Gundar King.

Population changes

Although it is easy to identify the impact of Latvians on Seattle and Washington State, establishing their population statistics is difficult. Because the Latvian numbers are relatively small, they’re often buried or omitted in census publications. But even when these “official” numbers are available, they do not register the fact that the active Seattle Latvian community includes more than a few “mixed” marriages, because “non-Latvian” spouses are not counted in the census and their children might not always be listed, either. 

The big picture shows decreasing numbers of “foreign born” persons from Latvia, from 1,369 in the 1960 census, to 1,189 in 1970, to 1,176 in 1980. The 1980 census also confirms a detail that is common knowledge, that nearly all (1,109 out of 1,176) of that year’s foreign born Latvians arrived before the year 1959. In 1990, the number of Latvian born persons in Washington fell to 778. If American-born children are also counted into the total number of Latvians in the state, however, then the numbers gradually increase: 1,932 in 1960; 1,864 in 1970; 2,560 in 1980, and 2,926 in 1990. 

The census indicates that at least 500 persons immigrated to Washington State after Latvia became independent in 1991, because the number of Latvian-born persons rose to 1,206 in the year 2000.  In that year, the total number of persons with Latvian ancestry also grew to 3,069. Half of these Latvians (1,523) lived in King County, which surrounds the city of Seattle. In this metropolitan region, about 85 percent of the Latvians were aged between 18 and 65, and 38 percent reported speaking a “language other than English” at home—probably Latvian. About 42 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher; 74 percent lived in homes owned by their family, and their median household income in 1999 was USD 57,356. 

An alternate way of counting Latvians in Washington State is the telephone book published biannually by Charlene Jaundalderis. In 2006, it lists about 700 addresses. Other numbers emerge from the membership data of various organizations, indicating that about 400-450 persons today are regular participants in community activities. In the October 2006 Saeima (Latvian national parliament) elections, the Seattle polling site had a turnout of 109 Latvian citizens (and voter No. 100 was awarded a bottle of champagne, with the requirement that it not be consumed before she cast her vote!).

Organizations and their properties

The arrival of many Latvians in Washington State was assisted by a Lutheran organization in Tacoma.  It is no surprise, then, that the Tacoma Latvian Lutheran congregation was the first Latvian organization in the state, founded in 1949 by the Rev. Edmunds Mačs. In recent years the Tacoma Latvians have been renting space for their services in the First Lutheran Church, 524 S. “I” St. Today, the congregation is served by Gija Brokāne-Galiņa. 

In 1950, a second congregation was established in Seattle by the Rev. Alberts Galiņš, whose sermons are said to have brought tears to the eyes of women in the congregation. Galiņš was succeeded by the Rev. Kārlis Kundziņš, who was later elected archbishop of the worldwide Latvian Ev.-Lutheran Church from 1962-1966. He was followed by the Rev. Roberts Āboliņš, who served the congregation from 1963 until his death in 2002. Today the organization is ministered to by the Rev. Daira Cilne and has about 340 members. In the 1950s, the congregation first remodeled a building in the Wallingford district of Seattle to serve as a church and community center. Oldtimers remember the beautiful stained glass windows they installed in their first church. An oak tree still stands at the site where it was planted a half century ago by the Latvian legate to the United States, Arnolds Spekke. Ownership of this property was claimed by the city in the mid-1970s, and in exchange the community received a parcel of land at 11710 3rd Ave. N.E. Here, volunteers built a new church and assembly hall, with a library and classrooms on the ground floor that are used weekly by the Seattle Latvian School. Outdoors in back is a children’s playground. The construction work was documented in a film that was recently shown in the Latvian Center. 

At a 90-minute drive from Seattle, the West Coast Latvian Education Center near the city of Shelton has a territory of about 80 acres surrounding a lake inhabited by hundreds of frogs, trout and ducks, with the majestic Olympic Mountains in the background. The property was purchased in 1982, and since that time the Latvian community has constructed a dining hall, dormitory, a log house with a library, classrooms and crafts studios and a glass-walled chapel in the woods. A small community lives year-round in the “Latvian village,” a cluster of private homes on Riga, Talsu and Koku streets adjacent to the center. Events are organized at the education center throughout the year. It comes to life beginning with the Volunteer Work Bee (talka) on Memorial Day Weekend, soon followed by the annual Midsummer (Jāņi) celebration. The summer high school Kursa (established 1973) moved there in 1983, as did the week-long children’s camp, Mežotne (established 1951). In recent years, the Latvian artists’ group “Vienoti mākslai” has held a summer seminar and exhibit at the center. The local Lithuanian community also organizes an annual family camp, Lankas, at the Latvian site. The education center’s founder and first president was Miervaldis Janšēvics, and the current president is Māris Galiņš.

One more organization is worth noting here: The Latvian Credit Union, which in 2005 had 292 members, and deposits of approximately USD 2 million. In addition to regular dividends for members, the credit union gives USD 2,400 annually to support Latvian educational and cultural activities in the Seattle area. 

Cultural life

The history of Latvians in Washington clearly shows the impact of individual community members.  Such a person was Vilis Rūsis, who was one of the first Latvian refugees to arrive in Washington after World War II. He is remembered not only as a person who helped many others settle into life in America, but also as one of the key founders of the organization which continues to thrive at the heart of the Seattle community today, the Latvian Association of the State of Washington (Latviešu biedrība Vašingtonas Štatā, or LBVŠ), founded in 1950 with chapters in Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and Longview. In 1974, the four chapters were consolidated into a single organization based in Seattle. The LBVŠ serves as an umbrella for several other organizations (the senior citizens association and the folkdance group, for example); it publishes a bilingual, bimonthly newsletter, Informācija, and organizes many concerts, lectures and social events yearlong. The current president is Sarmīte Dāvidsone. 

Some of the annual events hosted by the LBVŠ are the Christmas Market (tirdziņš) in November, Independence Day (November 18), New Year’s Eve and a fundraising rummage sale in April.  In October 2006, the LBVŠ organized a new event, an English-speaking information fair for all local Latvian organizations. Twenty-four groups set up tables with information about their activities.

The Seattle Latvian Choir was established in 1953 by J. Dūmiņš, who led the choir for two years, followed by P. Pētersons. In the choir’s first decade, membership averaged around 35-45 singers, but grew dramatically beginning in 1962 under the leadership pf the charismatic conductor Pēteris Galiņš, reaching a high of 70 singers in the mid-1970s. Today the choir has about 20 singers and is conducted by Maija Riekstiņa, whose compositions and arrangements are a regular part of the group’s concert repertoire. The Tacoma Latvian Choir was established in 1961 and led by Fanija Matīsa for more than four decades of performances. 

Smaller song ensembles have also been a part of the community’s cultural events. The women’s singing group Staburadze began in 1965 when four Latvian girls were invited to perform a song at for a Seattle television broadcast showing Christmas traditions around the world. The group’s membership expanded and changed over time. Staburadze recorded three albums in the 1970s.

Singing groups such as Prieka pēc are organized from time to time to perform, for example, at the annual Midsummer celebration and other community events. 

Folk dancing has been a particularly popular community activity, reaching its height in 1975, when five Seattle groups with a total of 133 dancers performed at the West Coast Latvian Song Festival:  Trejdeksnītis, established in 1962 and numbering 45 dancers; Gredzentiņš, established 1971 and numbering eight; Seattle Women’s Group, established in 1975 and numbering 25; Gauja, with 24 dancers, and the Latvian school group with 21. A key person among the folk dancers was Irēna Beleičika, who in the 1950s began teaching dance traditions she learned in Latvia. Beleičika was also an active participant in local groups such as Northwest Folkdancers, Dance Circle of Seattle, Folklanders, Interfolk and the Northwest Regional Folk Life Festival Society. She ensured the presence of Latvian dances at various events in the lively Seattle folkdance scene. Beleičika founded Trejdeksnītis, which with its 35 dancers is one of the largest Latvian dance groups in the United States today. Besides participating in all song and dance festivals on the West Coast, the group has traveled to festivals in Toronto, Cleveland and Chicago, and performed at three National Dance Festivals in Latvia. In the 1970s, Beleičika also helped establish the Seattle Kokle Ensemble, which traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1976 to perform at the Smithsonian Festival Bicentennial Celebration. 

Seattle has been home to a number of well known Latvian cultural figures. The composer Volfgangs Dārziņš, for example, first immigrated to Spokane and soon moved to Seattle, where he continued teaching and composing. Among the musical gems created in Seattle is the choral arrangement of the Latvian folksong, “Noriet saule vakarā.” The song was dedicated to the Seattle Latvian Choir and was first performed shortly before the composer’s death on Midsummer Day 1962.

The Lutheran congregation’s pastor, Kārlis Kundziņš, published several books of essays and poetry while living in Seattle. Today his chorales are sung in Latvian services around the world. Other local writers include Leo Švarcs, journalist and translator of Estonian prose classics into Latvian, as well as journalist Harijs Mindenbergs and poet Indra Michalovska. Poets Olafs Stumbrs and Valdis Krāslavietis, though their winter homes were in California and Illinois, were popular teachers at the Latvian summer high school, Kursa. Pauls Toutonghi, the half-Latvian author of the 2006 novel Red Weather, is from the Seattle area. 

In the early years of the community, artists Anna Dārziņa and Benita Mindenberga exhibited their works. At the beginning of the 21st century, the group Vienoti mākslai (United for Art) began its life, bringing together painters, sculptors and graphic artists for seminars and exhibits.  Latvian folk crafts specialists are also well known in Washington State, which awarded the 1998 Governor’s Heritage Award for Folk Arts to traditional embroiderer and weaver Skaidrīte Āboliņš.

Seattle Latvians have organized numerous events of regional and national significance, among them the first West Coast Latvian Song Festival in 1962 (followed by two other festivals in 1975 and 1992); the national congress of the American Latvian Youth Association in 1982 and 2001; the American Latvian Association’s national congress in Seatac (a city between Seattle and Tacoma) in 2004; and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s seminar, Draudžu dienas, in the summer of 2004. 

Educational institutions

Among the first Latvian educational institutions in Seattle was the summer camp, Mežotne, first held in 1951 at Camp Lutherland near Tacoma, organized by Harijs Mindenbergs and Irena Beleičika.  An anecdote told in the community brings back the opening campfire at that event: A speaker is said to have begun with the words, “Mēs esam latvieši. Runāsim latviski, okei?”  (“We are Latvians. Let’s speak Latvian, OK?). The story’s punchline, of course, is the English term “OK” that found its way into the speech to a community leader’s embarrassment. But the anecdote also reveals that the challenge of maintaining the Latvian language among American-born children is not new. The anecdote’s happy sequel is that the speaker’s grandchildren and many others in their generation speak Latvian, thanks to the dedicated efforts of parents, community leaders and teachers. 

The summer high school, Kursa, was established in 1974 with Ilga Grava as its first director. The school’s enrolments have varied between 17 and 63, holding steady at an average of 25 students over the past five summers. About 200 students have graduated from Kursa since its founding.

The Tacoma Latvian School was established in 1950, with 18 students in its first year, 44 in 1958, and 14 in 1976. Over the years it graduated 62 students from eighth grade. The Seattle Latvian Lutheran congregation also established a school in 1950 with 49 students. The number grew to 85 in 1960 and kept steady at 74 in 1976. A 1978 report stated that 116 students had graduated from the eighth grade and 32 had graduated from the 10th grade. A high point in the Seattle school’s history was the performance of the classic play, “Sprīdītis,” during the 1975 West Coast Latvian Song Festival with Vilnis Birnbaums in the title role. Nowadays the Seattle school meets weekly from September to May. It has an enrollment of about 25 students in the primary grades, as well as a playgroup of preschool-aged kids. Some of these children’s parents are ethnic Latvians, others are not; some parents were born in Seattle or elsewhere in the United States, while others immigrated to America during the past decade. The school, currently led by Aina Uskura, has adapted to the 21st century: Students who miss class may keep up with homework assignments by downloading grammar worksheets from the school Web site. 

One senses that in earlier years, Latvian fraternities and sororities played a vital role in the life of community organizations. An active member of the community, for example, remembered that his fraternity’s local leader simply ordered him to join the board of the Latvian Association.  Latvians certainly made for a lively group of students at the University of Washington. In the 1950s and 1960s, they met regularly for lunch in the cafeteria, and spent long evenings singing in the back room at the Blue Moon Tavern (a place remembered by other Seattleites as the hangout of beat author Jack Kerouac and the musical group, Grateful Dead). In the 1990s, Latvian students at the UW established the Association of Latvian University Students (ALUS), which organized Seattle’s first championship in the Latvian card game, zolīte (one of the students’ grandmother turned out to be among the most highly skilled competitors at that event). Today, the organization hosts films, lectures, cultural presentations and other Latvian-related activities on campus. 

The University of Washington’s Department of Scandinavian Studies is home to the Baltic Studies Program. This is the only university in the United States to regularly teach Latvian language. Courses in Baltic history, culture and society complement the language program and allow students to major in Baltic studies or minor in Latvian studies. The university’s Latvian language program expanded dramatically in 2005, when the government of Latvia allotted funds to assist in bringing a Latvian language Lecturer from the University of Latvia to Seattle. The UW’s Library inherited the collection compiled by the Latvian Studies Center in Kalamazoo, Mich., and today has the largest American university collection of Latvian books published since 1945. The UW has thus become a central resource for American libraries that borrow Latvian books through interlibrary loan. 

The university regularly organizes public conferences and lectures on Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian topics. Latvian speakers who have been hosted by the UW include former President Guntis Ulmanis; government ministers Roberts Zīle and Ainars Latkovskis, and the ambassador of Latvia to the United States. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis visited the University in 2005, and noted that “The government of Latvia wishes to express its gratitude to the University of Washington for its contributions to American knowledge about Latvia and Latvian language, culture and history.”

Local connections to Latvia

Seattle Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians have been active participants in American politics.  Latvian community leaders remember in particular their close, long-term friendship with U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, first elected to represent Washington State in 1952. “I always vote Republican,” an elderly member of the community once quipped, “but I always voted for Jackson, even if he was a Democrat!” The senator was a supporter of Latvian independence and an outspoken critic of the Soviet occupation of Latvia. For his work at the national level, Jackson was presented the Baltic Freedom Award in 1981.  When Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia began to renew their independence in the 1980s, Seattle Balts ensured that the Baltics were covered in the local media. Public demonstrations during the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, for example, are remembered as events that electrified the three communities. 

After Latvia regained independence in 1991, Latvians helped forge bonds between their current hometowns and their ancestral homeland. Bellevue, a city adjacent to Seattle, established a Sister City relationship with Liepāja in 1992. Scores of government officials, teachers, high school students and tourists have traveled between the two cities in an exchange that continues today. A sister city agreement was also established between Talsi, Latvia, and Shelton, Wash., home of the West Coast Latvian Education Center. 

Charity work is popular in the Seattle Latvian community. In the 1990s, Seattle pediatrician Zaiga Phillips mobilized large donations and shipments of medical equipment and books to Latvia, and built a relationship with the international organization, Healing the Children, providing critical surgery for about 150 children in Latvia. For her work, Phillips was awarded the Recognition Cross of the Fifth Order by the president of Latvia. Miervaldis Janševics enlisted the support of Rotary International to build and equip a modern hospital in Auce, Latvia. A group of Seattle Latvians has donated thousands of books and hundreds of new software programs to rural schools and libraries throughout Latvia. 

Latvian culture is popular among Seattleites who have no ancestral ties to the country. The Nordic Heritage Museum is the largest American museum devoted to Scandinavian and Nordic immigration and contemporary cultures. Its director has said the museum hopes to eventually expand to include Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In 1990, the museum hosted an exhibit about the Baltic states and in 1999 it featured a special display of Latvian amber. Work has begun at the museum for a celebration of 50 years of Latvian traditional crafts in Washington State to open in June 2008.  Latvians are popular among other Scandinavian organizations, too. The folkdance group Trejdeksnītis is invited every June to perform at the regional Midsomar celebration. 

Professional musicians in Seattle have also discovered Latvia. The Seattle Chamber Players, for example, organized a four-day seminar on North European music in 2004, then in 2005 teamed up with Seattle Pro Musica choir to perform a work by Pēteris Vasks in a special Baltic music program on the public radio broadcast, “Saint Paul Sunday.”

3 thoughts on “Seattle Latvians reach out to homeland and beyond

  1. Very well organized and factual. In the cultural scene, I believe some omissions ought to be corrected. The folk dance group “Trejdeksnitis”after the Irene Beleicika era has ben very successfully led by the very talanted Inese Raisters. Her name deserves to be mentioned. On a smaller scale, the title role of the classical play ” Spritidis” performed by the Latvian school during the West Coast Song Festval in 1975 was alternated between Vilnis Birnbaums and Edgars Galins (Happens to be my son).

  2. Very interesting and informative article and I loved it. My Brother Rolands moved there (a few years ago)from Houma, Louisiana and I loved going there to visit him and his family and now I enjoy traveling to Seattle to see and visit them in a very well organized and tight Latvian community. Paldies! SVEIKS Visiem!

  3. Great article Gunti! I realize it’s a tremendous job to compile all of this information and historical material… but, the only thing I would have added was a paragraph on our local successful Latvian athletes, and sport’s teams such as soccer, basketball and volleyball.

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