A Numbers Game – the future of the Latvian émigré community

Listen to the words spoken by Latvian diplomats at émigré community functions.They choose their words carefully. There is the obligatory thank you for the role that post-war exiles played in the restoration of Latvia’s independence and for their later support of Latvia’s NATO membership drive.

But that’s all history and the question what have you done for me lately begs an answer. The size of the exile, now the émigré community in North America is dwindling. Politically it is a spent force. With the mass global movement of the peoples, the émigrés have become a minority among minorities and would be unable to come close to repeating the political activity of more than twenty years ago during the collapse of the Soviet Union. The politicians in Washington and Ottawa know it. So do the politicians in Riga.

Yet the émigré community and its leaders have an aggrandized view of their role on the political stage in Latvia. The motivation may be genuine, a desire to add value and help Latvia emerge from the long tail of Soviet occupation but it is too easy and self-gratifying to pontificate from safe havens abroad.

There are those who have returned and the results are mixed. Among the most successful is popular ex-President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. Less fortunate are the leaders of the World Federation of Free Latvians (PBLA) who over the past twenty years have tried to use the organization as a springboard onto the Latvian political stage. In between you have around five thousand expats ranging from retirees to idealistic youths many of whom have been in Latvia since the 1990s. Those who have survived successfully have done so by tossing out their parachutes and taking Latvia on its own terms. Among them you can find lawyers, software developers, professors, media figures, bankers, restauranteurs, pilots, a few ambassadors, entrepreneurs, some politicians and civil servants.

Nevertheless, 5,000 expats from the post-war diaspora of around 150,000 is not a lot. Economic, social and psychological factors – successful careers, pension concerns, proximity to family, children and grandchildren, access to medical care, lack of language proficiency in Latvian and unfortunately in Russian. Many have grown up or lived in the West and just feel different, that they really don’t fit in. The émigré community is there and its leaders need to pay attention even though what’s happening in Latvia seems more exciting and sexier.

It’s all about numbers. Let’s stick for the most part with the United States although things are playing out no differently in Canada or Australia, the other large overseas dominions.

According to USA census data, there are approximately 80,000 Americans of Latvian descent. ALA has mailing addresses for 12,000. The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (LELBA) reported that in 2011 it had 8,826 baptized members, down form around 15,000 in 2000 and 28,000 in 1975. American Latvian song festivals attract up to 5,000 spectators and participants. ALA reports that there are around 500 students who attend after-hours Latvian schools across the USA, about 100 who participate at the Garezers summer high school and around 30 who attend its West Coast equivalent Kursa.

Let’s work the numbers the other way. To make the math simple, let’s assume that the 80,000 Americans of Latvian descent are uniformly distributed between ages 0 and 90.

They forget that even among those arriving from Displaced Person camps after the War, many stayed on the periphery or even dropped out preferring to integrate. They would do well to consider the generational issue when they complain that “jauniebraucēji” don’t turn out. The established émigré community is old while the new immigrants are young.

In her Master’s degree thesis “Defining Boundaries Between Two Immigrant Waves from Latvia: A Study of Latvian Supplemental Schools in the US” submitted to the University of Minnesota in 2011, Ilze Garoza, herself a recent arrival, presents the definition of forced migration proposed by migration scholar Nicholas Van Hear. It is the process “when individuals or communities are compelled, obliged or induced to move when otherwise they would stay put”, further adding, that “the force involved may be direct, focused or indirect, covert and diffuse…where departure from the homeland has been inflicted by an external force”.

Given that economic conditions in Latvia rather than wanderlust are by and large the trigger for the exodus, the notion of forced migration uncovers common elements between post-war exiles and the current emigration. The example of the British Isles shows that interest among immigrants in building and sustaining a community exists. Points of engagement with the old émigré  community are possible and must be found. However expecting them to roll into the structures of the established community to play a subservient role, is not realistic. That is not partnership. And do for example any national émigré organizations provide information or advice to immigrants from Latvia?

Priority number one is Latvian language training – basic, intermediate and advanced for elementary school children, teenage youths and adults. It needs to be web-based and interactive, accessible anywhere and anytime be it in the privacy of the student’s home or in the classrom of a heritage language school. It cannot be dependent on émigré community parent-teacher volunteers who are pressed for time, have little formal pedagogical training and whose Latvian language skills are not necessarily up to snuff.

An undertaking of this sort is beyond the abilities of the émigré community. It must be a partnership with institutions in Latvia. A glossy graphic-rich well-written Latvian history book in English targeted at high school students abroad would be money well spent. A similar text on Latvian geography in English would also be a welcome addition.

Making Latvian culture accesible to all is another priority. Latvian dancers, choirs, opera singers, artists and actors regularly tour émigré outposts around the gobe. They need to be promoted, not just within the Latvian community but externally to wider audiences. Latvian films are being shown at European Union film festivals in North America and elsewhere. At a recent festival in Toronto, The Return of Sergeant Lapins was screened. While not exactly Cannes material, the film was interesting and the neat thing was that of the more than 200 in attendance, about half were non-Latvians and they did not appear to regret turning out. The result? Positive connections.

Preservation of émigré history is also a priority. LNPL set the bar with its 1995 publication Latvieši Lielbritānijā which chronicled the history of Latvians in Great Britain. Aldis Putniņš has published a number of scholarly works about Latvians in Australia. “Mutvārdu vēsture” is an oral history project that uses audio and video to document stories of the Latvian immigrant experience in North America. But beyond that, the history of the émigré community is poorly documented.

The community has recognized the need to preserve its material archives albeit in a haphazard manner. While materials have been gathered, sent to local archives, shipped to Latvia, many more sit in boxes in dusty storage rooms. The April 2012 seminar hosted in Minneapolis by ALA on understanding archival work – selection, collection, cataloguing and storage as well as setting guidelines for community archival work is timely and the content needs to be disseminated widely. The seminar dovetails nicely with the “Latvians Abroad” museum and research centre being established in Latvia by expat émigrés. ALA is investing some serious money in the archival project. Kudos!

This article appeared in Jauno LAIKS nr. 2 2012 and is to be continued.

2 thoughts on “A Numbers Game – the future of the Latvian émigré community

  1. Viesturs Zarins, you’re right. Latvian emigres and their children understand resentment and marginalization of Latvian emigres by Latvians. Articles such as yours reinforce the stark reality that a “youth-time” of studying Latvian language, culture and history as taught by Latvian-educated teachers was largely a waste of time by both the emigre parents and children. The Latvian culture here in America dies with us. Some Latvian businesses and diplomats are leveraging Latvian-emigre contacts to gain access to the American business community (Apple, Google, IBM et al.), but perhaps this effort, fruitful or not, is also a waste of time for the Latvian-American emigres and their children. Regarding the lack of proficiency in the Russian language, the language of Latvian oppressors, I can assure you that is a point of pride.

  2. I’m not sure if I would agree with the waste of time comment. Anything that enriches a person has value regardless of how practical it may be. My main theme is about connections within the extended emigre community – multi-tier, inclusive, modular and re-entrant as well as the community being realistic in its self-assessment and ensuring that its needs are properly balanced against any efforts to make a difference in Latvia.

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