The resurgence of Latvian youth in Australia

To read the Australian Latvian press somedays, it would seem that the local Latvian jaunieši are a pretty hopeless lot—rarely turning up to events, often innapropriately dressed, and totally lacking any notions of Latvian grammar or punctuation. Yet if we really are so disinterested in the whole matter of being Latvian, why do we score such frequent mentions?

It is often said that jaunieši (youths) these days are not active enough in Latvian society, and yet I recently had a conversation with someone from the so-called “middle generation” who believes the current generation of jaunieši is in fact more active than jaunieši were when she was our age. I wasn’t quite ready to believe her at first. In some old newspaper clippings from the seventies and eighties I saw pictures of youths marching in rallies to protest the Soviet occupation of Latvia and could not help feeling that the current level of political awareness and activism among my friends came nowhere near previous generations. While this may yet be true, perhaps with Latvia free for so long now the current generation of jaunieši simply engages with the homeland on a different level.

In the past five or so years in Australia there seems to have been a sort of resurgence of youth activity. In 2003 a group of jaunieši from Adelaide hosted the first Jaunatnes dienas (Youth Days) in many years. This festival culminated with the reestablishment of the Latvian Youth Association of Australia (Latviešu Jaunatnes apvienība Austrālijā, or LJAA), which has in turn led to more frequent events being organised by jaunieši, for jaunieši, around Australia. Similarly, in the last five years a number of new youth musical ensembles of various styles have been established. Sydney Latvian youth choir Jaunais vējš celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, alongside the Adelaide folk music ensemble Bārdas tiesa.

Who can say what the reasons are for this resurgence? I would hazard a guess that it is in no small way due to the influence of many within the middle and older generations, such active people as Viktorija Mačēns and Aldis Sils who have not only the energy to organise concerts and run ensembles, but have managed to exert a positive and exciting influence on the jaunieši involved in the process. Similarly, initiatives by organisations such as the Latvian Federation of Australia and New Zealand to help involve talented and inspiring individuals from Latvia such as Arturs Uškāns of Laimas muzykanti, and musical groups such as Iļģi, Ceiruleiši and Vilkači, in events such as Kultūras dienas, the summer high school and 3×3 have helped spark a new enthusiasm for and interest in various aspects of Latvian culture. These efforts also have established friendships and new points of contact with Latvia outside of the outdated textbook images often encountered in Latvian Saturday schools.

So now we find ourselves in the curious situation of a newly active generation of Latvian youth looking for opportunities to make their mark on society and shape its future direction, cornered by an older generation who wants us to be more involved while simultaneously being resistant to change. The number of times I have heard jaunieši deploring that nothing they do ever seems good enough! In one instance a group of girls went to perform at a Latvian function and were reprimanded for wearing short skirts. At the next concert they made an effort to dress more conservatively and were told it was unladylike to wear pants. In another instance two violinists were told they should have performed in folk costumes. Although they find the stiff collars, loose sleeves and large brooches of tautas tērpi uncomfortable for playing the violin, they felt unable to explain this fact for fear of the responses they would receive. In both cases, the performers’ attire received stern criticism in the reviews while the musical performances went completely unmentioned.

Perhaps the people who make such comments are unaware how much they are taken to heart. Sometimes it is possible to take these remarks lightly. The youth choir Jaunais vējš once made a point of performing in thongs (flip-flops) after a member was told off for wearing thongs on stage, despite the fact that her long pants made them barely visible to the audience. In the majority of cases, however, the comments can be disheartening, even to the point where they discourage people from becoming involved.

On my more pessimistic days I wonder why any of us bother. The older generation is rarely satisfied and the younger generation seems increasingly apathetic. Most of the time, however, I can look around and see all the wonderful things being achieved. Many of my friends have recently had extended stays in Latvia, I have noticed them speaking Latvian amongst themselves more frequently and their language in general improving. Others of my friends are taking on leadership roles within Australian Latvian society, from running folk dancing and musical ensembles to positions within larger organisations such as Daugavas Vanagi and the Latvian Federation of Australia and New Zealand. Then there are the various concerts and festivals, from the upcoming Jaunatnes dienas in Melbourne and Saules svētki in Brisbane, to the cultural workshops run by LJAA last year and the Jāņi celebration hosted by folk dancing ensemble Jautrais pāris in Sydney this year—which was called the best ever by some who attended.

And so we return to the perception that jaunieši are not involved enough in Latvian society. Perhaps it is merely a matter of reevaluating the ways in which we are involved.

Maybe there were not many youths in the audience of a particular concert, but look around: there’s one at a committee meeting, two on stage, a few more are currently planning the next youth concert, another is visiting her vecmāmiņa and learning to make pīrāgi while others have just celebrated Jāņi with friends and family in Latvia. I don’t think the situation is so bad after all.