I have no idea who is sitting across from me. It’s too dark to see who is next to me. All I know is that it is nearly 3 a.m. and I feel like singing. We break into song, some adding harmony learned in choir at the Latvian summer high school or perhaps in Latvian school. The dim moonlight allows me to see only ripples along the water’s surface but no one’s identity is revealed.
We sit in a circle on the shore of Long Lake, at the Latvian Center Gaŗezers in southern Michigan, the closest one can get to a mirror image of the birch forests of Latvia. We embrace the night, not caring who is around, and sing at the top of our lungs every Latvian folk song that comes to mind.
“It is a different vibe hanging out with my Latvian friends,” said Aldis Raisters, a junior at the University of Washington in Seattle. “They’re lively; always singing, dancing. I’ve never heard 50 people singing the same song at once, unless it’s in a choir.”
Even though they often are separated by great distances and don’t often get to see each other in person, many ethnic Latvian youth in North America and elsewhere outside Latvia nonetheless are an incredibly tight-knit group. But there’s more: They are passionate about their culture. To them it is more than having the same roots. Many say it is the core of their identity and gives them a sense of belonging.
“Being Latvian is more like a belief,” said Max Burkett, a sophomore at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It is not just saying we’re from Latvia, and we go to a Latvian church. It is knowing who you are and that you belong somewhere.”
Burkett remembers the Latvian culture and language being a normal part of his life while he was growing up. He began his schooling in Latvian at a Latvian preschool and has never considered that to be abnormal. Although he was brought up by a Latvian mother and by a father of mixed background, he said he never identifies with his Scottish or British heritage. It has been and still is Latvian that dominates as his true identity.
Latvian youth have the bond of friendship due to common ties and similar knowledge of traditions, but there is something more than friendship and tradition that drives the Latvian youth to so actively celebrate their heritage. Aina Lorbergs, a sophomore at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, said it is Latvia’s past that forces those in America, Canada and elsewhere to uphold the culture and traditions.
“Freedom isn’t a commodity,” she said. “It is a privilege to have a free country. This hits close to home for us because not even our great-grandparents but our grandparents had to escape Communism and experience the suppression of their culture. Some of our parents were even born in (Displaced Persons) camps. Now that we’re free, we have to take advantage. Our freedom has been threatened, so we have to now uphold the culture. We have to be proud of it, because it may not always be there.”
Lorbergs recalls several years ago watching the 800th anniversary celebration of Rīga, an enormous event for Latvians around the world. She remembered being amazed by the 10,000 people folk dancing in one stadium. The stage was the largest she had ever seen. Thousands were singing folk songs she knew. But she was never actually there. She watched the celebrations on a television screen at home, but still it gave her goose bumps.
Growing up as bilingual and bicultural individuals is customary for young Latvians outside Latvia. They hold the customs and traditions close because these influence who they are and who they will become.
Andra Stāks, a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, has never had turkey on Thanksgiving, not because she is vegetarian but because her family, instead, remembers the toils her grandparents faced. Her grandmother and grandfather worked on a turkey farm in Minnesota, when they received their first sponsor to escape to the United States during World War II. Stāks remembered feeling quite different in her Kindergarten class when everyone else shared what they did on Thanksgiving. Now, she understands.
For Latvians to continue growing as a culture and sharing their traditions, they must come together. Every year, a number of events are organized by the American Latvian Youth Association, the Latvian National Youth Association of Canada, the American Latvian Association, the Latvian National Association in Canada and the Latvian Welfare Association “Daugavas Vanagi,” as well as local churches, schools and other organizations. These are events that Latvian youth anticipate.
Burkett insists it is imperative that Latvians get together. If they didn’t, he said, there would be no Latvian-American culture. He looks forward every year to the Midsummer holiday, Jāņi, when Latvians celebrate the longest day of the year. Women wear crowns of daisies and men wear crowns oak leaves while singing, drinking and dancing until the sun comes up.
“At Jāņi you have fun, and you know that you are part of your culture. You are practicing traditions that our ancestors practiced,” Burkett said. “When I think of Jāņi, I picture everyone outside, singing and dancing by the light of the fire. I feel happy to be Latvian and to experience things like that.”
Raisters said he always looks forward to the annual ALYA youth congress, held every year in November during Thanksgiving weekend in a large city. Whether it is Boston, Los Angeles or Toronto, it seems Latvians take over the hotel they stay in. Latvian language resonates from conference rooms where the youth attend lectures on everything from Latvia’s future to how young men and women should behave in society. After a night of socializing at the local Latvian center or exploring the city’s attractions, Latvians can often be found singing folk songs in the lobby or folk dancing through the halls. Congress is also a time when new association officers are elected and new issues pertaining to Latvians in America are discussed.
“It is a great big excuse to have fun with people you haven’t seen in five years, five months or five days,” he said. “It’s a reconnecting. It’s amazing to see everyone come together.”
Stāks, who is originally from Chicago, finds her favorite event to be Dziesmu svētki, the Latvian song and dance festival that takes place every four years.
“My most vivid memory was the song and dance festival in Chicago,” Stāks said, “because it was in my host city and news had been circulating for years. I was so excited to be able to share it with everyone because we went while I was still in (the Latvian high school at) Gaŗezers. It was amazing to see everybody representing the culture and to see people who cared this much to get together and practice all year for a one-time performance.”
Raisters remembers that his second song and dance festival, in Seattle, defined for him what it was to be Latvian. He remembers not only the singing and dancing but having Latvians from Australia and Latvia staying at his home and, on an evening before the festival began, 17 people crammed into his rickety hot tub. One person climbed in with a guitar, and they all sang songs from the festival’s finale, which was yet to come.
“Dziesmu svētki is so much bigger than you. It envelops you and takes you up in its arms and you get swept away in what’s happening,” Raisters said.
Latvian youth look forward to these events, but what they truly anticipate is being able to see people they haven’t seen in months.
“It seems Americans have best friends,” Raisters said. “All my Latvian friends are my best friends. They feel like family. I see people once or twice a year, so I have to make the effort to go to Latvian events or else I wouldn’t see everyone.”
Lorbergs said she finds it amazing that Latvians spend so much time, money and energy traveling around the world to see each other, for sometimes as little as three days. She said everyone does it because there is such a strong force pulling Latvians together.
“We are attracted to the atmosphere,” Lorbergs said. “You can speak the language and are free to practice culture, and eat Latvian food with out being criticized.”
Many young Latvians have an affinity for the culture because something has affected them in a way that has become unforgettable. Stāks reminisces about a trip she took to Latvia in 8th grade. President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was speaking at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Rīga, and the students stood singing the Latvian national anthem alongside her.
“We all had tears in our eyes, and I was so moved,” Stāks said. “I felt this familiar sense, like I really fit in there. I was American by the way I dressed and I stood out, but I knew I belonged there.”
To preserve the heritage so many Latvians know and love, they have to find ways to expand the cultural wealth. Some, like sophomore Andra Krautmanis of Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, express the belief that the culture could dwindle off because it can’t be ensured that everyone will marry a Latvian and have their kids speak Latvian. But as Latvian youth get older, they begin to think about their roles in the community. Before the next youth congress or other major event, some begin to wonder how they can participate and take an active role.
Latvian youth shouldn’t be afraid to take a risk to get involved, Stāks said.
Burkett agreed: “There aren’t a lot of us, so we don’t want (the culture) to die out. We are what it will be in the future.”
Stāks recalls starting a folk dancing group called Stars, before the song and dance festival in Chicago. Usually only two dance groups represented the Chicago area, one with older members and one with children. A group of Latvian youth ages 15 to 23 began the group and looked forward to weekly practices.
“We would come early and leave late,” she said. “It was so amazing getting Stars together, but it was also just another chance to get to see the people you never see.”
When Latvians get together, it is being with friends that keeps them alive.
“Latvians in general have such a drive for life,” Stāks said. “They have a strong motivation to break through the barriers. There are obstacles that could get in the way, like not having the numbers, but we have to keep at it because that is the only way. Being a Latvian by heritage is what brings us together at first. Being Latvian is what binds us; but in the end, the friendships are what keep us closer.”
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