Like squeezing blood out of a stone?

As I was flicking through a photo album containing photographs of past pupils of the Sydney Latvian School and recognising faces I had known in my childhood, I came to realise that about 80 percent of these faces I hadn’t seen since my days at this school where I learnt to read and write in Latvian on Saturday mornings. I can’t say for certain that this vast majority of my peers has never shown their faces in the Latvian community since their school years. But I do know for a fact that when I visit my hometown and venture into the Sydney Latvian House to attend a cultural performance, I would be surprised if I caught sight of any of those faces (slightly older, but still recognisable I’m sure!).

The same goes for the Melbourne Latvian community—which I am more familiar with now as I have been living here for more than 10 years—and for most Latvian communities in the United States, Canada and other countries where Latvian communities flourished and within which schools were founded and operated for many years.

In most of the major Latvian centres around the world to a greater or lesser degree there is still a handful of active second and even third generation Latvians still interested in maintaining the Latvian language, culture and doing their best to pass it on to their children. These Latvians still view this as a priority in their lives and put in much effort and still devote a great deal of their time to this pursuit. Yet a large proportion of this generation has drifted away from most Latvian community activities and can rarely be seen attending, let alone being involved in, the many organisations that still exist where Latvian communities are still active.

I do realise that it is 50 years since Latvians emigrated to these countries and that it sounds like a big ask for all second-generation Latvians (i.e., those who were born outside Latvia), let alone third-generation Latvians, to retain their interest in things Latvian, yet I still wonder about this phenomenon. Hundreds of Latvian kids, born in the United States, Canada, Australia or the United Kingdom over the past 40 years, have gone through the emigre Latvian education system, have attended these schools on a weekly basis, learnt the language and much about its traditions, spent their summer vacations in Latvian camps, high schools and so forth. Even if only an inkling of what they have learnt remained buried deep in their subconscious, one would like to hope that they would still retain some degree of interest in the fatherland of their grandparents, a task that these Latvian schools had taken on to perform.

Do these Latvians still maintain some contact with other Latvians within a family or social setting? Do they identify themselves as Latvian and maintain some interest in Latvia and Latvians? Have they ever been to Latvia or intend to visit it some time in the future?

A vast majority of these second-generation Latvians have graduated from Latvian school or maybe abandoned their schooling earlier simply out of a lack of interest—not always on their part but more often that of their parents. Their parents and grandparents (or their Latvian-speaking parent) spoke to them in the emigre country’s local language because it was much easier and did not take that much interest in their Latvian schooling. As a result of this lack of support within the family structure, this interest in their Latvian identity was fragile if not even non-existent and there was little hope of breathing life into this identity during these few hours spent at Latvian school over the weekend.

This brings me to the crux of my musings: without the support and interest within the immediate family, there is little hope of achieving much at Latvian school. It would be like squeezing blood out of a stone.

In some cases, even though these Latvians do identify themselves as Latvian and still speak (or understand) the language, their experience at Latvian school may not have been too positive, either at a social level or at the educational level. As this may have been their only contact with Latvians outside their family, the connection with other Latvians was not found and hence the loss of interest.

Another likely reason for abandoning Latvian community activities probably was a lack of interest in these activities or the inability of these activities to fulfill their needs. When you graduate from Latvian high school, what can you do within the Latvian community? You can still be part of a Latvian folk dancing group, choir or theatre troupe, play sport, take part in activities organised by ALJA or LNJAK (or LJAA in Australia, when it was still active) or join a sorority or fraternity (korporācija) if you are studying and others of your age group have joined. But a few years down the track, what then? Most of the Latvian organisations that do still exist are run and attended by the older generation of Latvians who have different perspectives and different life experiences.

Then there is another group of Latvians of my generation who have simply experienced Latvian "burn out." They have participated in every Latvian event under the sun, have danced and sung and played an instrument and organised this, that and the other event till one day they have had enough. They simply want a rest. So they do…and find that immersing themselves in the local (be it American, Canadian, British or Australian) culture is much easier and less demanding.

The smallest percentage of my generation has gone to Latvia to live. These are mostly Latvians who were in their early to mid twenties when Latvia regained its independence in 1991. They had not established themselves in family life or a career at the time and had nothing to lose when they made the decision to try their hand at living in their parents’ or grandparents’ "homeland."

A small proportion of second-generation Latvians appear "lost" only to return when they have had children of their own. These Latvians might come to the realisation that they do want to pass on their heritage to their children, and Latvian school (if it is still operating in their community) is the best place to do this.

As this is not a detailed academic study, I don’t intend to draw any conclusions or offer any solutions. However, I would like others of my generation (those who are 20-50 years old) to contribute their experiences within the emigre Latvian school system. Were you happy with your experiences or do you only remember it as a negative time in your life? Did you get involved in other Latvian activities after you graduated from Latvian school? Do you still speak the language? Do you regret that you don’t any more?

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

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