“But what about the rest of us?” asks Latvians Online Editor Andris Straumanis closing off his review of last summer’s Gaŗezers commencement. What about the rest of us who don’t live in Latvia or who don’t speak Latvian on a daily basis outside of our families? What about most of us for whom the real-world is separate from Latvian sanctuaries like Gaŗezers? The questions Straumanis asks are poignant, even more so today.
Putting aside the youthful exuberance and teary heartfelt speeches of 17- and 18-year-old Gaŗezers graduates, the reality is that in 10 or 20 years a good two-thirds or more of today’s Latvian teenagers abroad will have married non-Latvians and their Latvian connections will be increasingly tenuous and difficult to maintain. Numbers don’t lie. One has only to look back 20 or 30 years and trace the paths of post-war boomers who did the 2X2 culture camp and American Latvian Youth Association congress circuit. Most have now disappeared into the woodwork and rarely surface.
While it has become somewhat of a cliche to comment about the fundamental changes affecting the Latvian community abroad since the restoration of Latvia’s independence, apart from a bit of downsizing here and there, we’re still continuing along the same path as before. We have yet to collectively respond to our new challenges and opportunities.
Let’s start with Gaŗezers. More than 150 second-generation Latvian teenagers primarily from the United States but also from nearby Canada attend the summer high school in Michigan. The numbers are impressive, no small feat 50 years after the post-war diaspora. At the same time it is a fraction, about a tenth of a percent, of the 120,000 or so with Latvian ancestry in the two countries. Even after age demographics are taken into account those who attend Gaŗezers represent a very small minority. And it’s worth noting that 15 to 20 years ago, three summer high schools were thriving—Gaŗezers, Beverīna and Kursa (the latter still operating in Washington state).
The numbers are no different in Canada. Just more than 220 students attend five Latvian primary and one secondary school. That’s only nine-tenths of a percent of the 24,000 Canadians of Latvian descent. As in the summer high schools in the United States, enrollment is down. The Toronto Latvian Saturday School now has less than 100 students and the Toronto Latvian School Valodiņa’s numbers have slipped over the past five years to just under 60.
While the consensus is that the Latvian community is shrinking, that attendance at functions is down, that there is pressure to downsize, it is worth pondering the following example. The 1996 Canadian census shows approximately 24,000 Canadians of Latvian descent. Less than a quarter say they speak Latvian at home and this proportion has gone down. However, the total number is actually up by several thousand from the previous census. The increase represents children of mixed-marriage second generation baby-boomers and Generation-Xers.
The question is whether and how we reconcile a shrinking core with a much larger total Latvian population. What do we do with disconnected Latvians, those who have drifted away, those who have married non-Latvians, those who no longer speak Latvian at home even in cases where both spouses are Latvian, those whose parents have never bothered to teach them Latvian?
One thing is clear: We can’t ignore them. The core just doesn’t have the numbers to sustain the community anymore. Whereas in the past it could afford attrition, today it can’t. It is approaching critical mass. It must reach out.
Well, actually, it doesn’t have to. We can continue on our merry way and pretend that nothing has happened. We can continue to pour our resources to serve an ever shrinking minority for diminishing returns, we can send them all to Latvia (and a disproportionate share goes to Latvia today anyway), we can fritter them away as we try to maintain what is no longer sustainable and no longer reflects today’s needs, we can close up shop and have a heck of a party!
I for one am not prepared to go this way. I live in Canada. So does my family. I want to maximize the life of the Latvian community abroad so that it can address the changing needs of its members and ensure that the community’s resources are spent rationally, balancing short-term and longer-term requirements both here and in Latvia. That also means maximizing our human resource capital.
At a personal level, even Latvian families with the finest pedigree have to contend with a non-Latvian daughter-in-law or son-in-law and grandchildren who speak little if any Latvian. Do we treat them as outcasts or as loved members of the family and community?
New shared values are needed for the Latvian community abroad. “Pienākums” (duty) and “audzināt jaunatni Latvijai” (raising youth for Latvia) are no longer true or relevant. Instead the go-forward proposition must be based on the intrinsic value of a cultural identity, of being unique, of being connected to your roots and to a small country in northeastern Europe that exists and is real.
The community abroad must be built on different design principles. It must be inclusive. It must be re-enterable. Long-lost Latvians must feel welcome. So too must non-Latvians who have married Latvians. It must be multi-tiered rather than homogeneous. Language skill should not be a barrier to belonging. It must be modular and not necessarily require a full-time lifestyle commitment. For some all that being Latvian may mean is knowing how to make pīrāgi or wearing Latvian jewelry. That’s okay! For others it’s going all the way with immersion in Latvian dainas or politics with frequent trips to Latvia on the side. That, too, is okay!
Multitiered and modular does not mean that we do not encourage speaking Latvian or that we do not encourage a deeper understanding of Latvian culture and history. It does mean that we recognize it is the individual who will decide on the depth and breadth of their Latvian identity and experience. We need to ensure that there is a connection and that it is positive. We need mechanisms that complement and can address diverse needs.
A favourite example of mine was told by a Latvian childhood chum in northern England over a pint of beer a couple of years ago. He, along with like-minded friends, tired of the exclusive nature of the Latvian community in Great Britain, sent out a mailing in Latvian and English to every middle-aged Latvian they could think of. The mailer asked whether the recipient wanted to meet other Latvians that they hadn’t seen in 20 years. The response was overwhelming and for a couple of years, aging boomers have come out and descended on Straumēni once or twice a year for a weekend where individuals renew contacts with their Latvian roots. Language is not a barrier for participants or for their non-Latvian partners. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t challenge but rather complements existing forums. Similarly, Great Britain has a tradition of parallel 3X3 family seminars: one in English and one in Latvian. English does not displace Latvian but opens the community to those that would otherwise be excluded. Inclusiveness at work—everyone wins.
Toronto’s Valodiņa has adopted a multitiered (or līmeņi) approach. Rather than traditional grades, students are grouped into two- or three-year age bands and within that separated and taught in up to three Latvian language proficiency levels. Students in Level A are reasonably fluent in Latvian while those in Level C must be taught in English. Those in Level B are somewhere inbetween. While this approach poses new challenges, classes are now more homogeneous and easier to teach. The school is also able to attract and keep families with different profiles. Out of 35 families, 20 are families in which both parents have grown up in Canada or the United States, although not all speak Latvian at home, 11 represent mixed marriages while four represent families where one or both parents have emigrated from Latvia in recent years. There simply aren’t enough families with strong Latvian language skills to populate and sustain the school. Likewise families with poor language skills are still looking for something and Valodiņa tries to fill that need.
Valodiņa also has gone bilingual administratively. English words are also included when addressing the school at functions. It is important for the school to ensure that non-Latvian parents feel welcome and support what is often a difficult decision for a mixed-marriage family.
Parallel English and bilingual services at Latvian churches are another example. While maligned by many, they have to various degrees succeeded in reaching out to those who would have gone elsewhere for their spiritual needs. If nothing else, they help fund Latvian parishes lessening the burden on the diminishing core.
Latvians Online is an interesting phenomenon: a global community for Latvians abroad and those interested in Latvian affairs. A new medium that challenges and for many has replaced traditional paper-based Latvian community media. But Latvians Online is in English. It’s in English because use of Latvian would limit the audience. It’s in English because contributors, even those with relatively good Latvian language skills, would have a harder time authoring submissions. It’s in English because it would take most of us longer to read the same articles in Latvian. Latvians Online reaches out and is inclusive. For some it is the point of entry or re-entry. For others it nudges them up a step or two in their Latvian consciousness. For others it complements existing Latvian linkage points.
Multitiered and modular concepts are not new. They evoke mixed reactions. Some argue that had we backed off on the language issue years go the diaspora would have dissipated by now. I agree but I’m not suggesting replacing Latvian with English. I’m suggesting parallel streams.
Others say that they have reached out, but that disconnected Latvians haven’t reciprocated, that they came, sniffed the air, looked around, but did not stay. This may be true, but it seems that most of these efforts assume full engagement or re-engagement from our “lost” souls and that there is no middle ground. that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. You’re going to have to be as Latvian as the rest of us if you want to be part of the club. And invariably a few notable success stories are trotted out.
Still others say that while they will gladly support those who want to re-connect, the initiative has to come from them. They have to organize English 3X3 seminars, teach their kids in Latvian school or whatever. The point merits thought, but perhaps we have to take extra up-front steps to overcome decades of exclusiveness.
And if you agree with me that we’re approaching critical mass beyond which it will be difficult to sustain our community, then we have no choice. We need the numbers. We need to figure out how to make it work. That also means connecting with those who have recently emigrated from Latvia and overcoming obstacles presented by different mindsets and reasons for being abroad.
It may be one thing to live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, Toronto, cities with large Latvian communities. Even today, Toronto can support two Latvian primary schools, a high school, three Lutheran congregations, multiple choirs and dance groups. It is something else to live where only rump Latvian communities exist, where nothing much happens apart from the perfunctory Christmas service, Independence Day ceremony and Jaņu get-together. And inbetween we have many smaller communities where the writing is on the wall. We can’t let the sanctuaries—the Torontos and Gaŗezerses—lull us to sleep. The challenges are real and the amount of serious discourse that has taken place is minimal. Perhaps now that Latvia has been invited to join the NATO defense alliance and the European Union we can shift gears and pay attention to what’s happening at home, or at least strike a balance between Latvia and our community abroad.
(Editor’s note: An earlier and longer version of this article, titled “Latvian schools: The politics of inclusion and exclusion,” was published last summer in Montreālas latviešu biedrības Ziņotājs.)
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