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.

10 thoughts on “The resurgence of Latvian youth in Australia

  1. I think that the get-up-and-go of young Australian Latvians can only be applauded! In my experience some overseas-born young Latvians have a far greater interest in Latvian culture and traditions than even young people of a similar age in Latvia, who sometimes denigrate their own culture, while expressing appreciation and even admiration for the “modernity” and “dynamism” of American or Russian contemporary culture – they have yet to divest themselves of the Soviet attitude that “big and more is better” and adhere to the view that “small is beautiful”. The older generation of diaspora Latvians should understand that culture is not irrevocably frozen in some Ulmanis-like twilight zone, and each new generation will interpret the cultural legacy of the past in its own way. Lack of youth participation in Latvian events is, I think, partly the older generation’s fault anyway: one should not expect children born in Australia and educated in an English-speaking environment to think or act like first-generation Latvian-born migrants. It is laughable and to some degree tragic how “Latvianness” simply becomes a tool for social exclusion in diaspora community power plays (or among diaspora Latvians and Latvians living in Latvia, for that matter). There should be more acknowledgement of the diversity of ways of being Latvian in the world (or even in one country or city!), and more tolerance. Latvian youth in Australia seem to be performing the social balancing act exceptionally well nearly 60 years after the postwar migration, but definitely should be given more of a go … and more encouragement!!!! Being Latvian should not be about how well one conforms to a museum-piece model of culture. Latvianness in Australia in the third and subsequent postwar generations will not be that of prewar Latvia, if it ever was that. I hope that young Latvians in Australia will continue to bother – you are a valuable part not only of local culture, but also in the context of the “world community”.

  2. I live in the U.S. and I find it amazing that Latvians the world over critize other Latvians so easily… Quite sad, really. However, it’s great to read about jauniesi in Australia!

  3. Daina, Please be positive. I always appreciate the skill, talent and joy of young Latvians that I have come across in Brisbane. Haven’t been to Sydney in years. There is a great Ensemble here of young girls who play great music and performed in Sydney during ‘Kulturs Dienas” recently. I will never critize what you wear, am just delighted that there is so much amazing talent amongst the young people and that we can still have the opportunity to enjoy their singing and dancing, maintaining our Latvian culture.

  4. I’m from Melbourne and I’ve only just started learning Latvian, even though I’m 23. I grew up in country Victoria, with my Latvian grandfather living about 1.25 hours from us. My grandfather never spoke any Latvian at home; none of his children (my mother, aunt and uncles) speak any Latvian or really have much of a feel for being of Latvian background. Being from the country there was no one to teach me as I was younger. Since I moved to Melbourne for university I decided I would learn. I’m interested in finding out about the heritage my grandfather wanted to forget after his experiences in the war. In terms of my family, I would have the most “Latvianness” yet coming to Melbourne I don’t feel like I fit in at all. Everyone else my age has been learning since they were very young and they all know each other and have formed a tight group. This is very hard to crack into, particularly when you’ve only been learning the language for 6 months. I would love to be more involved yet really feel as if I don’t belong because I have no one to speak Latvian to (my grandfather died when I was 7, but he wouldn’t have spoken Latvian to me anyway). I guess what I’m trying to say in response to this is that sometimes it is very hard to become involved, no matter how much you want to. But I shall perservere and see how things go.

  5. Michelle – I think it’s fantastic that you’re trying to find out about your heritage, and I hope you understand that this article wasn’t aimed at people like you. I know it can often be hard to get involved in something new like this, but I encourage you to persevere. I know a lot of the young Latvians in Melbourne and it’s true they are all close friends having grown up together, but I also know they can be very warm and welcoming. Small community that we are, it’s always very exciting to find someone new who’s interested in becoming involved! Good luck!

  6. I do not quite fit the youth mould having hit the half century mark. However I am seeking to reclaim my lost youth as my father similarly to Michelee never passed on his heritage It is only two trips to Latvia and the search for unanswered questions that has caused me t seek the lost days of my youth. I am interested to know where you are learning Latvian Michelle and if Daina there arer classes for mature age people in Sydney? Eddie (Edgars)

  7. In response to Ozols — Maybe try contacting Vija Sierina about Latvian language classes. Her name is on the Learning Latvian list in the Education/Izglitiba section of Latvians Online. I don’t know her personally, but she should be able to at least point you in the right direction. Vija Sieriņa, 13 Ellen Street, Ryde 2112 NSW, (02) 98887029,

  8. I am trying to reach out to Latvian Society here in Sydney and have a hard time receiving responses. I believe that older people who run this organization must be busy with organizing events and gathering together those members who have expressed their interests earlier; however, I think they should concentrate on new faces as well. I would like to create a website or chat that would be accessable very easy by young members and young generation who have different morales and communication strategies than older generation. Please find me on skype as ‘irenausie’ and let me know what you think. Thanks.

  9. I rediscovered this site and was thrilled to make contact with my roots. Since I moved to America 37 years ago I have not had the Latvian contacts I had in Victoria, Australia. It was interesting to see that things have not changed in the Latvian community in 50 years! The older generation criticizing the younger one for minor matters like appearance – it happened in my days also. Ignore it Jauniesi, and keep up the good work of keeping our culture alive.

  10. Sveiciens visiem no Latvijas! Savos meklējumos gluži netīšām uzdūros šim forumam. Jau kādu laiku meklēju cilvēkus, latviešus, kas dzīvo austrālijā Viktorijas vai NSW apgabalos. Pēdējā laika notikumi Latvijā aizvien vairāk liek domāt par migrāciju, tāpēc ja nav grūti, būšu priecīgs saņemt pāris atbildes uz jautājumiem! Kāda ir dzīve Austrālijā? Cik sen tur dzīvojat? Kādi ir labākie veidi, migrēt uz Austrāliju, kur meklēt palīdzību? Zinu par profesionālu darbinieku vīzām, taču, ne es ne mana sieviņa šai kategorijā neiederamies.

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