My daughter, Lily, is working on updating her Russian paperwork. She came to this country at 15 by adoption and at 25, ten years after her arrival, she was not enthusiastic about renewing her citizenship. But times have changed and she is more than ready, despite Covid, despite the hassles and costs, she is determined to codify her heritage. I am proud of her.
But it does make me wonder about my own identity. Not exactly a first generation immigrant, but the daughter of immigrants who arrived in this country from Latvia, via Germany, in February of 1951. Eight months later, I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a fairly tight community of Latvians in Indianapolis at the time, and my father’s connections brought us there from North Carolina where our “sponsors” were. The racism there sent my parents fleeing North.
And yet, when my father died in 1963, my mother was one of the “early” widows in that community. She was not 100% Latvian, but half German, half Latvian. It was another mark against her. A widow with German ancestry. Most Latvian hated the Germans for all those years of occupation. They hated the Russians equally.
My mother lost her entree into the community through my father and slowly, bit by bit, we were ostracized as a family. But truth be told, my mother believed assimilation into America was a better choice anyway. And so we did. Less and less Latvian was spoken at home and American ways were adopted. We still attended Latvian events, but we didn’t have the money to buy the authentic “costumes” or belong to the right organizations. We wore the red, white and blue.
And so it was, that I and my older brother were not quite Latvian, certainly not German, but not quite American either. We walked a thin line between them all. When my mother was growing up in Riga, her German mother had convinced her that all things German were the way to go. And so, in the second World War, she “repatrioted” to Germany along with her employer for whom she was a nanny.
But it was her facile use of languages, (Latvian, German, and English) that earned her opportunities for emigration to the United States, despite her elderly husband (25 years her senior) and a 5 year old child.
All of this is to say, that my daughter’s journey makes me wonder if I have lost something precious. Despite my mother’s German mother, Herta was born and raised in Latvia and so was my father. I am a Latvian-American. I can still speak the language, but not well. When my late husband, Mike, and I adopted two children, we adopted them from Lativa. It was an emotional visit for me.
Does it matter now? I’m not sure. At one point, I had to make a choice. When we adopted our boys in 1996, I had to choose whether to continue to speak Latvian to them. It was not a task I was up to. And so, they have grown up American. While my half-sister, Inta, who lived in Estonia was still alive, I was reminded of my Latvian history each time we connected. But even she, after 50 years in Tallinn, became more Estonian than Latvian. Her child, Juri, and grandchildren know little Latvian, despite it’s proximity. We connect today in English, if at all.
There are families who maintained their rich Latvian heritage in the States. And to this day, they still speak Latvian in the home and whenever possible, congregate in the summer at Garezers (Michigan), or in community centers in their cities. My beloved cousin, Gaida, and her children, from Boston, maintained and sustained their heritage. When I am with her adult daughter, it is a type of embarrassment and sorrow that I am a weak speaker of my parents’ tongue. She is gracious to me, nonetheless.
Who am I? I am an American born woman to immigrants from Latvia, a small country on the Baltic. For many years, my parents’ country was under USSR control and for this reason, most Latvians are fiercely anti-Russian. I can’t blame them. And yet, my American husband and I adopted a teenager from St. Petersburg. We broke the norm. My half-sister was appalled.
Who am I? I love America because it gave my family every chance possible. My brother and I both attended college and I went on to two Master’s Degrees. Only in America. I have a sensitivity to the foreigner and respect people of different origins. I revel in people who speak more than one language.
I am an American. But my family needed a “sponsor” to reach these shores. They needed a helping hand. They were not the normal immigrants. My father was “too old.” And yet, my mother succeeded in breaking through all those barriers. I am the daughter of a fighter who would not accept “no” as an answer to her plight. I am the daughter of a man who spoke no English. I am the daughter who learned English on the street.
So, there was a turning point. I married an American and one of our primary connections was our faith. He did not speak Latvian, and really, why should he? In order to engage fully in a Latvian community (in Baltimore), we would have to give as much time to that connection as we gave to our local church. I chose my faith over my heritage. Did I do the right thing? Who’s to say?
My daughter, who has been here fifteen years, has chosen her heritage. She is fully engaged with the language and the culture, and I admire her for her fortitude. My boys, who were much younger (4 and 5) when they came to this country, did not have the same freedom of choice. They no longer speak Latvian. It’s a kind of sorrow, a kind of loss.
Now, my husband is gone (deceased in 2014) and really, there is nothing keeping me from re-engaging with my heritage? Will I do it? I doubt it. I respect my Latvian friends from my childhood, but it was not my way. I am a hybrid.
When my parents fled the racism of North Carolina, they followed an invitation from a friend of my father’s to come to Indianapolis. The Latvian community was fairly strong there, running around 2500 people. They had a community center and even two Latvian Lutheran congregations (I assume those two congregations couldn’t come together because of politics & personalities, but I don’t really know the truth behind that division). Latvians had a community choir, a variety of musicians, and of course, visual artists & traveling theater companies. Like other emigres, the goal was to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Many of the older Latvians, grandparents and the like, never learned English.
In 1952, we entered that community and because of my father (who was 100% Latvian and a “good ole boy” from the old country) we had early acceptance. Despite our poverty (like most of the immigrants of the time), my parents had a fairly busy social life in the community (card parties, dinner parties, and the like). The first hitch came when my Father refused to attend church. This put everything on my mother and since we didn’t own a car (nor did my mother drive until she was well into her late forties), the constant jostling for rides etc., put us down on a lower rung of the Latvian social hierarchy. Nonetheless, my mother did her best to be active in various Latvian organizations: she sing in the Latvian choir, attended folk festivals, worked on church committees, and so forth.
In another compliance to the culture and community, my mother insisted that both my brother and I attend Latvian School on Saturdays. I can’t speak for my brother, but I’m fairly sure we both hated it.
But of course, little did the Latvians know, that my mother was also touting our German roots, singing us German folk songs, telling German folk tales, and telling us her story that revolved around her experiences within the German world of Latvia and later her years as a “re-patrioted” German. Oh yeah, she was a long way from the Latvian model.
But the breaking point in our Latvian connection came with my father’s death in 1961 and the evolving eccentricities of my mother. My mother’s status as “widow” put her in a precarious position. Twenty-five years younger than my father, she was still quite eligible for a second marriage and the women of the community found her presence threatening. At least, this is what my mother told me.
In later years, I began to see another dynamic of the “mixed breed” syndrome. With my father’s death, my mother’s German heritage became more and more apparent and questioned by the Latvians. At the same time, our small triad of a family became interested things American (particularly with my brother in high school and achieving some acclaim there). I became quite rebellious in “junior high” and wanted to stop being different and just wanted to “fit in.” I wanted to be a regular American.
Year by year, my brother and I pulled away from the Latvian community. Oh, we still celebrated the big holidays and Latvian cultural events, but I became a Latvian School drop out and set my sights on high school acceptance and elusive “popularity.”
My ultimate return to my Latvian roots is another story. But for this moment in time, I became a self-inflicted girl without a country. Because, truth be told, despite my best efforts, I remained just a bit different from my American friends and by then, had burned too many bridges in the Latvian world.
I have no one to blame by myself. I occasionally wonder what my adult life would have been like if I had put more energy into the Latvian part of me: going to Latvian summer camps, learning all the Latvian folklore & folk songs, joining a Latvian sorority, perhaps having an “authentic” folk costume sewn, and of course, making pilgrimage there. Perhaps I would have married a Latvian and insisted that my children speak the language. This was the ultimate path for first generation Lativan/Americans, the dream of the those who emigrated here, to sustain their culture.
In the days of the Cold War, all the way up until 1991, it was a point of pride for many Latvians (and really, any of the Baltic peoples), to protect their heritage while the Soviet Union did everything it could to destroy it back home. Their ultimate dream was that the Iron Curtain would come down and all satellite countries would be free again.
But for a teenager or even a twenty-something off to live life, the idea of a free Latvia was absurd and the fall of the Soviet Union an impossibility.
So much for impossibilities. The curtain did come down in 1991 and many stalwart Latvian/Americans returned to their homeland. Not me. Not until much later. Much, much later did I yearn to know and to go back. Almost too late. Almost.