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.
Being born of foreign parents, for the longest time, I had no idea I would have a problem with my name. Latvian was spoken in my home exclusively since my father, already sixty-three at my birth, never learned English. Both my brother and I gathered up English off the street.
My family called me Irmite (3 syllables, short “i’s”) or Irmi which are diminutives for Irmgarde. Before hitting the neighborhood and other American environments, I didn’t know how foreign-sounding and difficult my name would be for people. I didn’t know kids wouldn’t be able to say it or that I would need a short explanation or “pronunciation” lesson every time I met someone new. (This is true even today.)
Of course, I’m not the only kid in the world who has suffered the slings and arrows of a difficult moniker. We should probably create an online club, perhaps a 12-step program to accept our need for a “higher power” to deal with it. I have always marveled at modern parents who strap children with oddball spellings and sounds. What are they thinking?
Anyway, by the time I reached middle school, most of my schoolmates and neighbors had settled into calling me Irm, pronounced Erm, along with all of its rhyming sequences. It was not until college or maybe even later that I decided to insist people try saying the more Germanic “i” which is shorter and closer to the “e” in ear than anything else. I’ll never forget one woman who discarded my correction and said, “my mouth can’t make that sound.” Nice.
As I entered adulthood and lived away from childhood friends and family, I began looking for new names. I would give myself a new name and a new identity. But, it’s an odd thing to “rename” oneself. Secretly, I had hoped for some little catchy nickname that would catch on with the crowd. Never happened. Never. No cute little “cricket” or “bubbles” or “Bam-bam.”
Two of my erstwhile attempts at renaming myself were Zoe (the playwright years) and Shiloh (the cocktail waitress years), neither of which fit me particularly or stuck. I even tried initials, my middle name (Inese – 3 syllables, short vowels), and different spellings. Nada.
Today, nothing much has changed in the name department. I have changed my last name by marriage twice, but I have made peace with my first name and given up all other aliases. It’s a rough peace, but acceptance all the same. I discovered my name means “guardian of a small enclosure” and so I imagine myself as a shield for those beloved few who have stayed close over the years: my deep friends, my family, and my inner self, who will always be Irmite. It’s enough. It will do.