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Have You Ever Met a Latvian

All the time I was growing up I enjoyed being of two nationalities. I was an American-Latvian. So knowing that there are still many Latvians living in the U.S. even though the older generations have passed on I found much to my interest that according to the 2000 U.S. Census there are 87,564 citizens who are of Latvian ancestry. That is saying quite a lot.

The very first Latvians to set foot on American soil were settlers from Tobago and arrived in Massachusetts a few decades after the first English Puritans. Latvians settled in Delaware and Pennsylvania along with Swedish settlers about 1640. Then in 1849, there were Latvians who jumped on the bandwagon and joined the fortune seekers heading for California during the Gold Rush. The first big wave of Latvian immigrants landed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1888. These were mostly young men who wanted to have a better life and were escaping from mandatory military service for Imperial Russia.

Latvian immigrants were divided up into two groups – those who were hoping that Latvia would gain independence from the Soviet Union and those who wanted Latvian workers not to be oppressed. As the century came to an end Latvian immigrants had settled mostly on the East Coast and in Midwest cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. Others headed for the West Coast and settled in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco.

Many of the Latvian immigrants were well educated and had managed to finish the University of Latvia while others finished their education in Germany or later on in the U.S. They quickly learned to speak English but at home, within the family, only Latvian was spoken.

Some notable Latvians:

  • Rutanya Alda an actress who appeared in movies such as “Mommy Dearest” and “The Deer Hunter”.
  • Gunnar Birkerts architect who designed Corning Museum of Glass, Marquette Plaza in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.
  • Buddy Ebsen actor and dancer who was best known for his role as Jed Clampett in the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies.
  • Martins Krumins Latvian-American Impressionist Painter.
  • Peggy Lipton an actress best known for her role in The Mod Squad.

And many more who made a name for themselves in the U.S.

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Even though life was often hard in the beginning Latvians established organizations, churches, and schools to save the Latvian culture. They published Latvian newspapers and books. Books were published by Gramatu Draugs or Friend of a Book which was owned by the Latvian newspaper “Laiks” or “Time” and it gave Latvian writers and poets a way to share their creativity. Often being inspired by the new circumstances in which they lived and writing about the cities that they now called home such as New York. The newspaper office was located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York, just a few blocks from where my parents and I lived and my dad popular Latvian writer and poet Eriks Raisters was the editor of Laiks.

Once they had proved themselves they were able to take up important jobs in U.S. companies, universities, the government, in art, and in society. They all made sure they became U.S. citizens and even fought in the U.S. Army. They never forgot to teach their children about Latvia and Latvian culture. Teaching them in Latvian schools which were held on Saturdays so they would learn the language. I was also taught the geography and history of Latvia as well as literature, art, and poetry. Latvian organizations continue to keep the Latvian social life alive. When Latvia celebrates its Independence Day on November 18th you can be sure that if the holiday falls on a Monday the celebrations will be held in Latvian society on the weekend before. 

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