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Latvian Americans


by Andris Straumanis


Latvia is situated in Eastern Europe on the Baltic Sea, bordered by Estonia to the north, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south. With a population in 1993 of about 2.6 million and a surface area of 24,903 square miles (64,600 square kilometers), Latviaone of the three Baltic nationsis larger than Estonia but smaller than Lithuania. Nearly 69 percent of Latvia's population lives in cities, especially the capital, Rîga, which is home to about a third of the nation's people.

Although Latvia has always had a diverse population, the country's ethnic composition has become a growing issue among Latvians concerned with preservation of their culture. In 1993, according to Latvian government statistics, 53.5 percent of inhabitants were ethnic Latvians, while 33.5 percent were Russians. In some regions, particularly in southeastern Latvia as well as in the capital city of Rîga, ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Latvians. Other ethnic groups often found in Latvia include Belarussians, Estonians, Germans, Gypsies, Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians. The leading religions in Latvia include Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. The official language of the country is Latvian, and the national flag consists of three horizontal stripes (maroon on top and bottom, white in the middle).


Latvia's experience as an independent nation has been limited. Inhabited as early as 9000 B.C., the region now called Latvia only began taking on a national identity in the mid-nineteenth century. The Latvians' ancestorsearly tribes of Couronians, Latgallians, Livs, Selonians, and Semgallians were established in the area by about 1500 B.C. Through the centuries, these pagan tribes gradually developed their society and culture, but beginning in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries they came under subjugation from German invasions. In particular, the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire forcibly Christianized the tribes and built an economic and political system that continued in power until the twentieth century. The Germans were responsible for the growth of Rîga, established in 1201, as an important Baltic Sea port that continues today to serve as a transportation link between western Europe and Russia.

As the Russian Empire expanded in the 1600s, German military control of the Baltic region weakened. Beginning in the 1620s and into the 1700s, the northern part of Latvia was under Swedish rule, while the south and the east came under Polish-Lithuanian domination. Only the Duchy of Courland, in western Latvia by the Baltic Sea, maintained some independence. The Duchy of Courland even managed to briefly extend its influence beyond its home, establishing colonies in Gambia in Africa (1651) and on the Caribbean Sea island of Tobago (1654).

With the signing of the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, settling the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden, the region that would later become Latvia came under the political and military rule of the Russian czar. Its economy, however, continued to be controlled by German barons who lived off the labor of Latvian peasants. Latvians began to gain some economic power after 1819, when serfs in the Baltic provinces were emancipated by the Russians.

Industrialization and the emergence of the socalled "National Awakening" in the late nineteenth century created discontent among Latvians over their social and political relationships with the Russians and the Germans. That discontent led to the 1905 Revolution in Latvia. Although the revolution failed, it served to bring together the Latvian working class and intelligentsia and to heighten hopes for independence. A year after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Latvia declared its independence and was a sovereign nation until its occupation by Soviet troops in 1940. In June of 1941, during the final three days of the Russian occupation of Rîga before its fall to the Germans, an estimated 30,000 Latvians were shepherded onto boxcars and deported to Siberia. Thousands died in what is now known among Latvians as the Baigais gads ("The Year of Terror"). "Liberated" by German troops in 1941, Latvia again fell under Soviet rule by the end of World War II. Forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union, Latvia only regained independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Some historical evidence suggests that the first Latvians in North America may have settled with Swedish and Finnish migrants in the area of Delaware and Pennsylvania around 1640. In the late 1600s, a group from the island of Tobago migrated to Massachusetts. Latvians were also among the thousands of fortune seekers who headed to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. Two histories of Latvians in America claim that Mārtiņš Buciņš, believed to be a Latvian sailor, was among the first to die during the American Civil War.


Latvian American immigrants consist of two distinct groups: those immigrantsoften called veclatvieši, or Old Latvianswho settled in the United States before World War II, and those who arrived after the war. Immigration before World War II is generally divided into three phases. The first phase began in 1888 with the arrival of several young men in Boston. (Among them was Jēkabs Zībergs [1863-1963], who became one of the most important Latvian American community leaders in the pre-World War II era.) Like other Latvian immigrants who followed in the early years of the twentieth century, these men journeyed to America in search of their fortunesor to escape being drafted into the Russian czar's army. Politically, the early immigrants were further divided into two groups: one devoted to the creation of an independent Latvia; the other, influenced by socialism, concerned with freeing Latvian workers from the oppression of imperial Russia. This division was mirrored in Latvian American society.

The early immigrants were usually young, single men, although some single women and families also came to the States at the end of the nineteenth century. They settled primarily in East Coast and Midwest cities, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago, as well as in some cities on the West Coast, including Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Scattered immigrants also settled in rural areas, although usually not in great enough numbers to form long-lasting communities. In most cities, in fact, Latvians were so few in number that they failed to create the sort of ethnic neighborhoods for which other groups, such as the Italians or Poles, are known. Only in the Roxbury district of Boston did an urban Latvian neighborhood develop. Latvians also attempted to create a rural colony in Lincoln County in north central Wisconsin, but political differences and hard economic conditions sapped the community of its members, which at one point is said to have numbered about 2,000. The first Lutheran church built by Latvians in America was erected in Lincoln County in 1906.

Among the early wave of immigrants were several hundred Latvian Baptists who also settled in various East Coast locations. Perhaps the best-known Latvian Baptist settlement was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, where beginning in 1906 a community was formed that eventually grew to about 100 individuals.

The next wave of immigration of Old Latvians began around 1906, following the failed 1905 Revolution in the Latvian province of the Russian empire. Many Latvian political leaders, as well as rank-and-file revolutionaries, faced certain death if caught by Russian soldiers, so they chose instead to emigrate and to continue the revolutionary movement from abroad. Most of the revolutionaries who arrived in the United States had more radical political views than the earlier Latvian immigrants, and this resulted in splits not only between conservative and leftist Latvians but also among the leftists themselves.

With the beginning of World War I, Latvia became a battleground between German and Russian forces. Latvian migration came to a halt until the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, when many revolutionary Latvians returned to their homeland to work for the creation of a Bolshevik government (a forerunner to the Communist party) in Latvia as well as in Moscow. Among those returning was Fricis Roziņš (1870-1919), a radical Marxist philosopher who had immigrated to America in 1913. He returned in 1917 to head a short-lived Latvian Soviet government. A few nationalist Latvian Americans returned to Latvia after the country declared independence in 1918.

The next wave of immigration was more of a trickle. U.S. immigration quotas put in place in 1924 limited the number of Latvians who could settle in America, while the creation of a free Latvia and the promise of better economic times in the homeland coupled with the Great Depression in the United Statesgenerally discouraged immigration.

The number of Latvians who journeyed to America before World War II is difficult to determine. Figures compiled by Francis J. Brown and Joseph Slabey Roucek, published in Our Racial and National Minorities in 1937, show that 4,309 Latvians came to the United States before 1900; 8,544 from 1901-1910; 2,776 from 1911-1914; 730 from 1915-1919; 3,399 from 1921-1930; and 519 from 1930-1936. Until the 1930 census, the U.S. government lumped Latvians in with Lithuanians and Russians. Ten years later, the census counted 34,656 people of Latvian origin, about 54 percent of them foreign-born.

World War II's ravages of Latvia turned many Latvians into refugees. Fearing the Soviet communists, they headed to western Europe. By the end of the war, an estimated 240,000 Latviansmore than a tenth of the country's populationwere camped in Displaced Persons (DP) facilities in Germany, Austria, and other countries. About half were eventually repatriated to Latvia, but the rest resettled in Germany, England, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the United States, as well as in other countries. As documented by Andris Skreija in his unpublished thesis on Latvian refugees, an estimated 40,000 Latvians immigrated to the United States from 1949 to 1951 with the help of the U.S. government and various social service and religious organizations. Many of these Latvians had been members of the professional class in their homeland, but in America they often had to take jobs as farmhands, custodians, or builders until they managed to find better paying positions.

Most Latvian DPs settled in larger cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. As with the Old Latvians, the DPs failed to create neighborhoods and had to rely on social events, the telephone, the mail, and the press to create a sense of community. In a few eastern cities, the newer immigrants found that some Old Latvian colonies remained active. (Some organizations and congregations begun by the Old Latvians, such as the Philadelphia Society of Free Letts, founded in 1892, continue to operate today.) In most cases, however, the Latvian DPs had to start from scratch and within a few years had managed to create a rather complete social and cultural world that included schools, credit unions, choirs, dance groups, theater troupes, publishers and book sellers, churches, veterans' groups, and political organizations.

Unlike the Old Latvians, many of whom considered themselves immigrants, the Latvian DPs saw themselves as living in trimda, or exile, and dreamed of the day they could return to a free Latvia. Since the reestablishment of an independent Latvia in 1991, however, few have returned, although about 9,000 have declared dual citizenship as a way to offer political support to the reemerging nation. Many frequently travel to their homeland and provide financial and material support for relatives and various organizations. A number of Latvian Americans have been elected to the Saeima, or Parliament, in Latvia. According to the 1990 report of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, a total of 75,747 persons claimed Latvian ancestry, 27,540 of whom were born abroad. From 1980 to 1990, the census reports, 1,006 Latvians arrived in the United States.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Latvians of the pre-World War II immigration are generally thought to have assimilated quickly into the American mainstream, while the exiles of the post-World War II period have maintained their ethnic distinctiveness but now are facing deepening concerns about their future.

In a 1919 article in Literary Digest, the attitude of Latvians (or Letts, as they were known then) toward acculturation was described thus: "Their first aim, except among the radical element, is to secure admission to American citizenship. Their children all are educated in our public schools, and the second generation of Letts are thorough Americans in the majority" ("Letts in the United States," Literary Digest, 21 June 1919; p. 37). While it may be true that many of the Old Latvians were eager to seek American citizenship, many also continued to keep up their interest in Latvia, especially between 1918 and 1920, when Latvia declared and fought for independence. At the same time, as the Literary Digest article noted, some Latvians who held leftist political views may have resisted becoming part of the American system. In 1919, for example, about 1,000 Latvians were among those immigrants who helped found the Communist Party of America.

Except for the political radicals among them, pre-World War II Latvian immigrants tended to assimilate easily. According to Brown and Roucek, 60.9 percent of the 20,673 foreign-born Latvians in the United States had been naturalized by 1930, while another 10.5 percent had declared their intention to be naturalized. Most Latvians, like other immigrants, started out in low-paying, unskilled jobs, but over the years gained experience and higher socioeconomic status. A report of the Committee on Racial Groups of the Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary Inc., written about 1930, had this to say about the Latvians in Massachusetts: "The Lettish people cannot be classified among the rich, but neither are they poor. Many of them own their own homes. Partly due to the fact that the Letts are scattered, there are no Lettish banks, corporations, or big businesses that are worth mentioning. The same is true of the professional workers. Mostly, they are skilled workers, such as carpenters, machinists, painters, wood finishers, tool makers, railroad workers, garage mechanics. Some of them, however, have taken up farming as their chosen profession and are successful farmers" (Committee on Racial Groups of the Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary Inc., Historical Review, 1930).

Latvians did not experience much of the stereotyping that plagued southern, central, and eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. This is most likely due to the fact that the Latvians were a little-known group. In one incident in Boston in 1908, however, Latvians as a group briefly made the front pages of local newspapers after three Latvians robbed a saloon at gunpoint. The newspaper coverage, the Boston-based magazine Arena complained, made the Latvians look like "a bloodthirsty, murderous people, lawless, criminal and altogether undesirable citizens" (Andris Straumanis, "'This Sudden Spasm of Newspaper Hostility': Stereotyping of Latvian Immigrants in Boston Newspapers, 1908," Ethnic Forum, Volume 13, No. 2, and Volume 14, No. 1, 1993-1994).

The arrival of the Latvian DPs after World War II sparked an era of heightened ethnic maintenance. Fiercely anticommunist, they saw the Soviet occupation of their homeland not only as an infringement on their right to autonomy but also as an effort to eradicate Latvians altogether. Migration of Russians and other non-Latvian groups into Latvia, part of a Soviet effort at "Russification," became a threat to Latvian culture. Latvian DPs in the United States reacted by launching a number of political and cultural movements to fight assimilation and help make Americans aware of Latvia's plight. Weekend Latvian schools were organized in several cities, while summer camps offered children and adults cultural immersion. Runāsim latviski ("Let's speak Latvian") was as much a political statement as an expression of cultural preservation. Marriage outside of the Latvian group often was discouraged, because it might mean that children of mixed couples would not learn the language.

As with the Old Latvians, few cultural misconceptions exist about post-World War II Latvians. Indeed the biggest difficulties Latvians have faced are their small numbers and the erasure, before 1991, of Latvia from many world maps. As a result, few Americans know anything about Latvians and often confuse Europe's Balkan states with the Baltic countries, of which Latvia is a part.


Like many other ethnic groups, the Latvians in the United States have adopted some American ways, but they also maintain a cultural heritage from the homeland. Until the late nineteenth century, when industrialization created demand for workers in several Latvian cities, Latvians remained rural. As a result, many of the traditions, customs, and beliefs still acknowledged by Latvian Americans are based on agricultural life. Others are drawn from more ancient Latvian culture. For example, in the Latvian tradition, a bride-to-be proved her worthiness by knitting many intricately designed wool mittens, as well as linen handkerchiefs and wool socks. The more she had in her dowry, the more worthy she might appear to her suitor. In the States, wool mittens and socks are sometimes used as adornments in wedding ceremonies.

Among the Latvian people's strongest traditions are their songs, called dainas, and their interest in folk culture. The dainas simple verses that tell old stories and reveal the wisdom of centuries of Latvian culturewere handed down orally over generations. Beginning in the nineteenth century, as interest in Latvian nationalism grew, folklorists transcribed about 900,000 of these songs, culminating in a multi-volume collection compiled by Krisjānis Barons (1835-1923). Even at the end of the twentieth century, dozens of Latvian ensembles maintained the musical tradition in the United States, often performing at community events and in ethnic festivals. On a grander scale, Latvians in America and in Latvia have organized song festivals that feature performances of traditional folk songs and dances, choral music, and even musicals and plays. These song festivals serve as a ritual, reminding Latvians of their common ideals. The first such festival was held in Latvia in 1873; the tradition has since been carried on in the States, beginning in Chicago in 1953.


Traditional Latvian foods include pīrāgi, pastry stuffed with bacon or ham; Jāņu siers, a cheese usually made for the Midsummer Eve's holiday; various soups; sauerkraut; potato salad; smoked fish and eel; and beer. At major celebrations, such as holidays and birthdays, a popular sweetbreadthe kliņg'eris, flavored with raisins and cardamom and shaped like a large pretzelis served. Because of the work involved in preparing many of these dishes, as well as the difficulty in obtaining some ingredients, many of these foods are now prepared only for special occasions. The foods tend to be rich, although Latvian Americans have been known to modify recipes by using lower-fat ingredients and less salt.


Folk costumes are worn by Latvian Americans primarily when performing in song groups or dance troupes. Men's costumes are characterized by monotone (white, gray, or black) wool trousers and coats, white shirts, and black boots. Women's costumes usually include an embroidered white linen blouse and a colorful ankle-length wool skirt. Both men and women wear wide, bright belts and silver jewelry. Unmarried women wear a vaiņags (crown) on their heads, while married women wear a cap or kerchief. The designs of costumes are characteristic of specific locales in Latvia.


Latvian Christians observe Easter and Christmas, attending church services and getting together with relatives and friends. At Easter, eggs are colored using onion skins rather than paint. The skins are wrapped around uncooked eggs, which are then boiled. One Easter dinner custom is to play a game to determine whose egg is strongest: two people each hold an egg, the ends of the eggs are knocked together, and the person whose egg does not break goes on to challenge someone else. At Christmas, an evergreen tree is brought into the home and decorated. Before Christmas gifts are opened, a line of poetry or words from a song are recited. At New Year's, some Latvians still observe a custom of "pouring one's fortune." The person who wishes to know what his or her fortune will be in the New Year pours a ladle filled with molten lead into a bucket of cold water. The shape of the hardened lead is then examined to determine the future.

Perhaps the favorite Latvian holiday, however, comes in June, during the summer solsticethe longest day of the year. Called Jāņi (also known as St. John's Eve or Midsummer's Eve) in Latvia the day was a traditional celebration of nature's fertility. An elaborate feast was preparedincluding the symbolic Jāņu siers, a rich cheeseand the home was decorated with oak leaves and flowers. The celebration, featuring bonfires and sing-alongs, lasted through the night and well into the following morning. In the United States, many of these customs survive; in modern Latvia, Jāņi is an official holiday.


Latvians in the United States have largely accepted modern medical treatments, although some folk cures are still used by some families. A number of Latvians have entered the medical profession. In addition to health insurance offered through their place of employment or through government programs, many Latvians also have joined the Latvian Relief Fund of America (Amerikas latviešu palīdzības fonds ), founded in 1952. No illnesses specific to Latvian Americans are known.


Latvian, along with Lithuanian, is considered part of the small Baltic language group of the Indo-European family. It is one of the oldest languages still spoken in Europe. Latvian uses the Latin alphabet, although the letters "q," "w," "x," and "y" are not part of the alphabet. In addition, Latvian uses diacritical marks on some letters ("ā," "č," "ē," "g'," " ī," "ķ," "ļ," "ņ," "ŗ," "š," and "ž") to differentiate long or soft sounds from short or hard sounds. Latvian words are stressed on the first syllable, and written Latvian is largely phonetic.

Due to Latvia's location and its history, the country's language has been influenced by German, Russian, and Swedish. During the 50-year occupation of Latvia by the former Soviet Union, the influence of Russian became particularly strong. A few dialects in addition to standard Latvian can still be heard in Latvia, most notably Latgallian, spoken in the heavily Catholic southeastern province of Latgale. In the United States, Latvian cultural leaders and schools have battled against the encroachment of English into their mother tongue; since Latvia regained independence in 1991 and declared Latvian rather than Russian the official language, more and more English words are creeping into Latvian.

Latvian continues to be used in the United States most widely among the first generation of post-World War II immigrants. According to the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau report, about 13 percent of those persons who claim Latvian ancestrymost of them aged 65 and oldersaid they do not speak English very well. Among second and third generation Latvian Americans, usage has dropped significantly, in some cases because of intermarriage. Latvian is still used in church services in many congregations, although some churches have begun to use English as a way to attract and serve non-Latvian speakers. In the United States, only one Latvian-language newspaper is published (the semi-weekly Laiks of Brooklyn, New York), but there are several small Latvian-language magazines and numerous church newsletters.


Perhaps the most widespread salutation in Latvian is Sveiks ! ("svayks")Greetings! It is commonly used when greeting friends but is also seen on bumper stickers on cars driven by Latvian Americans. Other terms include: Apsveicu ("ap-svaytsu")Congratulations; Atā ("a-tah")Goodbye; Daudz laimes dzimšanas dienā ("daudz laimes dzim-shan-as dien-ah")Happy birthday; Labdien ("labdien")Good day; Labrīt ("labreet")Good morning; Labvakar ("labvakar")Good evening; Lūdzu ("loodz-u")Please; Paldies ("pal-dies") Thank you; Priecīgus svētkus ("prie-tsee-gus svehtkus")Happy holidays, used at Christmastime; Uz redzēšanos ("uz redz-eh-shan-os")Until we meet again.

Family and Community Dynamics

Latvians in the United States tend to have small nuclear families, usually not exceeding two adults and two children. According to the 1990 census, a total of 37,574 households of Latvian ancestry were reported. Of those, 12,341 had only one family member (32.8 percent); 14,211 (37.8 percent) had two; 5,010 (13.3 percent) had three; and 3,985 (10.6 percent) had four. A total of 86.9 percent of children under the age of 18 were living with two parents. Most families are middle-class; the median household income in 1989 was $38,586. Four percent of Latvian families received public assistance in 1989.

Within the post-World War II Latvian emigre population, young men and women have been encouraged to seek each other out in the hope that new Latvian families would result. For some youth, however, the close-knit nature of Latvian community life made it difficult to transform longtime acquaintances into romantic involvement. Others, perhaps realizing that their involvement in the Latvian community would make a relationship outside the ethnic group difficult, seem to have deliberately sought out Latvian mates. But because the rate of marriage to non-Latvians has continued to increase over the years, older Latvians have become concerned that Latvian culture in the United States might be threatened. At one point in the early 1970s, it was even suggested that Latvian newspapers should not carry announcements of marriages involving non-Latvians. Among Latvian men, according to the 1990 census, 62.3 percent were married, one percent were separated, and 6.4 percent were divorced. Among women, 50.9 percent were married, one percent were separated, and 8.8 percent were divorced.


Latvia extended broad democracy to its inhabitants and guaranteed equal rights to women. In the States, women have often been placed in such traditional roles as homemaker and cook. Despite their accomplishments in the professions, women for many years were not seen at the helm of the most influential local and national Latvian institutions. In recent years, however, that has been changing. For example, the Latvian newspaper Laiks, published since 1949, is now edited by a woman, Baiba Bičole.


The Old Latvians, while recognizing the value of education, did not appear to want or to be able to afford college degrees. By 1911more than 20 years after the first Latvian immigrants had arrived in the United Statesonly two individuals had obtained American university degrees, the first one being a woman, Anna Enke, who studied at the University of Chicago.

The majority of Latvians who came to the United States after World War II had received at least some higher education in their homeland. Many were already academic or cultural leaders, and they placed high value on education for their children. The 1990 census indicates that about 34 percent of people claiming Latvian ancestry had earned bachelor's degrees or higher. Between 1940 and 1982, according to a 1984 study, 28 percent of Latvian men outside the Soviet Union who had earned bachelor's degrees studied in the engineering sciences, while another 15.6 percent studied in the humanities. Among women, 22.5 percent studied humanities and 16.9 percent studied medicine.


In 1935, 55.1 percent of religious Latvians followed the Lutheran faith, 24.4 percent were Roman Catholic, and 8.9 percent were Greek Orthodox (Cross Road CountryLatvia, edited by Edgars Dunsdorfs [Waverly, Iowa: Latvju Grāmata, 1953]; p. 360). Although it is difficult to obtain accurate figures, the majority of Latvians in the United States follow the Lutheran faith, but there also are adherents of the Catholic and Baptist faiths, as well as a small group of dievturi, followers of a folk religion.

The first Latvian Lutheran church service in the United States was organized by the Boston Latvian Society in 1891. The earliest known congregation, St. John's Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, was formed in 1893 in Philadelphia and continued to operate more than a century later. The Rev. Hans Rebane (1862-1911) became the first Latvian Lutheran minister ordained in America. Rebane, of Estonian and Latvian heritage, also served Estonian and German congregations. Together with Jēkabs Zībergs, he began Amerikas Vēstnesis (America's Herald, 1896-1920), a nationalist and religiously oriented newspaper based in Boston; Zībergs also published an almanac and other religious materials. In a few short years, additional Latvian congregations were established in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, northern Wisconsin, San Francisco, and other locations. Radical Latvians in the United States criticized these early churchgoers; to them, the church in Latvialargely controlled by German-appointed pastorscontributed to the oppression of Latvian peasants. By World War II, only a few congregations remained, but the arrival of Latvian DPs beginning in 1949 gave them new life.

Latvian Lutheran DPs saw theirs as a church in exile. Although a Lutheran church still existed back in Latvia, its activities were suppressed by the Soviet regime. The Latvian Lutheran church in the United States remains conservative but in many cities has become a focus of community activity. Many congregations have organized Saturday or Sunday schools offering language and cultural heritage lessons in addition to religious instruction. In cities where Latvians acquired their own church buildings, the facilities often double as cultural centers where concerts or other programs might be presented.

A key issue for Lutheran clergy has been whether they can continue to preach Christianity at the expense of Latvian ethnic maintenance. Attempts by some pastors to introduce English into religious instruction have in the past been met by resistance. Like other Latvian social and cultural institutions in the United States, the Lutheran church is concerned about decreasing membership, which erodes both the vitality of congregations as well as their financial base. According to Latvian statistics published in 1993, the number of church members totaled 26,265 in 1978, but dropped steadily to 18,557 over the next 15 years.

Latvian Baptists were also active in the States by the late 1880s. The first Latvian Baptist congregation was founded in Philadelphia in 1900; by 1908 congregations were also meeting in Boston, Chicago, and New York, as well as in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Latvian Baptists published a number of magazines and newsletters before World War II, including the monthly Amerikas Latvietis (America's Latvian, 1902-1905) and Jaunā Tēvija (The New Fatherland, 1913-1917).

Latvian American Catholic groups also sprang up after World War II, but they were not large enough in any city to have their own church. Latvian Catholics are represented by the American Latvian Catholic Association (Amerikas latviešu katoļu apvienība ), formed in 1954.

Also active in the United States are the dievturi, followers of a folk religion registered as the Latvian Church Dievturi Inc., which developed in the 1920s in Latvia. The dievturi look to ancient Latvian culture, particularly folk songs, for their beliefs and are credited for their efforts in maintaining old folkways.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Many of the Old Latvians who left their homeland were either farmers or factory workers. Upon arriving in the United States, they at first took jobs as unskilled laborers; later, however, some moved into management and professional positions. Unlike the Old Latvians, many of the DPs had held professional positions in Latvia before migrating to America. Most, however, were unable to immediately resume their professional careersat least until they had mastered English and proven their qualifications.

According to the 1990 census, 38,132 persons of Latvian ancestry were counted in the nation's civilian labor force, of which 1,653 (4.2 percent) were unemployed. About 48 percent of Latvians in the labor force had positions in management and the professions; 30 percent had jobs in technical, sales, and administrative support occupations. Almost three-fourths of the Latvians in the labor force worked in the private sector, about 16 percent had jobs in government and education, and about 10 percent were self-employed.

Like other Americans, Latvians were among those affected by the economic recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s. When a family was forced to relocate to other parts of the mainland States in search of employment, the move sometimes had a dramatic effect on Latvian social and cultural life. In Minneapolis, for example, when two young but large families had to move in the mid-1980s, their departure resulted in enrollment in the small Latvian Saturday school being trimmed by about a third.

Politics and Government

Latvian Americans have always been politically active. Before Latvia declared its independence, radical Old Latvians were particularly active in working for the creation of a socialist government in their homeland as well as in the United States. The first Latvian socialist organization, the Lettish Workingmen's Society, was started in Boston in 1893. By World War I, almost every city where Latvians could be found also had at least one socialist club. With the arrival of revolutionary Latvians after the failed 1905 Revolution, Latvian radicalism moved further to the left. Latvians were among those immigrants who helped form the American communist movement in 1919. Radicals produced a number of newspapers and other publications, but the most important was the Boston-based weekly Strādnieks (The Worker, 1906-1919). The failure to establish a permanent socialist government in Latvia following the 1917 Russian Revolution compounded by U.S. government repression of radical activities during the "Red Scare" of the 1920slargely put an end to Latvian radical activity in America.

The radicals were opposed by nationalist Latvians who sought independence for their homeland. Under the leadership of Jēkabs Zībergs, Christopher Roos (1887-1963), and others, the nationalists organized in 1917 to support the American World War I military effort by selling Liberty Bonds. The American National Latvian League (Amerikas latviešu tautiskā savienība [ALTS]) was formed the next year in Boston to represent Latvian interests in the United States. When their homeland declared independence later in 1918, ALTS representatives urged America to recognize the new nation of Latvia; de jure recognition came in 1922.

Soviet occupation of Latvia during World War II was criticized by nationalist Latvians in the States, who sought to inform the American public about atrocities committed by the Russians. The arrival of Latvian DPs after the war heightened political activity among Latvian Americans. A number of Latvian civic and political organizations were founded, including the American Latvian Association in 1951 and the American Latvian Republican National Federation in 1961. Latvians also joined with Estonians and Lithuanians to form groups such as the Baltic Appeal to the United Nations (BATUN), to press world governments to oppose Soviet power in their homelands.

Officially, the U.S. government never recognized the incorporation of the Baltic countries into the Soviet Union. Attempts by U.S. diplomats to ease tensions with the Soviets usually drew swift criticism from the Baltic groups. At election time, the Republican party tended to evoke more support from Latvians than the Democratsparticularly among the first generation of Latvian immigrants, who felt the Republicans had a stronger anticommunist foreign policy platform. Within the Latvian community, efforts during the 1970s and 1980s by some Latvian Americans to establish cultural exchanges with Soviet Latvia were viewed with suspicion and criticism.

Reestablishment of Latvian independence in 1991 opened the door to direct political involvement in the homeland. Latvian immigrants and their descendants were allowed to reclaim their pre-World War II citizenship and voting rights; by May of 1993 more than 8,700 Latvian Americans held dual U.S. and Latvian citizenship, according to American Latvian Association statistics. In June of 1993, during the first free democratic elections after the end of Soviet rule, a number of Latvian Americans were elected to Parliament. Among them were twin brothers Olg'erts Pavlovskis (1934 ) and Valdis Pavlovskis (1934 ), both of whom returned to Latvia to take government posts.

Individual and Group Contributions

Latvians have made a number of contributions to American culture and society. The following sections list some of their achievements.


Florida's famed Coral Castle, a sculpture garden carved from coral, was created over a 30-year period by Edward Leedskalnin (1887-1951), a Latvian immigrant. Leedskalnin, jilted by the girl he wanted to marry, journeyed to the United States and decided to build the sculpture garden as a testament to his love for her. The garden (located in Homestead, Florida) was completed in 1940 and was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1984.


Edgars Andersons (1920-1989) was a prolific historian who taught at San Jose State University in California. A specialist in European and early American history, he received a Distinguished Academic Achievement Award in 1978. Oswald Tippo (born 1911), a botanist by training, held several top academic posts during his career, including chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


Actress Rutanya Alda (1942 ) has appeared in numerous film, stage, and television productions, including The Long Goodbye (1973), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Prancer (1989). Actor Buddy Ebsen (born 1908), best known for his television roles as Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies and as the title character in Barnaby Jones, is of Latvian and Danish parentage. Chicagoan Mārīte Ozere (1944 ) was crowned Miss U.S.A. in 1965. Actress Laila Robins (1959 ) has appeared in several feature films, including Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), A Walk on the Moon (1987), An Innocent Man (1989), and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990). Anita Stewart (1895-1961) appeared in the silent movies Hollywood (1923) and Never the Twain Shall Meet (1925).


Augusts Krastiņš (1859-1942) began building gasoline-powered automobiles in 1896, several years before Henry Ford. The Cleveland, Ohio-based Krastin Automobile Company operated until 1904. Leon "Jake" Swirbul was a cofounder of the Grumman Aircraft Company and helped lead the company's production of fighter planes for the U.S. Navy during World War II. In 1946 Swirbul became president of the company, which is now part of Northrop Grumman Corporation.


Anšlevs Eglītis (1906-1993), a novelist and movie critic, wrote many popular Latvian books and was a frequent contributor to the Latvian American newspaper Laiks. Jānis Freivalds (1944 ) has worked as a journalist, consultant, and entrepreneur. In 1978 he published a novel, The Famine Plot. Peter Kihss (1912-1984) spent nearly 50 years working as a journalist, including 30 years for the New York Times.


Several Latvian Americans have made significant contributions to symphonic music and opera, such as concert pianist Artūrs Ozoliņš (1946 ), who has recorded with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and composer Gundaris Pone (1932-1993), whose work received international recognition but whose radical politics did not endear him to Latvian Americans. Alternative pop singer-songwriter Ingrid Karklins (1957 ) of Austin, Texas, has released two albums, A Darker Passion (1992) and Anima Mundi (1994), some of which draws inspiration from traditional Latvian instruments and songs. The Quags, a Latvian rock group in Philadelphia, have made some recordings.


John Akerman (1897-1972), a professor of aeronautics, had a long career teaching and researching at the University of Minnesota. Akerman Hall on the Minneapolis campus is named in his honor. Lectures about the Star of Bethlehem by retired astronomy professor Kārlis Kaufmanis (1910 ) have become a popular Christmas attraction in Minnesota. Mārtiņš Straumanis (1898-1973) was a professor of metallurgy at the University of Missouri at Rolla.


Latvians in America and in Latvia have become ardent fans of the San Jose Sharks team of the National Hockey League. Two Latvians, goalie Arturs Irbe (1967 ) and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh (1972 ), were acquired by the team in 1991. Gundars Vetra (c. 1967 ) was the first Latvian to play for a National Basketball Association team. He was recruited by the Minnesota Timberwolves after playing for the Russian-led Unified Team in the 1992 Olympics.



Laiks ( Time ).

A semi-weekly Latvian-language newspaper published in Brooklyn, New York.

Contact: Ilavars Spilners, Editor.

Address: 7307 Third Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11209-2466.

Telephone: (718) 836-6382.

Fax: (718) 748-1426.

Latvian Dimensions.

Published by the American Latvian Association, it offers a national perspective on issues of interest to Latvians.

Contact: Elisa Freimanis, Editor.

Address: American Latvian Association, P.O. Box 4578, 400 Hurley Avenue, Rockville, Maryland 20850-3131.

Telephone: (301) 340-1914.

Fax: (301) 340-8732.


WVVX-FM (103.1).

Chicago Association of Latvian Organizations (Čikāgas latviešu organizāciju apvienība ) sponsors a program.

Contact: Juris Valainis.

Address: 210 Skokie Valley Road, Highland Park, Illinois 60035.

Telephone: (847) 831-5250.

Fax: (847) 831-5296.

Organizations and Associations

American Latvian Association in the U.S. ( Amerikas latviešu apvienība, ALA).

Founded in 1951, the ALA is largest Latvian association in the United States; it has about 9,000 members and represents approximately 160 organizations. In the past, it served as an umbrella organization that coordinated the political, cultural, and educational activities of Latvian communities and lobbied the U.S. government for legislation and policies supporting independence for Latvia. Since independence was achieved, the ALA has given increased attention to welfare and education efforts in Latvia.

Contact: Anita Terauds, Secretart General.

Address: 400 Hurley Avenue, Rockville, Maryland 20850-3121.

Telephone: (301) 340-1914.

Fax: (301) 340-8732.

E-mail: [email protected]


American Latvian Catholic Association ( Amerikas latviešu katoļu apvienība, ALKA).

Founded in 1954, the ALKA represents the interests of Latvians of the Roman Catholic faith, many of whom trace their heritage to the Latgale province in southeastern Latvia.

Address: 2235 Ontonagon Street, S.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan 49506.

American Latvian Youth Association ( Amerikas latviešu jaunatnes apvienība, ALJA).

Founded in 1952 and incorporated in 1964, the ALJA is a national organization for Latvian youth, generally those under age 30. It has served as a voice for its members in the exile community. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was especially active on the political front, organizing demonstrations at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., and in other locations. Some former officers of the association have gone on to other leadership posts in the Latvian American community as well as in newly independent Latvia.

Contact: Pçteris Burìelis, Information Director.

Address: 10 Lois Lane, Katonah, New York 10536.

Telephone: (914) 232-2192.

E-mail: [email protected]


Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ( Latvieš evaņg'eliski luteriskā baznīca Amerikā, LELBA).

Founded in 1975, the LELBA carries on the work of a Latvian American church association formed in 1957. Before 1975, local Latvian Lutheran congregations belonged to one of the U.S. churches, such as the American Lutheran Church. Since then, many have dropped their ties to U.S. churches and now are only members of LELBA. As of 1994, LELBA included 53 congregations in the United States; not all congregations, however, have their own churches or ministers.

Contact: Rev. Uldis Cepure, Chairman of the Board.

Address: 2140 Orkla Drive, Golden Valley, Minnesota 55427.

Telephone: (612) 546-3712.

Latvian Welfare Association ( Daugavas Vanagi ).

Founded in 1945 in Belgium, this is a global organization of war veteransprimarily those who fought in the two Latvian divisions organized during the German occupation of Latvia in World War II. Aside from offering support for disabled Latvian veterans, Daugavas Vanagi also supports cultural and educational efforts and works to preserve the history of the Latvian military. The organization has national and local chapters in several countries.

Address: 3220 Rankin Road, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55418.

Telephone: (612) 781-7132.

Fax: (612) 789-2602.

Museums and Research Centers

Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, Inc.

Independent, nonprofit research association. Focuses on Baltic area, including the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and Baltic literature, history, and economics.

Contact: Kalle Merilo.

Address: 3465 East Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon 97214-2050.

Telephone: (908) 852-5258.

Fax: (908) 852-3233.

E-mail: [email protected]


Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies.

Houses Latvian material in its archives, including some records of St. John's Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Contact: John Tenhula, President.

Address: 18 South Seventh Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106.

Telephone: (215) 925-8090.

Fax: (215) 925-8195.

E-mail: [email protected]


Immigration History Research Center.

Devoted to collecting archival materials concerning eastern, central, and southern European immigrants, as well as immigrants from the Middle East, the IHRC continues to expand its Latvian collection of books, newspapers, serials, and manuscripts. In 1993 the center embarked on a two-year project to organize materials pertaining to Displaced Persons from Latvia and Ukraine.

Contact: Joel Wurl, Curator.

Address: University of Minnesota, 826 Berry Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55114.

Telephone: (612) 627-4208.

Fax: (612) 627-4190.

E-mail: [email protected]


Latvian Museum.

Housed in the Latvian Lutheran Church in Rockville, Maryland, the museum opened in 1980 and provides an overview of Latvian life in the homeland and in exile.

Address: 400 Hurley Avenue, Rockville, Maryland 20850.

Latvian Studies Center.

Serves as a focus for students of Latvian heritage. It includes a growing library and archives of Latvian materials that have been donated to the center by Latvians from throughout the country.

Contact: Maira Bundža.

Address: Western Michigan University, 1702 Fraternity Village Drive, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49006.

Telephone: (616) 343-1922.

Fax: (616) 343-0704.

Sources for Additional Study

Andersons, Edgars, and M. G. Slavenas. "The Latvian and Lithuanian Press," The Ethnic Press in the United States: A Historical Analysis and Handbook, edited by Sally M. Miller. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987; pp. 229-245.

The Baltic States: A Reference Book. Tallinn, Estonia: Tallinn Book Printers, 1991.

Dreifelds, Juris. Latvia in Transition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kārklis, Maruta, Līga Streips, and Laimonis Streips. The Latvians in America, 1640-1973: A Chronology and Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, 1974.

Latvia, prepared by Geography Department. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992.

Lieven, Anatoly. The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993.

Misiunas, Romuald J., and Rein Taagepera. The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940-1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Plakans, Andrejs. The Latvians: A Short History. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1995.

Šīmanis, Vito Vitauts. Latvia. St. Charles, Illinois: Book Latvia, 1984.

Straumanis, Alfreds. "Latvian American Theatre," Ethnic Theatre in the United States, edited by Maxine Schwartz Seller. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983; pp. 277-318.

Veidemanis, Juris. Social Change: Major Value Systems of Latvians at Home, as Refugees, and as Immigrants. Greeley: Museum of Anthropology, University of Northern Colorado, 1982.

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