Reflections on Cultural Maintenance,
Innovation and Change
in the Latvian Community

By: Solveiga Miezitis

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 115-116
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The Toronto Latvian community numbers about 8,000 and is now entering into its third generation of immigrant status. Although the numbers of active participants in the ethnic community life have reduced tenfold and the youth are intermarrying outside their ethnic group at the rate of 5 to 1, the process of cultural transmission and maintenance within the community continues to follow the patterns of transplantation, rebellion and rediscovery exhibited by the previous generation of immigrants. The following comments relate to the process of cultural maintenance, innovation and institutional change within the Latvian community and its influence on second-generation immigrant youth.

During the past ten years I have had the opportunity to take part in interviews and intensive group discussions about socialization experiences in the home and community and their impact on the ethnic identification of second-generation Latvian youth in North America, Europe and Australia. Five years ago I conducted an interview study with sixty second-generation Latvian immigrant youths who grew up in Toronto. Half of the group was still actively involved in the Latvian community while the other half had dropped out or was only minimally involved. Depending on their perceptions, the interviewees can be categorized into three main groups-the ''automatic" Latvian, the rebels and the creative self-expressionists. Although rediscovery can be experienced by members of all three of these groups, it is more common among the creatives.

The active youth most frequently describes himself as an "automatic" Latvian. The automatic Latvian comes from a family that speaks Latvian at home and spends most of its leisure time in community activities. The parents have a strong bond with their children and have been able to transmit their values and traditions to their offspring. The automatic active Latvian started attending Latvian heritage school around four years of age, began going to Latvian summer camp at around six, joined Latvian cubs or brownies at seven, and/or joined a Latvian cultural or social activity as a child or adolescent. As a teenager he continued his education at the Latvian high school in Toronto on Friday evenings and/or at one of the three summer high schools in the United States. These high schools feature a heritage language program, courses in history, geography and culture, as well as practical activities in folk arts and crafts, singing and folk dancing. The local high school also provides opportunities for socializing at dances, on trips and social evenings. Perhaps the most important socializing occurs during the informal banding together after school hours in local restaurants, or friends' homes. During their teens some continue to participate in Latvian boy scout or girl guide activities, others join sports activities, theatre groups, choirs, musical and folk-dance groups. Folk-dancing is the most popular of the cultural activities for youth. They enjoy dancing together at weekly rehearsals and show off their skill and costumes in local performances, as well as international events. Even those young people who feel only marginally connected to the community and whose language fluency may be limited can experience a sense of belonging to the dance groups.

But not everyone grows up as an automatic Latvian. Some find their way into the Latvian community only at a later stage. During college years there is the further opportunity to join one of a dozen sororities or fraternities and to take an active role in the Latvian Youth Association which organises various social and cultural activities-congresses and dances-as well as political seminars, rallies and demonstrations that may take them as far afield as Helsinki and Madrid to express their protest against the subjugation of the Baltic states. Active youth also travel to other Latvian centres, and an increasing number visit relatives in Latvia. Travel is important. It widens one's perspective and brings new friends. When asked about their Latvian "peak experiences," most young people talk about their participation at a Latvian Song Festival. Singing in the choir or folk-dancing in an arena with one thousand other Latvian youth from around the world heightens their sense of belonging and ethnic pride. Song festivals take place yearly in Australia and the United States and less frequently in Europe and Canada.

Every four years Toronto hosts a festival that draws up to 15,000 spectators and close to 2,000 participants in a gala of music, dance, arts, crafts and social events. The next Latvian Song Festival will take place in Toronto in 1986. Another peak experience for many college-age youth is a trip to a Latvian Cultural Seminar-a yearly event in North America that usually draws together about one hundred youth and some forty high-powered resource people from all over the continent, as well as a few from abroad. These seminars feature an intense ten-day immersion program in Latvian language and culture with a choice of specialization in literature, history, social and political studies, music, workshops in arts and crafts, drama, vocal and instrumental music and folk-dance. The participants are particularly impressed with the intensity of involvement and the professional quality of these programs. Many a youth has rediscovered his ethnic roots during one of these Latvian immersion experiences.

Some of the automatic Latvians continue to participate in community life in the role of heritage teacher, scout leader, counsellor or youth organiser. The rebels, who do not experience a sense of belonging and satisfaction from active participation in these traditional activities, tend to drop out usually in their early teens when family influence lessens although some of these rebels may reappear on the scene later as potential rediscoverers. Rediscovery is not the perogative of rebels alone. Automatic Latvians and ethnically indifferent youth may rediscover their heritage and find that their cultural background can bring new meaning to their lives particularly when it provides encouragement and enrichment for their creative self-expression.

What satisfaction does the Latvian community bring to the young? For most young people, and especially the automatic Latvians, the community provides a predictable social structure and friendships which satisfy their need for belonging, as well as opportunities for participation in interesting activities. For the rebels, the friendships often were not as satisfying, the activities seemed too structured and traditional, and many experienced the need to break out of a pattern that had been imposed by parental authority and had not become integrated into their own developing sense of values. This notion was strongly confirmed by the differing value patterns exhibited by the active and non-active youth. 1 The actives hold values which resemble more closely those of their parents, furthermore, they attribute more idealistic values and a stronger cultural orientation to their parents, whereas the non-actives perceive their parents as being more materialistic and hedonistic in their orientation.

The ambitious and creative find that the ethnic community invites, challenges and supports the expression of various talents to a greater degree than society at large. It is a micro-society within the larger one with a multitude of social organisations and activities, requiring people with leadership abilities and talents. The community, like an extended family, provides an interested and appreciative audience to budding artists, actors, writers and musicians. For example, world renowned Latvian-born Canadian pianist Arturs Ozolins won recognition at a Latvian Youth Festival held in Toronto in 1959. Latvian actress Skaidrite Leja, best known for her role in the acclaimed Canadian production of "Paper Wheat," began her acting career on the ethnic community stage. She continues to express her ethnic influence through her work with Amberlights Theatre, an ensemble which has translated and produced Baltic plays in English.

The second woman in Ontario to become a Rhodes Scholar is Banuta Rubess, a Latvian playwright and dramatist who created and produced her first controversial social commentary on the Latvian community in her teens. She has since continued to evoke her Latvian connection in her creative endeavours, including the ambitious musical production "Varondarbi" (Heroica), based on Latvian mythology, written and produced in 1979 for the Latvian Youth Song Festival in Montreal. The music was composed by another second-generation Latvian Canadian Dace Stauvers-Aperans. Her more recent productions focusing on feminist themes, include "Silver Veil"-an English version of a Latvian classic which was shown in Europe and North America-"Smoke Damage" and "This is for You Anna."

The youth seminars bring together creative young people interested in music, drama, literature and social organisation with resource people who help them recognize their talents and find expression in the ethnic community context. The most important institution which supports the expression of young talent is the Latvian Youth Song Festival. It was originated by Martins Stauvers a decade ago at Place des Beaux Arts in Montreal. This festival takes place every third year in various Latvian centres in the United States and Canada and attracts hundreds of young performers and large audiences from all over the continent. The event features the works and performances by young Latvian artists and encourages creative experimentation. The controversial musical "Heroica" was commissioned by this festival. Based on familiar Latvian mythological figures, the musical evoked images of the Broadway production "The Wiz." Intense controversy raged around it in the more conservative circles because of the seemingly disrespectful transposition of traditional heroes into a modernistic saga.

SMIJ (Si Maksla ir Jauna) (This Art is New) is a Toronto-based cultural weekend that sponsors the experimental creative endeavours of youth. Started in 1973 by the innovative youth organiser Baiba Rubess, under the auspices of the Latvian National Youth Association, over the past decade SMIJ has exhibited the works of over fifty new artists and has introduced numerous young composers, poets, film makers and musicians. This year's event featured five art exhibits, the most noteworthy being a children's exhibit and a special exhibit at the newly founded gallery houses in the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre by young Latvian artists who have won recognition on the North American art scene. Among these are the OMNI award-winning photographer Ints Plampe, design artist Balvis Rubess, glass artist Gundars Robez, water-colour artist and imaginative children's book illustrator Inese Jansons, and internationally exhibited artist Dzintars Mezulis, primarily known as a sculptor of magical creations. The musical program featured audiovisual creations with jazz overtones composed by Rita Strautins, Gatis Puide, Lalita Salina and Anita Kuprise.

Finally, a creative blending of the old and the new in the more traditional expressions of culture was presented by award-winning folk dance choreographer and director of the Toronto Latvian Folk Dance Group Dizdancis-zig Miezitis. His dance creations range from large-scale traditional choreography for hundreds of dancers at a Song Festival mass performance to a fantasy ballet-"The Kokle and the Devil" combining folk elements in music and dance. Video illustrations from Dizdancis' thirty-fifth anniversary performance in 1983 featured creative choreography expressing ritualistic, humorous and innovative themes in Latvian dance tradition.

The Latvian community continues to alter its traditional institutional forms to support creative cultural activity among the young. Five years ago an ''alternate" heritage language school-Valodina-was formed to involve parents in a more broadly defined educational enterprise, which attempts to prepare the children for participation in the creative community. The children participate in creative drama and musical activities and take part in community-based cultural events as a group. Their works were seen at the recent SMIJ exhibit. They are proud of their school and their culture. They are a living part of it.

Solveiga Miezitis, "Ethnic Identity Development in Second Generation Latvian Youth," report of study funded by the Multiculturalism Directorate, Secretary of State, Ottawa, 1981.

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