Introduction by Baiba Bela

Latvia has experienced intensive population movements over the past centuries. People have both immigrated and emigrated. These days, the diaspora is referred to as Latvia’s fifth region (in Latvian piektais novads). Indeed, there are more Latvians living outside Latvia than in the regions of Vidzeme or Zemgale.

Rapid modernisation during the latter half of the 19th century encouraged people in the Baltic provinces to move to other locations inside or beyond their borders. A national census conducted in 1897 in the Russian Empire showed that some 112,300 Latvians were living outside of their own territory. It is thought that some 35,000 Latvians lived in the West at the turn of the 19th century. The tumultuous historical events of the 20th century and the new economic opportunities of the 21st century have led hundreds of thousands of Latvians to leave their native country, and to establish new lives abroad. The reasons for setting off for foreign lands have been many. During the Second World War, Latvians sought refuge from persecution and physical annihilation by the Soviet regime. In recent times, they have emigrated to further their education, achieve professional growth, improve their economic well-being, or simply to seek new life experiences.

The Third Congress of the American Latvian Association [Amerikas latviešu apvienība] in Cleveland in 1954 [Image: Latvieši pasaulē – muzejs un petniecības centrs. Used with permission]

Living outside one’s home country, it is not possible to automatically retain one’s ethnic identity. Belonging becomes a choice. Initially, it is the parents who make the choices about their children’s ethnic identity. After attaining adulthood, the choice becomes the children’s and theirs alone. What am I, and what do I wish to be? 

The exhibition Es (arī) esmu latvietis [“I am (also) a Latvian”, created by the Latvians Abroad museum and research centre] asks: what does it mean to be a Latvian outside of Latvia? How can one recognise a Latvian in a crowd of people? How does one’s identity and relationship to Latvia evolve while living outside of one’s ancestral land for years and even decades? What is important for passing on one’s ethnic identity to children and grandchildren? Do the symbols, values, ideas and things that were important to previous generations of expatriates mean anything to the Latvians of the 21st century?

This exhibition shows that Latvians abroad have a lot in common, but that they are also diverse, colourful and contradictory. While living outside their home country, Latvians may not only retain various levels of their ancestral heritage, but they may also adapt other local cultural elements and traditions, regard several languages as their native tongue. They may often feel an affiliation with two and even more lines of origin, or feel a sense of belonging to two or more countries. Sometimes the sense of belonging is conflicted and one can feel lost for a while. As Helmi Rožankovski says: “When I am in the United States, I feel that I belong in Latvia. And when I am in Latvia, then I realize that I am only visiting there, that my home is here in America”. Or as Vija Zuntaka-Berziņa expressed it: “When I was young, Latvia for me consisted of black-and-white photographs in school books. I felt close to Latvia, because my parents had raised me that way. When Latvia regained its independence, I had a kind of identity crisis when I was asked who I am. I don’t belong in Latvia, I’ve only lived in the United States, I’ve only lived in Canada, I’ve only lived in Argentina. I was born in Germany, but the Germans don’t regard me as a German, and neither do I… I have always felt like a Latvian.”

Deep Baltic presents a few stories from the exhibition about one of the most tangible proofs of Latvian heritage – a Latvian surname. Living abroad with a name that is often quite unlike any that locals are familiar with can be a trying experience, although it can also lead to some quite amusing stories.

Hello, my name is Gatis Gaujenieks*, but growing up in the Bronx, my friends often called me “Gatis Gaudgeniks”, “Gatis Gohenkis” or “Gats Gojinx”. My favorite misspelling is “Gojinx”, and that has stayed with me for my lifetime, and is even my email address. It was always a joy on September 1st when there was ‘roll call’ or ‘attendance’ during the first day of school. It was when all of the teachers aligned the cards in a book and looked at everyone’s names. They then began with the letter ‘A’, then the letter ‘B’, and so on, until they finally came to the letter “H”.

I know that it is coming up soon, and then comes the letter ‘G’, and I am ‘G-A’, so there is always a little pause. … “Gohenkis”? “Gajenkis”? People living in the Bronx were not used to Latvian last names, they were used to Polish and Ukrainian names, and those of other nationalities, but not Latvian ones!

My name is Liene Kalniņa. I was born Liene Ozola*. I grew up in Canada and when I went to school everyone usually called me Leanne Ozols. This was very complicated, and did not resemble my real name, but I was used to it in elementary school, until the fifth grade when we read Shelley’s poem about Ozymandias, and everyone liked it, but from that point on, I was called Ozzy at school.

Former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, born in Latvia but resident for most of her life in Canada having been forced to flee the country as a child, addresses the World Economic Forum in 2007 [Copyright by World Economic Forum by E. T. Studhalter. Image used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence]

My name is Daina Zalāne, born Zvidriņa. I grew up in Germany, and in Germany the letter ‘Z’ is pronounced “ts”. We were called “Tsvidreeny”, or “Tvisderinysh”, or “Tsveedrins”, it was very difficult to explain how to pronounce our surname. My father had a list of how his surname had been written in letters he had received. And often at school  – Zvidriņš was usually the last name alphabetically – all of the surnames were called out, and in the end it was just: Daina. Teachers struggled with my surname.

My name is Uldis Bruns. I used to live in Adelaide, Australia, but now I live in Riga, Latvia. In Australia, my friends, and other Australians, those who had only just met me, always asked – when I said my name and surname – where does it come from? But then they would read it as “Yule-dis” or “Aldis”, “Aldis Brahns”*. There were not that many variations, because both my name and surname are rather short. One thing I remember from my childhood was at the age of five, when I was sent to school. I still only understood Latvian, but during that year I learned some English. I remember the teacher sat me down and said: “your name is “Aldis Brahns””. And I said: “No, no – my name is Uldis!”. ”No, your name is “Aldis”! I said: “No, my name is Uldis!” In the end I just kept using my own real name.

My name is Marianna Auliciema and in Australia, where I grew up and went to school, I was called “Marryanna Aloosiems”. Or “Mirriahna”, or “Merry-anna”, or even “Mary”. And the best one was when someone was reading my name: “Marianna Auliciems”, they mispronounced it and said “Marijuana Alzheimers!” When we arrived in Latvia for the first time in 1991, finally I no longer had to spell out my name! I said: My name is Marianna Auliciema, and everyone was able to pronounce my name right away! This was the first time in my life when it has been that way! But then we were in the camp, and there was one employee who asked “what’s your name?” and I explained, and she said: “Auliciema?! That name doesn’t exist!” And I … [felt sad]… and I thought “finally, I am at home!”

My name is Mara Goldsmith but I was born Mara Ruņģe*. I grew up in Australia and my friends called me “Mara Rungis”. Now I am married to an Australian, and my name is Goldsmith. We have moved to Latvia, and now my name is “Goldsmita” in Latvian. And my husband also, he’s a musician here and he plays gigs. And when he plays, he calls himself not Benny Goldsmith, but Benny Zeltkalis*. He translated his name!

Short documentary about a number of Latvian-American rock groups formed in the ’60s and ’70s

When I was born in Canada, I was given the name Dace* Monique Miezītis, and at school I was called: “Datsee”, “Dotsy”, “Datsa”, “Dache” Monique “Myzeetis”. My mathematics teacher, who drove to school on a motorbike, was Italian, and the letter “c” in Italian is short. In his class I wasn’t “Dotsy”, or “Datse” or “Daisy” – in his class I was always “Dache”! Even when I reminded him for the fifteenth time that it was Dace, he still called me “Dache”!

Hello, my name is Nils Students. In America, where I was born and raised, people dealt with my name and surname in a variety of ways. I was often “Niles Students”, or “Niles Student”, “Nell Student” or “Neal”. Yes, it was more recognisable, sometimes the simplest option was to settle on “Neal Students”; sometimes there was a lot of laughter, jokes about my surname. The first day was always very complicated, waiting for the moment when a new teacher would try to pronounce my name. There was always a pause before my name, and usually “Niles” was the first try, then I tried to tell them it was Nils, or Nilss, but eventually over the course of the year we agreed on “Neal”.

At the annual international Christmas celebration in Phoenix, Arizona, USA in 1985 [Image: Uldis Balodis]

My name is Līvija Uskale. I was born and raised in England, and the most unique way my name was ever pronounced in England was “Levija Ukulele”. The English, of course, do not have the long “ī” sound; they use the shorter letter “i”, and the English pronounced the letter “j” differently to us in Latvian*. That is why when people encountered my name, they pronounced it “Lividža”. In fact, when I arrived in Latvia, I was hoping that it would be easier for me to live with this surname, but it turns out that also in Latvia my name is often pronounced incorrectly. Because in fact it is Uskale, without the letter “z”, but in Latvia people want to add the letter z, “Uzskale”. I’m also called “Uskalis” or “Uskale”. So it turns out that my surname is complicated, both in England and in Latvia.

My name is Vita Ruņģe. Before that, I was Vita Kalme. It seems like a very simple name, but in Australia they couldn’t deal with Vita*, they said “Veeta”, or sometimes even “Evita”, but they couldn’t manage just “Vita”. Kalme was pronounced as “Kalmey”, and they could never stop at just the letter “e”. And then there was the joke where they said that I am so unflappable that they could call me “Miss Calm”.

A Latvian folk dance group in Brisbane, Australia celebrates the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 [Image: Public Domain]

My name is Juris Ruņģis. I grew up in Australia. And Australians, of course, couldn’t say the name “Ruņģis”, they said “Rungis”. But I never had any problem with “Juris”! I simply told them at school that my name was Juris Ruņģis, and time passed. It was sometimes a bit funny with the spelling, because they said: “ah, you don’t pronounce the first letter.” And I said “No, of course you pronounce it, otherwise it would be “Uris”. ”But sometimes they said “Ju-ris”. But I taught them after a while.  

My name is Larisa* Medene. I live in Australia. In Australia they can’t roll their r’s and thats why they call me “Larissa Medeenis*”. And here I am “Larisa”. It is interesting that everyone likes the name “Larisa” in Australia: “what a beautiful name!” But I am “Larisa”, and here in Latvia: “”Larisa”! Why is your name Larisa?  That’s a Russian name!” But I really like Larisa, I don’t like “Larissa”!

1. Pronounced (approximately) “Gow-ye-niyeks”

2. The first name is pronounced as three syllables: “lee-en-eh”. The letter “o” is almost always pronounced as an “aw-er” sound in Latvian

In Latvian most surnames have both masculine and feminine forms – “Ozols” is the male form of the name, while “Ozola” is the female form. But in English-speaking countries, people generally just use the masculine form to avoid confusion and administrative complications.

3. This is written as a Latvian would understand it. In Latvian the letter “u” represents the vowel sound in “foot”, while “a” is close to the sound in “cup”

4. The letters “ņ” and “ģ” are both palatalised. The first is similiar to the first “n” sound in “onion”; there is no real equivalent for the second sound in English.

 “Ruņģis” is the male form of the name, while “Ruņģe” is the female form.

5. The Latvian word for “goldsmith”

6. “C” in Latvian is pronounced as a “ts” sound. “Ī” indicates a long “i” or “e” sound like in the word “feel”

7. As in many languages, “J” in Latvian is pronounced like the “y” sound in English. The sound represented by “j” in English does not exist in Latvian, but is transcribed (in foreign words or names) as “dž”.

8. “I” in Latvian is always short, like the vowel sound in the word “bit”

9. The stress here (as with almost all Latvian words) should be on the first syllable, instead of the second as it would be in English

10. “Medenis” is the masculine form of “Medene”

These texts originally appeared in Latvian as part of the exhibition Es (arī) esmu latvietis (“I am (also) a Latvian”), created by the Latvians Abroad museum and research centre

© Deep Baltic 2020. All rights reserved.

Like what Deep Baltic does? You can help us continue our work by making a monthly donation – support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.