Sharing our stories: Liāna Lloyd
I did not grow up in Pittsburgh but I really appreciate its celebration of so many cultures and ethnicities!
My father was a Latvian immigrant. He came to the United States by ship across the Atlantic around age 11, knowing only two phrases in English: “Where is the restroom?” and “I don’t speak English.”
He was conceived in Latvia but born in Sweden in February of 1945. His mother was Latvian and his father was Latvian and Livonian (Livonians were largely a coastal people who lived in what are now Latvia and Estonia, before the arrival of the ethnic Latvian tribes, etc.).
His parents, my grandparents, travelled to Sweden from Latvia in November of 1944. This was during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Latvia, and my grandfather was a very active as a member of an underground rebel cell that was focused on regaining Latvia’s freedom and democracy. He had multiple IDs and even changed his official last name from Livonian (Lepste) to its Latvian translation (Alksnītis). Among other things, he helped Jews and others who were at risk escape the country, helping organize safe passage for various people, until he himself was being “looked for.”
Their last night in Latvia, my grandfather and pregnant grandmother stayed in a friend’s house instead of their own home – a house that was no longer occupied because that friend had already been arrested. The next night, they were on small boats with other escapees, traveling with no motors under the cover of darkness, while guards patrolled the shores. Thankfully, they made it to Sweden where both of their children were eventually born. They were aided in finding lodging and work by the worldwide network of Baptists, and they lived in Sweden for about a decade.
When they decided to move across the ocean to the United States, it was again the worldwide Baptist network that helped them start their new life in Massachusetts. The role that organization played in my family’s survival cannot be overstated.
My three sisters and I were born in the 1970s and 1980s, during Soviet Russia’s continued occupation of Latvia and many other countries.
My parents would take turns putting us to bed - my mother sang us lullabyes in English, my father, in Latvian.
As first generation children of immigrants, learning about Latvian culture and keeping it alive was a profound responsibility, one we didn’t really understand. However, since it was illegal to fly the Latvian flag in Latvia, we flew it. Since it was illegal to sing certain Latvian folk songs in Latvia, we sang them (and Latvians in Latvia also continued their protests in various ways).
We attended Latvian Baptist church services on special Sundays such as Christmas, Mother’s Day, etc.,..which always took place later in the day, so we usually ended up going to church twice on those days – English speaking church in the mornings, Latvian church in the late afternoons.
Many Christmas hymns I actually learned in Latvian first! My sisters and I would always sing one or two songs for the congregation during these Latvian Baptist services.
My father was my first ever vocal coach who, during practice sessions at home, would remind us not to sing too nasally, and to use good diction!
My sisters and I attended Latvian school in the Boston area every Saturday throughout most of our childhood to learn about and help preserve Latvian culture. We learned Latvian language and grammar, history, geography, folk crafts and traditions, folk songs, games and folk dances, and how to make certain delicious Latvian foods. As most Latvian schools were run in conjunction with Latvian Lutheran churches, we had Bible classes too – I remember memorizing the Apostle’s Creed in Latvian.
My grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood, starting a few years after the passing of my grandfather in the early 1980s. She took a lot of time out of her days in order to help all of us with our Latvian school homework – she even helped me skip a grade by working with me through extra studies one Summer!
Since revisionist history was being taught in Latvia and propaganda was being perpetuated around the world, we were taught what truly happened, that an illegal occupation was continuing – until 1991 when Latvia finally regained its freedom.
My grandfather died of cancer in the early 1980s. He did not live to see the day when certain strictures were lifted during the occupation and those in Latvia were finally allowed to celebrate Christmas again. That Christmas Eve, my father wept. And of course, we could only imagine how happy my grandfather would have been when the breakup of the U.S.S.R. finally occurred and Latvia was again fully free. My grandmother’s gladness was tinged with grief. She missed my grandfather, and her own parents, whom she never saw again after that cold night in 1944.
Because many Latvians and Latvian descendants lived outside of Latvia at the time of Latvia regaining its freedom and starting to rebuild, there was an effort to offer dual citizenship in the early 1990s to the children and grandchildren of those who had left. My father and sisters and I have all been proud dual citizens of the United States and Latvia since that time.
We still attended Latvian school after Latvia regained its freedom. We were also active in the Latvian Scout and Girl Guide community – my oldest sister and my father are both Scout/Guide Leaders to this day. We went to Latvian camps every summer growing up, especially one run by the American Latvian Baptist community. That camp was held in Latvian and English – we sang sacred songs in both languages, participated in Latvian and American games and crafts, and also had Latvian Heritage classes.
We have been to Latvia multiple times – my first trip was in 2014. Among many special experiences, I saw the neighborhood where my grandmother grew up, the church where my grandparents were married, and I met my second cousin. I got to see the Baltic Sea in person for the first time, and visit the part of the sea coast where Livonians used to live and work, walk the stone streets of historic Old Town in Rīga, and enjoy a wood-fired hot tub! I even saw the graves of some of my Livonian ancestors – one of whom was an itinerant teacher, who travelled and taught to help keep his tiny culture alive.
Singing is a major component of Latvian culture, whether it be sacred music, or patriotic or folk music.
It has been a form of protest, most notably on August 23, 1989. A human chain was formed, starting in northern Estonia and continuing through Latvia and into Lithuania, ending in their capital city of Vilnius. The protestors held hands and sang songs dear to their cultural identities, many of which had been made illegal by the Soviets. They flew their country’s own flags, which was also illegal. Of course, singing is also a way to enjoy being together and celebrate shared beliefs, history, and the love of music.
The American Latvian Baptist Association holds an annual Day of Sacred Song every April, often in conjunction with the Latvian Lutheran community, in a rotation of different cities around the U.S. My father and sisters and I participate whenever we can, singing sacred songs by Latvian composers passed on and living, as well as occasional works by composers such as Mendelssohn and Mozart that have been translated into Latvian.
The first Latvian Song Festival was held in 1873. There are Song and Dance Festivals held in Latvia to this day as well as in Canada and the United States. They generally take place every five years – but not on the same schedule, of course! My sisters and I have participated in multiple festivals in the U.S., singing in combined choir concerts, some of sacred music and some with more of a folk / cultural theme.
Last summer, in July of 2018, my two older sisters and I, along with the Boston Latvian Choir, sang in a combined choir of 16,000 singers, in Latvia, as part of that year’s Song and Dance Festival to celebrate Latvia’s Centennial. My younger sister, brother-and law, and my husband attended one performance, and my father the other (my mother and other brother-in-law were unable to make that trip, otherwise they would’ve attended, too! :)
Latvia officially declared its freedom and autonomy as a country on November 18, 1918, establishing its own constitution and government, to the chagrin of both Germany and Russia, neither of which recognized Latvia’s autonomy until 1920. Even though Latvia was occupied throughout much of the ensuing century, 2018 was still its 100th birthday year.
We walked in the parade in Rīga, Latvia’s capital city, to start off the week-long festival, alongside other choirs, music ensembles, and dance companies from Latvia and all over world, including many people with whom we’d attended Latvian school. We were cheered and smiled at joyfully, and told “Welcome Home!”
After a week of combined rehearsals, we sang in the magnificent choir concert of thousands at the end of the festival. The concert’s main theme was to honor all of those who had gone before us, especially those who did not live to see that glorious celebration.
I sang for my living family and friends, for my grandparents (my grandmother had also passed away by then), and ancestors during those performances, and for everyone else who fought for what they hoped would finally come to pass but would never see.
During those concerts, one of Latvia’s composers reminded us that “You are home, you are alive, you are FREE.”
— Liāna Dzintra Alksnīte Lloyd