Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia finished first in the women's New York Marathon last month. Large recognition followed in the U.S for the seldom recognized Baltic republic. For Latvian-Americans, it was surprising to witness a historic compatriot win the race.
There is much to be said for being of Latvian descent. The American Latvian Association attests to the fact that "hundreds of thousands of Latvians fled for their lives, leaving everything behind," following the end of the Second World War and a return to Soviet Occupation.
Recently, much has been made of the beauty of Eastern European women: long legs, blond manes and slender, towering physiques. I have been told a few times now by my boyfriend's acquaintances that dating a Latvian is "trendy" 's nevermind the long history of oppression and difficulties in the post-transition era that this idealized version ignores.
In America, though, Latvians' cultural independence has often been forced into the amorphous blob of Eastern European-ness that for Latvian-Americans has been dominated by Lithuanians and Poles. For someone such as myself, long aware of my family's ties to Latvia before its conception as a newly independent state following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this amorphousness has been part of the charm and challenge.
As a child of the eighties, I was told that my dad and his family were from a country that no longer existed. My dad is one of those rare "dark Latvians" who speaks no Latvian and was born outside of the Baltic republic. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, grew up in Paris and immigrated to the U.S. in 1953. While he has been mistaken for every ethnicity imaginable in America's melting pot, Latvian is not one of the ones that people mention.
Since there is nothing to mark my dad and me as Latvian 's no fluency in Latvian or obvious form of the classic Baltic beauty. We were a bit alien to our supposed ethnic capital of Riga during our first visit there earlier this year. Chicago, the Eastern European capital of North America, has long provided more of a home. However, we were in awe of the beauty of Riga, my dad of the beautiful women of Riga, and together by the delight in finally being somewhere where we fit, albeit in the most seemingly expatriate sense of the word.
After our visit I was eager to return as a citizen. When I wrote the Latvian Embassy in Washington in the hopes of obtaining citizenship, I was delivered one further blow. While imminently qualified and able to trace Latvian ancestry as far back as the embassy desired before 1945, I would have to renounce my current citizenship: the Latvian government does not allow for dual citizens. I was raised knowing that for all the hardship and duress of obtaining U.S. citizenship, one does not renounce it so easily.
Given the concerns of a negative birthrate and Russian immigration, this may seem appropriate. However, given the warmth that other Eastern European nations extend to their American brethren, this measure seems reactionary and isolationist at a time when Latvia needs more friends in the world.
Yonkers, New York