Many answers to the million-Lat question

  • 2002-04-11
  • Philip Birzulis
Because of their turbulent history, Latvians spend a lot of time wondering about their identity. One woman has spent the last year trying to get some answers to their questions, as Philip Birzulis reports.

The Ai Karamba! bar in central Riga is a trendy hangout for young Latvians. But with its diner-style booths, U.S. license plates and other pop culture paraphernalia, unashamedly set down in the middle of Latvia, it's also a place where cultures collide.

For this reason, it seems like a good place to meet Mara Pelece. This 30-year-old, born in Minnesota but resident for the last 18 months in Latvia, has devoted a lot of time and energy to asking people on both sides of the Atlantic a single question: "What does it mean to be Latvian?"

A few years ago, while she was studying fine arts at university, she borrowed a video camera and started asking this question to people at Latvian gatherings in America. The answers - or rather the variety and complexity of them - seemed so interesting to her that she eventually got a Fulbright scholarship to pursue the quest in Latvia itself.

Pelece now has about 120 hours of footage of people reflecting on what their nationality means to them.

Fragments of her work have been shown in exhibitions in Riga, and she is negotiating with television studios to make a documentary. But she says it's a question she could go on asking for a long time yet, if it were not for the thought of the daunting hours ahead of her at an editing console, trying to make sense of it all.

In fact, she freely admits that, after all this work, she feels more fragmented than certain about what it means to be a Latvian.

Divided we stand

Pelece has spoken to people from all walks of life and says she has tried to be open to all the responses. But what started out as a simple exercise has snowballed in its final stages into a project the author divides into sections.

Rather than having pretensions to scientific objectivity, she likens what has come out to a "pasaka," an old form of story in Latvian folklore.

And, like any imaginative work, this one can be divided into several chapters.

First, her interviews were in America about "Latvia from afar." In Latvia itself, she spoke to people in the city, then to people in the countryside and is finishing by talking to the young.

There's an old saying about Latvians that if you get two of them together, they will form three political parties. And Pelece seems to have discovered that there are perhaps as many things that divide the nation as unite it.

For one thing, there are fundamental differences between Latvians in America and in Latvia itself. This comes out in how forthrightly they declare their allegiance.

She said that many local Latvians appeared to simply accept being Latvian as a fact, and had "not thought about it."

In contrast, those living in a huge society such as America must make a conscious decision about what their identity is. Two young Latvian women in America told her, "It depends on how hard you work at it, how hard you try to be a Latvian."

As she got more deeply involved in Latvia, Pelece said the ambiguity of the responses in Latvia became more like disenchantment.

While some have adapted to the changes of the last decade, many others seem to mesh their ethnic identity with the difficulties of making a living.

This even applies to the wealthy and mighty; Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs told her of his disappointment that Latvian businessmen spend more time blocking each other than cooperating.

At the other end of the country, and perhaps the social scale, was a folklore specialist in Vilaka, a town in Eastern Latvia. Like others living in the district interviewed by Pelece, she was passionate about defending her cultural heritage.

Yet one of her strongest statements about being a Latvian was, "I felt most Latvian when we were holding hands during the independence drive, singing patriotic songs, because we had something to define ourselves against."

Asked why the Latvian language, a subject of such intense political passion, didn't emerge as a glue holding people together, Pelece believes people in Latvia consider this so obvious they don't even mention it.

Pelece did say, though, that people in America are more conscious of it.

However, in a subtle way, Pelece believes it is language that remains a cardinal point of difference between Latvians who remain in exile and those in the homeland. Although both groups speak Latvian, there is a divide in the meanings they attribute to words and phrases.

She described this separation as a matter of "signs and signifiers."

"It's disappointing," she said. "Although we have the same words, there are still so many differences between diaspora Latvians and the locals. It's still 'us and them.'"

Nevertheless, some common threads emerged from all of the people she spoke to. Time and again, her interview subjects mentioned four things that to them seem to epitomize the Latvian spirit: Latvian song festivals, singing itself, the ancient Latvian poetry of the dainas, and an almost mythical attachment and sense of responsibility toward the land.

Pelece said she could relate to these elements herself, having spent happy times performing with Latvian folk dancing groups and choirs in America. And she feels the need to escape the city and commune with nature every now and then.

This streak even manifested itself while she was living in a Chicago apartment building, when she felt the need to start tidying up the communal garden. This had the neighbors scratching their heads.

"People asked me whether I was hired help, and I just told them, 'No, I live on the first floor, and I'm doing these things because they need to be done.'"


To try and bridge the gap in her own understanding, Pelece said she spent the first two months after arriving in Latvia just listening to people, before starting any serious interviews. And from there, she said, the work progressed in an "organic" way.

She found most of her subjects through friends and acquaintances, and tried to keep the amount of lighting and other equipment used to a minimum, because "the conversation is primary."

In fact, Pelece says she approaches each interview with just the one initial question, out of which come conversations that last up to two hours.

This easy-going style led to one humorous misunderstanding. After waiting months to get a chance to interview President Vaira-Vike Freiberga, an official finally called to offer a date. But before the get-together, the aide demanded to know what line of inquiry Pelece wanted to pursue with the head of state. When Pelece said she had just one question, the result was open-mouthed consternation, and she had a bit more explaining to do.

Vike-Freiberga's answer to the question was somewhat unexpected. For the president, one of the most powerful forces in making her feel like a Latvian was when she was a youthful exile and felt rejected by others in a strange land.

Pelece's own reasons for coming to Latvia were more practical than emotional. But as she's spent time here, she has grown more attached to the place. She said Riga has a more human scale than most American cities, which she believes has an impact on human relationships.