People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Latvian Americans

About the Latvian Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Latvian-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: The first Latvian immigrants--four of them, to be exact--arrived in 1638 from the Swedish-controlled northern region of Livonia in present-day Latvia and Estonia. When Latvian immigration reached measurable proportions between 1880 and 1920, emigration was from Latvia itself. By far the largest group of immigrants was admitted under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. These refugees, having fled their homeland during W.W. II, actually emigrated from Austria and Germany.

Why They Left: Virtually all Latvian immigration was the result of military occupation, which caused political, religious, and cultural oppression. The first wave was precipitated by an unsuccessful socialist revolution against Russian czarist rule in 1905, the second by post-W.W. II Russian Communist domination.

Where They Settled: Latvians tended to settle on the East Coast, particularly in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, but a number traveled to Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. In 1970, nearly 40% of all Latvian Americans still lived on the East Coast (almost 20% in New York), with significant percentages residing in California, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio.

Numbers: European military and political instability encouraged Latvian immigration between 1900 and 1920, and the 1930 census reported 38,000 Latvians in America, 21,000 of whom were foreign-born. An additional 45,000 arrived in the early 1950s, and the 1970 census reported a total of 86,500 Latvian Americans.

Their Story in America: Latvian immigrants arriving after 1905--a great many of whom were socialist revolutionaries fleeing czarist persecution--were likely to be well-educated professionals or white-collar workers. As with most immigrants, their living conditions were poor and the work available to them was menial; but the Latvians' superior education and skills led to comparatively rapid assimilation and good jobs in a relatively short time.

The next wave of immigrants was also comprised of refugees from Russian domination, but these were vehemently anticommunist, and the Latvian population in the U.S. today generally reflects this hard-line view. Like those arriving after the 1905 revolution, Latvians arriving in the 1950s were solidly middle-class, skilled, and well educated.

Famous Latvian Americans: Chess master Edmar Mednis; Dr. Sigurds Grava, former U.N. adviser on city planning who developed the master plan for New York City's metropolitan transportation system in 1972; Mara Kristberga-Culp, who won the Powder Puff Derby in 1969, flying her light plane from San Diego to Washington, D.C., in record time.

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