Do any of you know someone who has to live somewhere other than hia or her native
country? Many of us probably do, because these days there are more displaced people
in the world than there have been at any other time. I would like to share my story about
how after being forced to leave home, I found ways to strengthen my ethnic identity and
connect to my roots. I hope it will help others who find themselves far from home.
Imagine a place where three generations of people can spend a week together to
celebrate being with their family and their tribe – people who share their history,
language and traditions, songs and dances – a phenomenon. A place where a teenager,
a 90 year old, a middle aged person and a toddler – all feel welcome, are listened to and
heard, know that they belong. A place where they can learn about their ethnic heritage
and about each other. There is such a place and we call it 3×3, symbolizing the three
generations. In fact, I started the 3×3 camp movement which helped Latvians all over the
world to connect, affirm their ethnic identity and enjoy being together.
I was born in Latvia, a small country in northeastern Europe. Along with my parents
and many others I fled the Soviet occupation in 1944, spent five years in refugee camps
in Germany and then emigrated to the US where I have spent most of my life. However,
I am immensely grateful that I feel I belong here in Latvia as well.
Life in America was hard in the beginning. We had lost everything, including our very
identities as the people we used to be. My father had been an officer in the Latvian army,
but in the US he was a farm hand, whose wages barely bought the family groceries. My
mother, who had been a clerk in a district court, became a maid on the farm. I went to
school, but only because my parents insisted. It was humiliating – I was placed in a grade
much below my age level, because I could not speak English. We felt weird and inferior.
Life became easier after we moved to a city where a number of other Latvians had settled.
My parents had menial jobs, but I continued in school and eventually earned a Ph.D in
counseling. Over time I held a number of great jobs as a teacher and a counselor. I no
longer felt weird. As a matter of fact, I was proud of being different, being unique.
Clash of generations
Most of my friends were Latvian, but I had participated in few organized activities in the
Latvian community. To tell the truth, I felt I did not quite belong there, like I wasn’t a
good enough Latvian by the standards of the older generation, because in many respects
my opinions differed from theirs. Eventually I did find some ways I could contribute
by working in the summer high school and some youth seminars. And then, much to my
surprise, I was elected to chair the Bureau of Culture of the American Latvian Association.
Now I had to do something, but had no idea what!
Being a Latvian
I kept thinking of something I had overheard at the Latvian summer high school in Three
Rivers, Michigan. A mother was berating her teenage daughter who apparently refused
to sing in in the choir. Mom said that all good Latvians sang in the choir! Really? And
what made her so sure of that? Her parents had said so. Hmmmm… And what was the
big deal about being a good Latvian anyway when you lived in America?
Although Latvians in the diaspora had a number of organizations and activities, I felt
that there was room for something new and different. Not sure I was on the right track,
I interviewed a number of people in my age range, about 40-55 years old, and asked
about their experiences in the Latvian community, what they liked and disliked. It turned
out we had a lot in common – we shared an appreciation of Latvian culture and
friendships with other Latvians. We also shared the feeling that some of the activities
and some characteristics of Latvians as group in general discouraged our participation.
Living in the past, expecting everybody “to sing in the choir” – stick to a rather rigid
definition of what a good Latvian should be and do alienated us. I wanted to do
something that I and, hopefully, others would truly enjoy, not participate in because we
felt we had to be “good” Latvians.
Such participation had a lot to offer. All of us, especially people who have been forced out
of their homelands, are better off when they have a sense of connectedness,
opportunities to develop stable, lasting face-to-face interpersonal relationships and
strong multigenerational family ties. A reference group with shared roots, goals and
values would help meet the need for belonging. I was convinced that a strong sense of
experiential ethnic identity could enrich my life and those of others as long as its
development was compelling rather than prescribed.
Appealing vs. force-fed
I had a hunch we had to start with the “why do it”, and there were many “whys” – to get
to know more about our rich cultural heritage, complicated history, precarious political
situation – in brief, know more about the meaning of being a Latvian. To know more
about each other – who we actually were, not who we should be to qualify.
I thought that in an informal, non-traditional, fun setting we could learn from and about
each other, regardless of age, educational level, profession or economic situation.
Participating in interactive educational and recreational activities hopefully would
promote thinking about and sharing with others what it meant to one personally to be a
Latvian child, parent or grandparent surrounded by a different language and culture.
To think about what were the good and not so good aspects of being a member of the
Latvian community. Share how you feel, what you do and how you do it, how you cope
with life in two different cultures and languages. And hopefully discover what it is worth
to you to affirm your Latvian identity and feel that you belong to a group of your own
The more I thought about it, the more carried away I became. And you know what
happened? My enthusiasm and belief in the project helped to connect with others who
spread the idea further and offered suggestions. In fact, many of them became involved
In the development of what we named the multigenerational ethnic heritage camp 3×3.
What is 3×3
So what is 3×3? It is a week long camp where you can make a traditional Latvian ring or
necklace for your sweetheart, learn how many “dainas” or folksongs are dedicated to the
sun, discuss the current situation in Latvian politics, help draw an animated film, folk-
dance ‘til dawn, sing your heart out, make friends and watch your children make friends
may last a lifetime, and much, much more. It is where family members who live in
different countries can spend quality time together. It is where you don’t have to worry
about cooking or cleaning house. Your time is your own to enjoy the activities and each
other. 3×3 camp programs meet the needs of participants by providing a variety of
seminars and ethnic crafts workshops for the adults and activities for children of
different ages. In the evenings there are programs and activities for families, folk
singing and dancing, as well as time for socializing, playing cards and whatever else you
may like to do. So children, their parents and grandparents, 3 generations, enjoy camp
While the organizers come from various backgrounds, the seminar presenters and
Craftsmen are mostly well known professionals in their fields, chosen not only for
Mastery of their subject but also the ability to present their material in an interesting,
Easily accessible manner – much like TED talks. All work is done on a volunteer basis.
In 1978 I was elected to chair the Council on Education of the World Federation of Free
Latvians, and this provided an opportunity to travel and engage people in different
countries that had a sizeable Latvian population. The 3×3 camp movement rapidly
spread from the US to other countries. Our goals were learning about all things Latvian,
strengthening multigenerational family ties, and developing friendship and support
networks. Many types of learning take place – not only about Latvian culture and
society but also about and from each other – and about ourselves.
What makes it a success
3×3 came about and flourished because it was conceived from the bottom, by asking
people what they want to do and making it clear that it’s up to each participant to make
the experience meaningful to him- or herself. It means different things to different
people. For example, the acclaimed folk musician Ilga Reizniece says” “It’s hard to
describe the happiness I feel playing into the early morning hours and seeing that the
energy and joy of the dancers is undiminished.” A 90 year old man from New York, who
has participated in camps in Latvia for many years, says that the people he has befriended
there are his family since he has none other. I am sad that he will not be making the trip
this year. Families often enthusiastically talk about how sharing experiences at 3×3
has helped them communicate like never before. Teenagers love being allowed to stay up
‘til all hours to dance or socialize – as long as they don’t oversleep and miss workshops or
seminars the next day. Many camp participants view 3×3 as the opportunity to “charge
their Latvian batteries”.
Currently there are 8 3×3 camps each year – one in Australia in January, two in Latvia in
July, two in the US and one in Ireland in August, and two in Great Britain in July/August.
A ninth camp in Germany will join us in 2018. So far, in the spring of 2017, there have
been 232 3×3 camps with over 34000 participants since the first camp at Garezers,
Michigan in 1981. Although no two camps are exactly alike, all of them have the same
goals and follow the same guidelines.
3×3 was started so we could learn more about our ethnic heritage and about each other.
The informal atmosphere and activity format at the camps foster interaction among
People of different age groups and an understanding that all Latvians are not alike,
That they don’t all have to sing in the choir. We can learn certain things from our elders,
but they have to learn from the younger generations what is important to them, how
being Latvian feels to them. I strongly believe that unless there is an understanding
and acceptance of the ideas, goals and values of all age groups, it is impossible to build a
vital, strong and sustainable community.
With the 3×3 camps we started a social movement which grew from a few simple ideas
eventually shared by more and more people – we wanted to have a sense of belonging, a
tribe, have fun, learn from and about each other without the barriers that age and
background often create. An we found that there are many ways of being Latvian with or
without singing in the choir.
It has been a fantastic experience and a great privilege to be able to be a part of the 3×3
movement from its inception in 1981, and to continue to be the coordinator of camps in
three continents and six countries. It’s great to see that many organizers and presenters
of today started their 3×3 experience in a baby carriage. I am able to relate to them not as
a grandmother but a person with shared goals, values, and activities a colleague, an equal.
3×3 continues to evolve as each new generation adds to the concept of what it means to
be a Latvian – and why it feels great to be one.