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By Lisa Powell
"Sveiks!" "Sveiks!" Hello, be well! Cheerful greetings echoed throughout the brightly lit hall, as more than 200 people gathered Nov. 18 to celebrate the 89th anniversary of Latvia's independence. Munching on spekapirags, crescent-shaped rolls filled with bacon and onions, and toasting one another with wine, the crowd enjoyed an afternoon of feasting, speeches, and awards, highlighted by musical performances.
Dressed in bunny ears and furry reindeer suits, the children's choir sang and performed skits in Latvian. The women of the adult choir wore traditional hand-embroidered costumes, with floor-length wool skirts, linen blouses, ribbon-trimmed vests, and red wool bands worn like crowns. Hands, ears, and fingers glittered with silver and amber jewelry, as lilting voices filled the hall with Latvian folk songs.
Guests at this joyful event may have felt transported to Latvia, the small northern European country on the Baltic Sea. In fact, they were in a place that is as close to Latvia as one can get in the Bay Area: Noe Valley's Latvian Hall.
Home of the Latvian Community
"Latvian Hall is the home of the Latvian community," says Guido Bergman, who has chaired the board of the Latvian Lutheran Church at the hall for 22 years.
Nestled in the middle of the block of Hoffman Avenue between 24th and 25th streets, Latvian Hall houses the Lutheran Church, the Northern California Latvian Association, the Northern California Latvian Credit Union, a Latvian school, and a ballroom that includes a full stage. The ballroom is the hall's jewel, with 25-foot vaulted ceilings made of pressed tin, glimmering chandeliers, polished wood floors, and wooden benches running the length of ornately carved walls.
The church bought the three-story building at 425 Hoffman Avenue in 1952, from the neighborhood's Finn community, which once used it as a sports hall. The distinctive front doors were hand-carved by a Latvian artist from Toronto, and feature the eight-pointed star, a traditional Latvian ornament. (Latvia, famous for its ornaments, amber, and dainas, or folk songs, is also the birthplace of the first decorated Christmas tree, dating back to 1510.)
Church services at Latvian Hall, led by Pastor Karl Zols, are primarily conducted in Latvian, although English services are held occasionally. The school, where 27 children ages 2 to 6 study Latvian on Sundays (the adult lessons are on Saturdays), is located in the basement of the building. There is also a folk dancing group for teens and young adults.
Strong Cultural Pride
"Our goal is to keep the national identity alive," says Biruta Magone, a Noe Valley resident and member of the board of directors of the Northern California Latvian Association. "Most people of the Latvian society here in the United States and elsewhere contribute their time and energy, talent, and love to the prosperity of the one land most dear to our hearts, and that's Latvia."
An accomplished painter, Magone runs the association's arts programming and serves as editor of its monthly magazine, the Northern California Review. She also is active in the Latvian Theater in San Francisco, creating stage sets and decorations.
Each summer, Magone presents "Renaissance Afternoon" at Latvian Hall, which features an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Latvian American artists, as well as ballet and musical performances.
Music holds a special place in the hearts of Latvians, notes Pastor Zols, who moved to the Bay Area from Riga, the capital of Latvia, in 2000. "There are as many songs as people" in Latvia, he says. (The Republic of Latvia currently has 2.3 million people, living in an area the size of West Virginia.)
The folk songs and cultural pride strengthen the family ties of local Latvian Americans. Says Bergman, "The people are very warm. They love singing, love music. It's a very positive experience to be with them."
A Singing Revolution
According to Magone, about 14 or 15 of the Latvian families who are active today at Latvian Hall live in Noe Valley. She estimates that there are approximately 3,000 to 5,000 Latvian Americans in Northern California, about 300 of whom come to Latvian Hall on a regular basis.
Magone notes that many Latvians immigrated to the United States between 1949 and 1951, making their way here via Germany, France, or England after being displaced by World War II and Soviet invasions. "Everyone was poor when they came [to the United States]," says Magone. "They didn't have anything but what was in their suitcase. Everyone had to sacrifice and work hard to build this society here."
Meanwhile, the people they left behind in Latvia continued to resist Soviet rule, and declared their independence again--this time successfully--in 1991.
Their struggle for freedom was called "a singing revolution," points out Inese Voika, founding president of Delna, a Latvian anti-corruption agency. "We guarded our buildings against Soviet tanks not with guns, but with songs."
Voika credits the active Latvian community in the United States with helping Latvia flourish as a free country today. "Thanks to the people like those in San Francisco who kept coming together and remembering free Latvia, speaking the language, publishing literature, telling our stories, we are proud members of the European community today," says Voika. "I am totally convinced and want to thank each and every one for that."
Like Voika, the Latvians and Latvian Americans who meet in Noe Valley are keepers of the flame, and will celebrate Christmas this year as they always do--with feasts, songs, and stories of Latvia.
Latvian Hall "still brings the people together, and gives them a chance to keep their friendships," says Board Chair Bergman. "We care for each other. It's like one big family."
For more information about the Latvian Association of Northern California and a calendar of events for Latvian Hall, go to www.lvnc.org.