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Who Are We: Lithuanian Americans strive to connect to culture through language, community

The map shows Lithuania. Columnist Laura Gulbinas explores her struggles in staying connected to her Lithuanian identity and culture. (Jason Zhu/Daily Bruin staff)

By Laura Gulbinas

May 15, 2022 10:15 p.m.

When I am with my family in public, we are often asked what language we are speaking, or where we are from. The most common guesses are Russian, Polish or Latvian – none of which are correct.

Growing up speaking Lithuanian, I always took the language for granted. As a child, I didn’t consider the benefits of knowing multiple languages or staying connected to my culture.

As I grew older, I learned staying connected with one’s culture and heritage is crucial, despite the occasional alienation and confusion it may cause.

My parents immigrated to America from Lithuania during the Cold War and Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. My brother and I, although born and raised as first-generation Americans, grew up immersed in Lithuanian culture.

As a child, I was constantly told, “kalbėt lietuviškai” or “speak Lithuanian.” My parents strived to enforce a Lithuanian-only household. While this rule was easy to follow when I was younger and had not yet entered the American education system, this changed as I grew older.

Instead of “kalbėt lietuviškai,” I was told “speak English” on my first day of preschool. I remember feeling alienated from other kids. Since I couldn’t express myself, I ended up crying from frustration. After that, I quickly picked up English, beginning the dilution of my Lithuanian identity.

The frustration I felt during my first day of preschool never left me. Instead, it changed targets. Instead of being frustrated by my lack of English, I became frustrated with my inability to retain Lithuanian.

To preserve my Lithuanian identity, my parents enrolled me in St. Casimir Lithuanian Heritage School of Los Angeles, which operates on Saturday mornings during the school year.

“We hope to create a community where students and families will find a second home with others who speak the same language,” said Maryte Newsom, the director of St. Casimir for nearly 35 years, in an emailed statement. “We aim to instill a sense of pride in our culture and to promote a very definite ethnic identity.”

By teaching Lithuanian grammar, literature, history, folk dancing and singing, and fundamentals of the Catholic faith, St. Casimir allows students to connect with their heritage.

Kristina Hayden, a first-year student at the College of the Canyons, said St. Casimir not only allowed her to improve her Lithuanian but also provided her with many opportunities to connect with the Los Angeles Lithuanian community. Hayden, who was involved in Lietuvos skautija, a Lithuanian version of Boy and Girl Scouts of America, and LB Spindulys, a folk dancing group, said the school and community had become a second family of sorts.

“Being Lithuanian gave me a tight-knit, family-like community that is always supportive to one another, no matter what circumstance,” Hayden said in an emailed statement.

Although gathering to learn about our heritage and sharing a language with other Lithuanian Americans bonded us, it also strengthened the divide between us and the surrounding community.

Paula Greblikas, a first-year student at Santa Monica College, said her family received negative reactions when speaking in public places.

“I would … notice other American people just giving us these weird glances and side looks, and it was not pleasant,” Greblikas said.

The alienation that Greblikas experienced parallels what I faced in my first educational experiences. Although fleeting, it can have lasting effects.

Despite the obvious benefits of attending Lithuanian school – the chance to learn and perfect Lithuanian, foster a relationship with my community, and connect with my heritage – I would beg my parents to let me sleep in and enjoy my Saturdays instead of attending classes for four hours.

Because of this reluctance, I began losing touch with my Lithuanian identity and language. Increasingly, I became frustrated with my inability to regain fluency.

My Lithuanian American identity and connection to my heritage and culture continue to weaken as my social relationships are predominantly with non-Lithuanians. I have observed that my Lithuanian is now a hybrid of Lithuanian and English, and my connection to the community wanes. After I graduated from St. Casimir and moved from home, opportunities to speak Lithuanian have become limited to phone calls with family and old friends.

It seems that just as I began to appreciate the culture and fluency that came so easily when I was younger, opportunities to learn and practice began to disappear.

With a little more than 51,000 Lithuanians in California and 659,000 in the United States, Lithuanians make up about 0.2% of California and U.S. populations. For what few Lithuanian Americans there are, it is critical to practice and pass on our culture.

Although each of us struggles to remain connected to our Lithuanian identity, we remain steadfast in our dedication to our community. After Hayden graduated from St. Casimir, she returned as an instructor and translator, sharing the knowledge she gained over her 10 years attending the school. Greblikas, who also graduated from St. Casimir, works with Lithuanians and makes an effort to connect to any Lithuanian customers she runs into at her workplace. My parents continue to strive to enforce a Lithuanian-only household and to practice important Lithuanian traditions such as Kūčios, a traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Newsom persists in a “labor of love” as she continues her work at St. Casimir.

“Knowing languages other than English makes one more sympathetic to people from various cultures,” said Newsom. “It disciplines the mind, gives a sense of identity and connection, provides an additional social circle, enhances your professional life, and broadens your horizons.”

My heritage will always be a key marker of my identity. Although I feel the loss of my fluency and the Lithuanian community I grew up with, I am deeply appreciative of both.

It is because of this that I will always strive to reconnect with my culture and honor the heritage I am deeply proud of.

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