Citizens’ Journal is proud to present the Coming to America series of immigrant related interviews conducted by Ventura resident Dr. Kathleen S. Roos. CJ publishes a new story each Sunday. These stories describe what life was like in their native country, the whys of wanting to come to America and what they have found here. It is the hope of each interviewee that those born in America, who have not had these experiences may reflect on what it means to be an American by these immigrants. Many have risked their lives and their families to come to America. Some have had an easier road, but the desire to be free, to make choices and what it means to become an American is a thread found throughout these interviews.
In current news today look at the young man Enes Kanter, the Boston Celtics basketball player speaking out about human rights and comparisons to China and the companies who do business there! He is from Turkey and Muslim and his family is paying a price for his decision to speak out. He is also taking a lot of heat from others here in the U.S. to risk his career to take such a stand. A very decent guy who makes a great example to Americans. He is well-known and appreciates the U.S. and our freedoms and deplores the atrocities in China and other parts of the world relative to abuse and lack of human rights. Most of these interviewees are not well known, or famous but their stories matter. All the varying perspectives of the interviewees are presented. Each one is their own story.
For the Citizen’s Journal readers who want to go back and view previous interviews we have included a list of those already published which can be located through the journal’s search engine box by typing in Coming to America, and the name of the Country. These include interviews from Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge through Cambodia: The Next Generation (installments 1-3), Oaxaca, Mexico (4), Santiago, Chile (5), Aligarh, India (6), Santiago, Cuba (7), Cambodia: years later told by an American dental professional (8), Jalisco, Mexico (9), Bagdad, Iraq (10), Bulacan, Philippines (11), and United Kingdom (12).
Interview conducted with Edmunds Sondors
In Latvia, pre-WWII, the president was Karlis Ulmanis, well known as a member of the Latvian Farmer’s Union (1917-1934) made the Latvian fishing industry famous by naming the famous canned sardines Sprotes. The fishing industry caught many sardines. Latvians would smoke and then can them in oil and called them “Sprotes” or Spratzs. Spratzs is a delicacy even today and became a very famous Latvian gourmet food. The currency at this time was in Lats. Lats was a very strong currency. We had 5, 2 and 1 Lats silver coins, similar to the U.S silver dollars. Due to our very strong economy at the time, Latvians wanted to stay away from Russia and communism.
Where are you from and growing up there.
I was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia. It’s about twenty kilometers from Salaspils, Latvia, the small town where I grew up. Latvia was under Russian occupation since 1945. Thus, I was born and grew up under Russian occupied Latvia. I was raised by a single mom with no brothers or sisters. Prior to Russian occupation, Latvia was a very strong capitalist country and was very successful being near sea ports. Latvians were very agricultural people. They were primarily farmers, raising sheep, cows for milk, wheat and there was a huge fishing industry.
My mom was a single girl and she worked in the Salispils Peat Factory in Kudra. Peat is an energy resource used to burn for heating. She stayed in one tiny room with three other girls in the early 1960s and ended up in an apartment known as the Barracks. While working on the peat production farm in the forest, she decided to get an education, and studied food production and chemistry. After graduating from the school, she went to work at the liquor factory, as a laboratory chemist. Although she had an education, the wages did not reflect that, as workers on the assembly line made more money. So, she gave up the laboratory work and went to work on an assembly line to earn a bigger pay check. She worked in the factory on the assembly line all her life to support the family in our native country until retirement. My mom met my father in the town of Kudra, outside of Salaspils, Latvia. Kudra was even smaller than Salaspils.
I grew up in this small village with 16 buildings called Barracks, each housing between 4 to 12 families. The town had a single dirt road going through it. Buildings were built after second world war (WW II) as temporary housing, called Barracks. They were poorly built with no insulation. The first building I lived in with my mom was a single room, about 6 feet wide and about 8 feet long. In our first small room, mom stayed there with me until I was about 1 to 2 years old and then she moved down the hallway to a larger room which was maybe 6 X 12’.
We had a brick stove, that mom used only in winter time for heat and cooking. Also, we had a small kitchen table, small desk, closet, foldable twin bed and single foldable chair /sleeper. When both were un-folded for sleeping, there was very little floor space left. The bathroom was basically an outhouse in the building without water and heat in winter time. The common bathroom, meaning shared by multiple families, was just a hole in the floor just like an outhouse within the building. The running water was in the community kitchen down the hallway, next to community bathrooms. There was no running water in the bathroom. I stayed in this other room with mom till I was about 7 to 8 years old. We used the brick stove for heat and a hot plate for cooking or heating the kettle.
When I was 11, we had an opportunity to move to a larger place in the building across the road. This was a two-room apartment with a separate kitchen. Although we upgraded to separate bedrooms, to get water we had go outside to a manual pump, and carry water by buckets. Also, the bathroom was outside, across the road. It was an out-house for 3 people, male or female separated by a wooden partition, with no lights or running water. Because the common bathroom was so far away, we usually would end up peeing in a bucket and then emptying it the next morning. In the second place we lived which was bigger, there still was no running water and we went out and pumped water from a well.
Here we used an outdoor outhouse. In Latvia the temperatures can get very cold and you had to be fully dressed to go out to the communal bathroom which consisted of three holes under a bench. That bench was nasty and no one wanted to touch it, let alone sit on it. There was no light in the bathroom to locate the hole and no lights to get there. When it was all iced over you really had a tough time staying on a toilet (Edmunds laughs). Nobody wanted to touch those toilets. There’s no toilet paper, we used newspaper. It was very cold and would ice up and you had to balance yourself up on this bench to be able to go while slipping all over and not wanting to put your hands down.
By the 1970s these Barracks were considered emergency buildings and a new development in Riga was under construction. This is all state construction. This newly constructed area was more spread out, what you would call maybe suburbia.
In first grade I walked to school about 2 miles. Boys and girls were together in the same schools. There were actually two schools; there was a Russian School and a Latvian School. The Russian school was a two-story building and bigger than the Latvian School. My mom would walk to the train station at about 6 in the morning, she would work all day then take the train home to find me coming home late, dirty with no homework done. I caused a lot of problems for my mom as I was a young kid and I was always getting into trouble so she sent me off to boarding school. I would steal bread when I was hungry. I just kept slipping and my mom was concerned about this so the boarding school was probably a good thing.
To attend boarding school, I had to leave my house Sunday afternoon, walk 1 mile to the train station to get to capital city Riga, which is about a half hour on the train, then get on to a different train, ride about an hour and half, and if lucky, get on the bus for about a half hour ride to school. If I missed the bus, I had to walk about 5 miles. I would get there on Sunday afternoon for the 8 am class the next morning. We had to be in school until Saturday afternoon and then make the same trip back home. We only had free time from 3 pm until 4.45 pm. In this boarding school I was about 8 years old and had to wear a uniform.
I went from 2nd second grade to 8th grade in the same school with about 25 kids in a class. There we were boarded in dorms with 8 to 20 kids to a bedroom.
We would stay in the dorms and be monitored all the time. We would have dinner together and then monitored to do the homework and at 10 p.m. it was lights out.
I finished school in 1982 completing eighth grade. After finishing 8th grade, I enrolled in a trade/high school, a three-year trade program. Half of the day was spent studying curriculum, the other half you studied your trade. After 3 years I earned a 4th degree carpenter certificate (6th degree being a master), and went to work at a large construction company.
What did you enjoy growing up?
We enjoyed swimming, playing in the forest, and this was a real forest! We enjoyed climbing in the trees, making bows and arrows and pretending to be Indian warriors, building and riding bicycles and mopeds, making bonfires, fishing and much more. During this time of Russian occupation, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were admired by the Russians compared to the other republics in Russia. Latvia had very successful manufacturing of automobiles, trains, electronics, textile and a lot of other industries, and was very popular throughout the former USSR. And being close to the Baltic Sea, we had very nice beaches and resorts.
In Latvia there are three major shipping ports, which made Latvia huge in fisheries. Russia used Latvia as a window to the world just like Peter the Great. The Russians always knew that Latvia was a very beautiful area, very bountiful and economically successful.
Why did you want to come to the U.S.? How do you perceive the U.S. in your young life as compared to when you first came here?
My mom told me about my uncle, who immigrated to the USA after WW II, and was living in Ventura, California. She rarely talked about him as it was not acceptable to speak positively of the USA, especially having a relative move there. My uncle had joined the Latvian Legion. The Latvian Legions were made up of Latvians who joined the German Army to fight the against Communist Russians. This is why he had to leave and not come back to Latvia after the war. He had his leg blown off during the war. The Germans returned him to Germany to heal, and was provided a prosthetic leg. He could never return to Latvia or he would be killed, or sent to Siberia labor camps, since he had fought against them. My uncle somehow ended up staying on the west side of Germany after the war. He was fortunate that he did not end up in East Germany and he stayed there until 1952. This also made it easier for him to come to the USA. Had he been in the east I am not sure he would have been able to come to the U.S. I have to say this about the Germans, that they take care of their soldiers. They never turned their back on their soldiers after the war was over, including my uncle. They paid for his prosthetic even when he came to America and they paid for his new prosthetic leg whenever it was replaced until he died.
In middle school, I was thinking about America. We had always been taught that America was a rotten, capitalist country. That America was decadent. At this time Latvia was under communist rule. In our country at that time, you would go to prison for years for speaking against the Communist regime. You could actually disappear if you spoke your mind. You could not talk or even state that Latvia was ‘Russian occupied’! Just saying that would send you to a political prison, or labor camps to ‘die naturally’ (due to heavy work, harsh Siberian environment or exposure to nuclear wastes). You could not say anything about Latvia being a capitalist country in the past.
You could not show or fly the old Latvian flag. Russia re-made the Latvian flag to suit their agenda. Can you imagine your country’s flag being changed to meet another country’s agenda? It still makes me angry.
My first taste of America was in the late 70’s, when I saw a photo of the music band KISS at the flea market/swap-meet. In Russian occupied countries there was no experiencing music or bands like this. The government-controlled media did not play any American or British music, or any shows at all. Russian music performers would all be dressed in suits and ties, and behavior was very restrictive of how one could react at a concert. You could not whistle or stand up and scream, only clap. You had to be all very politically correct. But we kids started seeing those pictures of Kiss and other music groups. Kids would buy these pictures. You can’t imagine a restricted young person seeing the faces of the KISS group and maybe hearing their music, or watching the action movies of Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger! It really made an impression on the young people under Communist rule. It was all very underground in the early 1980s and was called the black-market media.
Once I got a hold of a Marlboro plastic shopping bag. This was a big deal in grade school. I put all my school books in that bag and I was very popular when the kids saw this Marlboro bag. At some point the blue jeans: Levi’s, Wranglers, Montana and Lees became very popular in the black market. People paid hundreds of dollars for them. Jeans came in dark blue, but we wanted them faded to the light blue to be cool and look American. So, we rubbed them with bricks or stones to get them to fade faster, rather natural fading after many wash cycles. We were wearing those Mohawk style haircuts.
I was drafted into the Russian Army at 19 and was sent to Georgia for 2 years. After discharge I went back to work for the same construction company I worked for after graduating from my trade school.
During my military service, after you served six months you were given a half day pass. You had to wear your uniform and we went to the town of Orjonikidze. There were basement stores that you had to walk down to. It was all very underground kind of stuff and all were in rebellion and not asking permission from the government. Here you could watch videos. They had VHS tapes playing. This is where I saw a Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone, all these kind of action movies. You would pay about a dollar (rubles equivalent) to watch them. This reinforced my whole concept of America. Wild west cowboys with guns, big and fast cars, all kind of fire arms, ladies in bikinis, it was the Wild West and everything goes. It was so different than anything we were taught about America. It showed freedom! You could listen to the music you wanted, you could dress the way you wanted and you could practice any religion. We saw all this freedom in these movies and even though now I know that was just Hollywood, it was very real for us.
My mom was Catholic but she never got to practice her Catholicism in the Soviet Union. If you wanted to succeed you had to become a member of the Communist party and she did. This was the only way you could get ahead, to become a member of the party so she had to give up her Catholic faith. It wasn’t so much that they destroyed churches in Latvia, but they discouraged faith by people having to join the Communist Party to get ahead for better living. Practicing any religion was detrimental to just getting by. In Russia they actually took down the churches just like in the U.S., now where they’re taking down statues. I find this very troublesome.
When I made my decision to come to America, I only told my wife. I told no one else as it was dangerous. I didn’t tell my mom or anyone else. I knew if I came to America, I would stay in America. My wife did not believe me. It was like I was telling her I was going to go to the Moon. I spoke no English. In 1992 I came to America. I was 25 years old. My uncle was here.
When my uncle got to the States through Ellis Island in 1952, he worked for avocados and lemon growing farmers in Oxnard. It was a group put together by the Catholic Church and they would take in displaced people. The program entailed, if you gave them two years of labor, they would provide food and shelter for you. My mom had told me that my uncle lived in America but she would not talk about this. She mentioned it once and then she would never talk about it again. It was dangerous to speak about America.
Also, the Germans I spoke of earlier when my uncle joined the Latvian Legions denounced Hitler and the SS. The Legions were not Hitler’s soldiers. These Latvians were drafted by the German Army to fight Communism. I emphasize this because what I see happening in the US and the current situation in Afghanistan. The action taken by the U.S. government in Afghanistan recently with the American troops is appalling! The Germans, I believe during my uncle’s time, never would have done that. They backed up their soldiers which is something I always thought America would do.
We eventually could speak openly about anything in government during the Reagan/Gorbachev era called “Glasnost”. I was still in the Russian military and was watching the TV news. In Riga, Latvia in 1987 I saw people walking with our pre-Russian occupation Latvian flag on TV.
This was a serious charge to carry the Latvian flag. This was very risky during this time but you could see things changing. I knew if I stayed in Latvia even with my high degree in carpentry, I would make maybe $250 a month. You can’t move up. You will never succeed or get promoted to being the boss. People have to steal or be born into those jobs. This is just the way socialism and communism work.
Communists and Socialists know the workers will steal food and materials, that was purposeful to keep their pay low. I had only hand tools and I put all my effort into my work. I invented specific carpentry tools, methods and jigs. Even when I told some about the inventions that I made, you would not get any credit or acknowledgement. Inventions or anything creative would never be acknowledged under socialism and communism. They know that some people will not work hard. It was almost like the majority had blinders on for any creativity.
In Capitalist countries if you work hard, you get ahead and can be creative and inventive. Under socialism there is no incentive to get ahead or try to be more or even be inventive. When I mentioned some of the things I had invented and so showed off my jigs and tools, another carpenter said ‘Well, if it worked or was meant to be invented it would have been already done’. These were my coworkers, possibly others would have been more open minded but we were almost limited to even thinking about going above these people. They seemed to stifle any creativity. That was just the attitude and then I realized I really wasn’t going to get anywhere even being inventive and creative. This man was wrong. I actually developed a stronger, more stable carbon steel blade earlier than the one that is in use today. Then power tools became popular and hand tools were no longer as much in demand. This was in 1988 and 1989 I knew in my heart I was in a box and I was never going to escape unless I went to America.
In America I established my own business and have worked hard to be a successful businessman and support my family. This would have been so much harder in Latvia, if at all. I just felt more drive once I came to America. It was just in my heart to make it here. It may have happened in Latvia after many years, but I did not feel I could get anywhere there. I was exposed to the black-market ways to make money, and could have gone that route, but that was not my upbringing and not my choice.
Though I still love my heritage and language, I am a proud American!
Do you see parallels of things happening in your Country compare to U.S. Good and bad?
Of all the countries in the world, we came to America because I believed that America is the greatest country, and the land of opportunity and freedom! We could have immigrated to many countries but came to America because, America is the best! When we first arrived in America, we had to learn the language, get driver’s license, and deal with immigration. This was all difficult for us but we got through it. Making friends and fitting into the American culture was difficult at first. I think most younger generation Americans are very spoiled, and do not realize what it is like in the rest of the world. They have been brought up having everything and many did not have to work hard or even try to achieve anything let alone fight for their freedom. They take so much for granted.
I have been in America for almost 30 years and I have not seen racism in America. This new accusation that America is racist is absurd. Never heard it the last 30 years, why suddenly now? I find Russia much more racist than anything I have seen in America. The racism I experienced in my native country was from Russians. Although Russia occupied Latvia in 1945, and stayed there for decades, many of them called people of Latvia fascists or Nazis, and other very offensive names in regards to being Latvian. They occupied us and they are calling us fascists! This is what I find racist. The Russians occupied our country and called us names. When I experienced racism in my native country, it made me very angry. In America no matter who you are, your color, your religion whatever, you can do what you want and if you work hard, you can make something of yourself. You are free.
Living in America makes me feel proud, free, and happy! A tactic of the Communists used in Latvia and other republics was their illegal voting practices. The Russians created an illegal voting event by sending in trains loads of military people dressed as civilians and then they voted for the Russian communists. This reminds me of much of the voting manipulations going on in this country today.
I am fighting for America to be what it was when I got here. I even considered going back to Latvia and attempt to make changes there after I observed what is happening in the US. But I see it clearly now what is happening. This is what happened to me growing up in Latvia and to all Latvian people. Now I see the same is happening here. I get frustrated that many Americans don’t seem to see or even care what is happening to their own Country.