Hundreds gather in LA to celebrate Estonia and their heritage

The West Coast Estonian Days, taking place from 31 August to 4 September, will see several hundreds of visitors celebrating Estonian culture, identity and the upcoming centenary of the republic.

The United States hosts one of the most vibrant Estonian expat communities in the world – there are cultural societies, singing choirs and hobby groups all across the country, from California to Washington, DC. Estonian-American organisations, such as the Estonian American National Council, also do the political lobby work in Washington, if needed – especially when security situation in the Estonian vicinity offers some concern.

According to latest available survey, approximately 28,200 US citizens have responded “Estonian” as either a first ancestry (47.4%) or second ancestry (52.6%). It’s not easy to pinpoint when the first of their ancestors set a foot in the States – Estonian sailors, serving on Russian vessels, are reputed to have participated in the California Gold Rush of 1848, but definite proof is lacking.

It is a fact, however, that one Jaan Sepp arrived in New York in 1855 as a seaman. After a stint as a stevedore and a construction worker, he left for the West Coast, where under the name of John Smith he became a trapper and a barger. Having made enough money, he decided to return to Estonia, but not before losing the $2,000 he had saved gambling aboard the ship taking him back to Europe. Many of the later Estonian immigrants were luckier, however – hundreds, if not thousands of them embraced the “American dream” and made great fortunes.

Many Estonian entrepreneurs thrived in the West Coast – one of them, Charles Gustav Janson, was even called the “Orange King of San Fernando”, owing three large storages and selling up to 600,000 oranges a day. It was the will and money of those Estonian immigrants that initiated the Estonian Society of Southern California in 1928. The post-war Estonian immigration to the US intensified the need to keep the cultural spirit alive further, and the Los Angeles Estonian House was set up in 1953.

The West Coast Estonian Festival

In the same year, two close communities – the Los Angeles and San the Francisco area Estonians – decided to put heads and hearts together and organised West Coast Estonian Festival, the first of its kind for Estonian Americans. On 5-7 September 1953, about 700 Estonians and at least 300 Americans came together to sing, compete in sports and mingle. This spirit is carried on still today. Organised by the West Coast Estonian League, comprised of various Estonian organisations on the west coast, the festival rotates on a two-year basis among the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

On 31 August, both Estonian Americans and visitors from the country of their ancestors gather in Los Angeles to welcome the West Coast Estonian Days again.

This time, the event is especially high profile. The republic of Estonia will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2018 and many historic events that have helped preserve the Estonian culture will be honoured. The West Coast Estonian Days are not an exception – for the first time, Estonia’s prime minister will be present. Jüri Ratas will express gratitude on his country’s behalf and highlight the centennial celebrations to come.

The West Coast Days’ diverse programme will feature a mini “song festival”, an Estonian folk party, film screenings, a number of seminars and a theatre production from Estonia.

“Since Estonia’s independence, we have been fortunate to have participants from Estonia perform and participate,” one of the organisers, Mati Laan, told Estonian World. According to him, still very little is known about Estonia in the region. “That is why it is very important to have events like the West Coast Estonian Days and promote Estonia as much as possible,” he emphasised.

Considering the festival is funded by the local Estonian American community, they no doubt deserve gratitude and all the support they can get.

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Cover: Member of the Los Angeles Estonian community dancing traditional folk dance. Images courtesy of the Los Angeles Estonian Society. The West Coast Estonian Days will take place from 31 August to 4 September at the UCLA Conference Center in Los Angeles, California. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

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About the author: Silver Tambur

Silver Tambur is the cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of Estonian World. He has previously studied journalism at the University of Tartu, and Politics & Society at the Birkbeck College, University of London. Silver has been the editor at the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s news service in English, as well as contributing for the Business Sense magazine in the UK, Deutsche Welle and Radio New Zealand. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can write to Silver at silver@estonianworld.com.