Observations of Estonians in Chicago

Richard Karl Henahan met with the representatives of the Estonian diaspora in Chicago, to figure out what kind of people are Estonian-Americans, and came back being amazed by their resilience and persistence to keep their community together.

Ask any American what their ancestry is, and you will probably get a long and convoluted response. For example, in my family, my mother has 100% German ancestry, but on my father’s side, it is a bit messier; I can claim Irish, Polish, Welsh and German relatives from his side. But, in all the conversations I have had with people about their ancestry in the United States (and there has been a lot), I have never met anyone who said they have Estonian roots.

Living in Estonia for two years now, I learned there were several waves of Estonian immigrants in the 20th century, and I began to wonder how many of them ended up in the United States and how they coped with living in a new country.

Then I started to ask questions like “What is an Estonian-American?” and, in my head, I pictured someone with a split personality, someone who is simultaneously loud and outgoing (American) and quiet and reserved (Estonian) – like a Frankenstein monster, put together from various parts and pieces. Of course, this is an exaggeration, surely Estonian-Americans are not a conflicted mess, right? Right?! The point being, I had burning questions about Estonian-Americans, and I needed answers.

Luckily for me, the Institute of Baltic Studies is conducting a study for the Estonian interior ministry to understand the Estonian diaspora’s connection to their culture, people and their potential needs from the Estonian state. As fortune would have it, I spent a part of my summer visiting family in Chicago, Illinois, which also has a large (by Estonian standards) Estonian immigrant population. So, I contacted a local Estonian cultural group (Eestlased Chicagos) and organised interviews and focus groups with over 20 Estonian immigrants.

Generational differences in how Estonian immigrants identify themselves

Estonian immigrants from the 1950s seemed to associate mostly with American culture and identified themselves as Americans but claimed they were “Estonian at heart”. For example, in an interview with an Estonian refugee, I was told their cultural identity was a “combination” of both cultures but that the experience of assimilating to American culture had enriched their life. This sentiment was consistent with other Estonian immigrants from the 1950s.

The family of Siim Sööt (the third boy from the left in the front row), who was interviewed by the author for his research, arriving in the US. Private collection.

For more recent Estonians (ie last 20-25 years) they first responded as “Estonian” rather than “American”. It also seemed like this group was more likely to return to Estonia permanently with their family or they were planning on staying for an extended period in Estonia. When asked why, most participants explained that they missed their country and being able to use their language with others.

Reasons for moving to the United States in the last 20-25 years

Immigrants from the last 20-25 years could be sorted into two groups; the first moved to the United States in the late 1990s for better economic opportunities and the second were more like wayward travellers who came with the intention of staying for a short time, but through different circumstances, decided to stay for much longer.

The first group of Estonians attributed Estonia’s instability during the 1990s and better economic opportunities as reasons for immigrating. A few participants explained there were only a few good paying jobs in Estonia and the US offered a better opportunity for them to earn a living.

The author Richard Henahan (second from the right) with Estonians of the “focus group one”. Private collection.

The second group seemed to be more “restless” than the first group – in the sense that they had come to the US by chance and in some ways, let life carry them to their destinations. As a possible reason for this, a few participants from the second group stated that they fell in love, had been offered a good job, started having kids etc. In their words, “life happens” and it was more a series of events and opportunities that led them to stay in the US.

The future of Estonian communities in the US

Estonian immigrants (from the 1950s and more recent immigrants) and Americans who can claim Estonian ancestry (second, third, fourth etc. generation Estonians) are concerned about the future of their Estonian diaspora community. As naturally happens, first generation Estonians age, people marry outside of their cultural group, the language becomes less used – or, as mentioned, “life happens”. These are the pervasive risks that diminish the Estonian community overtime.

While Estonia will always be the source of their culture and traditions, these local cultural groups have become a safe and welcoming space for displaced or wayward Estonians to connect and celebrate their culture. Cultural groups have created their own history that Estonian-Americans want to preserve.

The author Richard Henahan meeting with Estonians of the “focus group two”. Private collection.

Most participants felt that exposing the youth to Estonian language and culture was vital to preserving their traditions in the US. To some extent, this is already done through their Estonian language school.

But they said it would be helpful if there were more Estonian youth camps or, if they already exist, better ways for the Estonian government to advertise those camps to them. One participant even said that it would be great if Estonia had a “birthright” programme like Israel, where the Estonian government offered compensation to Estonian young adults to travel and experience Estonia.

On the topic of communication, the participants also expressed a desire to have better communication with the Estonian government. While there were no specific suggestions on how to solve this challenge, the participants in the focus groups and interviews felt isolated at times and would appreciate more visibility from Estonian government representatives; for example, if a diplomat is travelling through the area, they would appreciate an audience with them.

The Chicagoland Estonians gathering on 22 June 2019 at the Chicago Estonian House in Riverwoods, IL, to celebrate Midsummer Day in a proper Estonian way with potato salad and shashlik and lots of folk music and dancing. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

On the other hand, participants also said it was easy to get information they needed by searching the internet, but perhaps a more personal approach would be helpful.

Final thoughts

Now that my stay in Chicago is over, I can report that Estonian-Americans are not a conflicted mess. They are Estonian, American and sometimes both. Their immigration story is like many immigrants who come to the US – a story about hard-working people who are trying to make a good life for themselves and their family.

What stands out to me is their resilience and persistence to keep their community together. From nothing, Estonian refugees carved out a community for themselves and were curators of Estonian culture in a time when it was uncertain whether the source of that culture would continue. Since then, they have gone on to become successful veterinarians, lawyers, teachers, engineers etc.

The author Richard Henahan (left) meeting with Siim Sööt, who was among the interviewees for his research of Estonians in Chicago; Sööt has had a successful career in the US and lives near the house where the blockbuster Hollywood movie, “Home Alone”, was filmed. Private collection.

The Estonian diaspora members I met were deeply passionate about their community; making it a point to come together for celebrations, holidays and even focus groups organised at the last minute.

Of course, circumstances don’t always allow for them to come together as often as they like, but when they do, it’s like something inside them suddenly sparks to life; they immediately connect with each other and discuss their favourite food, shared experiences, difficulties they had adjusting to the United States, missing their families. I think these were my favourite moments because, for a second, it was like they were in Estonia again, reconnecting with a part of themselves they obviously still cherish.

Some Estonians who live in Chicago, are connected to their roots by the traditional Estonian folk dance. Private collection.

As to the future, I think Estonian-Americans will continue to come together and seek connections with their roots. The threat of losing these communities does exist and, in some cases, it might be inevitable. But just as my life has been enriched by Estonia, I think building stronger connections between Estonia and their people around the world would only serve to benefit the country.

My advice to Estonians travelling to the US – please, seek out these cultural groups; they are vibrant, kind and welcoming, and I’m sure you would walk away with new friends and great memories.

This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published on the Institute of Baltic Studies web page. Read also: Video and gallery: Chicagoland Estonians celebrate Midsummer Day.

Cover: Some Estonians who live in Chicago, are connected to their roots by the traditional Estonian folk dance. Private collection.

5 thoughts on “Observations of Estonians in Chicago”

  1. I married an Estonian displaced person over 50 years ago having never even heard of Estonia. As a midwestern, I had a lot to learn. My spouse was participating in Estonian House activities in Chicago when we met. Unfortunately, after marrying and relocating to the DC area, Tonis chose not to participate in the Estonian community in the area. We had two daughters he never wanted to teach the language to, except in their early years they heard the language between their vanaema and dad. Camp would have been great as today they both hold dual citizenship!
    I surprised my husband with a trip back to his homeland in 2003 and we fell in love with Estonia and it’s culture. I am waiting to go back with ashes, my eighth trip! Girls say I am more Estonian than their dad though I am not eligible for dual citizenship since I am widowed.
    Loved the article!

  2. Interesting read.Your observations are paralleled in the Estonian diaspora in Australia where my family arrived in 1949.
    The other way the diaspora keeps Estonian connections is via University organisations.

  3. I’ve been to the Chicago Estonian house many times. Wonderful place. They’ve always made me feel welcome.
    Elagu Chicago Eesti maja!

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