Observations of Estonians in Chicago

Richard Karl Henahan met with representatives of the Estonian Diaspora in Chicago, to determine what kind of people Estonian-Americans are, and returned in awe of their resilience and persistence in keeping their community together.

Ask any American about their ancestry, and you’ll likely get a long, convoluted answer. For example, in my family, my mother is of 100% German descent, but on my father’s side, it is a little more messy; I can claim Irish, Polish, Welsh and German parents. But, in all of the conversations I have had with people about their ancestry in the United States (and there have been many), I have never met anyone who said they have Estonian roots.

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

Then I started asking questions like “What is an Estonian-American?” And, in my head, I imagined someone with a split personality, someone who is both loud and outgoing (American) and calm and reserved (Estonian) – like a Frankenstein monster, assembled from various parts and parts. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, Estonian-Americans surely aren’t a confrontational mess, are they? Law?! The point is, I had burning questions about Estonian Americans and needed answers.

Lucky for me, the Institute of Baltic Studies is carrying out a study for the Estonian Interior Ministry to understand the connection of the Estonian diaspora with its culture, people and potential needs vis-à-vis the Estonian state. . Luckily, I spent part of my summer visiting family in Chicago, Illinois, which also has a large population of Estonian immigrants (by Estonian standards). So I contacted a local Estonian cultural group (Eestlased Chicagos) and organized interviews and focus groups with over 20 Estonian immigrants.

Generational differences in the way Estonian immigrants identify themselves

Estonian immigrants of the 1950s seemed to associate mainly with American culture and identified themselves as American, but claimed to be “Estonians at heart”. For example, in an interview with an Estonian refugee, I was told that his cultural identity was a “combination” of the two cultures but that the experience of assimilating into American culture had enriched his life. This sentiment was consistent with other Estonian immigrants of the 1950s.

The family of Siim Sööt (the third boy from the left in the first row), who was interviewed by the author for his research, arrive in the United States. Private collection.

For the most recent Estonians (ie the last 20-25 years), they first answered “Estonians” rather than “Americans”. It also appeared that this group was more likely to return to Estonia permanently with their family or that they planned to stay for an extended period in Estonia. When asked why, most participants explained that they missed their country and the ability to use their language with others.

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

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

The first group of Estonians attributed Estonia’s instability during the 1990s and better economic opportunities as reasons to immigrate. A few participants explained that there were only a few well-paying jobs in Estonia and that the United States offered them a better opportunity to earn a living.

Author Richard Henahan (second from right) with Estonians from “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 United States by chance and somehow let life carry them to their destinations. As a possible reason for this, a few participants in the second group said that they had fallen in love, that they had been offered a good job, that they had started having children, etc. opportunities that led them to stay in the United States.

The future of Estonian communities in the United States

Estonian immigrants (from the 1950s and more recent immigrants) and Americans who can claim Estonian ancestry (second, third, fourth generation Estonians, etc.) are concerned about the future of their Estonian diaspora community . As it happens naturally, first generation Estonians get older, people get married outside of their cultural group, the language becomes less used – or, as mentioned, “life goes on”. It is the pervasive risks that decrease overtime for the Estonian community.

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 lost Estonians to connect and celebrate their culture. Cultural groups have created their own history that Estonian-Americans want to preserve.

Author Richard Henahan meets Estonians from the “focus group two”. Private collection.

Most participants felt that exposing young people to Estonian language and culture was essential to preserve their traditions in the United States. 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 let them know about these camps. One participant even said that it would be great if Estonia had a “birthright” program like Israel, where the Estonian government offered compensation to young Estonian adults to travel and experience Estonia.

On the subject of communication, the participants also expressed the wish to have better communication with the Estonian government. Although there were no specific suggestions on how to resolve this challenge, participants in the focus groups and interviews at times felt isolated and would appreciate greater visibility from Estonian government officials; for example, if a diplomat travels to the region, he would appreciate an audience with him.

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

On the flip side, participants also said that it was easy to get the information they needed by searching the internet, but perhaps a more personal approach would help.

Final thoughts

Now that my time in Chicago is over, I can report that Estonian-Americans are not a confrontational mess. They are Estonians, Americans and sometimes both. Their immigration story is like that of many immigrants who come to the United States – a story of people who work hard and try to make a good life for themselves and their families.

What strikes me is their resilience and persistence in keeping their community together. From nothing, the Estonian refugees formed a community and were the curators of Estonian culture at a time when it was uncertain whether the source of that culture continued. Since then, they have become vets, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc.

Author Richard Henahan (left) meets Siim Sööt, who was among those interviewed for his research on Estonians in Chicago; Sööt has had a successful career in the United States and lives near the house where the Hollywood hit movie, “Home Alone”, was filmed. Private collection.

The Estonian diaspora I met were deeply passionate about their community; making it a point of honor to get together for celebrations, vacations and even last-minute discussion groups.

Of course, circumstances don’t always allow them to get together as often as they want, but when they do, it’s as if something inside them suddenly comes to life; they immediately connect with each other and discuss their favorite food, their shared experiences, the struggles they’ve had adjusting to America, the lack of their families. I think these are my favorite times because, for a second, it was like they were in Estonia again, reconnecting with a part of themselves that they obviously still cherish.

Some Estonians who live in Chicago are linked to their roots through traditional Estonian folk dancing. Private collection.

As for the future, I think Estonian-Americans will continue to come together and seek connections to their roots. The threat of losing these communities exists and, in some cases, it could be inevitable. But just as my life has been enriched by Estonia, I believe that forging stronger bonds between Estonia and its people across the world would only benefit the country.

My advice to Estonians traveling to the US – please research these cultural groups; they are dynamic, kind and welcoming, and I am sure you will leave with new friends and fond memories.

This is a slightly edited version of the article originally posted on the Institute of Baltic Studies webpage. Read also: Video and gallery: Estonians of Chicagoland celebrate Midsummer Day.

Cover: Some Estonians who live in Chicago are linked to their roots through traditional Estonian folk dancing. Private collection.

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