On Monday--before the champagne, before the polka bands, before the folk dancing and speeches and toasts--Danute Mazeika went to a cemetery in East Los Angeles with an armful of chrysanthemums and two long-awaited words.
"You won," the Lithuanian-American activist said silently to her grandfather's grave. One of the signers of Lithuania's 1918 declaration of independence, Mykolas Birziska had fled to the United States after the Soviets took over his homeland in 1940 and was still agitating for Lithuanian independence when he died in 1962.
"Now I know how David felt after he slew Goliath," Mazeika exulted as news spread that President Bush had finally decided to offer official U.S. recognition to the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
As word spread here that the three tiny nations were officially independent in the world's eyes, Mazeika and thousands of other Baltic-Americans jammed phone lines, fired off telegrams and cobbled together hasty celebrations from the living rooms of suburban homes throughout Southern California.
In Glendale, Aivars L. Jerumanis, a health insurance executive, dusted off the Latvian visa stamp given him four years ago when he took over as Los Angeles' honorary Latvian consul.
In Los Feliz, hundreds poured into the parish hall of St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church for an impromptu Baltic festival, filling the air with champagne toasts and back-to-back accordion renditions of "America The Beautiful" and "Lietuva Brangi" (My Dear Lithuania).
In the Mid-Wilshire district, home to the city's lone Estonian community center, word was that the Estonian festivities had gone on the road. Rather than hang around town, a good chunk of the local Estonian-American population had gone on an annual fishing junket to Bass Lake, where, presumably, the official recognition of Estonia would be marked in the great outdoors.
"It is a time of jubilation," said Jaak Treiman, a Canoga Park real estate lawyer and Estonia's honorary consul in Los Angeles. "But a lot of us will also remember the people who died and suffered during the past 50 years."
Bush's decision Monday was viewed by local Baltic-Americans as a milestone for them as well as for their relatives back home. The Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian communities are well-established in Los Angeles, which has for nearly 50 years been the only city in the United States to have honorary consulates from all three Baltic states.
Activists estimate there are about 50,000 Baltic-Americans in Southern California, and until the past decade, ethnic activism within their ranks consisted mainly of church groups, folk dancing and Scouting groups. Small in numbers and factionalized by nationality and history, the Baltics made few waves in Los Angeles' melting pot until 1984, when younger activists mobilized to keep the Soviets out of the 1984 Olympics.
In the ensuing years, however, demonstrations and protests by Baltic-American groups gathered steam along with independence movements in the three republics. By 1990, local Baltic-Americans had not only founded a Baltic American Freedom League but had named their own public relations agent to put a Baltic spin on the news.
Mazeika and her husband, Anthony, were among the league's founders, in part because of her grandfather's activism in exile here. A historian and scholar, Mykolas Birziska fled to the United States in 1949 as a political refugee, and "died with a pen in his hand," she said, cataloguing Lithuanian literature from the Middle Ages to modern times.
"He was tried in absentia. All his works were pulled off the shelves," Mazeika said. "And now, they are naming a museum and a street in his honor."
Because she wanted to tell him this, along with all she had heard over the Cable News Network in the past few days, Mazeika, her husband and their three children stopped off at his crypt at Calvary Cemetery on their way to the big party at St. Casimir's on Monday night.
In a wall sconce, they placed red and gold chrysanthemums and tiny Lithuanian flags, and prayed as the California sunshine poured in through the stained glass.
Then Mazeika's family left her and she stood alone, "almost totally overwhelmed."
"I told him: 'You've won. We have won. Our nation has won,' " she said. And then the 40-year-old mother of three added a bit of Hollywood.
"I don't know where it came from, but I thought of that little boy on 'Home Alone,' and it was such a sweet moment . . . "
And so she clenched a fist and shouted: "YESSSSS!!!!!"
Staff writer Lanie Jones in Orange County also contributed to this story.