Lorin Morgan-Richards, author and publisher based in Los Angeles, is passionate about all things Welsh.
Wales Arts Review correspondent Cath Barton talked to Lorin about his own Welsh roots and current developments in the Welsh heritage movement in the US; in addition, Cath has profiled some of his contacts across the States, each of whom are doing their bit to promote a wider consciousness of Wales and the Welsh in America.
Cath Barton: Tell me about your own ancestry – I know your family came from Tredegar. Can you tell me more about when and why they moved to the US?
Lorin Morgan-Richards: John Morgan was a devout Methodist who left the Tredegar area during the 19th century when his small farming community became a major centre for industrialised mining. The subsequent challenges of this period increased his desire for religious freedom and toiling his own land. He boarded a ship and made his way to Pennsylvania, where he stayed some time before heading west to marry. After a few years, the family settled in Southern Ohio, specifically Scioto Co. where rolling hills… must have reminded him of home. John was a millwright and took part in building the Methodist Episcopal Church on Blue Run Road near the town of Portsmouth. One of his sons, Robert Dennison Morgan, became a published poet and respected minister in Columbus, Ohio, where a church once bestowed his name. Historically, there is a significant Welsh community in Columbus and many Welsh settled in Southern Ohio, with the most documented in Gallia and Jackson Counties. Today, the University of Rio Grande supports the Welsh Society of Central Ohio and in the south there is a Welsh American Heritage Museum.
When you were growing up did you know about your Welsh ancestry or did you have to research it?
Growing up I was relatively self-centred, and lacked cultural understanding. I can’t blame anyone but myself for not asking and [becoming] more involved. I only knew of my Welsh ancestry by a crest my grandfather kept. By the time he passed it was too late. I always looked up to my grandfather; he had endless stories to tell and was a remarkable singer in his church choir. He was also the backbone of the Morgan family, and went to great measures to travel and connect the extended family with visits and shared stories. He had an enormous passion for life and teaching values. After his death, I entered college as a cultural anthropology student and found myself peering into some incredible traditions. I began working at a Native American museum, followed by a Japanese American museum. There I was given the chance to develop and coordinate Bringing the Circle Together, a monthly Native American film series that included guest lectures, poetry and performance. I owe a lot to the people I met, who helped coordinate these events, and gave their time. During this period of awareness and reflection I began looking inwards. Genealogy was a skill I learned in school and with help from family we have been writing down our Morgan history and making pilgrimages to reconnect.
Do you now think of yourself as American, Welsh-American or something else?
I identify myself as both Welsh American and Swiss American.
You’ve said that there is a new generational movement in the States to reconnect with and feel empowered by their Welsh ancestry.
I believe it has come out of the zombie effect of assimilation. Certain young people are fed up with the commercialisation of society, of corporations and political parties trying to define us, of stereotypes and racism based [on] greed and power and of the dominant culture building parking lots and malls over our heritage sites. It was a shame to see the recent destruction of the old Newport Chartist mural because of this kind of apathy. I know I’m not alone in the frustration of government censuses with their narrow categories of identity: white, black, etc. These are all tools to erase culture. I always mark ‘other’ as I’ve never defined myself as white. I am a family man, an author, publisher, community-focused individual who is proud of his Welsh and Swiss ancestry. As an author I try to examine and express these issues. As a publisher I also try to educate and spread cultural awareness so people can benefit from knowing about their own heritage or see similarities to their own and in turn empower them in bringing a sense of self that reconnects and builds self esteem, and in turn benefits the greater community.
If a person is seeking they will see the (sometimes subtle) cultural gifts around them and how they are connected to it. The quarterly publication Celtic Family Magazine also came out of this idea of reconnecting through education and cultural awareness. In North America many think of Celtic as only Irish and Scottish, and what they might think of are often misguided facts or stereotypes. So we aim to dissolve these notions while providing the reader with breathtaking art, engaging traditions, cultural enrichment, and relevant news. That said, the new movement is three fold: coming from those who are using social media while having a love for their heritage and an association with the arts. Like bards before them they are the gatekeepers of knowledge.
Is it important to you to be able to speak some Welsh?
Learning the Welsh language is very important to understanding my ancestry and continuing this vital aspect of culture to my daughter. Welsh Americans often have to rely on having to piece together what it means be Welsh. Language is the key. A basic understanding and the willingness to learn is essential. I’ve been blessed with learning through a friend from Swansea named Jason Shepherd, who teaches Cymraeg through his free program the ‘Learn Welsh Podcast’.
You now live and work in Los Angeles. Is there now what you’d call a Welsh community there?
Last year we had around 600 attendees at our St David’s Day Festival. Our goal is to double that in the coming years. Prior to the festival, the Welsh Presbyterian Church was the centre for Welsh activity, as it had been for over 100 years. Cultural events were always highly attended, but sadly, weekly church attendance diminished until it was no longer viable to stay open. I immediately felt there was an urgency to keep the community together using the skills I learned in school, through the film series and having coordinated the West Coast Eisteddfod the prior year.
Other Celtic groups in the area have been very supportive, participating as vendors, performing on our Eisteddfod stage, or spreading the word. I’m very excited about the upcoming St. David’s Day Festival on 1st March next year at the Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood. We have Meinir Gwilym headlining in her North American debut along with special guests Christopher D. Lewis (Welsh harpsichordist) and the Welsh Choir of Southern California. We will also be screening Yr Etifeddiaeth. In conjunction with the theatre events we will have a free outdoor festival including Welsh language classes, lectures, workshops, LA Eisteddfod, Welsh food, corgis and much more.
Mona Everett lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her ancestors named Rees and James moved in the early nineteenth century from South Wales to Baltimore, Maryland where they and worked in the copper smelting industry. Mona writes for Ninnau & Y Drych, the North American Welsh Newspaper. Amongst her many involvements with Welsh organisations in the US, Mona is a board member of the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project. She says of learning the Welsh language that it has ‘has broadened my horizons, given me insight to another culture and led to numerous friends and opportunities, here and abroad. I love the language and want to challenge myself to improve. I have recently begun taking Cornish lessons in nearby Mineral Point, WI, since there are no local Welsh classes.’
AdaMae Lewis lives in Ames, Iowa (a state five times the size of Wales). AdaMae is on the Board of the Iowa Welsh Society and has strong involvement in other Welsh groups in the US. She says: ‘I always knew I was Welsh. My grandfather was Welsh speaking, but I grew up on a farm in Moody County, South Dakota, [in the] south-eastern corner of the state, and the only other Welsh I knew were my cousins. So, all of these Welsh connections and activities have been a great opportunity for me. I’ve never stopped learning more and more about my Welsh family and how they and Wales have and continue to touch me. The first time I visited, I saw my grandfather on every train. I had this surreal feeling I belonged there.’
Jude Johnson lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is active in the Welsh League of Arizona, of which she says, ‘Slowly but surely, we’re letting people know that Wales is its own nation with a rich culture and fascinating history. Most Americans have no idea’. Jude says of her personal interest: ‘While I’m not Welsh, I adore the language. Why? I’m not really sure. It called to me from an early age through books like The High King by Lloyd Alexander. Could be a past life thing, I suppose. In any case, I loved studying it and while I wish I could speak it more fluently than I do, I’ve been thrilled to have spoken Cymraeg in Wales and been understood.’
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis