Editor’s Note: Freelance writer Levi Bridges of Sedgwick is documenting the lives of several immigrants in Maine. Their stories will appear periodically in the Bangor Daily News.
“It takes a thousand years to kill a culture, a hundred years to kill a word,” wrote Canadian writer Antonine Maillet.
These words resonate with many Franco-Americans, who, although they compose 30 to 40 percent of Maine’s population, have rarely been an acknowledged part of the state’s identity.
Lise Pelletier, a Canadian-American born in Maine’s St. John Valley and director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, feels French, or Franco-Americans, in Maine often still are seen as outsiders.
“Several years ago, I had my car worked on by a local mechanic in Augusta,” she recalled. “I grew up in a bilingual family where we pronounced our last name, Pelletier, Pell-tee-eh, with a French accent. When I told the mechanic my name he said, “Look, that’s not how we say it here in America,’ as if I was a dumb foreigner.”
Franco-Americans in Maine suffered prejudice and cultural devaluation for more than a century. Many Franco families changed their names and stopped speaking French to their children. These practices made the Franco identity in Maine become nearly invisible.
“Check the school texts in Maine public higher education, and try to find our history, our literature, our language, and you won’t find us anywhere,” said Yvon Labbe, director of the Franco-American Center at UMaine.
Beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, an estimated 1 million French-Canadians migrated to the Northeast to fill labor gaps in the mill and textile industries. Thousands of French-speaking immigrants settled in enclaves within Maine’s growing cities. These newcomers retained their cultural heritage in small communities where Catholic parochial schools still administered lessons to children in French.
Today, many ascribe the loss of Maine’s once thriving Franco culture to a 1919 law that forbade the use of any language besides English in Maine schools. Teachers were known for implementing shame-based punishments on children caught speaking French, such as slapping knuckles with rulers, moving kids to the end of lunch lines or writing “No French will be spoken” hundreds of times on a blackboard.
“I grew up speaking French at home but was educated at a school outside of my Franco neighborhood where the kids made fun of me because I spoke English with an accent,” said Rhea Cote, a Franco writer and University of Maine professor, “so I stopped speaking altogether until I learned to talk without an accent.”
Cote grew up in a Franco neighborhood in Waterville called “Down the Plains.” As a young girl, she realized how the silencing of French in schools worked to stop the celebration of Franco culture in the public eye. At age 15, she set out to reverse that by writing about the experiences of a young Franco-American girl in Maine.
As an adult, Cote published a memoir, “Wednesday’s Child,” which won the 1997 Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Chapbook Competition. Cote said it’s challenging to be a Franco writer in Maine, to find ways to speak to both mainstream and Franco audiences.
“Francos have to begin valuing their experiences and tell stories that have historically been silenced,” she said. “Writing stories, leaving behind a trail of books, is the best way of preserving Franco culture.”
Today, Cote dreams of walking into Maine’s bookstores and libraries and seeing a section of Franco-American books.
“I want to see Franco literature for sale in L.L. Bean,” she said. “But I’m not sure that will happen until my children’s generation. They won’t have the baggage left over from assimilating to life in America, will finally be able to be proud of their heritage and share our stories with those in and outside of the Franco community.”
In 1972, a group of Franco students fought to start a Franco-American Center at UMaine, Orono. Labbe remembers that, at the time, jokes about dumb Frenchmen still circulated around classes.
The pioneers of UMaine’s Franco-American Center called their organization Franco-American Resource Opportunity Group, or FAROG, a play on words of frog, a common derogatory term for Francos.
“We thought it was important that our title reflect the marginality of Maine’s Franco-Americans,” Labbe recalled.
In 1997, the Franco-American Center’s work culminated in the launch of a full-fledged Franco-American studies program at UMaine.
“Students here are hungry to learn about Maine’s French heritage,” says Susan Pinette, director of UMaine’s Franco-American studies program. “Half of my students are Franco, and they really want to place their own families in the broader context of American history.”
Jacob Albert, a young Franco student from Augusta who will begin a graduate program at UMaine next fall focusing on Franco-American studies, believes understanding Maine’s Franco population is imperative.
“My studies are the search for my unwritten past,” he said, “the story of why I’m here.”
But Labbe worries this renewed interest in Franco-American studies might fall apart under UMaine’s current proposal to cut programs such as the French major.
“We’re struggling,” said Labbe, who risks being cut to part-time. “We can’t maintain a strong connection with Maine’s Franco-American community without a French department.”
If the French department at UMaine really does disappear, perhaps it will prove Maillet’s statement that it takes only 100 years to kill a language. But if young Francos in Maine continue exploring their family histories, and are able to enroll in Franco-American studies programs, they will succeed in leaving a trail of writing behind and prove that it really does take 1,000 years to destroy a culture.
Levi Bridges grew up on a farm in Sedgwick. A graduate of Alfred University in New York, he has traveled extensively and studied abroad at universities in Mexico, Spain and Russia. He lives in Portland.