A bitterly cold February evening in Maine – the snow is swirling around the lacrosse players as I walk into the brick-clad Benjamin Mays Arts Center at Bates College in Lewiston.
It doesn’t sound like the likeliest setting for a discussion of Maine’s vibrant and multicultural Francophone community. But the showcase of student films by participants in the French and Francophone studies proved to be a evening of illuminating contrasts.
The three movies — Yesterday Looming, by Kei Matsunami, Le Pont Francophonie (the Francophone Bridge) by Tara Das, and The Franco-American Experience in Lewiston-Auburn, by Graham Leathers — all looked at the experience of French-speakers in Lewiston-Auburn from different angles, but they all touched on common themes. Naturally, the students interviewed a number of Franco-American residents of the Twin Cities, and the Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts feature heavily. But what was most heartening was the emphasis on French-speakers of African origins, and the connection between the older Francophone community and the newer arrivals.
The latest chapter in Lewiston’s centuries-old story as a destination for immigrants is usually told as one of Somali refugees resettling in the city. While the majority of new arrivals to the city since 2000 were either born in, or have roots in, Somalia, and while some Somali Bantus speak French, there are also families with connections to Francophone countries like Togo, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Rwanda, Burundi, Djibouti and Tchad who have settled in the city, especially since 2010.
One scene showed the perennially-popular Rencontre lunchtime gathering at the Franco Center, with Franco Center Mitch Thomas making an appeal for funding in their 15th year – “We need to broaden our donor base. Else, as donors retire, move away or “go elsewhere”, we’re going to be in trouble.” Given the sea of white and grey hair to which Thomas was speaking, the meaning of the euphemism “go elsewhere” hardly needed explaining. Cut to a session of “Fun in French for Kids” at the Center. The students are clearly a mixture of New Mainers and the children of multi-generation L-A families. The message is clear – there is a future for French in Maine – and it’s a multicultural one. The grandchildren of those at the Rencontre, primarily Franco-Americans, were joined by their classmates whose own parents had come to Maine from Africa, rather than Canada, but who nonetheless wanted their children to maintain the language and culture of their ancestors.
We get to see this inter-cultural interaction from a few angles. Jacynthe Jacques, who was born in Quebec, and Blandine Injonge, a Congolese-Rwandan, share their experience as educators in Le Pont Francophone. Jacques is the Director of Education at the Franco Center; Blandine teaches English to French-speaking immigrants at Hillview Community Resource Center, in Lewiston with the help of some Franco-Americans, like Georges Blouin, a retired teacher.
The relationship building between the communities isn’t always smooth – one Congolese resident of Lewiston illustrated the complicated context of French as a colonial language in many African nations – “Why should I be proud of my French?” We also don’t hear from those in the Franco-American community who, like others in Lewiston-Auburn, see immigrants and their families as a burden on the cities, rather than a benefit. 15 years ago, former Lewiston mayor Larry Raymond wrote an open letter to the then-nascent Somali community, asking them to stop coming, a request that was widely seen as xenophobic. Current Lewiston Mayor Bob MacDonald has suggested that immigrants should “leave their culture at the door.”
Maine’s Franco-American community shares historical experiences with many of the African arrivals. When they first arrived in the United States, French Canadians were viewed with suspicion for the language & religion. One stand-out moment from “The Franco-American Experience” was a Franco-American interviewee recalling prejudice against Franco-Americans in her lifetime, and the way they were singled out even by their physical appearance.
What distinguishes today from the early 20th century is our understanding of the damage that prejudice and discrimination can cause – and the presence in Maine of a French-speaking community that should be able to empathize with the struggles of New Mainers. The films produced by Bates College French students illustrate the value of building bridges across communities – Maine’s Franco-Americans, African immigrants, and students from a multitude of backgrounds – and that this work is indeed taking place.
At this time, only Le Pont Francophone appears to be available to view online. It’s mostly in French, but YouTube provides some automatic closed captions if you’d like some help.