This story originally aired on Maine Things Considered on March 14.
There’s an old French saying, Lose your language, lose your faith. But in one part of Maine, both are being revived with the help of hundreds of French-speaking African immigrants who are connecting with local Franco American residents in ways neither ever expected. That’s changing the dialog in a community where the “language of love” was often suppressed.
Cecile Thornton of Lewiston is what’s known as a Francophone. She grew up speaking French at home and in parochial school. Classes were taught half the day in French and the other half in English. That wasn’t unusual in towns in Maine and around New England where French-Canadian immigrants came to work in factories beginning in the late 1800s. But their language and culture were not readily embraced. And even in the late 1960s Thornton says she still didn’t feel accepted.
“In my high school years I have to say that I was a little embarrassed and possibly, you could say, ashamed of being a Francophone,” Thornton says. “A lot of ‘dumb Frenchmen’ jokes were going around back then. So I worked really hard actually to lose my Franco accent.”
By the time she was 20 and married Thornton says she had dropped French almost entirely. She raised her kids. Moved away. Came back. And about a year ago she found she deeply missed her identity as a Francophone. So she started going to the Franco Center in Lewiston and joined a club that meets twice a week to converse exclusively in French.
What Thornton wasn’t expecting is that half the members of the French club come from Francophone countries in Africa. Over the last decade several hundred refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda have settled in Lewiston and Auburn. Thornton says speaking with them has improved her French dramatically. And she’s become close with the new Mainers, so close that a few months ago she traveled to Rwanda to attend a wedding. She says the personal connections wouldn’t have been possible if she didn’t speak the same language.
“It’s meant a lot,” she says. “We’re like family. And for me family is important because my family is away. My two daughters live on the West Coast so it’s nice to have a family.”
The French Club has also become a de facto support group for the Francophones from Africa. Many are feeling anxious about President Trump’s travel ban and the overall climate for refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S.
“We definitely do talk about the politics. The Americans try to comfort us and tell us, hopefully, it’s going to be okay. And I choose to believe that it is going to be,” says Bright Lukusa, she was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo 19 years ago.
Until she arrived in Lewiston with her mother and brother late last year, Lukusa had lived most of her life in South Africa. It’s been a struggle to keep up with her French which she learned as a child, but she says it’s important.
“I’m a strong advocate of being proud of where you come from and never being afraid of who you really are,” she says.
As asylum seekers and new Mainers, Lukusa says she and her older brother and mother are determined to make a new life here. In addition to French club, they take classes, attend Catholic church, volunteer at the immigrant resource center and socialize once a month at “La Rencontre.” or “the gathering.” It’s a luncheon at the Franco Center that typically draws about 200 people interested in speaking French as they break bread together.
The Franco Center itself is a former Catholic Church located in the heart of what’s known as “Little Canada.” Just up the street is the old train station where immigrants from Quebec and other parts of Canada arrived by the thousands to work in the once booming textile mills and shoe shops that lined the banks of the Androscoggin River. The Center offers cultural events along with French classes for children and adults. About 23% of Mainers identify as Franco Americans and many of them are fluent in French.
Lorraine Ouellette laughs when she says she started speaking French 82 years ago. She’s now 84. As a child, her parents spoke only French in their home and she says she loved that. But when she and her husband had children of their own, things changed.
“Actually, I only started picking up on the English when my children started going to school and they really wanted me to speak English,” Ouellette says. “But I still, as far as myself it was always French with my husband til he died.”
Now Ouellette is a regular at La Rencontre where she speaks French with her cousin, her sisters and anyone else who joins them at their table. Mary Rice-DeFosse, a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Bates College, says there have always been pockets of French speakers in Maine, and especially in Lewiston where they can still be heard speaking the language in the grocery store. What’s different now, she says, is that French has become useful again.
“It was a language that people spoke within their family circles,” says Rice-DeFosse. “They didn’t think of it as a public language but now we have new immigrants. They’re not fluent in English and they need to speak French. And so these Franco Americans who can speak French suddenly can find a public function for their French language”
And DeFosse says it’s also a way of validating the Francophones who were already here as well as welcoming those who are new to Maine.
And in celebration of Francophone week there are a series of events planned at the Franco Center in Lewiston.