One quarter of the residents of Maine are of French-Canadian heritage, and yet the French language very nearly disappeared from this state. Quebecer immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries to work in the New England textile mills were assimilated. Due to historic discrimination against French, their descendants never learned the language of their forebears.
But just like in Louisiana, where a similar phenomenon has been observed, French is now enjoying a comeback in Maine thanks to immigrants from the Ivory Coast, Togo, Burundi, the Congo, Angola, Rwanda, and Somalia. More and more of them are making this state their new home. In just one week last summer, Portland – the biggest city in Maine with 67,000 inhabitants – welcomed a total of 250 immigrants.
“We hear people speaking French almost every day; an Alliance Française was becoming a necessity,” says Régine Whittlesey. This dynamic French teacher originally from Nantes relaunched the Alliance Française du Maine, which had closed in the 1980s. Her efforts have been applauded by Francophone senator Susan Deschambault and the state governor Janet Mills.
The French Language, from Shame to Pride
“There was a time when speaking French in Maine was shameful outside of the home and children were taught to blend in by speaking only English at school,” said the governor at the inauguration of the Alliance Française. “Such bigotry could have cost Maine an important cornerstone of who we are as a state, but organizations and groups have worked to restore our pride in the French language and in our own history.”
In the center of Portland, the Alliance Française shares its offices with the Immigrant Welcome Center and uses its language studio to give French classes at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. The association has 45 members and also founded a free Francophone library open to the public. The documentary Voyageur 1608, which recounts the origins of New France, will be shown at the Portland Museum of Art on November 21, and an African night will be held in the fall.
“I discovered the Alliance Française du Maine when I was a French assistant at a high school north of Portland during the 1970s,” says Régine Whittlesey. “I used to give presentations about Brittany to old ladies with purple hair. I want to make this Alliance a young, dynamic group that includes the whole Francophone world!”