Like a Breton in America

Between 1885 and 1970, more than 115,000 Bretons left their region, fleeing poverty, to try their luck in America. The Great Depression, two World Wars, and immigration quotas have marked more than a century of transatlantic exchanges, and the Breton community in the United States today remains closely linked through associations championing its cultural heritage.
A picnic organized by the BZH NY association in Central Park, September 13, 2015. © Capucine Bourcart

In Gourin, in the Morbihan département, a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in the center of the Place de la Victoire. Located some 3,390 miles from the original statue in New York, it commemorates nearly 100 years of exchanges between the villages of central Brittany and the United States. Everyone in this town of 4,000 has an uncle, brother, or cousin in America, and many have even lived there themselves.

“My grandparents left Gourin in the early 1920s. They met each other and got married in the United States,” says Josette Jouas, a Breton woman who grew up in 1950s America before moving to Brest in Brittany to teach English. “My family’s history is linked to this immigration that has spanned several generations. And I’m not an unusual example – my ancestors just followed the trend at the time.”

Pioneering Figures from Jacques Cartier to Nicolas Le Grand

“There’s a Breton on every wave in the sea,” so says a regional expression. The Armorican Massif has long been home to a seafaring people, and Saint-Malo native Jacques Cartier – who explored and mapped out the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 16th century – is not the only one to have left his mark on U.S. history.

Vannes-born missionary Joseph-Pierre de Bonnécamps discovered Ohio, and Jean-Jacques Audubon was the first ornithologist in the New World. Among members of the nobility and the military, Armand Tuffin de La Rouërie was a hero of the War of Independence, while Régis de Keredern de Trobriand earned his stripes fighting alongside the abolitionists during the American Civil War. He went on to become the second Frenchman – after Lafayette – to hold the title of major general of the United States Army.

Another story of one man’s adventure set off a mass exodus in the Montagnes Noires region between Finistère, Morbihan, and Côtes-d’Armor. In 1880, a penniless tailor named Nicolas Le Grand left Roudouallec to try and make it in the New World. The illiterate Frenchman wasn’t heard from for four years, and people of his villages assumed he had met a grisly end, “devoured by the Redskins.” But he returned with enough money to buy a farm, and left again a few months later accompanied by 12 other men.

Just like him, many other Bretons traveled to the United Stated to “make money” at a time when their homes were in short supply. The arable land in the central region was struggling to deal with overpopulation, families with more than ten children were crammed into small farms, and the threat of famine loomed. Many farmers at their wit’s end decided to make the journey on foot to Morlaix and Le Havre, where merchant ships took them, in steerage, to Ellis Island.

Milltown and Lenox Dale, the Breton Communities of America

“Bring nothing more than clothing and family linens […]. Do not encumber yourselves with objects that you will find easily here, such as furniture or kitchen utensils. However, do not forget your crêpe pan, as many Bretons have later said they regret not bringing it,” said the parish priest in Saint-Brieuc to future travelers in 1905. For the crossing, he also recommended taking “a few pounds of butter and a change of clothing.”

At the time, the trip took around ten days by boat. Unlike the Italians and the Irish, the Bretons preferred the rural areas to the cities, and went on to Massachusetts and New Jersey to join their fellow countrymen. The new arrivals went into the “private sector,” employed on enormous estates owned by rich industrialists in Lenox Dale, Massachusetts, or worked as lumberjacks in Vermont. The women found jobs as servants and nannies, while the men were often hired at coach drivers, guards, and farmhands. Pierre Corbel came to America in 1920, and roamed from farm to farm looking for work in exchange for a good meal. None of the Bretons spoke English, and Corbel would rub his belly to make the locals understand what he wanted.

A Michelin tire factory opened in Milltown, New Jersey, in 1907, and hired a large number of Bretons who were the only employees to be taught the secrets of how to make the French tires. Americans would gaze in astonishment at the French immigrants as they brewed cider and raised rabbits in their spare time. The workers were young and single, and there were so many weddings that one of the factory’s forewomen quit her job to become a full-time dressmaker. The subsequent births continued to expand this unique new community.

The Rush of the 1950s

The Great Depression hit in 1929, and the Michelin factory closed its doors. At the time there were some 3,000 Gourin natives in the New York area, and half of them returned to France. “If you’re going to be poor, you may as well be poor at home,” said Marie-Anne Boropert, who went back to Gourin in 1934 with her husband and their eight-year-old daughter. World War II dealt another blow to immigration numbers, and the Bretons of America were called up to fight in Europe alongside the G.I.s of the U.S. military. For some of them, it was the first time they had been back to France in years.

© Olivier Tallec

The Franco-Breton exchanges started up again with renewed vigor in the 1950s. With the slate mines in Brittany unable to provide enough work, 70,000 people left for the United States and Canada. Everyone had an uncle in America waiting to welcome them. Marie-Anne Boropert’s daughter set sail for the U.S.A. in June 1950, carrying her daughter Josette (Jouas) in her arms. The boat trip had been shortened to five days, and the first planes were starting to appear. New York was booming.

Another Breton woman, Christiane Jamet, now 84, also went to America around the same time, along with nine of her ten brothers and sisters. She was 20 when she arrived in 1952. “I started with a lot of part-time jobs and babysitting, before working at the factories of the Coty perfumery which was hiring a lot of French women.” She went on to open a hair salon in Manhattan where she employed four of her sisters, and American customers were quickly won over by these Frenchies. “I don’t think anyone ever pronounced my name correctly the whole time I was there,” says Christiane Jamet with a smile. And she only went back to France 40 years later.

Stade Breton and the Association Bretonne

The newcomers were able to integrate easily thanks to a network of associations. In 1948, after years spent welcoming and finding jobs and accommodation for young women off the boats on Ellis Island, Anna Daniel became head of the Association Bretonne, an organization focused on culture and dance. Seven years later, Jean Pengloan then transformed his informal soccer club into an official association named Stade Breton and arranged matches, trips, and major events such as the St. Anne’s Ball. Once a year, thousands of Breton expats meet to dance and celebrate their cultural heritage with fellow members of the Celtic circle.

The community was a close-knit one, and enabled arrivals to quickly find a job. Some 90% of Breton immigrants worked in kitchens. “My father didn’t speak a word of English when he got here,” says Josette Jouas. “He started by peeling vegetables in a hospital kitchen, and ended up as the chef of a restaurant.” The most resourceful were hired as servers, floor managers, or opened their own businesses. “Back then we lived on 52nd Street, and on Saturdays we would go get our order of crêpes delivered by Breton women to the Tout Va Bien restaurant,” she says. The eatery is the only one still around today. Other establishments such as the Paris-Brest, the Café Brittany, the Café des Sports, the Coq-au-Vin and the Sans-Culottes have all disappeared over the years.

There were always strong ties to back home. Every summer, Stade Breton reserved whole planes flying to Orly airport in the Paris region to enable Bretons in America to spend a few weeks “on native soil” each year. “We used to arrive in Rosporden by train, and the family would be there to meet us. Some people would rent cars, and you would see their red license plates with ‘TT’ for Trafic temporaire in the village,” says Josette Jouas. Three travel agencies even opened around Gourin. Breton local Jean Fichen opened an Air France agency in his hardware store in Roudouallec in 1967, offering assistance to those looking to emigrate to America. This was a “happy time” when couples would wait expectantly for summer to get married in the presence of their families.

A New Generation of Bretons

The number of Americans visiting Gourin began to dwindle over the years. “People started traveling within the United States, and stopped systematically spending their summer holidays in Brittany,” says Christiane Jamet. The various associations around New York struggled to cope with decreasing membership, and many brasseries run by Bretons closed down during the city’s restaurant crisis in the 1980s. Meanwhile, France was enjoying a period of rapid economic expansion. The introduction of immigration quotas by President Kennedy finally closed America’s doors for good.

“Until the 1970s, the network of associations was vital if you wanted to make it. Today, expats face a far different context. Newcomers arrive with a visa in hand, a job, and a good grasp of English,” says American-born Breton, Charles Kergaravat, president of the Breizh Amerika association. “What’s more, the old guard who made good lives for themselves have left to live in houses in the suburbs. They’re not tapped into the networks anymore.” This first generation grew up as Americans, and their children and grandchildren don’t speak French or Breton.

“It is very difficult to pass down the Celtic language and culture from one generation to the next,” says Philippe Argouac’h, who founded the Bretons of California association in San Francisco during the 1990s. “Bretons find it easy to integrate. Perhaps a little too easy, which makes it hard to preserve their own culture.” Josette Jouas remembers always replying to her parents in English in an effort to be “just like her classmates,” and “not be an immigrant.”

Against the backdrop of these changes, the sense of community has continued but in a more informal manner. Finistère-born chef Jean-Claude Perennou received unexpected help when he opened his patisserie, Cannelle, in Queens in 2007. “Many Bretons in the neighborhood came and put in orders to help us start the business.” The pastry chef has since started selling the typical gâteau breton – “surprisingly popular with the Americans!” – and another Breton cake known as kouign-amann. And the former manager of the Zebulon bar in Brooklyn admits that “whenever Bretons arrive in the area, [he] makes a few phone calls to help them find work.”

Young Bretons Pick up the Torch

In the early 2000s, the network Bretons in California was collapsing while its New York counterpart was on the rise. The arrival of young, qualified workers with short-term visas helped reboot the dynamism of Celtic culture and revived the custom of helping others integrate. Buoyed by the fresh developments, a new association called BZH New York was created. “We base our thinking on the idea of community,” says Aodrenn Guyodo, who has been a member since 2006. “We try to preserve ties with the Bretons living in France, while helping those who arrive in America – even if they’re just on vacation.”

The association invited the Bagad de Lorient band to play in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2017, and also organized a special edition of the Vieilles Charrues music festival in Central Park to celebrate the event’s 25th anniversary. The regional administration of Brittany even provided financial support. Other groups are forming, transforming, or continuing beyond the East Coast. “There are Bretons everywhere, whether in Louisiana, Maine, or California,” says Charles Kergaravat.

The former trader founded the Breizh Amerika association to support cultural and economic projects between Brittany and the United States such as the Fête de la Bretagne in Louisiana, a Christmas dinner in San Francisco, and live music shows. “We’re looking to rebuild communities who are now scattered across big cities,” says Thomas Moisson, vice-president of the organization, who recently moved to California. “We focus on music, but also business projects.” For example, an annual start-ups contest gives entrepreneurs in Morbihan, Côtes-d’Armor, and Finistère the chance to learn the ropes of the U.S. market.

Some 140 years after the first boats set sail, relations between Brittany and America are being reinvented. Other French regional identities are now carving out a niche for themselves in the United States, such as the Basques in California and the Alsatians in New York State. But as Philippe Argouac’h sees it, the Bretons still have the most in common with the Americans. “Both have a culture of work, individualism, and entrepreneurship. They’re descendants of pioneers and farmers, two professions with their eyes set steadfastly on the future.”

Article published in the February 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.