LEWISTON — When Cecile Thornton moved back to Lewiston last year, she wanted to connect with her roots. She grew up in the city and spoke French at home, but when she moved away, her language skills faded.
Her first attempts to reconnect with the language were discouraging. Thornton started with the monthly Le Rencontre luncheon at the Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts, thinking it was an obvious place to meet fluent French speakers. To her dismay, everyone at the gathering was speaking English.
Disappointed, Thornton, 61, started asking where French was still being spoken, and was pointed to an unlikely place – a public housing development on the east side of the city.
There, twice each week in the Hillview Apartments Resource Center, people from French-speaking countries in Africa swap stories with third- and fourth-generation Franco-Americans.
“I didn’t even know we had Africans that spoke French,” Thornton said.
Now, she’s a regular at the multicultural French club, and her mother tongue is coming back with the help of new Mainers from halfway across the world.
“My French has just blossomed,” Thornton said. “Now I speak French all the time.”
The Hillview French club is part of a small, but growing, French language revival in Maine, aided by hundreds of Francophone Africans who coincidentally settled in a state with almost two centuries of French heritage.
Lifelong Mainers trying to preserve their French heritage aren’t the only ones benefiting.
Blandine Injonge, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was surprised when she arrived in Lewiston a few years ago and stumbled on its Franco community.
“Discovering that was like coming home,” Injonge said. Now she works for the Franco Center, hosts the Hillview French club, and loans French books from a small library in her apartment. When she moved to the U.S., Injonge was concerned she and other Africans might lose French, so she formed the club to help the language survive. She was happy, and surprised, when Franco-Americans started joining in.
“When we came here, we felt like we were abandoned children, but now we feel like we’ve been adopted by the Franco-American community,” Injonge said.
Francophone Africans have made an impression elsewhere in Maine, filling the pews at French Mass and starting after-school French programs.
Some fear spoken French will disappear in Maine, after decades of decline and past efforts to discourage its use. But the language may be getting a second chance from people who want to preserve their French just as much as the community they are joining does.
“If French is going to have a resurgence in Maine, this is what is going to do it,” said Mitch Thomas, director of the Franco Center.
SUPPRESSION OF FRENCH
French has been spoken in Maine since at least the 19th century, when waves of French Canadians immigrated to work in New England mill towns like Lewiston, Biddeford and Waterville. According to a 2012 legislative task force report, roughly 24 percent of Maine’s population self-identifies as Franco-American, making it the largest ethnic group in the state. But the number of people who speak French at home has dwindled generation after generation.
In 1970, about 141,500 Maine residents, 14 percent of the population, reported French as their mother tongue, according to U.S. Census figures compiled by the University of Maine. In 1980, 94,000 Mainers reported speaking French at home, and that number dropped to 81,000 in 1990, according to a 1997 state report. By 2014, the number of people who spoke French at home was about 43,700, about 3 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Today, about a quarter of French speakers live in Aroostook County, where there is a significant Franco-American population.
In 2014, the University of Southern Maine dropped French from its program offerings during budget cuts, a move decried by those who saw the university severing ties with a language historically tied with Maine heritage.
An aging French-speaking population, out-migration and poor transmission of French between generations accounted for the decline, a state commission reported in 1997.
But the loss of spoken French was also due to active suppression. In 1919, Maine prohibited speaking French in school, a policy that remained until 1969. That prohibition, combined with anti-immigrant sentiment aimed at French speakers, drove the language underground, said Tony Brinkley, a researcher at the University of Maine Franco-American Center.
“I’m against the notion of decline and disappearance,” Brinkley said. “It’s more accurate to talk about suppression and about revitalization.”
The loss of spoken French in Franco-American enclaves such as Lewiston has been heartbreaking for some.
Jacqueline Webb, 72, makes the half-hour drive to the Hillview club from Poland every week so she can speak French, which has gotten rusty over the years.
“When you don’t speak it all the time, you lose it,” she said.
Like other Franco-Americans from Lewiston, Webb grew up with the language but has seen it dwindle in each successive generation.
“My son, who is of French descent, with a little Irish, thinks he’s Irish,” Webb said at a club meeting last month. “What does that say? It’s a sore point for me.”
Overhearing her complaint, Roger Mwamba, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, offered some condolence.
“In our club, you can’t lose your French,” he said.
Brinkley, the University of Maine researcher, said Maine still has a reservoir of French speakers who could help revitalize the heritage.
In a 2012 Franco-American Center survey of 600 self-identified Franco Americans, 63 percent said they were either fluent or understood some French. Even though three-quarters of the respondents were age 60 or older, the results showed the possibility of revitalizing the language, Brinkley said.
“And to this possibility, the Francophone populations from other parts of the world who have recently come to Maine are immensely significant,” he said.
CONNECTION FOR IMMIGRANTS
Africans from French-speaking countries have recently been arriving in Maine, either as refugees, immigrants or asylum-seekers.
Since 2010, 437 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, all Francophone countries, settled in Maine, according to Catholic Charities Refugee Immigration Services. People from Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ivory Coast and Togo, countries where French is a national language, have also moved to the state.
For some, the unnerving experience of coming to an unfamiliar country was soothed by the realization they could connect, in their own language, with an existing community.
Julienne Mushiya came to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago, but her children came before her. Before sending them over, she received a letter from Injonge, letting her know about the French community in Lewiston.
“They spoke the language. I was very happy,” Mushiya said.
Edho Mukendi came to Maine from Congo about six months ago. Once he started attending a French Catholic Mass in Lewiston, it felt like he could “live again,” Mukendi said.
“To meet people who spoke French was a surprise to me,” Mukendi said.
The arrival of African Catholics has been a boon for the Saturday French Mass at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston.
Between 160 and 180 people, overwhelmingly aged 65 and older, attend the Mass every week, said Monsignor Marc Caron, who was pastor at the church for eight years before leaving in July. About a year ago, Caron noticed a few African parishioners. That number has swelled to at least a dozen, and African immigrants joined the choir and attended a recent volunteer appreciation dinner.
They also bring something crucial to the survival of the French Mass – children. For the first time in recent memory, young families are regularly joining Mass, Caron said.
“There has always been the concern that fewer and fewer people in Lewiston-Auburn speak or understand French,” Caron said. “The presence of French-speaking African Catholics has given that Mass a greater possibility of having a future.”
‘WE HAVE TO KEEP OUR FRENCH’
Revived interest in French percolates elsewhere in Maine, too, sometimes propelled by new arrivals who want to retain their language.
Last year, a weekly after-school French program was started in Portland’s East End Community School. Volunteer teacher Monique Mutumwinka moved to the U.S. from Rwanda, where she was a dentist and taught at one of the country’s universities. She speaks six languages, including her native tongue, Kinyarwanda, but retaining and expanding French is more important because it is inclusive – she can speak to people from Africa, France and Canada, Mutumwinka said.
“I love my French. We have to keep our French,” she said.
Kevin Donoghue, a former city councilor who requested the French after-school program, learned to speak French and German in college and wanted to pass his love of languages onto his daughter. Given Maine’s history, proximity to Quebec, and growing community of French-speaking immigrants there is a clear case for learning the language, Donoghue said.
“Honestly, I have the opportunity to hear, if not speak, French every time I go to Hannaford, every time I use a Metro bus,” Donoghue said.
After-school French programs have been running in Augusta and Lewiston for years under the umbrella of the Maine French Language Heritage Program. The program was modeled on a New York City organization to help kids from African and Haitian families keep their language and culture. In Maine, the program is important to connect young people to a language and culture at risk, said Chelsea Ray, a professor at the University of Maine at Augusta who helps organize the classes.
“It is a showcase that yes, French is important in Maine,” Ray said. “Part of my favorite thing about teaching in Maine is coming to an area where French is a native language and where there was discrimination and persecution that still exists.”
The addition of new Francophone immigrants offers another opportunity to build connections and strengthen the language, Ray added.
“Especially for people who want to keep their French, I think it is really important to connect with the new immigrants and respect what they are bringing and that you have something in common,” she said.
The revival of everyday French has led a small group of Francophones and Francophiles to take steps toward founding an Alliance Francaise chapter in Maine as a central hub for the state’s diverse French community. Alliance Francaise is an international organization that promotes French language and culture and has branches in more than 130 countries and a presence in 45 states.
Marie-Gaelle Casset-Ford, who runs La Petite Ecole, an art-based bilingual program in Portland, is one of the organizers pushing for a Maine Alliance. Casset-Ford grew up in Brittany, France, and moved to Maine in 1991.
“The intent is the same – people want to get together, want to learn, to keep up with French culture,” Casset-Ford said.
Back in Lewiston, the Hillview French club finished its gathering with a birthday party at Injonge’s home. They shared a cake bought at the supermarket and a Congolese meal of stewed greens, bean, and fufu, balls of cassava meal, accompanied by super-spicy piri-piri pepper sauce. Club members chatted, traded stories and watched French language music videos on television.
Standing in the small apartment, Jacynthe Jacques, the Franco Center’s language program director, smiled at the torrent of French flooding the room. Jacques, originally from Quebec, moved to Maine in 1995.
“I’ve been here for more than 20 years and this is the most alive I’ve seen the French language,” she said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2016, to specify that the University of Southern Maine no longer offers a French program. Classes in the language are offered.