The Coastal Packet: Lewiston's new common ground: French language

Wednesday, March 15

Lewiston's new common ground: French language

Maine Public Broadcasting - 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.”

“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. French Club meeting. Credit Susan Sharon/Maine Public

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.

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