Memory, Culture, and Franco-American Identity – by David Vermette

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November 3, 2012 by The Editor


I am welcoming my first ‘guest blogger’ with this post. David Vermette is a writer, researcher, and editor of the blog French North America. His incisive writing uncovers facets of Franco-American history and culture borne out of the French Canadian experience in New England, while offering insight into the experiences of other Franco-American communities as well as the immigrant experience generally. Thank you David for your contribution.

Aunt Alice had died. I never knew her. She was the sister of my paternal grandfather whom we called Pépère. Aunt Alice had taken a liking to my mom and had written letters to the young couple, my parents, in the early years of their marriage. My family made what seemed like a long journey from the Boston area to Brunswick, Maine, my dad’s hometown, to attend her funeral and pay our respects.

I was not quite six years old but I recall the stained-glass windows of the church of Saint-Jean Baptiste, Brunswick, the light streaming through them, tracing colored patterns on marble. Captions below the familiar depictions of the Stations of the Cross caught a child’s eye. I was old enough to know that these words were not familiar. This was an unknown tongue, the language of the elders.

Pépère died two years later and was buried from this same church with its French inscriptions. Another trek to Brunswick ensued and another look at those unfamiliar words, another exposure to the speech of an older generation, a language that was not the language of our house.

A couple of years later we made the trip again for the 50th wedding anniversary of my grandmother’s sisters. The sisters had been married on the same day in 1924 in a double wedding. My grandmother, Mémère, had come to live with us after Pépère’s death and the entire Vermette clan accompanied her to her sisters’ celebration.

Here the language of the elders sounded with abandon. A conversation would start in French, switch to English in mid sentence, and back again into French with not a beat missed. I especially remember old Uncle Mike (Michel), born in Québec who had the now-familiar joie de vivre, the warm, extroverted manners, and a familiar accent.

Uncle Lucien gathered some children under a tree and, fiddle in hand, played music and told stories. I later learned that after his mother’s death, Uncle Lucien had been sent to Arthabaska, Québec to be educated. It was there that he learned the violin. Having lived in Québec for a time in his youth he was full of the language and lore of our ancestors.

My father was born in the 1920s in the shadow of the textile mill in Maine that had brought his grandfather from Québec to Brunswick in the 1880s. Pépère and Mémère had both been raised in this town at the height of Franco-American New England, in an age where compact neighborhoods of French speakers moved in a world between a church and a mill.

What had brought my family from its roots in Maine to the generic, suburban America in which I was raised? Economics drove my family to make moves familiar in the mid-20th century. My father’s family made several moves between Maine and Massachusetts in his childhood. At last they moved to the metropolis of Maine (Portland) and then after WWII to the metropolis of New England (Boston). Not long before my birth, my parents moved from the inner city to the outlying suburbs. We were like foreign troops parachuted in, behind enemy lines.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with the interests and preoccupations typical of the era, listening to my LP records and watching TV. Everyone I knew in town spoke English. In my neighborhood were names like Tetrault, Bergeron, St. Ours, Levesque and Cloutier among the Smiths, Robinsons, and Kelleys but there was little or no sense that the families with French surnames had a common history or formed a community.

The ethnicity of my immediate family was quite evident. It was bursting out all over but only to the trained eye. Only someone conscious of the cultural cues could have discerned it. Culture, however, is in the unconscious. It’s in the things we do and the way we do them simply because that is what we do and how they are done. By this score, my family was strongly ethnic, but this identity was covered over by the veneer of 60s/70s suburban life and American popular culture.

In the sixth grade we were given a typical school assignment to write about our family’s nationality.
“What nationality are we?” I asked my mom.
“We’re Americans!” she replied with vehemence and certainty.
“But before that. What were we?” I pressed. I already knew the answer but I required confirmation.
“We’re French.”
“Then we came from France?”
“Well, yes, but they came through Canada.”

Frequently, the Franco-American identified with France. For most of the 20th c., Americans viewed the French as chic. They represented sophistication, art, and refinement, what Americans thought they ought to value even if, in fact, they didn’t. Besides, the French were sexy. They were also the heroic allies who had helped America gain its independence and for whom America had returned the favor when General Pershing said (apocryphally), “Lafayette we are here.”

French-Canadians in New England, however, were different. They were poor and in the earlier days sometimes illiterate. They were lumberjacks and mill or factory workers. They lived in squalid tenements. They spoke a French that Americans insisted was not “real” French. In my grandparents’ youth they were viewed by many as a menace to New England, with a spirit diametrically opposed to Americanism. They were targets of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which put them in a category of the despised and the oppressed that included African-Americans and Jews.

Better to move away from the mill towns. Better to speak English without an accent. Better to say that we are French and not French-Canadian. Better to forget.

But I could not forget, among the twisted curves of childhood memory, Aunt Alice’s funeral and the church with the French inscriptions, nor Uncle Mike’s joie de vivre, nor Uncle Lucien’s fiddle. I will speak of those people in the tenements, for the poor mill worker, for the misunderstood in speech, the despised. Someone wished us – wished me – to forget. I cannot give them that satisfaction.

Je me souviens.

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3 thoughts on “Memory, Culture, and Franco-American Identity – by David Vermette

  1. Many thanks to James for the invitation to guest on his blog. It is an honor.

  2. I didn’t know that the Quebec French were held in low regard by local people in the US. It’s unfortunate that hiding one’s origin was prevalent there as it was in Canada (outside Quebec). Thanks for your exposition.
    In my youth (in the late 40’s and 50’s) to be French in Ontario Canada was to be less than an English Canadian citizen. I remember being called a “foreigner”, a “colonial” and other choice descriptive words to tell me who I was supposed to be. Though this kind of treatment was not consistent across Canada. The discrimination was worse for the Metis and Natives outside their own communities. No wonder the denial of origin by our families!
    Thanks again!

  3. Denis Ledoux says:

    Part of the problem of identity was that the English Conquest seems to have truncated the growth of a “Canadien” identity. The normal process of colony to independence never happened. Then came the appellation of “French Canadian” and since the English Canadians became the real Canadians and ceased to use “English Canadian” to designate themselves but said simply Canadian. (When was the last time you heard the English Canadian writer Margaret Atwood described as “English Canadian–she is simply a Canadian writer! But Anne Hébert will always be a French Canadian writer. The Library of Congress has two designations: Canadian and French Canadian.) The use of “French” then is somewhat organic in a dysfunctional way. I remember when the term “Franco” began to be used widely in the 60s. It was such a relief to have a term other than French .which never fit comfortably.

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