Franco-American Women Awakening a Silenced Culture

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Rhea Cote Robbins

ORONO, Me. (WOMENSENEWS)–Lanette Landry Petrie at a Mardi Gras evening celebration here sat perched on the edge of her seat at a long cafeteria table. She stomped her feet and click-clacked her traditional French wooden "spoons" to the beat of the French fiddle tune on stage.

The event was a rare occasion for Petrie to revel in the language and culture of her ancestors and perhaps give a taste of it to the next generation. For it is here in a town as close to Montreal as it is to Boston that many descendants of the region’s French settlers lost their language, their music and their sense of being French. It is also here, however, that French women are taking the lead in reviving all of the above on behalf of the one-quarter of the state’s 1.3 million residents who claim French ancestry.

What has happened to the French culture here and the determination of some women to reverse the course is vividly illustrated this evening by Petrie and a teen-age descendant.

Petrie’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Mallory Anne DeRoche, hid under the table, mortified that her memere was being so loud, and so … French.

"I told her she’d better get used to it," said Petrie, 58, a retired clerical worker and author, "because Meme’s going to be French tonight!"

The comfort and ritual of Lenten tradition embedded in French Catholicism are especially powerful for Petrie. She has been part of a core of women of French heritage in Maine working to publicly assert women’s crucial role in sustaining, even reviving, a nearly lost Franco-American culture. Petrie is also co-editor of "I Am Franco-American and Proud of It: An Anthology of Writings of Franco-American Women," which in 1995 was the first published collection of Franco-American women’s writings.

An effort that began as a discussion among Franco-American women who work as staff and faculty at the University of Maine has led to the founding of a Franco-American Women’s Institute and its literary journal, Moe pi Toe. (Pronounced "moy pi tway," meaning "me and you," the spelling is the North American dialectic spelling and pronunciation of the French "moi et toi.")

Women Pass on the Language, Recipes, Rituals–the Culture

"Women are the ones who pass on the traditions," said Rhea Cote Robbins, founder and director of the Maine-based Franco-American Women’s Institute and author of the memoir "Wednesday’s Child" and other works. "We pass on the language, the recipes and the rituals, and that really makes women the transmitters of the culture."

Petrie and Cote Robbins say the institute and other Franco-American cultural institutions are creating "chez nous," or "our home," a supportive environment that acknowledges their ethnicity.

Though Franco-Americans in general have struggled to assert their identity in public, this is especially difficult for women because of strong gender roles reinforced by the male leadership structures of the French Catholic tradition, scholars and other observers say. Women’s place was in the home and that has been the only turf where they were permitted to express their individuality or their ethnicity.

"It’s comfortable being French at home, but to bring it out into the public is something else entirely," said Bonita Parent Grindle, 55, a diversity adviser at the University of Maine active in the Franco-American women’s community. "It’s getting better now, but it’s still hard."

The notion of giving voice to French identity and providing places like the institute’s Web pages to publish ethnic French writings is foreign to many Franco-Americans. Their assimilation into mainstream culture was the result of decades of pressures to abandon the language, to eliminate French leadership in the Catholic Church in the Northeast and to give up the foods and traditions and festivals that made Franco-Americans French.

Indeed, assimilation has been so nearly complete that many people of French heritage only recognize the term "Franco-American" as the name of a circular, canned spaghetti product.

Speaking French a Major Issue in Canada, But Franco-Americans Forget

Franco-Americans are those people descended from French settlers in North America during the 18th century. Many of these were expelled from the Canadian Maritime Provinces mid-century when England took control of the colonies in the 1750s. About a million more emigrated south to New England to take jobs in the burgeoning cities of the Northeast, where lumber and textiles dominated the economy during the 19th century.

Most people are aware of the continuing struggle to retain French as a first language in Canada. South of the border in the United States, however, many people have lost the language, to the point that many Franco-Americans do not recognize themselves as such–in stark contrast to Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada where the French language is very much alive.

In the United States, the French language was a target of hate groups and repressive authorities throughout the 20th century. The Ku Klux Klan, numbering more than 100,000 in the 1920s, burned crosses to intimidate Franco-Americans in Maine.

Until recent decades, children were beaten for speaking French in school, Francos were routinely insulted and kept in the lowest-paying jobs, and generations were raised on the notion that to be French was to be stupid.

Parent Grindle, who grew up in Old Town, Me., said that children learned these lessons well. Though her father was in business and the family was doing better economically than other Franco-Americans, she said her sense of her place in the world can be summed up in one tired ethnic joke:

"What is the only thing dumber than a Frenchman?" recounted Parent Grindle. "A French woman, of course."

Despite public repression of French, Catholic schools were bastions for the language up to the middle of the century when they were segregated. Those schools no longer exist.

"When in school, I had no problems speaking in front of the class," said Parent Grindle, recalling her French Catholic education. "I would have died of embarrassment rather than speak in front of the Irish/English kids. I mean, they were really smart and I was French–and female on top of that."

"It used to be that a French person in some place or other was ‘un des notres,’ or ‘one of ours,’" Pinette said. "We don’t think that way anymore and Francos have given up a lot along the way."

"You have to give up your language. You have to give up being loud," she added.

Indeed, Petrie’s joy in the pre-Easter evening of Franco-American feast and song was matched by a hundred others at the University of Maine dormitory cafeteria. The older women making stacks of traditional "ployes" tapped their toes as the buckwheat dinner crepes cooked on grills. Cafeteria workers, many of them Franco-American, slipped away from the dishwasher or the food lines to replenish the traditional rice salad, tend the Mardi Gras decorations, or straighten up the dessert table stacked high with three-layered blueberry pies called "cipates," sugar pies and molasses cookies.

"This is who I am, and people understand that’s who I am," said Petrie. "When I hear the music and I hear the language, I’m chez nous." And she said of her granddaughter, embarrassed by Frenchness:

"Someday she’ll be glad we’re passing on the traditions."

Marie Tessier is a writer who lives in Bangor, Me.

For more information, visit:

Franco-American Women’s Institute:
http://www.fawi.net/

Moe pi Toe, the literary journal of the Franco-American Women’s Institute:
http://members.aol.com/FAWIDIR/titlepage.html

A starting point for exploring Franco-American affairs, a joint project of the University of Maine and the University of Laval:
http://www.francomaine.org/English/Ress_intro.htm

 

  • Janet

    I hope Mdm Petrie visited Quebec last year, when they celebrated their 400th year as a people in Canada. The first French settlers in Quebec actually preceded the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts. They are truly a people who have maintained their belief in themselves, even when their nation of France could no longer support them and basically abandoned them during the French revolution. Many of the French settlers were happy to be helped by the British who allowed them to keep their language and culture, but, others still want to be only French. Canada owes its strong health care system to the French nuns (often daughters of wealthy families in 17thC France who were very worried about them) who established a nursing hospital in Montreal. That and the later French sisterhood of the Grey Nuns (still busy today, caring for the disadvantaged) maintained a tradition of what we would now call hospice and nursing home care. Until recently, though they also owned and ran complete hospitals with nursing schools throughout Canada, especially on the prairies. In Canada how we are both French and English is a wonder, but, a truly great heritage. Our bilingual literature, including Alberta poet Pierette Requier, is a window into our nation.
    A Canadian.