Maine was awash in immigrants a century ago. On Aug. 8, 1905, a Bangor Daily News editorial complained that peddlers – mostly Eastern European Jews, Armenians and “Arabians” – were roaming the countryside in large numbers, bothering the natives.
“Let one go which way he will from Bangor, and he cannot travel a mile outside of the city without seeing from one to a dozen peddlers tramping from house to house,” the writer complained loftily. “The articles they sell are mainly very cheap and trashy, and the sum total of service which they perform for mankind is very slight.”
The summer of 1905, a thousand or more Italian workers were living in tent camps on a line from LaGrange to Searsport building the new Northern Maine Seaport Railroad, a decided economic boon to the area.
These Italians were said to be hardworking, honest and thrifty, the paper said, but did the country need more people from an “alien race”? “It is very doubtful if any more degraded Italians and superstitious Poles are needed,” an editorial writer concluded on June 15 in a comment typical of the times.
Back then Maine had an embarrassment of riches – idealistic immigrants trying to rise up in the world by doing the hard, dirty work no one else would do. It seemed the only immigrants eastern Mainers liked unequivocally, however, were the fair-haired Swedes, who had been industriously working vast stretches of farmland in northern Aroostook County since their arrival in the 1870s. Even some of the Irish, who came before the Civil War, and the French Canadians, who came later to man the new mills, were looked at askance in some circles.
Now scroll forward a century. Times aren’t what they used to be.
In Maine, only one in 35 of its residents is an immigrant, compared to one in nine nationally, according to the U.S. Census. In fact, the Pine Tree State is the “whitest” in the nation. But that stark statistical picture didn’t daunt Pauleena MacDougall when she set out to find 15 immigrants in the Bangor area to help the Maine Folklife Center put together a project about how foreigners get along here. She had no trouble finding participants.
The resulting exhibit, “New Mainers? The Complexity of Immigrant Identities,” has been featured at the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine in conjunction with a visiting national exhibit on the same theme. The Maine exhibit also will appear at The American Folk Festival, where some of the participants will take to the Maine Folklife Center’s narrative stage to talk about their lives and native customs.
MacDougall, associate director of the Maine Folklife Center in Orono, was not deterred by the low immigration numbers. “I don’t think people realize that many of their neighbors in the Greater Bangor area are recent immigrants,” she said.
Among the newcomers are Aniko Fulep, who maintains many of the traditional aspects of Hungarian culture in her home in Hampden, where she lives with two sons and her husband, Dr. Miklos Simon, an oncologist and hematologist employed by Eastern Maine Medical Center. He is also a native of Hungary.
There’s also Maria Sandweiss, a native of Peru who teaches Spanish at the University of Maine while raising a son with her husband, a UM archaeology professor.
MacDougall has tracked down people of varying skin shades and ethnic and religious backgrounds. Puerto Rico, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Greece and Colombia are among the many countries of origin.
Yet, it’s still much harder to put together such a group in Bangor, Maine, than it is in, let’s say, Troy, N.Y., or Bristol, Conn. Without the existence of a state university campus and a large hospital nearby it would be harder still.
That hasn’t always been the case. In 1960, Maine had a larger proportion of immigrants living here than in the United States as a whole, according to demographers Richard Sherwood and Deirdre Mageean in an essay they wrote for the book “Changing Maine, 1960-2010.”
That was back when most immigrants came from Europe, which is a lot closer to Maine than Asia or Latin America, from which most immigrants arrive today. This distance, plus the lack of a big city such as Boston where immigrants debark and then move from gradually in short jumps, goes a long way to explain Maine’s dilemma, wrote Sherwood and Mageean.
Maria Sandweiss agrees. It is much easier and cheaper for a Peruvian immigrant to get to Florida than it is to Maine, and it is also easier to get a job there or in Patterson, N.J., where there is a large Peruvian community. And the weather here – which can be “nasty and shocking for many of us” – is also a factor, she said.
In fact, Maine was a more “diverse” state 100 years ago than it is today.
Thousands of Italian laborers had entered the state to help build railroads and paper mills and mine quarries. French-Canadians, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans, Armenians, Arabs and others also had moved here. The thousands of Irish who had come 50 years before had mostly assimilated, if the lists of surnames of Bangor police, firefighters and city councilors mean anything.
Experts explain that encouraging immigration to an area is a lot more than a “feel-good” issue or a form of international affirmative action. It could give a transfusion of economic lifeblood to a state such as Maine where the population of younger people is falling behind the rest of the nation.
Immigrants contribute disproportionately to the population. Besides contributing directly when they arrive, they tend to be younger, with higher birth rates and lower death rates, than the non-Hispanic white population.
Maine’s median age increased 10 years between 1960 and 2000, while the U. S. median increased by only six years. The difference is mainly because of the larger proportion of immigrants and minorities in the United States compared to Maine, according to Sherwood and Mageean. Without the addition of immigrants and minorities, the U.S. growth rate probably would have increased at a slightly slower pace than Maine’s, they concluded.
Meanwhile, the lack of cultural diversity here spurs some young people to leave the state. It also serves as a barrier to business growth since growing numbers of minority executives in major corporations looking for places to set up offices are uncomfortable at the idea of living in a nearly all-white state.
Immigrants feel that same cultural shallowness. Used to large cities such as Budapest and later Buffalo, N.Y., where her family lived before coming to Maine, Aniko Fulep said she hopes to return to living in a big city someday, although she has liked the Bangor area and the people she has met here. “This was a big change for us,” she said.
MacDougall set out to investigate how immigrants “make community” here, particularly with language barriers, and how they “live in two worlds,” how they adjust to living in Maine and how they have been treated by Maine people. She said she already has learned a few things.
“Those immigrants who have husband and wife both speaking their native language are usually able to pass their language and culture on to their children more easily than those where only one parent is an immigrant [usually the wife],” she said. “She often finds it difficult to teach the children if her husband can’t speak the language.
“Also, she often experiences great isolation. Many of the folks I met make community with other immigrants rather than with Maine people, who, as one interviewee told us, ‘are friendly but not friends,'” she said.