January 18, 2011

Maybe It's Me: A Town That Isn't Stagnant, or, A French-Canadian Community Grows Up

It’s a strange sensation to grow up in a town that isn’t stagnant, as so many American towns have the tendency to be, but one that grows with you. Not because of you, not on you, not alongside you, but one that grows and evolves and becomes its own individual as do, too, with each year that passes.

Despite my extensive travelling, my stints living abroad, my desire to live elsewhere within the greatest state in the nation, this town – the one I was born in, raised in, and have come back to – is the place I call home. It isn’t the most attractive place, the most historical place, or the most economically stable place, but it’s a place that’s rich in culture, rich in pride, rich in promise.

When I young, my town was comprised of nearly all French-Canadian families. Our stubborn ancestors, with their unparalleled work ethic and passion for family, traveled down from Quebec and its surrounding area to find, to start, a better life. This town is rooted in French-Canadian culture; it’s something we celebrate every summer with a “Franco-American Heritage” festival. Traditional music with accordions and spoons are played, traditional foods like tortierre (meat pie) and creton (smashed pork fat served on toast with mustard) is served, and memories are shared of a time when our town was a community.

A community that had a very distinguishable identity.

Maybe it’s me, but that identity is changing.

Here and in other cities like mine across the U.S.

For instance, my grandparents all spoke French; they learned English as their second language. My parents were bilingual. My peers and I? We all speak English, understand some French, and speak even less of it. I know the next generation below us will barely have any French left in them at all – both linguistically and genetically. While my mom does a hell of a job at trying to speak to me in French on occasion (of which I answer in English), I can’t honestly say that I’ll be able to do the same for my children, if I procreate. And, while I’m 75% French-Canadian, my significant other is 100% a pure-bred mutt, with no French-Canadian in him at all. Which means, my kids would be less than 50% French-Canadian.

That’s the funny thing about our genetics that the family I lived with in Spain couldn’t understand. I tried to explain to them how they were 100% Spanish, but hardly anyone in America is 100% anything. It’s not like “American” is its own pedigree – it’s an amalgamation of several different ancestry’s that continue to get muddle with each new generations. What we are comes not from bloodline; it comes from stories and traditions passed down.

Our identity is changing in other uncontrollable ways. We aren’t primarily a French-Canadian culture like we were when I was little; that generation is getting older and passing on. Outside of the normal influx of new families that move in and out of cities, several years ago our town was chosen to home the Somalian refugees who were fleeing their country full of strife and genocide to come to a place where they could find, and start, a better life.

Much like my very own Quebecois relatives.

As a result, much of our cities atmosphere is changing. Not only are little things, like our signs throughout the city changing – where once they were written in French first, English second; they’re now written in English first, French second, the Somalian languages third and fourth, and Spanish fifth – the very face of our downtown has morphed over time: from originally starting as a prosperous area to turning into an unfortunate area full of poverty and crime; to growing into an area rich in a foreign culture filled with unique sights, sounds, tastes, and habits from an exotic land to a evolving into place where fine dining and art galleries are finding comfortable homes next to their now African neighbors.

But with new people, more people, comes the need to destroy the antiquated and seemingly useless for modern and practical buildings. I’ve already watched landmarks of my town be razed without a second thought so that parking garages, parking garages, and more parking garages can take their place. Driving through downtown the other day I was informed by my teary-eyed mom that another one of our churches – this one a brick, stocky, gothic, European medieval castle looking church – is being demolished.

For what?

A parking garage, of course.

This breaks my heart. When my ancestors settled here, they built dozens of beautiful churches for the good people of this town to worship their God every Sunday before going home to spend quality time with their families – sans television or computers, shopping, or all the other meaningless distraction that takes up our valuable and limited time together. Every year that passes, it seems like one more church gets torn down, one more gets consolidated, one more becomes expendable.

And another parking garage goes up.

So that we can shop, and purchase, and consume, and run around doing trivial tasks. Which goes against everything that this town started as.

But there’s nothing I can do.

Because this town is growing up. Like me. It’s evolving and becoming what it needs to be for its people each year that passes.

I have spent years defending this town to outsiders. Yes, it has its unsavory areas. Yes, it has had a bad reputation in the past. Yes, we have a lot of people hurting in this dark economy. And while this is not where I want to be for the rest of my life – it is where I am now. It is where I have been for years. It is where my parents called home. Where my grandparents called home. It has culture – one built on the backs of French-Canadian immigrants, one pushed ahead of its time by refugees, and one stabilized by a dedicated group of inhabitants trying to make other see the beauty we find. It has pride – a common bond shared by the ethnic backgrounds that now call this city home. Pride from hard work, from building something from nothing, from being a people who struggle yet come out okay.

And while it doesn’t always seem it, it has promise.

Part of me is concerned that by the time I have children I will have nothing by way of my French-Canadian heritage to share with them, to encourage them to embrace. After all, I’m losing my native language. By choice, I’ve lost my culinary customs. Our lineages are being mixed with every new generation born. And the architectural cornerstones of my town are one by one slowly being torn down.

Where then does this promise come from?

It comes from the stories. From the traditions passed down.

From the hope that our community will once again have a very, albeit it different, albeit it evolved, distinguishable identity.

After all, in the end, whether it’s from Canada or Africa, here or there, we are a city of hard working, passionate immigrants.