Does Franco-America Exist?
By Elizabeth Blood, department of foreign languages
For many in the United States, the term “Franco-American” recalls memories of a canned spaghetti product consumed during childhood, a product that has no connection to the Franco-American community of the Northeast. The Franco-American ethnic group, one of the largest and least well-known in the U.S., is comprised of descendants of French-speaking immigrants from Canada, most from the province of Quebec, who fled economic hardship and cultural discrimination during what Quebecers call le Grand exode (the Great Exodus). Between 1840 and 1930, nearly a million French-speakers migrated across the northeastern border of the United States into New England. Families settled near mills and factories in neighborhoods called Petits Canadas (Little Canadas) in cities like Salem, Lowell, Worcester, and Fall River in Massachusetts, Woonsocket in Rhode Island, Lewiston and Biddeford in Maine, and Manchester in New Hampshire. By the mid 20th century, Franco-Americans were one of the largest ethnic groups in New England, yet the epithet “Franco-American” never acquired wide recognition as an American identity in mainstream U.S. culture, even though other contemporary immigrant communities like Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans became popular in media, film and literature. There is no Franco-American equivalent of The Godfather or Jersey Shore. The local bars are not flooded with revelers drinking blue beer on St.-Jean-Baptiste day, like they are with green beer drinkers on Saint Patrick’s Day. Sure, some people know Jack Kerouac, a Franco-American writer from Lowell, or have heard of Robert Goulet, but few identify these figures with a coherent ethnic identity.
The reasons for the relative invisibility of Franco-Americans are complex and hotly debated by historians and literary scholars in the field. Perhaps it is due to the unique experience of Franco-Americans who are twice removed from the European country of origin expressed in their name, or perhaps it is because Franco-Americans, though in close proximity to the Canadian homeland they loved, came from a region of Canada where they suffered over a century of cultural and linguistic discrimination and economic marginalization. Many theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, and although mainstream America may have never had a clear understanding of Franco-American identity in the past, scholars and historians agree that Franco-Americans in New England have maintained a strong sense of their own identity and this identity is currently experiencing a quiet renaissance in New England.
Franco-Americans have a rich literary tradition and continue to produce literary and cultural texts today. Authors like Normand Beaupré (nrbeaupre.com) and Rhea Côté-Robbins (fawi.net) have made a great impact on Franco-American literature in the 21st century. Many organizations with online forums now exist to connect Franco-Americans with each other and with those interested in this community. The Franco-American Connection (www.francoamericanconnection.com) is a hub for current literary and cultural production by Franco-Americans. Côté-Robbins’ Franco-American Women’s Institute (www.fawi.net) offers an e-zine and promotes writing by Franco-American women. In addition, many educational institutions and cultural centers in states like Maine and New Hampshire are collaborating to organize cultural festivals and programs to promote the French language and Franco-American identity. The Maine French Heritage Language Program (www.uma.maine.edu/mfhlp), for example, offers French language classes to school children with a curriculum rooted in Franco-American culture.
So, does Franco-America exist? The answer is “oui!” and Franco-Americans are reviving and redefining Franco-American identity in the 21st century. Who knows, one day you might even find yourself drinking a blue beer and singing “Gens du pays” on a late June evening?
 The Franco-American Food Company was founded in New Jersey in 1886 by an immigrant from France; the company was acquired by Campbell’s in 1915.
 Saint-Jean-Baptiste is the patron saint of French-Canadians whose feast is celebrated on June 24. This is the Quebec national holiday, and some New England states have adopted June 24 as “Franco-American Day,” though the celebrations are not as widespread as those for Saint Patrick’s day.