Let’s call them new Mainers instead of immigrants. They aspire to be Mainers, and that’s a great compliment to those of us who were lucky enough to be born here and lived our lives here.
One of these new Mainers is Chef Ray of Solo Bistro in Bath, a Jamaican whose creative dishes are delicious. But what we really enjoyed was watching Ray in the open kitchen, always smiling, obviously enjoying his work. Perhaps you read the travel column that Linda and I wrote about Dancing Elephant restaurant in Fairfield and Chef Iqbal Hossan and his wife Shawn, from Bangladesh. After their kids get out of high school each afternoon in Portland, Shawn drives them to Fairfield, where they all work in the restaurant, a truly hardworking and inspiring family.
Now that I think about it, our new Mainers have brought a lot of creative delicious cuisine to our state, including the folks from Thailand who own our favorite Thai restaurant, Long Grain in Camden, and Mei of Ming Lee in Waterville, our favorite Chinese restaurant.
The story of Mexicans in Milbridge is a particularly inspiring and enlightening one. As Jennifer Atkinson reported in the April 17 edition of the Working Waterfront newsletter, published by Island Institute, “If asked to name the most ethnically diverse towns in Maine few people would list Milbridge, a community in Washington County where 6 percent of the population and 24 percent of the elementary school students are Hispanic or Latino,” wrote Atkinson. “Most would talk about the issues facing Portland or Lewiston.”
Most of these new Milbridge residents were already either permanent U.S. residents (Green Card holders) or citizens, relocating from the southeastern U.S.
Some, however, came directly from Mexico, usually through the sponsorship of their family members who had U.S. citizenship or permanent residency status. Atkinson reports that they like it here because it is small — they can be better connected to school and teachers.
Today, the Latino community in Milbridge and surrounding towns is 350 people strong. Most (around 80 percent) are from the central Mexican city of Morelia in the state of Michoacán. Others originate from different parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Quite a few are parents who moved to Washington County as kids. “This new generation with little ones, they want to stick around. They like it here,” Atkinson noted. “They grew up here.”
Many of these first generation Mainers have left the cycle of seasonal employment that brought their families north. As bilingual graduates of area high schools and colleges, they are able to stay in the region by working in health care, education, food service or social services.
“And at Milbridge Elementary School,” reports Atkinson, “some of the work that has been going on for ELL [English-language learner] students is getting national attention for its innovations and efficacy. The school, coping with over a decade of declining enrollment, reports 33 percent of its kindergarten class (which, at 24 kids is currently the largest class in the school) is Hispanic, and 24 percent of this same class are Spanish-speaking students who receive ELL services.”
Milbridge businesses also have experienced new growth. The local supermarket has expanded and now stocks lots of Mexican canned and boxed foods. Overall, Milbridge has been welcoming despite opposition by some to immigrant communities. “But the bottom line is that immigrants can have an overwhelmingly positive economic impact anywhere, when they are welcomed with open arms and given the opportunity to succeed,” reported Atkinson.
Last fall Linda and I were inspired by a choir of high-school girls from Portland, all of whom had escaped violence in one of eight foreign countries, singing at the annual awards dinner of the Maine Children’s Alliance. We can only hope that they all are able to spend their lives in Maine.
We are now blessed with new Mainers who are doctors, law enforcement officers, teachers, and more, contributing much to our state. We should all be celebrating their arrival, not making nasty racist remarks and refusing to help them settle here.
I have a bit of personal history on this issue. My grandfather, Henry Searles, was Canadian, a native of Campobello Island. He moved across the sound to marry my grandmother, a native of Lubec. And Linda and I are blessed beyond measure by our grandson Vishal, who spent his first three years in an orphanage in India. V is a real joy in our lives. We attended a very entertaining book talk by JP Devine recently at the library in the small town of Wayne, and noted a girl from Asia there, along with another lady who is a native of Ireland. It’s all good, isn’t it?
We know Maine needs to attract new younger residents, to stimulate our economy, but also to enrich our lives. Let’s make sure these new Mainers know how much we appreciate their presence in our state.