Looking for America: Portland’s melting pot (a series)

“I’ve gone to look for America,” Simon and Garfunkel

In his excellent column in last week’s paper (“Who is a real Mainer? Everyone who chooses to live here”), David Farmer noted that 61 languages are spoken in the city of Portland’s public schools. This is an amazing number. It becomes more amazing when you realize that there are only 6,725 students in the entire school system, pre-k through 12th grade and that Maine’s largest city itself only has 67,000 inhabitants.

In fact, the entire state of Maine only has 1.3 million people, 94.8% of whom are white. That’s the second highest percentage in country, trailing only Vermont. Most of the non-whites live in or around Portland, whose greater metropolitan region has more than a third of the state’s population. So Portland is different: 56% white, 25% black, 7% Hispanic, 5% Asian, 6% mixed parentage. The numbers are small, but the demographics are clearly changing.

The question is: Is this exciting? Or is it frightening?

That’s a question that Maine and America (and indeed much of the western world) is wrestling with right now.

Many supporters of Maine’s governor and America’s president would have you believe that the changes are not a good thing, that they exemplify the shifting demographics that are making the country increasingly unrecognizable to them. Others would argue that Portland’s vitality – and its continuing attraction to young people – derives in no small part from its diversity.

We often forget that these are not new questions, not for the United States and not even for Maine. In fact, one might think that the governor would be sympathetic to the struggling of people whose first language is not English. For whatever you think of his politics and leadership, Paul Le Page is a survivor with an extraordinary life story

He was the eldest of 18 children born in Lewiston to a French-Canadian family whose first language was French. His father beat him unmercifully and his mother could not protect him, and so Le Page ran away from home at the age of 11 and lived on the streets, eventually eking out an existence shining shoes, washing dishes and hauling boxes. He persevered, becoming the only member of his family to enter high school. After a poor verbal SAT score caused Husson College to reject his application, Peter Snowe, a Lewiston native, state representative, and Olympia Snowe’s first husband, who was killed in a car crash on the Maine Turnpike in 1973 at the age of 30, persuaded the college to let Le Page take the entrance exam in French. He passed, subsequently earned a Bachelor of Science degree, and went on to get an MBA from the University of Maine.

Yet instead of embracing the diversity of Portland, Le Page exploits those who fear it, saying of Maine’s opioid crisis: You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.” He pulled Maine out of the federal refugee resettlement program and called asylum seekers “the biggest problem in our state.”

That, to coin a phrase, is sad, for in trying to whitewash our history, he fails to see that Portland is actually repeating the old story of the American melting pot.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.