Nonprofits Support New Mainers from Lewiston to Milbridge
Many would be surprised to learn that the town of Milbridge is home to the majority of Maine’s Latinx population. Tucked away in Washington County in the downeast region of the state, Milbridge has just over one thousand residents and depends upon the blueberry and seafood industries. In fact, it was the blueberry harvest that first brought migrant farmworkers, many of whom originally came from Mexico or other Latin American countries, to Maine.
Every year, a group of migrant farmworkers travel up the eastern seaboard, beginning in Florida in the springtime and stopping wherever there is agricultural work to be found along the way. For many, Maine was their final stop of the season. But when seafood processing plant Cherry Point Products opened in the late 1990s, several families decided to stay. Although Cherry Point ultimately closed in 2014, Milbridge’s Latinx community is now deeply rooted in Washington County.
The story of an immigrant population settling in a safe town with new job opportunities is not a unique one. However, the establishment of a Latinx population in Milbridge makes it a somewhat unlikely epicenter of racial and ethnic diversity in a state with predominantly white, rural residents.
In fact, Maine is the least diverse state in the country; according to census data, 93 percent of Mainers identified as white in 2010. To some, this data may appear to paint a picture of a homogenous state. But in reality, issues of race and class are very present in Maine, albeit sometimes less visible to outsiders.
Maine’s official nickname is “Vacationland,” with good reason. The state is home to Acadia National Park, the only national park in New England, as well as an assortment of small, coastal towns that thrive on summer tourism. This includes the Kennebunks, as popularized by the Kennedys. But “Vacationland” is only representative of the coast and obscures the much different reality experienced by the inland towns that do not receive the benefits of tourism.
Therein lies a deep economic divide: in the 2010 census, Cumberland County, home to largest city Portland, reported a median household income of $69,708 as compared to $39,824 in the far north Aroostook County. And much like issues of class, issues of race in Maine are also much more complicated than they initially appear.
Despite Maine’s overwhelming lack of diversity, the immigrant population in Milbridge is not the only one in the state. Largest cities Portland and Lewiston are home to many refugees, many of whom come from Somalia or other African nations. Fortunately, there are many local nonprofit organizations that have stepped up to support New Mainers in finding housing, healthcare, education, employment, and community.
Connecting them all is the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which has 68 member organizations. Most of these nonprofits are run by people of color and all aim to create support services for New Mainers. In Milbridge, there is one organization specifically tailored to support the Latinx community of Washington County.
Just a few years after Cherry Point Products attracted the first few Mexican families to Milbridge, some community members noticed a need for support services for these New Mainers. Thus nonprofit organization Mano en Mano was founded in 2005. The founders state that they “don’t see this as charity,” but rather “filling a gap” caused by “a system that is designed to deny community members a living wage, healthcare, and equitable educational opportunity.”
The organization works with both the year-round and seasonal communities in Washington County and works to “fill the gap” in many different capacities. Current projects include the Blueberry Harvest School, a summer school for children of migrant farmworkers, many of whom are Latinx or from the Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy nations.
In the past, Mano en Mano established a community investment fund to create a direct pathway for seasonal farmworkers to settle in Milbridge year-round and become homeowners. The organization’s work has become increasingly important as the Latinx community in Washington County grows: it is now 350 people strong, the majority of whom come from\ the city of Morelia in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
Many of these New Mainers are now able to realize their entrepreneurial dreams: the Vasquez family, who began by serving meals to seasonal workers and was able to open a brick-and-mortar takeout spot in 2014, serves as an inspiring example. While staff at Mano en Mano do not predict a large influx of New Mainers to Milbridge, it is clear that the existing immigrant community is here to stay and only becoming more established in Washington County.
The Latinx population in Milbridge is not the first immigrant community in the state, and it is certainly not the most visible. Largest city Portland is also home to a diverse immigrant community. But when asked about immigration in their state, most Mainers will be quick to mention the city of Lewiston, which has become well known for its large population of immigrants, many of whom come from Somalia or other African nations.
Once an overwhelmingly white, working class town, Lewiston’s reputation is far from positive in the eyes of many Mainers. But upon examination of the town’s history, it is clear that the recent wave of immigration has been largely positive.
In the early 2000s, Lewiston became home to a small number of Somali families who had been forced to flee their home country. This infusion of new residents was crucial. In the nineteenth century, Lewiston was home to several textile mills, which comprised the backbone of the town’s economy.
The mills began to close in the 1950s, and both the population and the economic prosperity of the city entered a period of rapid decline. Many businesses on Lisbon Street, the once-bustling center of downtown Lewiston, were forced to shutter. The Somali community has been instrumental in revitalizing the city’s economy; many of the once-empty storefronts are now halal markets.
It goes without saying that the sudden influx of refugees, most of whom are Black and Muslim, was a major culture shock for longtime residents.
Resentment towards these New Mainers was more overt in the early years: in 2006, a man placed a pig’s head in a local mosque. Lewiston still has many challenges that it must work to overcome, and discrimination is still very much present. But there have been positive changes as well. Local schools are much more diverse than they were just twenty years ago.
In 2019, 23-year-old Safiya Khalid became the first Somali-American and the youngest person ever elected to the Lewiston City Council. Khalid’s voice is being heard: in June, her resolve to fight against police brutality passed. Lewiston is a safe city, and its infamous reputation among other Mainers belies the racism present in the state.
In Milbridge, the attitudes towards the New Mainers have been mixed as well. When Cherry Point opened, some Washington County residents were worried about immigrants taking their jobs. A similar dynamic persists in Lewiston. A 2017 article in the Hartford Courant profiles a Lewiston man who both recognizes the benefits of diversity in his daughter’s school and explains his support for President Trump, who has taken a notoriously anti-immigration stance.
But empirically, immigration has been good for both communities. In Lewiston, crime rates have decreased, and children of immigrants have higher high school graduation rates than native-born residents.
But regardless of the current political climate, it stands to reason that not everyone in the overwhelmingly white, working-class communities of Milbridge and Lewiston would be welcoming to their new neighbors.
In recent months, COVID-19 has presented another major obstacle to Maine’s immigrant communities. The pandemic has exposed many systemic inequities in the United States: Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander, and Latinx Americans are all more likely to die from COVID-19 than White Americans. Currently, Latinx Americans have a death rate of 45.8 per 100,000 as compared to 35.9 per 100,000 for White Americans.
In Maine, one of the many problems that COVID has uncovered is a lack of linguistically appropriate public health resources. Papy Bongibo, a leader of Maine’s Congolese community, recently spoke about visiting churches in Portland and observing congregants shaking hands and hugging.
Along with other community leaders and nonprofits, Bongibo has launched a campaign to distribute information to often overlooked New Mainer communities. So far, the Office of Maine Refugee Services at Catholic Charities of Maine has translated public health information into 8 languages.
In Washington County, immigrant communities are facing a different series of challenges. Blueberry farmers expressed concern about migrant farmworkers arriving in time for the harvest.
As of April, the H-2A temporary work visas that many rely on were no longer being processed by the US consular offices. Simeon Allen, owner of Allen’s Wild Maine Blueberries, said that “if we can’t get workers here, we won’t be able to harvest.”
The state of Maine is incredibly reliant upon migrant workers: they make up 5 percent of hired farm labor in the United States overall, but 18 percent in Maine. If the labor force does not arrive, it could be catastrophic for the local economy. But if they do, they face a slew of public health obstacles.
Jorge Acero, director of outreach and education for the Maine Department of Labor, explains that it is “not possible” for farmers to rearrange bunkhouses to allow for adequate social distancing.
Fortunately, blueberry farmers have opted for proactive testing of anyone who arrives to work. But cases are rising as predicted. On August 1, 11 cases had been identified. By August 4, the number had risen to 23.
Access to healthcare has been a major obstacle for Maine’s immigrant population long before the pandemic. Issues of linguistically and culturally appropriate care that have become more prioritized during COVID are always present. There is just one organization dedicated to providing care for Maine’s migrant workers: the Maine Mobile Health Program.
It is important to note that migrant workers face many unique health risks. Agricultural work is extremely physically strenuous, which creates a need for physical healthcare. Additionally, the lifestyle of a migrant farmworker can be psychologically strenuous as well: they are often separated from family and faced with discrimination.
MMHP provides clinics, interpretation services, and rides to medical appointments, among other services. Perhaps most importantly today, their Facebook page displays crucial public safety information in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. The agricultural workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are currently quarantined in Bangor under supervision of MMHP.
This organization takes on many aspects of healthcare, but it remains clear that there is a need for greater healthcare infrastructure, especially for marginalized groups. This need has been present long before the pandemic.
While there are several distinct differences between the immigrant populations in Milbridge, Lewiston, and Portland, the pandemic has shed light on one overarching similarity between all New Mainers: the systemic inequalities that make it difficult to find healthcare or safe employment.
Mano en Mano serves as a solid support system in Washington County, providing everything from educational opportunities to access to affordable housing. The Maine Mobile Health Program works tirelessly to provide healthcare to a population that has been systemically excluded from the healthcare infrastructure that is available to many native-born citizens.
The other members of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition provide invaluable support as well, from the Somali Banti Community Association in Lewiston to Portland Adult Education, and many more. But as explained by the founders of Mano en Mano, there are still many systemic inequities that stand in the way of New Mainers’ access to education, healthcare, housing, and employment.
While so many organizations are able to provide support systems, there is still work to be done, and it begins with awareness. While the immigrant communities of Maine may be small, they are both present and important.
How to Help:
Mano en Mano is always accepting monetary donations. They are also in need of bilingual (Spanish and English) volunteers in downeast Maine. They can also accept donations of non-perishable food and clothing, especially warm winter clothing for adults.
Donate to the Maine Mobile Health Program.
Find the full list of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition partners here.
Featured Image: Migrant workers harvest blueberries in Washington County. / Courtesy of Johanna S. Billings and Kate Cough, The Ellsworth American
Etti Cooper | Bates College
Etti is a rising junior at Bates College, where she is pursuing a double major in Spanish and biology. She hopes to pursue a career in biology and is passionate about advocating for diversity and equity in the historically white, male dominated STEM field. While not from an immigrant family herself, she was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, a city with a large Latinx immigrant population. As she began to learn Spanish, she began to learn about the challenges faced by immigrants, particularly the population in her hometown. Etti hopes to better understand immigration policy from a legislative perspective as well as amplifying the stories of immigrants. She hopes that her work as an Immigration Writer will allow her to educate others as she continues to educate herself.