The current effort in the United States to contend with cross-border migration from Mexico (and the estimated eleven million illegal immigrants now stateside) is a fascinating counterpoint to the flow of people, especially of French-Canadians, who earlier entered the U.S. from the north.
President Obama this week referred to the need to clarify the status “of those who harvest our crops, cook our meals, mind our children, and clean our houses” – describing the tasks Mexican “aliens” perform because native-born Americans won’t. I have toured Nogales and similar border areas, and spent time at the early morning roadside clusters of workers waiting, and hoping, to be hired for a day’s work.
But a century ago, many from Quebec went south seeking work in mills and forestry, on farms and in shops, for low wages. I have a friend whose mother was a Cree Indian and father a French-Canadian gone to the U.S. looking for work; they met in a roadside diner in New Jersey, where she was a waitress working for tips and he was spending his last dollar for a meal. My friend, their daughter, arrived in due course at a senior level with the CIA.
Important figures in the American literary landscape likewise have such French-Canadian roots. Jack Kerouac, author of the landmark book On the Road, is one. Another is celebrated author Annie Proulx who, in her recent book Bird Cloud, writes movingly about her French-Canadian ancestry and how she felt instinctively at home in Montreal, even though she’d grown up in the U.S.
A century from now, when Spanish is the dominant language in the U.S., today’s nannies and cooks, farm workers and cleaners, questing desperately for a better life in a country known to celebrate freedom and provide opportuntiy for those wanting to get ahead, will be appreciated in a different light.