The Last Franco-American: A Real Life Franco Journey
“Imagine being on the verge of extinction while wanting to continue living the language, culture, traditions of the home and neighbourhood you grew up in. The French we spoke and our cultural ways growing up was rapidly disappearing causing me the fear of losing my self-identity. A million people left Québec in search of prosperity during hard economic times and creating "Little Canada" neighborhoods throughout New England.
Growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire, I was torn between two cultures, two languages and two worlds. Questioning what was happening to the north of me, in modern day Québec, my family’s motherland. Can Franco-Americans ever find peace within two cultures? What if I were the last Franco-American?” ⎼ Rémi Francoeur, The Last Franco-American
Rémi Francoeur is a writer on a mission to reclaim the Franco-American story. Born and raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, he describes his life as living between French-Canadian and American culture.
Although Francoeur has been living in Montreal, Québec, he couldn’t help but notice how different he was as a Franco-American even when living among other Francophones. He realized how many Franco-Americans never grew up speaking French, making him feel like the last person of the younger generations to speak the language.
He began to write his book about these experiences, calling it “The Last Franco-American.”
“A lot of people call themselves Franco-Americans, but usually when you say Franco, it means that you’re French, Francophone, or French-speaking. Before I moved to Montreal, I felt like it was the exception and those that I did come across that spoke French were about 60 years old or older,” he says. “So I felt like the last Franco-American in terms of age or generation, so it would be nice if we reignited that. I don’t think I was that far off in saying that I was either the last or close to the last Franco-American of the traditional sense.”
With this book as his ongoing passion project, he wants to bring more understanding and pride to Franco-American culture by sharing his own experiences and adding the experiences of other people who had to rediscover their own Franco-American heritage.
Francoeur has been working on his book for about three to four years, mostly due to going through the long and difficult translation process. He began by writing the book in French and translating it into English, which took him about 14 months.
He knew the English version of the book would be more appealing to a Franco-American audience, while also taking note of how Americanized the culture has become over the years.
“I mean, it kind of fits into the story. It's the big irony that I had to rewrite it in English because my mother tongue wasn't as good for me to write something like this,” he says.
As it’s well-known among Franco-Americans, one million of our ancestors left Québec to make their new life in New England during the early 20th century. When they settled into their new home, “Little Canada” neighborhoods popped up throughout the area. French was widely spoken and many were too stubborn to give it up and speak English.
There was a time in Manchester where at least 40% of residents spoke French, making it possible for several daily French newspapers to thrive. Franco-American children often spoke French in the home and for half of the school day. They were able to be Americans, yet live in their own French enclave.
However, as we in New England are aware, many Franco-Americans eventually gave in. Rather than speak French along with English, they ditched French altogether.
It’s become uncommon for younger generations such as Millennials and Generation Z to speak French. Whereas the older generations, such as Generation X and Y, most likely grew up speaking French as a first language and learned English in school.
But some families retained the language and passed it down. Francoeur grew up speaking French as his first language and learned English during preschool. This gave him the advantage of connecting to two completely different languages and cultures.
“English became my dominant language because I was being educated in English,” he says. “But in the house, at relative’s homes, and many of my friend’s parents, they spoke French.”
Francoeur’s family moved from Québec to New Hampshire in the mid-1960s. He describes his family as the working-class French. So even though there were Franco-Americans who had already been Americanized, his family was still relatively new on the scene and continued speaking French as they learned English.
Backtracking his family’s footsteps, Francoeur took up residence in Montreal. Although he can communicate well with other Francophones around him, he began to realize that he still stuck out to the Francophones born and raised in Québec.
“I had realized after moving to Montreal that everybody was incredibly perplexed and astounded that I spoke French and then they wondered why, and how I grew up. I would get similar questions from many people every time I was introduced to people.”
He recalls that quite a few people he came into contact with knew about the large migration of French-Canadians from Québec who moved to New England.
“Maybe they had people in their family that had moved down, but they were astounded that somebody that was in the younger generation spoke French, and a French that was very much like a Québécois accent, so I realized there was a lot of interest,” he says.
From there, Francoeur began doing research about Québécois, French-Canadians, and Franco-Americans. He also talked to his friends in Manchester about what he was finding and realized that they didn’t know much about their own Franco-American background.
“A lot has been lost because of assimilation. Then, that got me to thinking that there's a lot of books and movies that give the perspective of Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, especially let’s say, in the Boston area,” he says. “But there’s nothing [for Franco-Americans], surprisingly other than some dry historical books, that talk about the textile mills and what life was like when there’s nothing that’s more like non-fiction that provides a more personal perspective that brings pride to our cultural background.”
Francoeur then started his own mission to reclaim this story, not just for his fellow Franco-Americans but also for French-Canadians and Québécois.
“For me, it was something that needed to be filled and I figured that both sides of the border would learn about each other.”
His overall approach to the book is to give a global perspective of the Franco-American story, while also expressing the experiences of living in a culture that has faded over time. In Francoeur’s words, the book will show “what it's like to live and get a taste of what I think barely even exists anymore.”
Another conversation Francoeur wants to discuss is the dismissiveness of Franco-Americans as a “culture of the past,” meanwhile other cultural groups are viewed through a modern lens.
Francoeur hopes that “The Last Franco-American” can be a resource for all Franco-Americans, whether Francophone or Anglophone, to rediscover their heritage for the present day. He believes that his book can also help French-Canadians and Québécois learn about their long-lost cousins across the border.
Currently, Rémi Francoeur is looking for a publishing house. If you are interested in “The Last Franco-American” and can assist the author in publishing, you can follow up with him on his blog.