Maine Governor Paul LePage, in one of his fits of pique, declared that his only interest as Governor was in protecting “Mainers.” Mainers are to be protected from Ebola-infected nurses, Syrian refugees, asylum seekers from Africa, and out-of-state gang members. This got me thinking, just what makes one a Mainer?
This topic interested me long before LePage became governor. I explored the question of what makes a Maine writer in an essay I wrote about E.B. White and R.P.T. Coffin called Two Pigs from Maine. What makes an authentic Maine writer is a question very similar to what makes us Mainers deserving of Governor LePage’s protection.
My Maine roots go back to 1639 when Robert Jordan emigrated from England to Scarborough. But it is a mistake to suggest that I am more a Mainer than someone who moved to Lewiston from Somalia in the last decade. It is equally a mistake to think that I am less a Mainer than someone whose ancestors immigrated here by way of the land bridge across the Bering Straight ten to twelve centuries ago.
Despite all of the Maine humor about people from away, the reality is that we are all from away. We all arrived here either by our own personal choice or the choice of an ancestor. People come to Maine, just like those who move to other locales, because they believe it will lead to a better life. By the same token, people leave Maine because their vision of a better life is fulfilled by some other place.
Currently, about two thirds of people living in Maine were people who were born here and stayed. There is not much doubt we can call these Mainers. Of the rest, the biggest group came here from Massachusetts, followed by New Hampshire, New York, and then the rest of the Northeast. For those who left Maine, most went to Florida (those of a certain age?), followed by Massachusetts and California. Seeing from these Census data where we come from and where we move to is one snapshot of the idea of Mainers.
The same data show that hundred years ago, 16% of people living in Maine immigrated here from outside of the United States. Many of their descendants are now entrenched Maine families, with no hint of being from away. Today about 4 % of Mainers were born in other countries.
All of this tells me that being a Mainer is not about the accident of birth. It is a commitment to place. The Governor’s fixation on “out-of-state drug dealers” is misplaced. Dealing drugs is not a function of where one was born. There are plenty of “native Mainers” who deal and use drugs.
What should matter is whether we choose to make Maine our homes and commit to making this a place where people can be happy. We choose to be here, and that makes us Mainers. Those of us who were born here and then stayed did so for good reasons. So I don’t fret as others do about our “young people who move away;” and I don’t think we should try to make Maine look like Boston or New York in an attempt to keep young people here. If this is a good place for them to live, they will stay or return.
For me there are some unscientific answers to the question of what makes one a Mainer, that is someone who wants to stay. For example, Mainers have several ways to heat their homes – wood, pellets, propane, electricity – and we are always looking to add another. Mainers are happy to share the beauties of the state with visitors (particularly if they drop a little cash when they are here) and we are equally happy when they go home. Mainers are skeptical of both natives and those from away with big plans to “develop” our state. We thought a bid for the winter Olympics in the 1970s was a poor idea and we doubt an East/West highway today will help very many people. We do get fooled from time to time (think urban renewal in Bangor, sugar beets in Aroostook, or the New Market Capital Investment Program), but we tend to learn from these mistakes. Mainers are willing to work more than one job for the privilege of staying here and if we get lured away by offers of gold we try to find a way to get back.
So Irish, French, Penobscot, Somali, Syrian – all can be Mainers. Mainers come or stay by choice, because, as places go, it’s a pretty good place to live.