While the history of America is the history of immigrants (unless we’re talking about Native Americans), it’s also the history of former immigrants attempting to slam the door once they themselves have gotten in. As much as some have always tried to deny it, immigrants to America are Americans, and their contributions help make America. The same goes for Maine, our state’s often tumultuous relationship with those “from away” (a telling bit of provincial slang) a microcosm of the nation’s.
At Lewiston’s Museum L-A, a group of local educators and community partners are hosting Becoming American, a multimedia, multicultural program of films, events, speakers and more, intended to address the once-again timely immigration issue in innovative and inclusive ways. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Becoming American” looks to bring Mainers together, thanks to the hard work of Museum L-A’s Director of Education and Outreach Kate Webber and program moderators Andrew Baker of Bates College and Reza Jalali of the University of Southern Maine. I spoke with Jalali – himself a refugee from Iran who’s lived in Maine for some 30 years – about “Becoming American” and, well, becoming American.
How did you get involved with Becoming American?
Well, I’ve been a panelist at many film festivals, including the Maine Jewish Film Festival, and I’m always honored to think that that might have something to do with it. In addition, I’ve been an advocate for immigrants since I came here as a refugee from Iran (in 1985) and co-wrote the book “New Mainers: Portrait of Our Immigrant Neighbors,” so it’s probably a combination of all that.
Why do you feel Becoming American is so relevant at this point, in Maine and in the country as a whole?
The current president and government continue to make some statements which we, as immigrant advocates, don’t agree with at all. The question of whether immigrants are a burden or blessing is complicated as national and local leaders – like our own governor – make misleading statements to the general populace about immigrants and immigration while, for example, Maine is in desperate need of immigrants.
Maine has a checkered past when it comes to hospitality to immigrants. How does Becoming American address our shared history, and what do you mean by “Maine is in desperate need” currently?
Maine needs immigrants. We know that as a fact. We have low population growth, an aging population and a low rate of birth. We need a well-educated and younger workforce and immigrants could save us, save Maine. Studies show that immigrants to Maine tend to be better educated and provide needed billions to Maine’s GDP. If you look at places like Portland, we could really be a national model in positive integration. It’s really about adding more chairs to the table. At the same time, we have to acknowledge Maine’s very own dark history.
Your personal experience must lend you a unique perspective on the issue.
Maine hasn’t always been accepting. It’s evolved. Look back at the 1920s, when Jewish visitors were denied accommodations at hotels and resorts. Look at the treatment of Catholics, the Irish, the Italians, the French Canadians. A Roman Catholic church was burned down in Bath (in 1854), which not a lot of Mainers remember. Now we have the same dynamic regarding, say, Somali immigrants in Lewiston, Iraqis in Biddeford. As students of history, we see the same patterns repeat, the same calls to tribalism and nativism from politicians who seek to dehumanize immigrants.
The program’s films (starting with the documentaries “New York: A Documentary Film – Episode 4, The Power and the People” and “The Jewish Americans – Episode 2, A World of Their Own” on Sept. 11) seek to counter that message. What do you see your role as co-moderator of Becoming American?
Art and, in particular, cinema rehumanizes a population that are invisible to us. It tames the savage inside of us. Sharing love, celebrating together, laughing together. It forces us to say, “Wow, they’re just like me.” You can’t possibly see the other person as the enemy. Even if one or two persons walk away having had a change of mind, deciding for themselves that they like this community, that they don’t see them as a threat. If the films bring people together to talk to one another, to get to know their new neighbors as they did their old neighbors, that would be enough for me. We all have to remain hopeful. Perhaps I am just too naïve. (Laughs.)
The all-inclusive, ambitiously entertaining program, Becoming American, runs from September through November. For details of the films, art shows, speakers, theater productions, and lots more, check out the schedule at Museum L-A’s website, museumla.org/becoming-american.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS:
Friday-Sunday: “I Am Not a Witch.” The striking new film from Zambian director Rungano Nyoni follows a young girl whose mysterious appearance in a small village spirals out of control in a storm of superstition and prejudice.
GREAT OSSIPEE MUSEUM
20 Historical Ridge, Hiram
Saturday: Archival Maine films screening. After receiving a grant from the Maine State Archives, the Hiram Historical Society has transferred its collection of historical Maine films from fragile VHS to DVD. This free screening of a selection of films from the 1930s to the 1990s promises a rare look back at Maine’s history. Call (207) 625-4762 for details.