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What does it really mean to be a Mainer?

April 26, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Dalia Tabachnik

On Maine’s southern border with New Hampshire, a large blue sign stands at the north end of the Piscataqua River Bridge. “Welcome to Maine—the way life should be,” it reads. For decades, motorists have passed this landmark on their way north, and it’s become an iconic part of the state’s brand. In recent years, it has even been supplemented with other slogans—Governor Paul LePage’s tenure gave us the disclaimer “open for business,” and Governor Janet Mills has installed a second sign reading “welcome home.” No matter which one you prefer, the message is clear: Maine is a good place to be.

This is a remarkably effective advertising strategy, as evidenced by the millions of tourists and newcomers that visit our state every year. But has it been too effective? In recent years, Maine has become a hot new living destination for wealthy urbanites searching for the way life should be. Many of these people have priced native Mainers out of formerly working-class neighborhoods of Portland, installed no trespassing signs on once-communal beachfront property, and disrupted traditional ways of life. And at the end of it all, many will proudly and unironically tell you that they are “Mainers.”

I find it hard to take people from away seriously when they say this. I’ve heard well-heeled flatlanders at Bowdoin claim to be “Mainers,” and whether they mean it lightheartedly or seriously, it never fails to annoy me. Like many other residents of the Pine Tree State, I feel a very strong connection to this place, a bond which comes from experience with the land and local culture. You can’t just buy this sort of connection, nor can you simply award it to yourself.

Maine’s history and culture are built on deep ties to the land and the communities that emerged on it. Life in such an unforgiving place has produced intricate networks of social ties among Maine’s residents, whether among lobstermen on the coast or farmers in the interior. Many families in this state haven’t strayed much from their roots, and in some cases generations of Mainers have lived in the same town and even the same house as their ancestors, interacting and cooperating with generations of other families. Places everywhere from Harpswell to Houlton are grounded in this sort of system, which has developed over decades of shared experience.

Connection to place and community aren’t exclusive to old-stock Mainers, however. Look around our state, and you’ll meet as many long-term residents and descendants of earlier summer visitors as you will people whose families have been here for centuries. You’ll also find a vibrant community of immigrants and refugees, especially in Portland and Lewiston. Though these people have come from different places, many have adapted to Maine culture, and some have even drawn on their own culture to connect with their new neighbors. In Lewiston, for example, francophone immigrants from Africa have befriended older Franco-Americans and helped to revitalize French-language church services.

From the descendants of early settlers to more recent immigrants, most Mainers are fundamentally rooted in their communities. In contrast, many wealthier, newer residents often do not develop similar attachments—many are not around long enough in the year to truly be a part of the towns they inhabit, and they rarely abandon their old urban sensibilities when present. This cultural indifference, along with the historical imbalance between “locals” and rich visitors, is precisely what makes their adoption of the term “Mainer” so ridiculous.

The word, after all, is much more than a trendy label—it’s the marker of a complex identity which goes back centuries. From our little-known history to our love-hate relationship with tourists, from our love for skiing to our funny (or not so funny) accents, Mainers are a vibrant, three-dimensional people who are so much more than what we often project to the outside world. Being a Mainer, then, does not just designate residency. It denotes a state of mind, a shared experience which can only be understood through meaningful engagement with culture and community.

As the signs on the border in Kittery announce, all are welcome to Maine. We are happy to share the way life should be with others, but only if those who lay claim to it are truly willing to participate in the ideals that it promises.

Then—and only then—might they truly call themselves Mainers.

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3 comments:

  1. Class of 2016 says:

    While I agree to a point with the sentiment expressed here, I hope the author and other native Mainers do not follow neighbor state New Hampshire’s foolish actions in trying to limit being a “Mainer” so much that they try and illegally deprive college students from out of state choosing to vote in Maine. Everyone moving to a new place or environment should take upon themselves to be engrossed in the already existing local culture and not try to impose their pre-existing preferences on the already present locals.

    • Lowell Ruck says:

      I agree. Anyone who lives in Maine should be allowed to vote here, period. My complaint is not with people moving in, but rather with people who don’t live here full time applying the term “Mainer” as a desirable label rather than a marker of membership in the community. I don’t espouse the sort of politics of exclusion that you mentioned, as I believe that measures like these tend toward nativism and even racism. I would simply like people to consider the cultural meaning of the term before they adopt it for themselves.

      Lowell

  2. Not a Mainer says:

    How is a student living temporarily in Maine any different than someone staying at a motel on a work assignment for the BIW as it concerns voting in the State?

    Why should a visitor have anything to say about how the Maine government spends money, and the programs they spend it on, when they will most likely not be around in the future to live with those decisions?

    …and Lowell throws out the “racism” charge because…well, just because it is necessary in his world to slander anyone who may disagree with him and the most thoughtless slander is to call someone else a racist…in spite of the fact that he has absolutely no idea what is in their minds or hearts.

    The idea is that ALL temporary residents should not be allowed to vote in the State, not just Black temporary residents, not just Chinese temporary residents…all temporary residents no matter their race or ethnic status.

    I bet that the “temporary resident” student body of the college is predominately White.

    There is polling that indicates that a slim majority of collect students in the USA are now in favor of Socialism…and we should expand their voting rights?

    Best


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