Oct. 22--MILBRIDGE, Maine -- Habla usted espanol?
For most Milbridge residents -- and most residents of Washington County -- the answer to that question, "Do you speak Spanish?," would be "No."
Maine is America's "whitest state," in terms of having the least ethnic diversity of any state. And Washington County is among the least diverse of Maine's 16 counties, with more than 92 percent of residents being Caucasian and most minorities being Native Americans. Nonetheless, there's a growing Hispanic population in Milbridge and other Washington County communities, as families that were once in the migrant worker stream continue to put down year-round roots Down East.
"We recently did a needs assessment, and we found that during the dead of winter there were 85 [Hispanic] families that included 285 individuals living in this region year-round, the majority in Milbridge," said Ian Yaffe, executive director of the Milbridge-based Mano en Mano, "hand in hand," organization.
Mano en Mano has spent the last 20 years advocating for the Hispanic community in Milbridge and beyond. The nonprofit's current staff of eight works to help Down East's growing number of Hispanic residents become more connected with the Anglo communities in which they live, offering English language classes as well as Spanish language classes as one means of integrating the two cultures.
"While there are plenty of individuals who may have issues with the immigrant community getting settled here, generally the communities we work with have been welcoming beyond what we would expect," Yaffe said. "And a lot of people are neutral about it. We're trying to work on community integration, not in terms of being seen as a place that helps Latinos, but as a community learning center that helps all of Milbridge. We have events that, in effect, have [Spanish] subtitles and others that have English subtitles. It's just about helping families succeed."
The potential for success of six such families is grounded in their homes within the Hand in Hand Apartments located in Milbridge at 173 Wyman Road. Built at an under-budget cost of $1.3 million with the help of a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the once-controversial public-assisted housing project opened in July 2011. It includes three-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments -- three of each. Three of the families now living there are Hispanic. Two are of mixed race. One family is white. All six families have children.
"The controversy that happened was a misunderstanding and an unfortunate episode," Yaffe says in hindsight. "It was based on confusion about who is eligible to live there, concern about what would happen to property taxes, and confusion about what kind of zoning regulations were involved. We've since seen the building do exactly what it was supposed to do, which is meeting the immediate need of providing affordable housing for six families that include agricultural workers. One is a blueberry raker, and another is a [lobster boat] sternman. The others are doing a variety of jobs in the seafood processing area."
Residents of Hand in Hand Apartments pay rent equal to 30 percent of family income and pay for their electricity usage. Mano en Mano and USDA subsidies cover other costs of maintaining the complex under a contract with Cherryfield-based Fickett Property Management.
"By saving money on housing, these families can make investments in education and cover costs related to their work," Yaffe said.
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