Professor Wolfenzon Examines Maine's Little-Known Hispanic Culture

By Rebecca Goldfine
Carolyn Wolfenzon recently made a short documentary about Maine's migrant community, revealing a workforce that, while critical to the state economy, is often invisible. She also sheds light on an opportunity for Bowdoin's Spanish-speaking students.
One of the short videos Carolyn Wolfenzon has produced for La Factoría, a media company based in Peru.

Before she was an associate professor of Romance languages and literatures, Wolfenzon was a reporter, working for Peru's oldest newspaper, El Comercio. Today, she is a tenured professor at Bowdoin and a published scholar of Hispanic literature. But she still maintains ties to her old beat and former profession.

In the past few months, Wolfenzon has been making short video features for a new Peruvian media company called La Factoría. She mainly covers Latin American art, history, and culture.

But she recently trained her eye on her adopted state of Maine, focusing on the largely Hispanic laborers who make up the backbone of some of the state's most important industries: wild blueberries, cranberries, and Christmas wreaths.

In August—which is wild blueberry season in Washington County—Wolfenzon traveled "down east" to Maine's easternmost outpost of fog-enshrouded craggy coast, spruce trees, and blueberry barrens. 

"I didn't speak English the whole time I was there," she said. She vowed that she would encourage more of her students to connect with this community.

"Students complain to me all the time that it is so hard to practice Spanish because there are so few Spanish speakers in Maine," she said. "I have to laugh because there are a thousand migrants here every year."

In the town of Milbridge, which is a hub for seasonal blueberry workers in Maine, Wolfenzon interviewed migrants who each year leave their homes in Mexico and Central America to harvest fruits and vegetables in the United States. Many of them have a visa to work with a specific company, such as Wyman's Blueberries in Maine, and they focus on a specific crop.

But there are others who travel the country throughout the year, following the harvest calendar. This is a challenging way of life, as they and their families must constantly uproot themselves and adjust to new schools and communities.

In her documentary, Wolfenzon points out: "We used to see the immigrant as someone who leaves his country and establishes himself in another one. But what happens when that place is not one place but a series of different places? The nomadic immigrants are teaching us the processes behind our delicious blueberries and, thanks to them, the food on our table."

In addition, she connected with Juana Rodriguez, the director of Mano en Mano, a nonprofit in Milbridge that supports workers and their families. The organization, which for years was run by Ian Yaffe ’09, offers a school for children and helps protect workers' rights. Another local organization, Maine Mobile Health Program, offers these nomadic workers health care.

Wolfenzon said that these organizations—and others in Maine that support migrant workers—are eager to contract with Spanish speakers. Teachers are needed in Mano en Mano's classrooms, and translators are needed for the clinic. Volunteers are needed to help distribute clothes, food—and now COVID-19 vaccines—to the workers when they first arrive in Maine.

Anna Martens ’20 worked with Maine Mobile Health Clinic this summer (see the callout box). Her only regret is she didn't know about the organization earlier, she said.

Community service and language practice

anna-martens.jpgWhen Anna Martens ’20 heard that the Maine Mobile Health Program was seeking workers who could speak either Spanish or Haitian Creole, she reached out and was onboarded quickly. She has the uncommon skill of being fluent in both languages. (She's also interested in public health and is planning to go to medical school.)

This summer, she volunteered two days a week with the clinic, driving up from her apartment in Portland, Maine, to do registration and intake for some of the thousands of workers who arrive in the state every August to harvest wild blueberries.

"It is a great opportunity to welcome these people to Maine," she said. "They deserve that. They’re working really hard, and it is a special thing to be part of, and if a Bowdoin student has fluency in another language, they can help ease their transition and communication as well."

She also said it opened her eyes to another side of Maine. "I really didn’t know there were large seasonal workforces here," she continued. "I never knew there were people who spoke Creole in Maine. It is a population and a workforce that is not talked about enough for the good they do."

Over the years, other Bowdoin students have interned with one or both of these organizations. At least two have secured grants, called funded internships, from Bowdoin's Career Exploration and Development office to intern for the nonprofits over the summer. 

"They are all desperate for bilingual people," Wolfenzon said of these nonprofits. The take-away, she added, "is if you learn Spanish, you can get a job in any field, even in Maine."