Salut mes soeurs et freres:
MY NAME IS RAYMOND LUC LEVASSEUR. Luc is my peperes name, which I carry with Franco pride. I come from a long line of mill workers, and grew up in the overbearing shadow of textile mills and shoe factories of Southwestern Maine. My father was born in the Quebec nation. We called ourselves French Canadian, or simply French, and that's what others called us. Our detractors held a different perspective and referred to us as "frogs" or "maudive (godamn) canucks." Those were fighting words then, and they are now.
IT'S ALWAYS FELT natural for me to refer to myself as French Canadian. To think of myself this way. What it means to me is that my blood is Quebecois. We didn't use the term Franco- American when I was coming up. Between the time I left Maine in 1964 and my return in later years, "Franco-American" became widely used. I've always associated Franco-American with France or canned spaghetti. I don't say this disparagingly, but simply as a comment of how I was taught to see things. I realize that the hyphenated American signifies assimilation into the American landscape, if not the American dream. While I do not deny the reality of assimilation, neither will I deny the moral bankruptcy and nightmare that America is for many of us. Personally and politically I draw the line at complete assimilation into the worst aspects of 100 percent Americanism. Apparently the government concurs, as it holds me in an isolation cell in the infamous control unit prison at Marion, Illinois.
MY GRANDPARENTS WENT to work in the textile mills at 13 and 14 years. My mother and father went into those mills at 16. My turn came at 17, when I misrepresented my age to a mill boss in order to work on a machine making shoe heels. From the earliest years I'd watched my family and predominantly French Canadian neighbors enter and leave the mills. Now I followed them into an exceedingly unpleasant experience. Perhaps you've had such an experience and don't have to rely on the imagination to conjure up the sweat of oppression. At the time my immediate co-workers were mostly French-Canadian. While I had gone farther in school then the others, none on the shop floor had a good education.
... My grandparents went to work in the textile mills at 13 and 14 years...
WE WORKED in the shell of the old Goodall mills - a miserable runaway shop that fled South, destroying unions in its wake. We had no union protection and it showed. The pay was low, the work demanding, and the conditions hazardous. Speed up was used to maximize exploitation. To resist the debilitating effects of this speed up my French Canadian brethren introduced me to the proverbial shoe- le sabot - with which we jammed the machines. It was my first act of sabotage, but a long way from my last. Our immediate objective was to draw the line at how many shoe heels we'd have to produce per hour, beyond which the task became increasingly exhaustive and dangerous. We had our dignity, and in this small way, sought to dispel the power that the mills held over us- mills that we commonly believed were owned by wealthy Anglos from out of state.
A FUTURE IN the mills became all the more frightening when a Franco school friend, working in a mill across from mine, got his arm caught in a machine that choked him to death. He'd quit school to earn a living and was rewarded with an early death.
A MACHINE CAN kill in the blink of an eye, but mill work can take decades to ravage a body and soul. My pepere worked in textile mills as long as I could remember. He was a man who took pride in carrying a lunch pail and bringing home a pay check. This was a man who used to bounce me on his knee, and for whom I had the greatest respect. When the mill where he worked closed and moved south, he was discarded like an old pair of shoes. A worker to the depth of his soul, he was without a job. It wasn't long before his health began to noticeably deteriorate. He had difficulty with his balance, his hands became unsteady and his breathing labored, One day he fell in the chicken coop and I went to help him. He no longer had the strength and steadiness to get himself up. I picked him up from where he'd fallen in dirt and excrement. In my arms he felt as light as a child. My memere and I cleaned him up and rolled him a Bull Durham. "Things will get better" we said, as I disguised my hatred for those mills that demanded so much from our lives.
... but how was I to strike back at the mills and factories that exploited us...
THERE WAS NO improvement. My pepere was a World War I veteran, so we took him to Togus. After the VA warehoused him in a corner, he begged to come home, so we brought him back to die. Within a year my memere was living with my mother because she could no longer afford to live alone.
BEING OF FRENCH CANADIAN blood and working class has impacted on my view of the American political/economic system and society. I was told to strike back at those who made ethnic slurs about us, and I did. Still, I heard the insulting remarks about us as being stupid, lazy and papist dominated. But how was I to strike back at the mills and factories that exploited us - besides breaking the windows of their abandoned buildings as we did as kids?
TO ME, THE French and class identity were inseparable. At 17 years of age I felt those who didn't fall into this category were the lucky ones- the exceptions. I wasn't one of the exceptions. I had to work to eat and the only work was in a dead end job in a non- union mill. At age 17, with limited options, I left Maine and followed Route 95 to Boston where I found work on the waterfront loading docks.
later joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War...
AT VARIOUS TIMES I've tried to change or conceal my French identity. When I was younger I Anglicized my middle and last names. I sidestepped the French language as if it were a trap. I left the Catholic church. I sought Protestant girlfriends. I toyed with the illusion of someday crossing over to that fabulously free, white and 21 middle-class, devoid of ethnic identity and lowly wages. The assimilationist's dream.
I'VE WORKED AS a wage laborer throughout my life - factories, farm work, logger, construction, tannery worker and other stints of endurance. The remnants of the French language I retain from my youth includes "travail" as one of the most often used words. Work was central to the material and spiritual well being of my extended family, and nowhere have I seen as strong a work ethic as amongst French Canadians. An old worker once told me that it takes as much courage to carry a lunch pail to a sweat shop every day to feed your kids, as it does to shoulder a weapon. There's a strong current of truth in this little parable. I know I've done both. When I wasn't working for some big bossman, I was working for the people. By this, I mean I did community work with various political organizations, and I spent 10 years underground banging away at the worst manifestations of U.S. imperialism.
... and I spent 10 years underground banging away at the worst manifestations of U.S. imperialism...
THE ROOTS OF my political vision and militancy extend deep into life as a French Canadian worker. However, it was a tour of duty in Vietnam which led me from the provincial to the radical. In Vietnam, 1967, I saw intense racism directed towards the Vietnamese people, which recalled my own experience with anti- Franco bigots and the white supremacy I'd encountered in Boston and throughout the military. As I saw the culture and poverty of the Vietnamese ridiculed, I recalled the intolerant WASP's of my youth. I saw the exploitation of their labor and the desecration of their lives. And charged with carrying out a frightening level of violence, were the poor and working class soldiers disproportionately Black, Latino, and some of French Canadian backgrounds.
I LATER JOINED Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When I returned stateside I took my new consciousness and became politically active in Tennessee. I quickly became involved in opposition to the war, civil rights and a strike by black and white packinghouse workers. My political activism was a prelude to prison, which is where I found myself a year after honorable discharge from the army.
MY CONSCIOUSNESS NOR commitment remained at a standstill. In 1970 1 met Sacco and Vanzetti. They appeared to me through the pages of a book I was reading on the labor movement in the sweltering heat of a southern prison cell. I vividly remember reading Vanzetti's last statement to the court before he was sentenced to execution for the crime of being an immigrant radical:
"if it had not been for these thing I might have lived out my life talking at corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words, our lives, our pains -- nothing! The taking of our lives -- lives of a good shoemaker and poor fish peddler -- all! That last moment belongs to us-that agony is our triumph."
Human rights found a warm reception in my cell...
HERE WAS THE faltering English I'd heard spoken in and around the mills now presented in an impassioned and principled defense of immigrant workers. The lives of a "good shoemaker and poor fish peddler": I saw increased clarity the laboring class of which I am a part. I had worked in a mill making shoe heels. I had been a farm worker and worked on the Boston Fish Pier. I'd felt the ethnic prejudice against our people - the French Canadians. Then there was my imprisonment, so soon after Vietnam, and related to my political activism. I found a kindred spirit in those who sacrificed before us and with us.
IT WAS IN prison that I studied the great political theorists and revolutions. Human rights found a warm reception in my cell as did ideologies based on revolutionary nationalism and socialism. The life and thought of Malcolm X was shared with me by his descendants who occupied the same cell block. I was encouraged by the activities of the Black Panther Party and ecstatic with the resurgence of the Front de Liberation du Quebec. When I defied the prison's Jim Crow segregation, I did so with the conviction that as the only French Canadian prisoner there, I would not side with white supremacy against our black brothers.
WHEN I RETURNED to Maine in 1971, it was to various jobs making concrete blocks, hammering 2x4's, bolting steel, and sweeping floors. I also attended the University of Maine, was drug crisis coordinator at Augusta's Rap & Rescue, and worked with organizations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Scar. Again I was among the dispossessed and least respected.
... never should we resort to racism to persevere...
WHEN I REFER to being underground, I refer to a period of activity from late 1974 to late 1984 when I took my political work away from the eyes and ears of the government. During those years I joined efforts with others in attempting to build a revolutionary resistance movement. We sought to bring to the attention of the American people the horrendous crimes being committed by their own government and transnational corporations. We targeted the worst criminals because they are the ones who hurt the most people. After my capture I was convicted of bombing U.S. military facilities, offices of the South African government, and corporations doing business with apartheid. Now I am one of over one hundred political prisoners held in the U.S. gulag.
I WHOLEHEARTEDLY SUPPORT the effort of those who nourish and preserve the French Canadian culture and heritage, including our language. There are obstacles to be sure. In my current situation, the authorities have prohibited me from receiving French language publications such as Le FAROG Forum and Rebelles.
NEVER SHOULD WE resort to racism to persevere. It is with anger and sadness I note Quebec's use of the Surete du Quebec to attack the indigenous Mohawk people who are defending their land against encroachment by non-native land developers.
... assimilation must not translate to complicity and collaboration...
A SERIOUS CHALLENGE faced by Franco-Americans is the level of assimilation we pursue. Too many are seduced by America's materialism along with its racist and class arrogance. It is rotten fruit. It's clear from the recent uprisings in Los Angeles and other cities that all is not well in Babylon. America has constituted itself into a criminal enterprise. The magnitude of the crimes is staggering. The U.S. was built on the theft of Indian lands and decimation of Indian people. Mexican land was stolen. African sweat and blood constructed a substantial portion of this country. America's invasion of Vietnam was an attempt to suppress that nations right to independence. And what horrible atrocities the U.S. has committed against the peoples of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Southern Africa, the Philippines and so many others. It's a bloody legacy that cannot be denied by an arrogant 500 years commemoration of Columbus and colonization. Franco-American's should actively involve themselves in the opposition movement to this celebration. Assimilation carries with it a responsibility of bringing America to task for its worst abuses. Assimilation must not translate to complicity and collaboration.
I WAS ASKED to provide testimony as to what being Franco-American means
to me, and why from this perspective I became a militant. It began with
simple French songs sung by my mother and memere, and burnished by the
anti-French slurs of bigots. I'm proud of my blood and pained with an anger
that has not subsided. My accumulated life experiences have left me hungry
for something better. I yearn for my freedom and a future where every child
can live to their full potential without the scourges of poverty, racism
and war. I have chosen to fight for that future.
Marion Prison, May, 1992
Ray Luc Levasseur, 10376-016, PO Box 150160, USP Atlanta, Atlanta, GA 30315