Mano en Mano, which incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005, got its start as a community-led organization in the mid-1990s. Back then, some of the migrant farmers from Mexico and Central America who traveled to Maine every summer to work in the blueberry fields began to stay year round. Ian Yaffe ’09, who’s been Mano en Mano’s executive director for two years, said at that time two other seasonal industries, wreath making and fish processing, opened up to these workers.
While year-round employment was a significant factor in the migrant workers’ decision to settle in Washington County, Yaffe said they were also attracted to the place. “The other more important thing was people were drawn to the quality of place, the safety of the town and the quality of schools,” he said. “Many of them grew up in small towns in Mexico, and it was appealing for them to live in a small town again.”
Yaffe says that while he doesn’t want to downplay racial issues between the relative newcomers and longtime Mainers, the community “went above and beyond to welcome these folks. The reason Mano en Mano started was because of the community. It didn’t get started by a foundation or an idealistic individual.”
The community has accepted the Latino population in part because it recognizes it needs more people, especially young people. “In a town of 1,200, an extra 100 or 200 people who live there year round goes a long way,” Yaffe said. “They have a huge economic impact on the community, not only in these various jobs, but in the capital of wealth they earn and spend back into the community.”
Plus, some have launched small businesses, including a Mexican restaurant, auto repair shop, beauty salon, cleaning outfit and painting business, Yaffe said. “It’s not so visible because a lot of the business development is supporting the community of Latinos, but there is some significant non-Latino folks coming in. For instance, people drove pretty far to get that Mexican food.”