Inside Little Haiti

From an island in the sea to an island in the heart of Miami

There are no truckloads of soldiers. The staggering poverty isn't here A the ubiquitous beggars and desperation beneath a backdrop of denuded mountains A nor must anyone live with kä sote (the Creole expression for a pervasive climate of fear). Nevertheless, Little Haiti is a strikingly faithful clone of Big Haiti, especially the commercial strips and working-class neighborhoods of the island's cities, a concrete and clapboard canvas of Third World impressions, tropical and benign. There are not tap-taps A Haiti's colorful public transport trucks A but there are plenty of jitneys, stopping in the middle of traffic along NE Second Avenue to let passengers on and off. An old woman higgler, in a gingham house dress and straw hat, sells roasted peanuts from a shopping cart in front of the Haitian Refugee Center on 54th Street. The surrounding storefronts are one-stop emporiums of the global village. Next door the Haitian Art Gallery also offers an income tax service. Down the block, the Macaya Boumba Botanica advertises for sale Religious Articles, Oil, Encense All Kinds, Perfums, Statuettes, and Variety Items. Customers are warmly greeted, especially Anglos, who in Little Haiti are objects of curiosity, not racial tension.

On residential streets you can smell pumpkin soup cooking, pork roasting; hear the crow of roosters, Baptist hymns filtering out from inside living-room churches, the snarl of guard dogs and the pulse of compas music. Clusters of men play dominoes in the shade of palm and ficus trees. There are always people milling around; much of life here is outside and communal. Yards are alternately overtended or overgrown. Empty lots collect trash. There's an excess of junked cars, cannibalized for parts. Unfortunately, Little Haiti never more resembled its original version, 720 miles to the southeast, than during the first weeks after Hurricane Andrew, when curbs were banked head high with garbage and the electricity and phones were out.

The architectural centerpiece of the community is the brightly painted, gingerbread-and-lattice Mache Ayisyen, modeled after Port-au-Prince's Iron Market. Opened to citywide acclaim in the spring of 1990, the metal-roofed marketplace was designed to anchor an ambitious entrepreneurial vision: reproduce the economic successes of Little Havana and reinvent the enclave as a cultural attraction, like San Francisco's Chinatown, luring tourists to Second Avenue to buy Haitian art and crafts and dine on French-Creole cuisine. But unlike previous years when I had visited the Haitian Market, when I stopped by in January it was little more than an exotic shell, a lone cashier dozing in her chair, a victim of the trade embargo, accusations of mismanagement, and perhaps an overly optimistic faith in a tourist's willingness to venture into an inner-city neighborhood, regardless of that neighborhood's hospitality.

Walking the streets of Little Haiti, talking to its residents and leaders, eating in its restaurants and shopping in its stores, it became apparent to me that, in contrast to Little Havana, where over time the symbiosis between Cuban exiles and the City of Miami has so entwined two cultures A manufacturing a third, distinct, bilingual entity that reflects neither modern Cuban nor mainstream America A the immigrant enclave of Little Haiti, twenty years after the first boat of refugees arrived, continues to exist as an island within the urban demography of Miami's many ethnic groups, with marginal influence upon the metropolis reciprocated by marginal interest in its quotidian affairs. Despite the current twenty-month-long refugee crisis A a political conundrum and media magnet producing a stream of urgent rhetoric and negative images A our knowledge of the Haitians already living among us here in South Florida remains peculiarly myopic, barely penetrating the surface of the community's daily life in its ever-expanding 200-block rectangle north of downtown Miami.

Part of that myopia is, of course, racial and ethnic, the Haitians constituting what FIU anthropologist Alex Stepick calls a triple minority: they're black, they're foreign, they don't speak English. Just as significantly, perhaps, the debate about Haitian immigration has been largely carried out in abstract terms and even abstract venues: the courtroom, the open sea, a naval base in Cuba. For whatever reasons Americans perceive Haitian refugees as a threat, I was hard pressed to find any citizen who had been personally disadvantaged by Haitians in any way. No one I could locate had lost his home, job, health, or security because of a Haitian refugee. On the other hand, the Haitians themselves have often strived to cultivate a frictionless invisibility A the posture of legitimate exiles, suspended between nations, waiting to return home. Finally, as communities go, Little Haiti, once a generic blue-collar neighborhood for whites, has only now begun to advance beyond its adolescence, to sharpen the focus on its own potential and assert itself as a player, however modestly, in the forces that are shaping this nation of immigrants in the post-Cold War world.

Several parallel veins of leadership account for the community's affairs. The one with the boldest profile circulates through the Haitian Refugee Center, its director Rolande Dorancy, and other activist organizations that concentrate on politically volatile refugee issues. But in a poor environment, Alex Stepick suggested to me, leadership more frequently emanates from whomever can find you a job, a place to live, help you keep in contact with relatives back home A the mundane concerns of survival, much less visible than other issues. Since Haitians are devout churchgoers, in Little Haiti the leadership most attuned to the rhythms of normalcy is provided primarily by the Catholic Church, which makes Father Tom Wenski, for twelve years the pastor of Notre Dame d'Haiti, one of the very few Americans intimately participating in the Haitian experience in Florida, and a de facto spokesman for the enclave.

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