Inside Little Haiti

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

"We can build the space shuttle if we have to," said Bob Tyler, a black American and one of the company's vice presidents, who had joined us, beaming with confidence, in Thermilus's office. The vitality of the racial and ethnic mix at businesses like Urban Constructors is one of the reasons why Stepick characterizes Miami as "the multicultural crest of the wave of the American future."

Part of the discourse of being an American is trading stories about how your families got here. Thermilus, Tyler, and I engaged in such a conversation. Listening to Thermilus's Southern drawl and idiomatic speech, anyone would presume he was a native-born black American. But of course he isn't. As citizens and as Americans, both Thermilus and I had to bow to Bob Tyler's seniority over us, since his roots in the United States were by no means as shallow as ours.

"So should I bring the flag with me when I leave, huh?" Tyler joked. The three of us laughed, but our light-heartedness glossed over Miami's history of racism, and underscored the ethnic tension and mistrust that these two men A a Haitian-American and a black American A had victoriously overcome.

Throughout the Seventies and the Eighties, a war of stereotypes had been fiercely waged between the two communities. It didn't help that the media played the role of agitator, stoking the fires, as when they reported that the Centers for Disease Control had identified Haitians, together with homosexuals, intravenous drug abusers, and hemophiliacs, as a prime at-risk group for AIDS. The CDC's inclusion of Haitians was wrong and subsequently withdrawn, but by then the damage was done, and the stigma was indelible. Haiti has many proverbs that cut to the bone of complex behavior; one of those proverbs is Ever since Africa, blacks hate blacks. However you interpret the saying (Wenski saw it as a metaphor for original sin), and however much you think Europeans would be well advised to come up with a similar epigram to fit their own ethnocentric experience, the fact is that black Americans and Haitian immigrants in Miami have been slow to acknowledge the struggle they shared, and quick to denigrate their differences.

When Roger Biamby first came to Miami, he was outraged, he told me, by the derogatory statements made about Haitians by the black and Cuban communities. "I told them," he said angrily, "'If you think by bashing us you will advance yourselves socially and financially in any way, you're in for a big surprise.'" Black Americans were susceptible to the proposition that Haitians had come to steal their jobs; they strongly resented the inference of the Haitians' reputation among Anglos for industriousness. The language barrier was symptomatic, rather than genuinely causal, of each group's reluctance to fraternize with one another. There was a semantic conflict when Haitians claimed they weren't black, they were Haitian, a distinction that baffled and infuriated black Americans. Black Americans thought Haitians smelled; Haitians believed African-American women were not conscientious about hygiene. Haitians considered their counterparts fashion slaves, prone to ostentatious jewelry; black Americans snubbed Haitians for dressing like hicks. The individualism of black Americans irked Haitians, who accused blacks of not caring about their families. ("If you see a black man walking down the street, holding a child's hand, you know he's Haitian," an Anglo friend in Miami once told me.) Haitians thought black American children were too undisciplined, especially in the schools, and though that feeling still prevails, the volume of ethnocentric rhetoric has begun to fade, as it had in previous waves of immigrants A the Poles, the Irish, the Dutch, the Italians A in other cities, in other times.

"The best thing that ever happened to me is we moved to Miami," said Thermilus, expressing an unabashed love for his adopted city. "People just don't believe how good it is here. The county, the school board, the City of Miami A they try to make an effort to help all ethnic groups. It's getting more like people care. A couple of years ago it used to be blacks hating Hispanics, Hispanics hating blacks, blacks hating Haitians. It used to be more of a black, Hispanic, or white thing. Now it's more like, What is the right thing? Going into the Nineties, I see a trend: people don't mind that you're from a different culture, okay? It's how you treat them."

For most Haitians in Miami, however, acceptance is fragile, highly vulnerable to geopolitics and local politics, and Thermilus emphasized that his appreciation for his circumstances was not to be taken for self-deception. With fifteen other businessmen he had formed the Haitian Foundation, a political action committee that had made a substantial contribution to Carrie Meek's successful congressional campaign. I watched Thermilus's expression harden as we discussed the media's hyperventilating coverage of the imminent invasion of refugees that would be triggered by Clinton's inauguration.

"You know something," he said, gritting his teeth, "I don't really think it would be a problem for the State of Florida, if you want to know the truth. Give Haitians the opportunity and they will work all the time, and I think it's sad that people say because they come over here, they bring the economy down. We have Americans here who don't like to work. I give them jobs every day, so, I mean, that's a bunch of garbage. Americans should put themselves into the refugees' shoes. When people look back twenty years from now, we're going to say, 'You know, it was really unfair not to let them come in. What was the big deal?'"

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