Inside Little Haiti

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

As for himself, Thermilus had no illusions about the status he had achieved in his chosen world. "After you obtain money and power, it changes everything," he observed with a hint of melancholy. "You become a normal human being."

Up NE Second Avenue, the bold script on the side of a pink building could be read as Jacques Despinosse's vita:

Haitian American Citizenship and Voter Education Project Inc.
Haitian American Public Relations
A Immigration Services
A Citizenship Drive
A Citizenship Class
A Voter's Registration

Across from North Miami's city hall on NE 125th Street, Despinosse leased a second office, where he presided over the Haitian American Democratic Club. Like any venue around the nation where Democrats gathered back in January, anticipating Clinton's administration, the atmosphere at HADC was upbeat, yet duly sobered by the refugee crisis. Driving to a HADC meeting, I listened to the news on a local radio station as an announcer warned, in meteorological jargon made popular by Hurricane Andrew, "An immigration storm is brewing A Force 4, Force 5," and HADC was maneuvering to ensure that its own voice would be heard in the political and moral debate brewing over Haitian issues within the Clinton White House.

In the HADC meeting hall, there was a large conference table and a speaker's lectern (and a television mounted from the ceiling, usually tuned to CNN and local newscasts). Seated around the table were the members of the board (or their delegates) and a handful of politicians keenly interested in supporting the Krome hunger strikers' cause: an Anglo dentist; four county commission candidates (Jim Burke, Darryl Reaves, Henry Crespo, and Peter Gonzalez); a woman representing the Greater Miami Jewish Federation; a pair of West Indians; the Rev. Willie Sims, a Baptist minister and activist in Overtown and Liberty City; and the Haitian officers and various members of the club. Backdropped by an American flag, Despinosse stood behind the lectern in his tailored blue suit. Three pins adorned his lapels: Clinton-Gore, the Stars and Stripes, the flag of Haiti. He offered emotional thanks for the support of the Jewish community, "who knows what we are talking about here."

"Our community should not be divided by this issue," commission candidate Gonzalez declared, ostensibly speaking for Miami's Cubans.

"We are sick and tired in looking like the African-American community and the Haitian community is separate," said the Reverend Sims.

The point of all HADC functions, more than anything, was solidarity, the creation of a common front that breached ethnic and racial lines throughout South Florida. And that solidarity, energized by votes, translated into the greatest single ingredient missing from the Haitian equation A clout. What they were really all doing together was voting, for the first time putting their own candidates in place on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, although registering Haitians had not been so easy for several reasons, one of them being no one was entirely sure who exactly was a Haitian, or how many of them were around. About half of the estimated one million Haitians living in the United States can be found in New York; probably one-quarter are in Florida, with the other quarter seeded from coast to coast: a cab driver in Boston, a policeman in Houston, a nurse in San Francisco, an academic in Missouri, a Navy communications expert in Puerto Rico. FIU's Alex Stepick estimated there may be slightly more than 95,000 Haitians in Dade and Broward counties combined. Father Wenski, on the other hand, speculated that about 100,000 Haitians lived in Little Haiti alone. Place of birth further complicated the problem, as children born in the United States weren't registered as Haitians but as black Americans, and children born in, say, the Bahamas, were registered as West Indian Americans, et cetera.

Despinosse addressed another side of the dilemma in a conversation I had with him a few days before the HADC meeting. "I say to Haitians here," he told me, "in this country there's two factors: money, vote. When you talk to a politician, the first thing they want to know is, 'How many Haitian voters do you have?' Money and vote.

"I tell the Haitian, we have to understand this country. I understand it, but I've got to have players to play with me, okay? Some Haitians, though, they still get so upset. We see the Irish, the Polish, the Italians, the Jewish, everybody using the system. But what's going against us: many Haitians think they're still in Haiti. They want to survive here with the Haitian agenda, which is not possible. If many of them don't want to become citizens, that's their loss. Many of them think they will go back to Haiti, but becoming a citizen doesn't stop you from going back A that's your first mistake, okay? So I tell the Haitian people, 'Listen now, you don't have to be in Haiti to fight for Haiti.'"

Despinosse was a consummate ward politician and I soon noticed he made only a token effort to conceal his disdain for militants in the refugee community, whom he damned with faint praise, and seemed to relish explaining to them the benefits of taking "the upper-class approach" by working within the established order. "If you say you are a revolutionary group, and you go to Haiti and they grab you," he lectured, "then with my money, and my voting strength, I can put pressure to my senator and congressman to go there and release you, the same way we see Ted Kennedy and others went to Cuba and bring people back. And this is what I'm trying to preach, but some people, they can't see it."

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