The Catalyst

Marleine Bastien -- activist, social worker, songwriter, mother -- is helping to lead the resurgence of South Florida's Haitian political agenda

Gepsie Metellus, a colleague of Bastien's involved in many of the same causes, is prominent in both mainstream and Haitian politics; since 1996 she has served as an aide for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey. "I think we're right in between the old generation and the young people we don't really know enough about yet," Metellus says. "The older generation isn't the leadership for the times, because they can't relate to the issues of younger Haitian Americans who see a role for themselves in terms of participating in Haitian politics, yet are firmly planted in U.S. politics."

When she doesn't cover her head with a turban or scarf, 39-year-old Bastien wears her hair parted into squares and gathered into little braids that fall around her face. Her eyes are round, her face broad and expressive. She is a social worker and has been employed at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Sickle Cell Center for eleven years, counseling families affected by the disease. She is married and has three boys, but her family does not see her much. Besides the hours and days she has given to the lobbying efforts, her community activities include advisory and volunteer work on behalf of social service, immigration, and women's advocacy and cultural organizations. She is often invited to speak to groups around the nation, and she has written a chapter for a social-work textbook, a book in Creole about AIDS for the Red Cross, and a children's book.

Then there are other public circles Bastien moves in, not so visible to the English-speaking mainstream: She has performed (occasionally alongside her husband, Jean Desire) as actor, singer, and dancer in dozens of Creole-language plays and in performances of traditional Haitian dance; she has recorded an album as part of the now-disbanded musical group Sanba Lele; and she writes songs that sometimes end up as parts of her speeches or presentations.

Her songs and her most pressing concerns have to do with women and girls who are disadvantaged by political and economic oppression, and by racism. Bastien is publicly identified with those concerns in her role as president of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), a seven-year-old nonprofit she founded. The stated purpose of FANM is to advocate for women's rights and to work for the social, political, and economic empowerment of all women and girls, especially Haitian. The 30-member organization operates counseling and economic-assistance programs, and it conducts educational workshops and presentations on subjects rarely mentioned in traditional, patriarchal Haitian society: breast cancer prevention; domestic violence and child abuse; and how to work within the American educational and social service systems. This year the group received a $25,000 grant from Micro Enterprise of Florida to help ten Haitian women start their own businesses.

FANM is one of the most active of a handful of small nonprofits in Miami-Dade serving Haitian women, and its members are well-known. They are accustomed to getting calls from women in desperate circumstances, so many calls that the organization's bank account (consisting of donations) is always tapped. FANM members must also contend with resistance from male bastions such as Creole radio, the community's heart and soul and a power base for on-air personalities (the most prominent of whom are men). "A lot of radio people don't like me because of FANM," Bastien concedes. "They think we're teaching women to leave their husbands or neglect their families." Radio hosts contacted for this article, however, had only praise for her.

Aristide's election, overthrow, and restoration to power, all in the span of three years, transformed the thinking of the Haitian community here. Hopes and plans had always centered on establishing democracy in Haiti. "After [dictator Jean-Claude] Duvalier fell [in 1986], people started to think Haiti was going to be seventh heaven," says Carlo Jean-Joseph, a young Miami attorney. "Now they know it's not, and they say, 'Haiti's not my home; here is my home.'"

Over the following decade, many emigres did return to Haiti, determined to help rebuild the society. But more chose to stay in the United States and become citizens, finally relinquishing their Haitian passports and the faint hope of return they represented. (Even long-time residents such as Bastien and Desire acquired U.S. citizenship only last year.) Increasingly these Haitians turned their attention to forging a life in this country and in time became more American than Haitian. They are the ones who, ironically, have the most to contribute to Haiti but who won't be going back.

"It's time we understand it's the world against us," says Bastien's friend Jocelyne Mayas, a prominent Haitian activist in New York. "So we have to do what we have to do to survive. For a time, all the Haitian people who came here were living in transit. Ten, fifteen years went by, and we're still here. Now this is home, so we have to make it comfortable."

Perhaps the clearest sign that Haitians are putting down roots in South Florida is the unprecedented number who ran for local and state office in this past September's primaries. Except for one candidate who ran unopposed for the Republican slot in a heavily Democratic district (and who lost in the general election this past Tuesday), none of the four other Haitian candidates won their primaries. Attorney Phillip Brutus, however, who lost a primary race for the state house by just 51 votes, is challenging the results in court.

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