The Catalyst

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

Philippe Bastien also built the area's first school, and his oldest children worked as teachers during their three-month summer vacations. Because he was known as a servant of the people, Bastien, like many other intellectuals and activists, was considered by the government to be a communist, and he was regularly arrested and jailed, according to his daughter. "The day after I was born was one of the times they got him," she says.

In the late Sixties Bastien began selling his farmland so he could send his children to Catholic schools. In 1974 the family moved to Port-au-Prince, where Marleine attended the prestigious Swiss school, College Bird. Philippe worked as a cook on cruise ships. In 1980, as Haiti grew increasingly chaotic in the years leading to the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Marleine's father found a job in Belle Glade, on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee, at a food stamp office. One by one his wife, Angelina Destinoble, and children left Haiti to join him. Today Philippe Bastien operates a trading business back in Port-au-Prince; Destinoble lives in Fort Lauderdale and travels back and forth to Haiti. Marleine's seven siblings have settled in South Florida.

In 1981, at the age of 22, she came to Miami to begin her college education. She assumed she would enroll in courses leading to medical school, a plan she explained to her academic adviser at Miami-Dade Community College, a white Cuban woman. "She told me that was going to be very hard to do, so I said, 'How about [studying to be] a lawyer?' She said that was even worse. She said the best thing was to become an executive secretary. I thought she really wanted to help me."

It took awhile before the "just come" (a new arrival from Haiti) understood that she had been nicely dismissed, and not for the last time, because of her skin color. "By the time I realized I had been misinformed, I thought I was too old to go to medical school," Bastien says. "Now I know I really wasn't. I also know a lot of black kids are treated like that."

Bastien reluctantly took secretarial courses at MDCC and at the same time began an expanding list of extracurricular activities. "The Haitian community at the time was very active," she recalls. "People were fighting against the Duvalier dictatorship. There were community meetings every weekend. I got right into the heart of things right after my arrival and never got out."

In 1982 Bastien started a full-time job as a paralegal and interpreter at the Haitian Refugee Center. Almost every day for five years she accompanied the center's lawyers to the Krome detention center, where thousands of Haitians languished in compounds or trailers surrounded by barbed wire fences. "There would be 30 to 50 hearings a day, but sometimes we had to wait for hours to see [the refugees]," she remembers. "Attorneys would be running from one courtroom to another. We'd chase buses, chase people to the airport when they tried to deport them without a hearing. Sometimes they'd beat up our clients and try to cover it up. I'll never forget Krome. It was because of all that I wanted to be a social worker."

"Back in the early days, she was this little girl who had just arrived," recalls Raymond Greenwood, an attorney hired by Bastien's father to help her obtain a work permit and permanent residency. She wound up working as a part-time interpreter for Greenwood, whom she considers one of her first mentors in the United States.

"People come to the U.S., streets paved with gold, land of justice and liberty, and suddenly she's down there seeing the way her compatriots were being treated," Greenwood continues. "When she worked for me, she never expressed a great social activism -- she needed a job. And now she has blossomed into this star of the Haitian community."

Bastien transferred to Florida International University after two years at MDCC and earned a bachelor's degree in social work in 1986 and her master's the year after that. So at one time she was enrolled full-time at FIU, employed full-time at HRC, and worked two successive internships: as a counselor for the crisis intervention hotline Switchboard of Miami and as a social work intern for Dade County's domestic-intervention program.

While still an undergraduate, she joined Sosyete Koukouy (Firefly Society), a dance/drama company directed by Little Haiti's prominent cultural maven Jan Mapou. Between school and work, Bastien danced and acted in several plays and traveled with the company to Montreal, New York, and other points north. In 1987 Jean Desire, a poet and actor who had recently moved to Miami from Chicago, joined the group. In Bastien he encountered a kindred intellect and sensibility, equal charisma, and similar involvement in social and political causes. They married in February 1988 at Legion Park in a Haitian ceremony accompanied by Koukouy dancers and Haitian musicians.

"Our friends called us the couple of the year," Bastien recalls. In September 1988 their son Omar Khalfani Desire was born. Six months later the couple of the year divorced. "We were both angry and disappointed," Bastien says now. "I had very high expectations of marriage, and it wasn't like that. We couldn't get along because we didn't really try to communicate."

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