Soaring Aspirations

Joe Celestin might have lost his bid to become mayor of North Miami, but his campaign united South Florida's Haitians like nothing before

At almost one o'clock on the dank, starless early morning of May 18, 1999, a half-dozen people are gathered at the studios of WOCN-AM (1450), a fenced-in box of a building along an unlighted stretch of warehouses on NE 71st Street near Third Avenue. The next four hours will see more than the usual comings and goings at the radio station on this busy night. A group of three or four will be on the air without interruption, talking nonstop about the election.

For the first time in history, a Haitian-American man is close to winning the mayorship of a sizable U.S. city -- North Miami, population 50,000 -- and the candidate's supporters are literally campaigning around the clock. In six hours voting will begin.

Lucie Tondreau, five months pregnant and rubbing her eyes after a short nap, has just arrived at WOCN. The station broadcasts mostly in Spanish, but the weekday midnight-to-5:00 a.m. slot features Creole programming hosted by a Haitian businessman whose radio name is Jackie Relaxx. As in previous political contests, Relaxx has dedicated his entire five hours on election eve to campaigners for Joe Celestin, the Haitian candidate for mayor.

Tondreau, a medical laboratory technician, plans to spend much of the night here, taking phone calls and exhorting her listeners to go to the polls. She greets Eddy Delmont, who has driven directly to the station after finishing his night shift as a postal supervisor in Coral Gables. Tondreau, Delmont, and two men file into the studio and sit at a wide table, each setting down a notebook or sheaf of notes in front of microphones attached to the table. In the adjoining control booth, Relaxx is introducing his guests over a syncopated background of Haitian compas.

"Our compatriots are here because a very important event is about to happen," he says. "And that is the mayoral election in North Miami today, Haitian Flag Day, when our own Joe Celestin is running for mayor."

This is the third political race in three years for Josaphat "Joe" Celestin, a charismatic 42-year-old businessman whose temperament and financial history appear equally volatile. In the primary election a week earlier, Celestin finished far ahead of the other three mayoral candidates but was forced into a runoff with veteran councilman Frank Wolland, an Anglo. Also in the primary, fellow Haitian-American Ossmann Desir decisively won a council seat, a major accomplishment that few have had time to savor during the frantic six days leading up to the mayoral runoff.

This relatively minor municipal election has turned into an event with enormous symbolic impact for all involved. It has been the Haitian community's first massive and mostly unified show of voting force; the first significant threat to North Miami politics as usual; and a harbinger of maneuvering for Haitian votes by both the Republican and Democratic parties in preparation for next year's state and national elections. It has also been the most hostile and racially divisive election most observers can remember.

"The polls will open this morning at seven o'clock," Tondreau begins, glancing down at the telephone beside her with one line already blinking. "If you don't have a way to get to your polling station, call us and we'll arrange to pick you up. Call us if you have any questions. Remember, today's the day! Vote for Joe Celestin, number 116."

"It's so important to exercise your right to vote," adds the bespectacled Delmont, a wiry man in his mid-thirties still neatly dressed in brown slacks, starched white shirt, and patterned tie. "We have been too long without a voice. We must be able to influence the world in which we raise our children, and the only way is to elect people who can speak for us."

Tondreau and Delmont are part of an on-air tag team. In the next few hours they'll be joined by others who've just left work or who are on their way in. It's reminiscent, on a smaller, embryonic scale, of the crowds at Miami's Cuban radio stations around election time, urgently discussing the virtues of various candidates and appealing to Cuban pride to get out the vote.

By six o'clock, as the sky is lightening, the diminutive, doe-eyed Tondreau will be five miles away speaking on another program at WLQY-AM (1320) in North Miami, the only 24-hour Creole station in town. Tondreau is Joe Celestin's designated spokeswoman, but in most respects she is just another of the hundreds of volunteers who have all but forsaken sleep, jobs, and family for the past several months. Yesterday and every day for weeks before that, Tondreau and other Haitians from throughout South Florida -- car dealers and clergymen, nurses and insurance salesmen -- have appeared almost nonstop on Creole-language radio. They have registered and educated first-time voters and witnessed absentee ballots, and have knocked on door after door in North Miami's residential neighborhoods. Delmont is one of several men who have even called on nightclubs and pirate radio stations to urge younger Haitian Americans to vote.

The AM-radio campaigning will continue through the day and past poll-closing time at 7:00 p.m., a reminder of the potent symbol of Haitian empowerment Joe Celestin has become. Cars flying Haitian flags will have radios on full volume as they pass slowly by polling places. Even the Haitian national anthem will be drawn into the service of the campaign, warning, "We won't tolerate traitors in our ranks."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets