Meet Your Neighbors

Naomi and her son can't find work, can't pay the rent, and can't get help, but they're grateful to be here

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When she gets a good job, Naomi promises herself, she'll work sixteen hours a day
Steve Satterwhite
When she gets a good job, Naomi promises herself, she'll work sixteen hours a day

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Naomi wouldn't be quite so desperate now if she hadn't spent her rent money to bury her mother. But what choice did she have? Naomi is sure her 85-year-old mother, Rosalia, could have lived longer if she'd been able to get medical attention, either in Miami or in her native Port-au-Prince. But here the clinics wanted to see money and sometimes immigration documents, neither of which Rosalia had, and in Haiti hospitals stand useless for lack of everything from antibiotics and syringes to running water and electricity.

So Rosalia died this past July 3 in her family's apartment in Port-au-Prince, and Naomi, the eldest of her seven children and the only one living in Miami, was expected to oversee funeral arrangements. She and a friend went to one of those factory-fashion outlets on NW Twentieth Street and bought Rosalia her burial dress, a shiny-blue, two-piece ensemble, the kind of modest yet festive attire women wear to church when church is their life. Rosalia had been an evangelical missionary since the age of 25 and devoted most of her time to her Pentecostal church in Port-au-Prince. The dress cost $70, but how could Naomi scrimp on her mother's last outfit?

"She asked to be buried in a blue dress," Naomi offers, smoothing her own cheap print blouse. "Blue means hope."

Naomi, despite her own strong religious convictions, is constantly on the verge of losing hope. She is a United States citizen and is involved in Little Haiti community activities, especially crime watch. But she hasn't had a steady job in more than a year, and now her landlord, who inconveniently lives next door to her two-bedroom apartment, is treating her like a criminal. She has a rent problem.

"I owe two months now," Naomi confesses solemnly in accented English, "and my landlord said he's going to take action if I don't pay." (Naomi requested that the real names of her and her family not be published, so pseudonyms are used for this story.) She is sitting on the edge of a black, cloth-covered sofa in her living room, every wall painted a peachy pink. Occasionally she fans herself with a Rhythm magazine, no doubt the property of her twenty-year-old son Antoine, who's at vocational school. In the waning light of early evening the room is dim; to save electricity she has no lamps lit, no air conditioning running. White filigree curtains, beige with age, cover the barred windows. A ceiling fan whirs silently, barely rustling the leaves and petals of a silk poinsettia arrangement on the coffee table. Atop an ancient console TV, picture tube burned out, sits a telephone connected to an answering machine, also not working since phone service was cut off a few weeks ago. On a nearby shelf a six-year-old framed color photograph shows Antoine in slacks and sport jacket, resting his arm on Naomi's shoulder. She's smiling proudly in a dress with a lacy white collar. Mother and son are the same height in the photo; today Antoine towers over Naomi.

Outside, a red pickup truck loaded with plastic bags bulging with fruits and vegetables makes its way down the street. As the vehicle passes Naomi's house she watches the owner at the wheel, announcing in Kreyol from a PA system: "I have carrots today, I have eggplant, I have a large selection of produce you can't buy cheaper in the market." The truck and the booming voice stop every couple of houses and one or two people stroll over to inspect the wares. They seem to know what they want, haggling is brief, and they disappear back into their homes with a bag or two. As they do, spicy, meaty cooking smells occasionally escape into the humid air.

"It's true. His prices are usually less than in the markets," Naomi confirms. "But I don't buy from him. It's still a lot of money."

For someone like Naomi, who earns anywhere from zero to $900 per month working temp jobs as a homemaker (an unskilled helper for homebound patients), fresh produce is indeed a luxury. Yet in Little Haiti, one of the poorest sections of the poorest city in the nation, Naomi's plight is nothing out of the ordinary. Lying southeast of Liberty City, Little Haiti is home to about 24,000 people, most of them born in Haiti. This neighborhood is the first stop in Miami for the majority of newly arrived immigrants from that enthralling, tormented nation on the island of Hispaniola. It's a community with one of the highest unemployment rates in Miami-Dade County (19.4 percent), according to a May 2002 study by Florida International University's Metropolitan Center. More than half of Little Haiti's households subsist below the poverty line, as figured by the same study, and almost a third reported household incomes of less than $10,000. All the public schools in Little Haiti received the lowest possible rating in 2001; almost 100 percent of the elementary school students qualify for free-lunch programs, compared with 56 percent of students in the county as a whole.

New arrivals to Little Haiti work hard to save enough money to buy a house somewhere else, usually to the north, places like Miami Shores, El Portal, North Miami, and North Miami Beach. Even if a Haitian couple has to work two minimum-wage jobs apiece and enlist the help of siblings and cousins, and in spite of political and social-services systems stacked against them, they'll manage to scrape together a down payment on an American dream. But those who succeed the fastest are most often the ones with advantages such as an education, legal residency or citizenship, and family members able to lend support.

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