The histories of Haiti and Cuba run forever parallel. When the going gets tough, Haitian dictators tend to terrorize the populace while the Cuban dictator prefers to throw open the borders. Either way the result is the same: The populace gets going. In 1980 and again in 1994, tandem crises on the islands jammed the Florida Straits with Haitian and Cuban rafters bound for Miami.
That's pretty much what traffic looked like downtown on Saturday, May 19, as crowds converged on the Haitian Compas Festival and the Cuban American National Foundation's Freedom Tower Inauguration that took place within four city blocks on Biscayne Boulevard.
Technically there's a safe distance between Haitian Independence Day on January 1 and Cuban Independence Day on May 20. Back in 1804, however, the great revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines decided to remove the color white from the tricolor French flag, leaving the new Haitian flag red and blue and inaugurating Haitian Flag Day on May 18. This year patriotic Haitian-American and Cuban-American communities split the difference.
Construction-congested NE Second Avenue came to a standstill in the late afternoon, as patriots scouted for parking in new SUVs and beat-up sedans with Haitian and Cuban flags flapping from the antennas. Cuban patresfamilias in crisp guayaberas and madres muy elegantes in spaghetti-strapped gowns crossed paths with whole clans clad in Dessalines red and blue -- from their bandannas down to their Daisy Dukes.
As I made my way across NE Fourth Street, the crossroads between the two celebrations, I saw a Haitian family ask for directions from a man holding aloft an enormous Cuban flag on the corner. "Haitians that way; Cubans over here," joked the pole bearer, gesturing first toward Bayside, then toward the Freedom Tower. "And who goes that way?" asked the Haitian father, pointing straight ahead at Biscayne Bay. Everyone laughed; no one was going there. That was where they had come from.
Inside the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, Haitian flags flew alone. However, Saima, the sister act onstage, played a set that revealed how much the Haitian-born singers have absorbed in their new land -- beginning with a version of the Jennifer Lopez hit "If You Want My Love" in Kreyol. Fleeing military rule in Haiti with their parents in 1988, the North Miami Senior High graduates came to the United States when twins Sabine and Martine were age thirteen and baby sister Ives was eight. "I'm 100 percent Haitian because of the way I was raised," says lead singer Sabine. "But we do sing in English. We have a little mixture of compas and R&B together." Add to that mixture zouk, merengue, and Latin pop to get the sound of Haitian America.
That sound carried all the way to the Freedom Tower, where the assembly already spilled beyond the hundreds of rows of folding chairs by the scheduled starting time of 6:00 p.m., engulfing two police cars once parked on the periphery. Four African-American officers tried to extract the squad cars by waving their arms and saying slowly in kindergarten English: "Step back please." Annoyed, one female officer repeated several times: "Hello! Will you move please!" Then she turned to her fellow officers and said, "They just stand there like they don't understand what you're saying." In the meantime confused celebrants said to one another in Spanish: "I think she's saying she wants us to move." Curious, I turned to the man nearest me and asked, in Spanish: "Do you speak English?"
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"Oh, yes, I speak English," he assured me, in Spanish.
Finally understanding what the police officers wanted them to do, the people around us shifted to the side, protesting the directive in bovine language: "They're pushing us like cattle," they moaned as a chorus. "Moo, moo."
Back at the compas festival, headliners T-Vice were having traffic trouble of their own. In what had become an unnavigable fracas, a motorist slammed into the band's car minutes before their set, holding up the presentation to T-Vice of the Band of the Year Award from Kompa Magazine. "My car is smashed up," said band leader Robert Martino in Kreyol, "but [I had to come because] I knew 3000 people were waiting for me."
In front of the Freedom Tower, 30,000 people stood at rapt attention as CANF leader Jorge Mas Santos wrapped up his impassioned speech on the struggle for Cuban liberty. In the solemn silence that followed, the electrified compas of T-Vice filled the air. For one moment the heads of the Cuban-American assembly turned toward the Haitian-American festivities. The lights of the newly illuminated Freedom Tower shone on everyone.