Inside Little Haiti
There are no truckloads of soldiers. The staggering poverty isn't here A the ubiquitous beggars and desperation beneath a backdrop of denuded mountains A nor must anyone live with kä sote (the Creole expression for a pervasive climate of fear). Nevertheless, Little Haiti is a strikingly faithful clone of Big Haiti, especially the commercial strips and working-class neighborhoods of the island's cities, a concrete and clapboard canvas of Third World impressions, tropical and benign. There are not tap-taps A Haiti's colorful public transport trucks A but there are plenty of jitneys, stopping in the middle of traffic along NE Second Avenue to let passengers on and off. An old woman higgler, in a gingham house dress and straw hat, sells roasted peanuts from a shopping cart in front of the Haitian Refugee Center on 54th Street. The surrounding storefronts are one-stop emporiums of the global village. Next door the Haitian Art Gallery also offers an income tax service. Down the block, the Macaya Boumba Botanica advertises for sale Religious Articles, Oil, Encense All Kinds, Perfums, Statuettes, and Variety Items. Customers are warmly greeted, especially Anglos, who in Little Haiti are objects of curiosity, not racial tension.
On residential streets you can smell pumpkin soup cooking, pork roasting; hear the crow of roosters, Baptist hymns filtering out from inside living-room churches, the snarl of guard dogs and the pulse of compas music. Clusters of men play dominoes in the shade of palm and ficus trees. There are always people milling around; much of life here is outside and communal. Yards are alternately overtended or overgrown. Empty lots collect trash. There's an excess of junked cars, cannibalized for parts. Unfortunately, Little Haiti never more resembled its original version, 720 miles to the southeast, than during the first weeks after Hurricane Andrew, when curbs were banked head high with garbage and the electricity and phones were out.
The architectural centerpiece of the community is the brightly painted, gingerbread-and-lattice Mache Ayisyen, modeled after Port-au-Prince's Iron Market. Opened to citywide acclaim in the spring of 1990, the metal-roofed marketplace was designed to anchor an ambitious entrepreneurial vision: reproduce the economic successes of Little Havana and reinvent the enclave as a cultural attraction, like San Francisco's Chinatown, luring tourists to Second Avenue to buy Haitian art and crafts and dine on French-Creole cuisine. But unlike previous years when I had visited the Haitian Market, when I stopped by in January it was little more than an exotic shell, a lone cashier dozing in her chair, a victim of the trade embargo, accusations of mismanagement, and perhaps an overly optimistic faith in a tourist's willingness to venture into an inner-city neighborhood, regardless of that neighborhood's hospitality.
Walking the streets of Little Haiti, talking to its residents and leaders, eating in its restaurants and shopping in its stores, it became apparent to me that, in contrast to Little Havana, where over time the symbiosis between Cuban exiles and the City of Miami has so entwined two cultures A manufacturing a third, distinct, bilingual entity that reflects neither modern Cuban nor mainstream America A the immigrant enclave of Little Haiti, twenty years after the first boat of refugees arrived, continues to exist as an island within the urban demography of Miami's many ethnic groups, with marginal influence upon the metropolis reciprocated by marginal interest in its quotidian affairs. Despite the current twenty-month-long refugee crisis A a political conundrum and media magnet producing a stream of urgent rhetoric and negative images A our knowledge of the Haitians already living among us here in South Florida remains peculiarly myopic, barely penetrating the surface of the community's daily life in its ever-expanding 200-block rectangle north of downtown Miami.
Part of that myopia is, of course, racial and ethnic, the Haitians constituting what FIU anthropologist Alex Stepick calls a triple minority: they're black, they're foreign, they don't speak English. Just as significantly, perhaps, the debate about Haitian immigration has been largely carried out in abstract terms and even abstract venues: the courtroom, the open sea, a naval base in Cuba. For whatever reasons Americans perceive Haitian refugees as a threat, I was hard pressed to find any citizen who had been personally disadvantaged by Haitians in any way. No one I could locate had lost his home, job, health, or security because of a Haitian refugee. On the other hand, the Haitians themselves have often strived to cultivate a frictionless invisibility A the posture of legitimate exiles, suspended between nations, waiting to return home. Finally, as communities go, Little Haiti, once a generic blue-collar neighborhood for whites, has only now begun to advance beyond its adolescence, to sharpen the focus on its own potential and assert itself as a player, however modestly, in the forces that are shaping this nation of immigrants in the post-Cold War world.
Several parallel veins of leadership account for the community's affairs. The one with the boldest profile circulates through the Haitian Refugee Center, its director Rolande Dorancy, and other activist organizations that concentrate on politically volatile refugee issues. But in a poor environment, Alex Stepick suggested to me, leadership more frequently emanates from whomever can find you a job, a place to live, help you keep in contact with relatives back home A the mundane concerns of survival, much less visible than other issues. Since Haitians are devout churchgoers, in Little Haiti the leadership most attuned to the rhythms of normalcy is provided primarily by the Catholic Church, which makes Father Tom Wenski, for twelve years the pastor of Notre Dame d'Haiti, one of the very few Americans intimately participating in the Haitian experience in Florida, and a de facto spokesman for the enclave.
I found Wenski in Notre Dame's rectory at 62nd Street and NE Second Avenue, offering medical advice to an elderly Haitian woman who seemed determined to have surgery before the day was out. People seek out Wenski with all sorts of problems A they need to know how to fill out government forms, how to ride the bus; they come gripping junk mail in hand, hoping to be told they've won the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.
Wenski, a Lech Walesa look-alike, is fond of saying he runs Notre Dame, with its 15,000 to 20,000 parishioners, the way a Polish priest would run a Polish immigrant church A with a heavy hand, but effective in protecting the congregation's interests. Wenski says Mass in Creole, performs 900 baptisms a year. At the height of the Guantanamo crisis, Notre Dame d'Haiti received a federal grant (since revoked) to operate an acculturation program for the thousands of new arrivals. The program, administrated by the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center, was housed in the former girls' high school adjoining the church, and though English lessons were still available, it now dedicated its efforts to developing an employment service, helping the Guantanamo population find jobs.
"An immigrant church," Wenski told me, "resolves a lot more needs than simply spiritual direction. Haitians are made to feel like outsiders six days a week. At least on Sunday they can feel they're at home, and that provides a centering, and a sense of rootedness, and it ultimately serves the person to become assimilated, because you integrate from a position of strength into the modern church A which is basically middle-class and suburban A and then into the society itself."
Yet assimilation as a standard of immigrant success has been altered, in a politically unprecedented and perhaps prophetic sense, by the Haitian experience. "Something new is happening," Alex Stepick had told me when I asked if he thought the Haitian refugees could be described as typical immigrants. Unlike their counterparts, especially Cubans and Vietnamese, who have fled communist regimes and are lodged in sort of a nineteenth-century isolation from the world they left behind, Haitians, because of their intense travel back and forth between Miami and Haiti, Stepick said, "have created our first transnational community," in which the economic survival of both the oppressed and the oppressors depends on this sort of mobility.
The Haitians have become hemispheric, Wenski agreed, people of a diaspora. Haitian babies were being born all over the map, but "there's not that sort of breaking off with the past, as there was in earlier generations of immigrants," he said, perhaps because the past remains accessible and is so much unresolved.
I wanted to know if, from Wenski's perspective, culture and race made the Haitian immigrant experience atypical. In their view it did, he thought, but then again, the Haitians weren't aware of the experience of other ethnic groups who came before them, the Irish or the Chinese or the Poles, for instance, though they were resentfully conscious of the red carpet unrolled for the Cubans, who were indeed an aberration in the system. Several studies he had read grappled with the enigma of race and arrival. Vis-a-vis black Americans, the Haitians most resembled other immigrant groups: you struggle, take advantage of opportunities, and you make it. Yet in case studies comparing other immigrant groups with Haitians, the Haitian experience plateaued alongside the experience of black Americans.
"In other words," concluded Wenski, "America is still the land of opportunity, as the immigrants have always said it was, and proven it by their upward mobility, but at the same time, racism and race might not be the overwhelming factors that some people claim, but they certainly are factors and cannot be discounted." He didn't think immigration policy toward Haitians was atypical either; hesitating, though, he corrected himself with a statistic: At Guantanamo, when the acceptance rate for political claims to asylum rose from 20 to 60 percent, the INS quickly replaced its interviewers with ones who were less sensitive and more selective.
Wenski and I adjourned for lunch to Smitty's II, an all-American diner A after twelve years, he had consumed far more spicy Creole cooking than he had bargained for. Walking outside under the rectory's canopy of live oaks, we came upon Sans Debt, one of Notre Dame's four resident lunatics, homeless and harmless, whom Wenski allowed to squat on church property. One slept in the doorway to the chapel, one in the barbecue pit, one in various spots on the lawn. One talked nonstop to the dial tone of a nearby pay phone, one picked up trash, one wanted the trash-picker's job. It was very Haitian of Wenski to have them around. Like any other ethnic enclave in the United States, the Haitian community in South Florida was rich in diversity, not without its madmen, and not without its millionaires A one of whom I would soon meet, but not before I had first met Erithe Montville, a young woman who seemed to have been created by God to breathe life into a xenophobe's stereotype of wretchedness.
As I write, Haitians are being repatriated back to a society that, in its totalitarian repressiveness, its government-sponsored violence, its mockery of human rights, most resembles Castro's Cuba. I have traveled extensively through both countries (Haiti in 1986, Cuba in 1991) and must confess, with no apologies to Miami's Cubans, that, given the choice between an ideologically based dictatorship and a dictatorship based on brute power and greed, and given the choice between ideologically inspired persecution and persecution sprayed randomly throughout a population by tyrants storming along on oblique agendas, I would much prefer to take my chances in Cuba, any day of the week. The Communist variety of terror, as practiced by Cubans, at least has its rules. The unvarnished variety of terror, as practiced by the Haitian ruling class, unravels arbitrarily, according to a pattern neither I nor anybody else has been able to anticipate, let alone comprehend.
In my perambulations throughout Little Haiti, I spoke with many refugees tragically familiar with the birth of the modern era in their never-ending past, and Wenski introduced me to another, Roger Biamby, the director of the Haitian Catholic Center. Biamby came of age in the capital of Port-au-Prince at a time when Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's (self-appointed president-for-life) corruption of Haitian society had achieved such an apex of barbarity that one of his proteges could present himself before the Haitian legislature and defiantly declare, "A good Duvalierist stands ready to kill his children, or children to kill their parents." The year was 1961, Biamby was fourteen, and soon found himself living in a foreign embassy while his father, a colonel in the army, was being sentenced to death by a military tribunal for his central role in a scheme to assassinate Duvalier. Pardoned at the last moment, the colonel, his wife, and eight children were allowed safe conduct out of the country, settling in Brooklyn a year later. "Imagine," Biamby said to me, "coming to the United States with only $100 for ten people."
"Under Duvalier," Wenski had reminded me, "the emerging middle class had to go," but not before notice had already been served on the more influential upper class. Many of them, like Miami social worker Nancy Desire's family, went to Africa on UN-sponsored contracts, where their professional skills were much in demand during the groping, turbulent transition from colonialism to independence. Desire's father was a doctor, her mother a nurse, both harried in their positions by inexperienced and increasingly jealous political appointees swarming into Duvalier's government. Nancy was born in Port-au-Prince in 1962, spent her childhood in the Congo, then Canada, and her high school and college years in New York City, among 300,000 other Haitians who sought sanctuary there in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Now people like Desire are American-educated, first- and even second-generation Haitian-American citizens, responsible for a growing secondary migration of Haitians out of northern cities to Miami.
Less affluent refugees were dependent upon a different, though often no less circuitous, route to Florida, and it was of course by sea. As a matter of record, the first boatload of Haitians landed in Miami in 1963. But in terms of the civil rights movement in the South, and a federal government anxious to believe the myth that Duvalier was an indispensable ally in the Caribbean Basin's suddenly hot Cold War, the attempt was premature; the passengers were denied asylum and turned back into the waves.
Throughout the next ten years, Haitians trickled into South Florida by plane, and by boat in the mid-Seventies. Upon the death of his father in 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited Haiti's bloody reins of power, enforced by the Tonton Macoutes, the ruthless paramilitary troops created by Duvalier to intimidate his civilian opposition and counteract his adversaries in the traditional armed services. Not for the first time, thousands disappeared into the dictatorship's prisons, and the city dump stank with mutilated corpses. In 1977, during still another crackdown on dissidents, student groups, journalists, and anybody unlucky enough to get in the way of the psychopathic Macoutes, the boats began to arrive in Florida regularly. By 1981 50,000 to 70,000 refugees had come ashore, 25,000 of them in 1980 alone, on the coattails of the Mariel boatlift. The exodus ended in 1981, when the Reagan administration ordered a Coast Guard cutter into Haitian waters to turn back the boat people, and began a policy of incarceration and deportation for Haitians "fortunate" enough to actually reach their destination.
On February 7, 1986, the Duvalier dynasty crashed and burned, although Duvalierists maintained a death grip on power until 1990, when, in an election monitored by the international community, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the young priest espousing liberation theology, defeated a field of ten candidates by receiving 70 percent of the vote to become Haiti's first democratically elected president. In September 1991, Aristide was overthrown by the military, who began a systematic and thorough nationwide purge of Aristide's supporters. Having even a peripheral association with Lavalas A Aristide's grassroots political organization A was tantamount to a death sentence. Throughout the coming months, about 40,000 refugees took to the seas in hundreds of primitive boats. Among them were Erithe Montville and her family.
I recently spent an afternoon in Florida City with Erithe and her neighbors. She was from Pestel, an isolated fishing hamlet on Haiti's mountainous southern coast. She had lived there all her life, as had her husband, a fisherman and farmer. In the 1990 election, Erithe's husband spent the day as a Lavalas volunteer inside the Pestel polling station, and after the military coup, the Montvilles' lives underwent dramatic and irreversible change. The Tonton Macoutes, who had receded into the woodwork during Aristide's eight-month tenure, were back. Pro-Aristide villagers were beaten and shot; others vanished into custody. Houses were destroyed. Erithe's family was threatened, her husband assaulted. Aristide's power had flowed directly from his impassioned support among Haiti's poor and Haiti's youth throughout the urban slums and countryside. Now it was these people who were most at risk, and Erithe knew it was only a matter of days or weeks before something terrible happened. She decided it was no longer possible to live in her own country, and in January 1992, on a boat captained by her husband and packed with 102 other villagers, she set sail on a voyage across the water. With her were her two daughters, ages one and three. Erithe was only 24, and illiterate.
Two days later the Coast Guard intercepted the boat in the Windward Passage. Taken aboard the ship, the passengers were forced to leave their meager luggage behind, and their vessel was sunk. They were taken to Guantanamo, which by spring was inundated by 12,000 refugees. Erithe and her husband were interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, determined to have a valid claim to political asylum, and in April, after having their blood tested for the AIDS virus, were paroled into the United States. They arrived at Homestead AFB with only the clothes on their backs.
A month later they were given a few hundred dollars, a book of food stamps, employment authorization cards, and released to fend for themselves. At Guantanamo Erithe had met another young mother from Pestel, and the Montvilles tagged along with her to her uncle's house in Florida City, renting the back two rooms in the bungalow next door. By now it was the middle of the summer. Erithe was three months pregnant. There was no case worker, no welfare checks, no government help, she told me. (According to the 1990 census, 34 percent of the Haitians in South Florida live below poverty level, yet perhaps because the Haitian culture is family oriented, with a tenacious work ethic that values self-sufficiency, only a small fraction of those eligible for welfare even bother to apply.) Unable to find steady employment, Erithe and her husband hired out as day laborers in the nearby groves, picking lemons and limes.
Then the hurricane came, its eye passing overhead. Erithe told me she screamed and screamed as pieces of her house blew away.
In the dirt yard between that house and the house of her friend, we sat on kitchen chairs in the middle of a wasted landscape, talking through a translator about her new life in America. The roofs of both houses were patched together with plywood scraps and plastic sheeting, their edges tacked down to truss-ends with flattened soda cans. Broken windows were replaced with cardboard; piles of shingles were mounded around storm-battered cars. Chickens ranged freely; pariah dogs foraged through frozen swirls of trash the hurricane had deposited in the fields. Rain still poured through countless leaks into Erithe's house, and there was no electricity, which meant she cooked her family's meals over a charcoal pot, as she had in Haiti. As I sat in the fierce sun, listening to her singsong Creole, it was difficult to gauge how her life had improved A but of course it had: Even if the government changed for the better in Haiti, she wanted to remain here, where at least life's cruelty was not institutionalized.
"I'm loaded with problems," said Erithe. She was prettily dressed in secondhand clothes, had the classically proportioned face of a fashion model, and was so terribly shy I felt I had captured her. "How will these problems get solved? I don't know. God will help me.
At least in the United States I can find some help."
She wanted to learn to read and write, then be trained for a trade, she wasn't sure what, never having had the luxury to think realistically about such prospects. None of this would happen any time soon, since before the month was out she'd be scrambling to find a ride to Jackson Memorial Hospital to give birth to her third child. As we waited for her husband to return from the tree nursery where he had found permanent employment, a jitney pulled up and out came Erithe's four-year-old, home from day care, and before long both of Erithe's daughters were tugging at their mother's arm, cranky and whining. Erithe gave a stoic sigh.
"We have had nothing to eat today," she said, "and there's no more juice for the children."
Any understanding of the Haitian experience in the United States begins at the Krome North Service Processing Center, on the edge of the Everglades just south of Tamiami Trail, where the INS detains illegal aliens, the overwhelming majority of them Haitian refugees seeking political asylum, for months and sometimes years, until these refugees are inevitably deported. More than one observer has likened Krome to a concentration camp, and although that label is hyperbolic and unfair, it casts a gloomy shadow of truth, because Krome exists on the threshold of an expanding American intolerance toward the world's downtrodden and their dream of sanctuary within our border.
This winter I visited Krome three times. No journalist had been granted access to the facility's interiors since last summer, after a devastating barracks fire, then the hurricane, disrupted an operation already trademarked by controversy. On my third try, however, after a two-week hunger strike by the Haitian detainees fizzled out in early January, Mike Rozos, Krome's second-in-command, judged his house sufficiently in order to agree to my request for a walk-through.
In 1980 Krome A an old Department of Defense missile base built in the Sixties A was appropriated by the INS and used as a human stock pen during the Mariel boatlift. By 1981 the Marielitos were gone but the Haitians A 200 of them, shoulder to shoulder A were not. Riots broke out, suicides were attempted. The federal courts capped Krome's population at a more humane level, though the Reagan administration refused to provide secure legal status, as it had the Cubans, to the detainees it was required to release, and Haitians have been trapped inside Krome's pointedly glacial loop ever since.
If you ignored the coiled tubes of concertina wire, Krome's architectural pretensions were eerily collegiate, evoking campus life, a small vocational school with strict regimens, a dress code constrained to orange jumpsuits, and a student body of young black men and women whose monastic silence underscored the gravity of their aspirations. As Rozos had told me when I talked to him at length in December, he had "the whole place painted Florida flamingo colors." Nothing shocked overtly. Women sat outdoors at picnic tables in a recreation pavilion, playing cards, mumbling in a bank of pay phones, staring into space. I was led down a sidewalk to a compound within a compound, swaddled in razor wire. This was the men's dormitory, locked down for the second of four daily head counts. It was little more than a warehouse, Spartan but airy, filled with natural light and brightened by a wide band of plum-colored paint, and divided into wings by an open-topped security station manned by five not-unfriendly guards, perplexed by the media's vendetta against them. About 150 detainees lay flat on metal bunkbeds, wordless and expressionless, stacks of humanity on hold. The silence seemed perverse, and whatever eye contact I managed was searing.
These men were gamblers who had bet the bank and lost. Some had paid parasitical smugglers upward of $1500 for passage aboard a vessel that at least had not sunk, as one had near the Bahamas right before Christmas, its hundreds of passengers drowned. Others had flown into Miami brandishing doctored visas purchased from document vendors on the streets of Port-au-Prince, or had presented an altered U.S. passport, the rightful owner's photograph switched for the refugee's. If they wanted, they could be deported tomorrow, which is what Brazilians and Dominicans were famous for doing, unable to endure more than a night in Krome before asking to be sent home. If, however, a detainee chose to pursue a claim to asylum, the average pace for paperwork and hearing ran eight to nine months, and, as Rozos had told me, it was dull, difficult, and frustrating. "You can't get good time in Krome," Mike Rozos had said, "and you can't get bad time." Not heaven, not hell, but purgatory, and you were simply stuck.
In the cafeteria, I couldn't help but notice the strange art on the walls A jigsaw puzzles of idyllic European scenes, pieced together by detainees and pasted to a backboard. No puzzles of the United States A Mount Rushmore, say, or the Statue of Liberty A as though in a world of distressing ironies, enough was enough; yet in the food service area, half-hidden behind a bread cart, someone had painted a mural of a younger Miami skyline, the haloed horizon of the promised land, only its hues were dark and brooding, incongruently grim and unwelcoming for a sun-splashed city, a vision from a sterile dream, and if you dreamed this dream, you fell out of your life, and into Krome.
Rozos, the supervisor for detention and deportation, was, with some rather cavalier reservations, sympathetic. "If I lived in Haiti," he readily admitted to me, "I'd get my ass out of there," but "I always say that the Haitians don't want Haiti fixed because they'd rather be here. Most of the Haitians who have bucks don't want to immigrate legally. We charge income tax, they don't. Haiti's cure is down in Haiti," as any Haitian will jump to tell you, "but the bottom line is, they don't want to be cured." Worst of all, Rozos thought, the Haitians had this bad attitude, a legacy of the Marine occupation earlier in the century, that Americans had ruined their country, and now were obliged to take care of them. But it was not as though Haitians were without redeeming qualities: they were the last folks Rozos would ever call lazy; they had more guts, he allowed, than people gave them credit for, and they were essentially humble, although "they pull at your pant leg like a kid," and they didn't understand our system for beans A an ignorance that sooner or later resulted in "misunderstandings" and a flood of allegations, 95 percent of which were hype, according to Rozos, "a pack of lies," especially when you considered that most of the guards at Krome were not "natural-born Americans, so they're not going to bother anybody because they want to come to America."
Last summer, after the barracks fire, a Miami Herald editorial had taken Rozos to the woodshed for publicly referring to the Haitian detainees as "scumbuckets," and if anyone in Washington had since counseled Rozos in the art of euphemism, he had forgotten the exercise by the time I spoke with him. For two hours he heaped scorn upon human rights groups, immigration lawyers, the courts, Miami power brokers, and South Florida's media. As for the city itself, it was a pigsty; as far as Rozos was concerned, Miami wasn't even the United States, which began somewhere over around Fort Lauderdale. "Ever since Mariel," he declared, "the place has gone straight down."
Rozos believed, for better or worse, that when you looked at Krome, you were seeing the future of immigration policy in the United States. It wasn't Ellis Island, we could both agree A that monument to our own ancestors, since we were both second-generation Americans. Glancing at the video surveillance monitor on his desk, he reminisced about the integrity and determination of his grandfather, a Greek immigrant; how the old man labored triumphantly, never took a handout; how he framed his certificate of citizenship on his office wall, an icon of democracy.
"There's a whole different mentality of alien coming to this country today," Rozos confided, his nostalgia souring to distaste. "Like we owe them something. It's not the same as it used to be."
Then why, I wondered, in the face of such peril and hardship, and in light of the reception waiting for them at Krome, did the refugees persist? For Mike Rozos, the answer was no mystery. If you were one of the two percent of detainees eventually paroled by Krome, the INS automatically issued you an Employment Authorization Stamp. "The minute you get that stamp," said Rozos, "you can be the biggest bum in the world, because you'll never have to work again. You can go on welfare, collect food stamps, be eligible for health care. Don't forget," he cautioned in purest Kiplingese, "their needs are basic. Their desires are limited."
If the truest, most nourishing American narrative is the rags-to-riches tale, then I could hardly hope to meet a more exemplary protagonist than Jacque Evens Thermilus, 34, the founder and president of Urban Constructors, Inc., a Haitian-born workaholic who is, in his own words, "nothing come to something," Horatio Alger uplinking with the 21st Century.
Like many of the more solidly established Haitians in South Florida, Thermilus and his family resettled in Miami via New York, where they had lived in Brooklyn's Park Slope A at that time a slum; "rugged, terrible, a mess," Thermilus remembers A since the early Sixties. Thermilus was fifteen when the family relocated, and he enrolled at Miami's Central High.
"That was sort of a nightmare," he recalled, sitting behind his pool-table-size desk in Urban Constructors' high-tech offices on North Miami Avenue near 41st Street, where the design district begins to open out into Little Haiti. "One of the hardest things for Haitians is people knowing that you're Haitian. In high school, they used to pick at me all the time, kids that don't even know you, just because you're from a different country."
Thermilus was not the first immigrant to be motivated by the ridicule and taunts he suffered to prove himself. While studying accounting at Miami-Dade Community College, he supported himself as an unskilled laborer, shoveling dirt for the Edward J. Gerrits construction company, one of Miami's major builders. A German carpenter (who now works for Thermilus, by the way) encouraged the youth to join his union and become an apprentice. Three and a half years later Gerrits promoted Thermilus to assistant superintendent, then assistant project manager, and finally project manager, entrusting him with responsibilities that belied his age. "Then one year I said, 'Let me try it,'" Thermilus told me, pausing to laugh. "It didn't work that easy. It took about eight years before I learned the trade, the secrets of construction."
At 24, naive but incorrigibly ambitious, Thermilus started his own construction company A Evens Cosmic Builders. It failed. Two years later he tried again, but was thwarted by the unwillingness of local banks to lend to minorities, and by an industrywide perception that black companies didn't perform. (Most Haitian businessmen in Miami are self-employed, operating or owning modest enterprises A corner grocery stores, beauty salons, auto repair shops. Two-thirds of Little Haiti's 200 or so businesses grossed less than $25,000 annually, according to a 1985 survey conducted by FIU's Alex Stepick. The lack of investment capital has been constant, and today the community is limping along under the ongoing strain of the trade embargo A which not only paralyzed the import-export commerce, but required immigrants to send ever more money to relatives back in Haiti A the recession, the obligation to absorb the Guantanamo refugees, the agricultural jobs lost to the hurricane, the competition among semiskilled workers, and approximately 25 percent unemployment.)
After being rejected by several banks, Thermilus finally secured a $100,000 line of credit, and when he took out a $50,000 mortgage on his home to start Urban Constructors in 1988, he sent a white vice president out front to bid on contracts. The ploy worked, said Thermilus. "We wanted to go on our own merits, but that's not how it works." By the time clients learned the firm was black-owned, it was too late, and business rolled in, first private work and then, as the company's reputation for on-schedule quality spread, behemoth public-sector projects landed on his desk A the $3.9 million trauma center for Jackson Memorial Hospital, an $18 million project with the Dade County School Board. In 1991 Thermilus signed a $16 million joint-venture contract with Gerrits, his former employer, to construct a new runway at Miami International Airport. The terms of the partnership commit it to helping other minority businesses get a break, subcontracting work to smaller, black-owned firms, leveraging them into the system. By the end of the year, Thermilus's obsession with providing people with first chances had become well known throughout the financial community, and the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce named Urban Constructors its Small Business of the Year. Since then he's probably lost his eligibility for the award. Last year Thermilus opened new offices in Atlanta, Orlando, and Philadelphia; this year he expected his work force A Haitians, African-Americans, Cubans and other Latins, Anglos A to double to 200.
"We can build the space shuttle if we have to," said Bob Tyler, a black American and one of the company's vice presidents, who had joined us, beaming with confidence, in Thermilus's office. The vitality of the racial and ethnic mix at businesses like Urban Constructors is one of the reasons why Stepick characterizes Miami as "the multicultural crest of the wave of the American future."
Part of the discourse of being an American is trading stories about how your families got here. Thermilus, Tyler, and I engaged in such a conversation. Listening to Thermilus's Southern drawl and idiomatic speech, anyone would presume he was a native-born black American. But of course he isn't. As citizens and as Americans, both Thermilus and I had to bow to Bob Tyler's seniority over us, since his roots in the United States were by no means as shallow as ours.
"So should I bring the flag with me when I leave, huh?" Tyler joked. The three of us laughed, but our light-heartedness glossed over Miami's history of racism, and underscored the ethnic tension and mistrust that these two men A a Haitian-American and a black American A had victoriously overcome.
Throughout the Seventies and the Eighties, a war of stereotypes had been fiercely waged between the two communities. It didn't help that the media played the role of agitator, stoking the fires, as when they reported that the Centers for Disease Control had identified Haitians, together with homosexuals, intravenous drug abusers, and hemophiliacs, as a prime at-risk group for AIDS. The CDC's inclusion of Haitians was wrong and subsequently withdrawn, but by then the damage was done, and the stigma was indelible. Haiti has many proverbs that cut to the bone of complex behavior; one of those proverbs is Ever since Africa, blacks hate blacks. However you interpret the saying (Wenski saw it as a metaphor for original sin), and however much you think Europeans would be well advised to come up with a similar epigram to fit their own ethnocentric experience, the fact is that black Americans and Haitian immigrants in Miami have been slow to acknowledge the struggle they shared, and quick to denigrate their differences.
When Roger Biamby first came to Miami, he was outraged, he told me, by the derogatory statements made about Haitians by the black and Cuban communities. "I told them," he said angrily, "'If you think by bashing us you will advance yourselves socially and financially in any way, you're in for a big surprise.'" Black Americans were susceptible to the proposition that Haitians had come to steal their jobs; they strongly resented the inference of the Haitians' reputation among Anglos for industriousness. The language barrier was symptomatic, rather than genuinely causal, of each group's reluctance to fraternize with one another. There was a semantic conflict when Haitians claimed they weren't black, they were Haitian, a distinction that baffled and infuriated black Americans. Black Americans thought Haitians smelled; Haitians believed African-American women were not conscientious about hygiene. Haitians considered their counterparts fashion slaves, prone to ostentatious jewelry; black Americans snubbed Haitians for dressing like hicks. The individualism of black Americans irked Haitians, who accused blacks of not caring about their families. ("If you see a black man walking down the street, holding a child's hand, you know he's Haitian," an Anglo friend in Miami once told me.) Haitians thought black American children were too undisciplined, especially in the schools, and though that feeling still prevails, the volume of ethnocentric rhetoric has begun to fade, as it had in previous waves of immigrants A the Poles, the Irish, the Dutch, the Italians A in other cities, in other times.
"The best thing that ever happened to me is we moved to Miami," said Thermilus, expressing an unabashed love for his adopted city. "People just don't believe how good it is here. The county, the school board, the City of Miami A they try to make an effort to help all ethnic groups. It's getting more like people care. A couple of years ago it used to be blacks hating Hispanics, Hispanics hating blacks, blacks hating Haitians. It used to be more of a black, Hispanic, or white thing. Now it's more like, What is the right thing? Going into the Nineties, I see a trend: people don't mind that you're from a different culture, okay? It's how you treat them."
For most Haitians in Miami, however, acceptance is fragile, highly vulnerable to geopolitics and local politics, and Thermilus emphasized that his appreciation for his circumstances was not to be taken for self-deception. With fifteen other businessmen he had formed the Haitian Foundation, a political action committee that had made a substantial contribution to Carrie Meek's successful congressional campaign. I watched Thermilus's expression harden as we discussed the media's hyperventilating coverage of the imminent invasion of refugees that would be triggered by Clinton's inauguration.
"You know something," he said, gritting his teeth, "I don't really think it would be a problem for the State of Florida, if you want to know the truth. Give Haitians the opportunity and they will work all the time, and I think it's sad that people say because they come over here, they bring the economy down. We have Americans here who don't like to work. I give them jobs every day, so, I mean, that's a bunch of garbage. Americans should put themselves into the refugees' shoes. When people look back twenty years from now, we're going to say, 'You know, it was really unfair not to let them come in. What was the big deal?'"
As for himself, Thermilus had no illusions about the status he had achieved in his chosen world. "After you obtain money and power, it changes everything," he observed with a hint of melancholy. "You become a normal human being."
Up NE Second Avenue, the bold script on the side of a pink building could be read as Jacques Despinosse's vita:
Haitian American Citizenship and Voter Education Project Inc.
Haitian American Public Relations
A Immigration Services
A Citizenship Drive
A Citizenship Class
A Voter's Registration
Across from North Miami's city hall on NE 125th Street, Despinosse leased a second office, where he presided over the Haitian American Democratic Club. Like any venue around the nation where Democrats gathered back in January, anticipating Clinton's administration, the atmosphere at HADC was upbeat, yet duly sobered by the refugee crisis. Driving to a HADC meeting, I listened to the news on a local radio station as an announcer warned, in meteorological jargon made popular by Hurricane Andrew, "An immigration storm is brewing A Force 4, Force 5," and HADC was maneuvering to ensure that its own voice would be heard in the political and moral debate brewing over Haitian issues within the Clinton White House.
In the HADC meeting hall, there was a large conference table and a speaker's lectern (and a television mounted from the ceiling, usually tuned to CNN and local newscasts). Seated around the table were the members of the board (or their delegates) and a handful of politicians keenly interested in supporting the Krome hunger strikers' cause: an Anglo dentist; four county commission candidates (Jim Burke, Darryl Reaves, Henry Crespo, and Peter Gonzalez); a woman representing the Greater Miami Jewish Federation; a pair of West Indians; the Rev. Willie Sims, a Baptist minister and activist in Overtown and Liberty City; and the Haitian officers and various members of the club. Backdropped by an American flag, Despinosse stood behind the lectern in his tailored blue suit. Three pins adorned his lapels: Clinton-Gore, the Stars and Stripes, the flag of Haiti. He offered emotional thanks for the support of the Jewish community, "who knows what we are talking about here."
"Our community should not be divided by this issue," commission candidate Gonzalez declared, ostensibly speaking for Miami's Cubans.
"We are sick and tired in looking like the African-American community and the Haitian community is separate," said the Reverend Sims.
The point of all HADC functions, more than anything, was solidarity, the creation of a common front that breached ethnic and racial lines throughout South Florida. And that solidarity, energized by votes, translated into the greatest single ingredient missing from the Haitian equation A clout. What they were really all doing together was voting, for the first time putting their own candidates in place on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, although registering Haitians had not been so easy for several reasons, one of them being no one was entirely sure who exactly was a Haitian, or how many of them were around. About half of the estimated one million Haitians living in the United States can be found in New York; probably one-quarter are in Florida, with the other quarter seeded from coast to coast: a cab driver in Boston, a policeman in Houston, a nurse in San Francisco, an academic in Missouri, a Navy communications expert in Puerto Rico. FIU's Alex Stepick estimated there may be slightly more than 95,000 Haitians in Dade and Broward counties combined. Father Wenski, on the other hand, speculated that about 100,000 Haitians lived in Little Haiti alone. Place of birth further complicated the problem, as children born in the United States weren't registered as Haitians but as black Americans, and children born in, say, the Bahamas, were registered as West Indian Americans, et cetera.
Despinosse addressed another side of the dilemma in a conversation I had with him a few days before the HADC meeting. "I say to Haitians here," he told me, "in this country there's two factors: money, vote. When you talk to a politician, the first thing they want to know is, 'How many Haitian voters do you have?' Money and vote.
"I tell the Haitian, we have to understand this country. I understand it, but I've got to have players to play with me, okay? Some Haitians, though, they still get so upset. We see the Irish, the Polish, the Italians, the Jewish, everybody using the system. But what's going against us: many Haitians think they're still in Haiti. They want to survive here with the Haitian agenda, which is not possible. If many of them don't want to become citizens, that's their loss. Many of them think they will go back to Haiti, but becoming a citizen doesn't stop you from going back A that's your first mistake, okay? So I tell the Haitian people, 'Listen now, you don't have to be in Haiti to fight for Haiti.'"
Despinosse was a consummate ward politician and I soon noticed he made only a token effort to conceal his disdain for militants in the refugee community, whom he damned with faint praise, and seemed to relish explaining to them the benefits of taking "the upper-class approach" by working within the established order. "If you say you are a revolutionary group, and you go to Haiti and they grab you," he lectured, "then with my money, and my voting strength, I can put pressure to my senator and congressman to go there and release you, the same way we see Ted Kennedy and others went to Cuba and bring people back. And this is what I'm trying to preach, but some people, they can't see it."
Last year, when the presidential candidates campaigned in South Florida, Despinosse listened to each one's platform and promises and told himself, "Clinton is the man." After that HADC did "everything people are supposed to do in a campaign, A to Z." The club initiated a registration drive, chauffeured Hillary Clinton around Little Haiti, delivered two truckloads of food to Homestead in the wake of the hurricane, and sent a massive mailing to 10,000 Haitian-American citizens whose names appeared on master voting lists. The actual voting population in the community, however, is estimated to be three times that size. Add those votes to the votes of black Americans in Liberty City and Overtown, and Despinosse began to see the shape of the Haitians' power base.
"Let's not play games," he said. "While we're here, can we build a voting bloc, join together with people of similar concerns, and with people from other countries in the Caribbean, and let Bob Graham know, 'Listen, this is the way we want things to happen,' or 'You might get re-elected, sir, but without our support.' Let's call Connie Mack. Let's call Carrie Meek. Let's call Alcee Hastings." Clinton, as you might expect, was at the top of the list. In January Despinosse was granting the president-elect a 90-day grace period to resolve the Haitian issue. Beyond that, he predicted, expect to see the boats.
Not quite 90 days later I spoke to Despinosse by phone in Washington, where he was aggressively lobbying for his cause, which by now had evolved to include apologia for his president and party leader, as much as anything else. Was he disappointed, I wondered, that the Clinton administration was there in the Supreme Court, arguing in defense of George Bush's interdiction and repatriation policy?
"The Bush operatives left Clinton with no choice," said Despinosse. "Until he gets his own attorney general, he's buying time, rather than defending the Bush policy sending Haitians back to a death trap. We have to understand that after 30 years of Duvaliers, and twelve years of Republicans, it's going to take Clinton at least six months to get his government together. Until then I'll give him the benefit of the doubt." Despinosse had been up on the Hill all day, monitoring the Janet Reno confirmation hearings. "She was the most important missing piece for us. Now, thank God, he's got Janet Reno, and we'll see if he means business."
"Help us keep our people home in Haiti, where they want to be, believe me," Roseline Philippe told me back in January, as we sat around after the meeting had adjourned. The secretary of the Haitian American Democratic Club, she was employed by the YWCA to oversee day-care centers. An American citizen since the age of sixteen, she wanted to be sure I understood how she could love the Untied States, though her roots A and her heart A were back in Haiti. For a time during the Eighties, she had been able to marry those two sides of herself by teaching American government at a private school in Port-au-Prince. "I wanted my students to know true democracy, and how it operates. In America we learned what true democracy is and, given that knowledge, why wouldn't we want change in Haiti? This is what we learned in America. And now, for the first time, we know that we have political power." She paused to smile ruefully and added an afterthought. "Maybe they didn't expect it of us."
On another wall, there is a second, less subtle mural that, if paired with the mural in the Krome cafeteria, would compose a grim diptych of our national mood, a visual expression of two questions that gnaw incessantly at our self-image: Are we a well-intentioned people? Are we a racist society? Unfortunately the Haitian debate simplifies each issue, and riddles each answer with moral confusion.
On the storefront faaade of the Haitian Refugee Center in Little Haiti, an artist has painted the Statue of Liberty atop a pedestal of imprisoned blacks. In her free arm, Lady Liberty cradles a tablet bearing the inscription, NO HAITIANS. In the wave-tossed harbor below her feet, a ragged, bleeding man stumbles from his shipwrecked boat. He holds a sign asking, simply, WHY?
For Haitians, at the surface of their dilemma is the artificial distinction, manufactured by Washington, between economic and political refugees. No aspect of the argument against permitting Haitians to enter this country is more troublesome than the claim that few among them are actually political refugees. That the assertion has any legitimacy whatsoever is testimony to the resilience of our Cold War paradigms, in particular the notion that political refugees were people who fled from communism, while those leaving other countries were merely economic refugees seeking not safe haven but streets of gold. One might just as well ask, Is a trade embargo (against Haiti or Cuba or Iraq) an economic or a political act?
This neat bifurcation of refugees has served a number of purposes, mostly cynical. It allowed the United States, especially in its own hemisphere, to limit immigration A only Cubans and (in the Eighties) Nicaraguans need apply A and also, in effect, to ensure that immigrants would enter, to a substantial degree, well-off and educated, since it was those among the upper and middle classes who tended to leave in the wake of Marxist revolutions. Moreover, by denying political-refugee status to those fleeing other nations, the U.S. government was announcing that there was no kind of oppression of consequence except communist oppression A that the victims of the "dirty war" in Argentina, or the "anti-terror" campaign waged in the highlands of Guatemala, or the death squads in El Salvador, were different, were just poor, or possibly exaggerating, or maybe asking for it. That the violence in all these cases, including Haiti, was being carried out with U.S. aid or acquiescence, of course, had something to do with it.
The day I left Miami to return to my home in Tallahassee, a cold front had moved through the city. The skies were clear and fresh, invigorating, and that afternoon I returned to the grounds of Notre Dame d'Haiti. The church was sponsoring a weekend fair to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. I walked about under the canopy of live oak trees, scrutinizing the amusement park rides, becoming increasingly aware of their surrealism, which seemed to create a rather heavy-handed allegory of Haiti's history, the betrayal and treachery reconstructed within a carnival.
Here were the games of chance, the players trying their luck.
Here, where the shrieking came from, was the Ring of Fire.
On the edge of the festivities was the Sea Dragon, violently rocking its human cargo back and forth. Money fell out of pockets; vomit splattered down.
And here, for the preschoolers, were the Venice Boats, filled with little girls in their Sunday dresses, their hair in pigtails and adorned with pressed ribbons. The children were waving, the mothers were waving back. The boats went round and round, from the children came carefree bursts of laughter, and the mothers sighed with maternal contentment, and at the end of the ride, everyone was still together, no onewas locked up and no one was dead.
But this is not yet a happy ending.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Court Rules Michael Pizzi Should Be Reinstated as Mayor of Miami Lakes
- 305 Is One of the Most In-Demand Area Codes in the Country
- DJ Laz Won't Face Criminal Charges Over Deadly Nixon Sandbar Boat Accident