Longform

Inside Little Haiti

Page 2 of 11

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.

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Bob Shacochis