Inside Little Haiti

Page 4 of 11

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.

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Bob Shacochis