by Felix Eme Unaeze and Richard E. Perrin
Haiti, an independent republic since 1804, is the oldest black republic in the world. It is located in the West Indies on the western third of the Island of Hispaniola, which lies between Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. The eastern two-thirds of the island is the Dominican Republic. Haiti, which occupies a total area of 10,714 square miles (27,750 sq. km.), is slightly larger than the State of Maryland. Mostly rough and mountainous in terrain with Massif de la Selle and La Hotte among the main ranges, Haiti also contains a few plateaus and plains such as the Northern Plain, Artibonite, and Cul-de-Sac. Haiti has a tropical climate with temperatures that vary between 70 and 90 degrees all year, although December and January can be quite cool. There are two rainy seasons, one beginning in April and ending in May, and the other beginning in October and ending in November. Tropical thunderstorms are frequent during the summer.
In 1992, Haiti's population was estimated to be about 6.5 million inhabitants, with approximately 71 percent living in rural areas and about 29 percent in urban centers. Haiti records one of the highest population densities in the world, with about 600 persons per square mile. The birth rate is about 44.6 per 1000 people and the fertility rate is about six children per woman. The death rate is about 15.6 deaths per 1000 persons. Life expectancy at birth is 53 years for males and 55 years for females.
The people of Haiti are primarily of African descent, although a smaller percentage is mulatto, and therefore of European and African descent. Creole is the main language spoken with about ten percent of the population fluent in French. The literacy rate is 23 percent. About 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and ten percent is Protestant; Voodoo is practiced by a majority of the people. The capital city is Port-au-Prince, the country's largest city, which boasts a population of about 1,148,000 people. Other major cities are Cap-Haitien, Gonaives, Les Cayes, Jeremie, and Jacmel. The national flag is horizontally blue over red with the national arms on a centered white panel. The national anthem is La Dessalinienne: Pour le pays, pour les ancêtres, which translates as "for the country, for the ancestors," with lyrics by J. Lherisson and music by N. Geffrand (1903).
The island, which was first inhabited by Indian tribes—the Arawaks, the Tainos, and lastly the Caraibes—called their country "Quisqueya" and later "Haiti," which means "the body of land." The island has had a turbulent and bitter history. When Christopher Columbus landed at the Mole St. Nicholas Bay on December 5, 1492, he claimed the island in the interest of the Spanish rulers who had financed the expedition—Ferdinand and Isabella—and called it "Hispaniola," which means "Little Spain."
Although the Indians welcomed the new settlers, the discovery of gold in the riverbeds sent the Spaniards into a frenzied search for the coveted nuggets. The Indians died by the thousands from diseases introduced by the Spaniards, who also enslaved the natives, treated them with extreme cruelty, and massacred them. The Indian population was reduced from about 300,000 to less than 500. In 1510, the Spaniards began to import their first African slaves from the West Coast of Africa to work in the gold mines. The French, who came in 1625 and changed the name of the island to Saint Domingue, fought the Spaniards to keep a hold on part of the territory. After Spain signed a treaty in 1697 in which it conceded the western part of the island to France, the colony developed rapidly under French rule. The 700,000 slaves who worked cotton, sugar cane, and coffee plantations generated great wealth for the plantation owners; Saint Domingue became a prosperous colony in the New World and was called "the Pearl of the Caribbean."
After the French Revolution in 1789, the slaves revolted against the colonists and the movement spread to the north and then to the west and the south. Under the leadership of such famous generals as Toussaint L'Ouverture, the slaves made significant progress in their struggle. Self-educated, Toussaint served first in the Spanish army and then in the French army. He was one of the main instruments of Haiti's independence, defeating the English who had invaded Saint Domingue. He also administered and divided the country into districts without the approval of the mainland "Metropole." The French later grew angry with General Toussaint and placed him in a French prison where he died on April 7, 1803 from hunger and lack of medical care. Although disheartened, the indigenous army fought under Generals Dessalines and Petion, and beat the French army at every turn. French General Leclerc died of yellow fever on November 2, 1803; his successor, General Rochambeau, took refuge. Dessalines surrounded his officers and proclaimed the independence of Saint Domingue in Gonaives on January 1, 1804, and restored the former name of Haiti. Independence was won and the country became the second, after the United States, in the Western Hemisphere to become an independent republic.
Dessalines became Haiti's first head of state. Following the elaboration and ratification of a constitution, full powers were given to Dessalines on September 2, 1804. He proclaimed himself Emperor and took the name Jacques the First. He redistributed the country's wealth and converted most of the colonist plantations to state property. He made many political enemies who later resented his manner of governing. Ambushed on his way to Port-au-Prince, he was killed on October 17, 1806. After his death, a constituent assembly amended the Constitution and limited the powers of the president. General Henri Christophe, who had started a power struggle with General Alexandre Petion, withdrew to the northern part of the country and formed a new government; Petion was elected president in March of 1807, thus dividing the new nation. Petion governed the West and South while Christophe ruled the North. In March of 1811, Christophe proclaimed himself king and took the name of Henri the First. Because of his strict regulations, the Kingdom of the North became prosperous, and he erected monuments, which became symbols of power and authority. For example, the Citadel Laferriere, a monument to human endurance, was constructed by the labor of 20,000 men between 1805 and 1814 as a center of resistance against any attempt by foreigners to conquer the island. His ornate palace at Sans Souci near Cap Haitien and his vast citadel, though in ruins, are likewise marvels of massive masonry. When Christophe died in an apparent suicide in 1820, the North and South were reunited with Jean-Pierre Boyer succeeding Petion.
Twenty different presidents headed the Haitian government from 1867 to 1915, and Haiti's unstable political and economic conditions made it vulnerable to outside intervention. Haiti's rising external debt caused European countries to threaten force to collect. At this time, World War I was at its peak in Europe and in July of 1915, the United States Marines landed on Haiti's coast and occupied the country. Under the Monroe Doctrine—a document stating U.S. opposition to European involvment in the Western Hemisphere—the U.S. Marines remained in Haiti for 19 years from 1915 until 1934. The Haitian people resented American occupation and wanted to restore their national sovereignty. Guerrilla resistance movements were in place but were crushed. In 1946, a popular movement brought forth a rising middle class whose members asked for the sharing of power and liberalization of governmental institutions. The movement was aborted, which contributed to the fall of then-President Elie Lescot (1941-1946), and Dumarsais Estime was elected president. From that period on, all Haitian presidents, with the exception of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, have been deposed by military coup d'état.
In 1957, François Duvalier was elected president. He became a dictator, enforcing a reign of terror with his secret police, sometimes referred to as tonton macoute. Duvalier proclaimed himself President-for-Life in 1964 and his reign of terror continued. The Haitian economy began to deteriorate and the people were suffering seriously in the 1960s. He died in 1971 and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who was only 19 years old, succeeded his father. Both Duvaliers ruled for nearly 30 years. It was during this period that many Haitians fled Haiti. Jean-Claude followed in his father's footsteps, maintaining the same policies of hate and oppression. He was ousted by the Haitian people on February 7, 1986. From 1986 until 1990, four different provisional governments were put into power with the sole purpose of holding general elections, but popular discontent forced them out. Free elections were held on December 16, 1990; and, although the Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected by a majority of 67 percent, he was overthrown by the army on September 30, 1991, and took refuge in the United States. He was restored to his position through peaceful negotiation; he returned to Haiti under a United States military escort and was reinstated on October 15, 1994.
THE FIRST HAITIANS IN AMERICA
During the 1790s, Haiti was the most affluent of the French colonies. It was then that the black populace of the island revolted against slavery and there was a panicked exodus. Thousands of whites, free blacks, and slaves fled to American seaports, culminating in large French-speaking communities in New Orleans, Norfolk, Baltimore, New York City, and Boston. Immigrants from Haiti who arrived in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were determined to survive in their new land. Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, a trapper who settled on the shore of Lake Michigan was an early Haitian arrival; he settled and established a trading post on the river at a point that would later become the City of Chicago. Pierre Toussaint, a devout Catholic who came to New York as a slave of a French family in 1787, became a prominent hair dresser to wealthy New York patrons and also became a fund-raiser who helped the poor and destitute. France was a safe haven for many educated Haitians, and only a few middle-class Haitians chose to go to the United States. Many of them stayed to receive a university education. A renowned poet and playwright, Felix Morisseau-Leroy was one of the post-World War II immigrants.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
According to the United States Census of 1990, there were about 290,000 people who claimed Haitian ancestry; however, this figure does not include the tens of thousands who were in the United States illegally. Moreover, there are second- and third-generation Haitian Americans who simply identify themselves as black; also, some legal immigrants may find it difficult to admit to roots that go back to a Caribbean nation so often associated with superstition and poverty. However, anthropologists estimate that about 1.2 million people in the United States are of Haitian ancestry.
There are five major documented periods of Haitian immigration to the United States: the period of French colonization; the Haitian revolution (1791-1803); the United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934); the period of the Duvaliers (1957-1986); and the overthrow of President Aristide (1991). For almost three decades, from 1957 to 1986, when François "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier were in power, political persecution caused Haitian professionals, the middle class, and students to leave the island in large numbers. Haitians emigrated in search of political asylum or permanent residence status in various countries such as the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, France, Dominican Republic, French Guyana, and Africa.
In the 1980s, many Haitian immigrants arrived in the United States by boat on the shores of Florida and were known as the "boat people." While President Carter gave such refugees a legal status similar to Cubans in 1980 with his Cuban-Haitian entrant program, 18 months later, President Reagan subscribed to a policy of interdiction and indefinite detention for Haitian boat people refugees. Six months later, in June 1982, a federal court ruled against such detention and several thousand refugees were released. In 1986, 40,000 Haitians who came to the United States seeking political asylum were given permanent resident status.
A similar pattern of events occurred in the 1990s. When Aristide was removed by military coup in 1991, there was another wave of Haitian boat people. Under Presidents Bush and Clinton, many were not allowed to reach the shores of the United States. Instead they were stopped at sea, and returned to Haiti. Others were put in detention camps; indefinite detention still occurred. Between 1995 and 1998, 50,000 Haitians were given asylum and temporary legal status, but not permanent like many of their Nicaraguan and Cuban counterparts. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights pushed for legislation to address this issue. In 1998, the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act was adopted, and those immigrants were given the opportunity to apply for such status.
As with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, Michel S. Laguerre has documented that volunteer lawyers and local activists have helped many refugees remain in their adopted country, through the generosity of various humanitarian organizations. However, Laguerre—in his book American Odyssey: The Haitians in New York City —has also recorded that some refugees attempted suicide while in detention. Despite the odds, the Haitian refugees had the energy and determination to survive in the United States. In her book, Demele: "Making It", social anthropologist Rose-Marie Chierici, herself a Haitian American, has recounted how Haitian immigrants used the Creole word "demele" to manage life in the face of hardship.
Every wave of migration from Haiti has come during political turmoil there; however, economic malaise has always accompanied such turmoil so it has been difficult to distinguish political from economic migrants. Some of the Haitian refugees were thought to have left their homeland because of economic rather than political reasons. Early Haitian immigrants stayed in cities in the United States where they could work and maintain contact with their homeland. The greatest concentration of immigrants are found in New York City, Miami, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Boston. Until 1977, Brooklyn was the heart of Haitian America; however, between 1977 and 1981, 60,000 Haitian boat people landed in South Florida, and the center of the Haitian Diaspora moved south to a community of stucco cottages and mom-and-pop businesses anointed "Little Haiti."
In the early 1980s, thousands of Haitian doctors, teachers, social workers and entrepreneurs moved from New York to Miami. Restaurants serving conch and goat meat and record shops blaring Haitian meringue music sprang up on 54th Street and Northeast Second Avenue. The Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant in Miami Beach also serves as a Haitian hangout.
Haitian immigrants are employed in all types of fields. Deborah Sontag reported in the New York Times on June 3, 1994, that among the early immigrants, Haitian workers include not only migrant workers in Homestead, Florida, but also wealthy doctors on Long Island, taxi drivers in Manhattan as well as college professors in Washington, D.C.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Like most immigrants in the United States, Haitians are busy in the pursuit of the American dream. Almost every Haitian American wishes to buy a home as a matter of status and security. This is implied in the saying, "Se vagabon ki loue kay," which means, "Respectable people don't rent." However, behind the facade of pride and achievement, there is a litany of social problems—battered women, homeless families, and economic exploitation. The problems that face Haitian immigrants are enormous and complex. Moreover, the problem of undocumented immigrants who live in constant fear of being deported and thrown into Haitian jails has also led to stress-related emotional disorders, which frequently keep the immigrants from using such facilities as public hospitals. Instead, they rely on folk medicine to cure ordinary aliments or they seek a private clinic with Haitian medical personnel. Marc Abraham, a Haitian who has lived on Long Island for 37 years, "I think Americans see Haitians as desperate people instead of decent people who struggle." Abraham continues: "I have to understand that hostility, I guess, to take it off my heart. I mean, this country has enough problems without ours too."
According to Father Thomas Wenski, director of Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center in Miami, Haitians have been specifically and harshly excluded because of "America's endemic 'negrophobia' and inherent racism." Haitians have been excluded because of their race and economic condition. "Thus," says Wenski, "one must ask: will the Haitians be able to assimilate into American society as other immigrant groups of the past? Again, Haitians are black and can Haitians hope for a 'piece of the American pie' while native-born American blacks still fight for crumbs? Many would see an eventual amalgamation into the African American community but does such a view give too much importance to race as a determinant and underrate such values as religion and culture?" (Fr. Thomas Wenski, "Haitians in South Florida," unpublished research done in Miami, Florida, July 1991.)
The tide seemed to be changing by 1998. In a box office, black-oriented hit movie that summer, Stella Got Her Groove Back, a remark is made about Haiti being full of carriers of the disease AIDS. The Haitian-American community, led by the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, organized a protest. The film's distributor, Universal, apologized, and the line was removed from the video version of the film. This was seen by the Haitian American community as a victory in respect for Haitian Americans.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Haitian Americans, by nature, have a strong belief in the culture, traditions and mores of their homeland. Haitian Americans believe, for example, that several types of illness are of supernatural origin and caused by angry spirits. Most believe that a Voodoo family has a spirit protector whose role is to protect its members from the malevolent powers of other spirits.
The institution of the family has made possible their enclaves in the United States. It is here that a bond with the old country is maintained, consciously or unconsciously. Laguerre has noted: "The family provides a niche within which a cultural continuity can be adapted to the exigencies of the new environment. Through the medium of the family, which influences the behaviors of its members through the mechanism of socialization, immigrants were able to retain some of their cultural heritage and develop an awareness of their ethnic legacy."
Haitian families spend their leisure time within their own family and friendship groups. Visits are made to friends and relatives especially on the weekends. It is important to be warm and hospitable to visitors by offering them food and drink. Visitors are usually parents, other relatives, in-laws, and friends. Haitian social circles commonly celebrate
Haitians have a keen sense of humor which is reflected in many of their proverbs: Beyond the mountains there are more mountains; A dog has four paws, but it can go only one way; Little by little the bird makes its nest; Only the knife knows what is in the heart of the yam; The goat looks at the home owner's eyes before entering his house; Every vein affects the heart; An empty sack cannot stand up; With patience you will see the belly button of an ant; All that you do not know is greater than you; The big water pot is not a spring; You can hurry as much as you like, but being in too big a hurry will not make the day dawn.
Haitian cooking is a unique blend of many cultural influences. It is a mixture of the traditions of Europeans, West African slaves, and indigenous people of the island. The most common ingredients used in Haitian cuisine are black-eyed peas, squash, pumpkins, cassava, rice, cornmeal, and plantain. The meat served tends to be spicy and high in salt and fat. In the United States, Sunday dinners often consist of spicy chicken and goat, rice and djondjon, a dried mushroom.
Pois et ris is a combination of kidney beans and rice and is considered the national dish of Haiti.
Haitians celebrate Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Carnival or Mardi Gras, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day on the days that are traditionally celebrated in other parts of the world. Flag and University Day is the most celebrated national holiday and is held on May 18. Other important holidays are Independence Day (January 1), Ancestors Day (January 2), the Anniversary of Dessalines' Death (October 17), and Discovery of Haiti Day (December 5).
Health care beliefs vary widely among Haitian Americans. Immigrants from rural areas usually do not seek help from a physician but rely instead on folk healers. Immigrants from the cities are more likely to go to a physician or other professional health care provider. Social class and education also influence the type of medical help sought. Those from a lower social class or those who have not attained legal status in the United States rely on health care that is readily available to them such as home remedies, family recommendations, folk healers, and Voodoo medicine. The mother or grandmother is usually responsible for diagnosing symptoms and keeping alive the traditions of the family in treating sickness. First-generation Haitian Americans initially try home remedies prepared by members of the older generation; if these are unsuccessful, the person is advised to seek help from a physician, folk healer, or Voodoo priest. The use of folk healers is often limited because the medicinal preparations and elements of traditional health care are not available locally. The size of the local Haitian group affects the number of traditional healers.
The Voodooist folk healer is a Voodoo priest who has studied the mythology of spirits and which plants have the properties necessary for home remedies. Treatment involves prayers and herbal remedies. Neighborhood licensed pharmacies specialize in herbal remedies and French medications. They have Haitian personnel and sell the type of products from home which are familiar to Haitian Americans. Haitians consider eating well, good personal hygiene, and keeping regular hours as important qualities for maintaining good health. Fat people are considered healthy and happy, whereas thin people are believed to be in poor health caused by psychological and emotional problems.
The following statements may be used by a Haitian American when he is ill: Kom pa bon (I do not feel well)—indicates a temporary situation and that the person will soon be well; Dan tan zan tan moin malad (I feel sick from time to time)—indicates how the person feels about his/her general health; Moin an konvalesans (I am convalescing)—indicates that the person was sick and is now getting better; Moin malad (I am sick)—indicates the person is ill but the illness will not lead to death; Moin malad anpil (I am very sick)—indicates that the person is in a critical condition; Moin pap refe (I will never get well again)—indicates that the person is going to die from the illness.
Haitians from rural areas believe that illness can be of supernatural origin or natural origins. Natural illnesses are called maladi pei (country diseases) or maladi bon die (diseases of the Lord). Natural illnesses last for only a short time. Supernatural illnesses appear suddenly and the person does not feel any previous signs of illness. Angry Voodoo spirits are believed to cause several types of illness. This occurs when a person offends the family's Voodoo spirit protector in some manner. A Voodoo priest is consulted to help in diagnosing the illness. The priest attempts to contact the spirit to find out the reason for the spirit's unhappiness, what the person must do to make the spirit happy, and what medications the ill person must take.
Another belief commonly held by Haitians of all classes is that of the effect of blood irregularities on causing dangerous illnesses. Terms such as san cho (hot blood) and san fret (cold blood) are used to describe various conditions. Blood is believed to control the hot or cold state of the body. Various "blood" terms are used to describe what condition or state of health a person is in during certain types of activity.
Gaz (gas), a common complaint, can cause pain and anemia. It can occur in the head, shoulder, back, legs, or appendix. It is believed to cause kolik (stomach pain) and van nan tet (gas in the head), which causes headaches. A tea made of garlic, cloves, and mint or solid foods, such as corn, is used to treat these conditions. The milk of a nursing mother is believed to cause certain illnesses if it becomes "too thick" or "too thin." If a mother becomes frightened, the belief is that the milk moves to her head and causes a bad headache. It may also cause depression in the nursing mother and diarrhea in the baby.
Foods may be divided into hot, cold, or neutral categories and are believed to affect the health of an individual. Anything that creates an imbalance between "hot" and "cold" factors may cause illness or discomfort. Treatments which must be used to treat these illnesses are the opposite of the class of the disease. "Hot" medicines are used to treat "cold" conditions. Patent or herbal medicines are also used to treat these diseases. Cough medicines ("hot") are used to treat coughs and colds ("cold").
The following home remedies are used: Asorousi is a tea boiled from leaves that will restore a person's appetite; Fey korosol is used to bathe a child's head to cure insomnia; a variety of leaves are used for gas or if a child's stomach is swollen; and warm oils are used in combination with massage to solve a number of problems from aching or sprained bones to displaced organs.
Haitian Americans often believe that only traditional healers have the knowledge and skills to treat particular illnesses so that it does not make sense to take these complaints to an American doctor. Haitian Americans often have problems with the behavior of American physicians during an office visit. The patient expects the physician to receive him or her with a few moments of conversation about the patient's life in general and then a straightforward, hands-on examination of the patient. The examination should not include a long list of questions by the doctor; it is the doctor, not the patient, who is supposed to determine what is wrong. Patients respect doctors who try to learn about their cultural beliefs and practices.
Two languages are spoken in Haiti: Creole and French. French is the official language and is spoken by the educated elite. The great majority of Haitians, however, speak only Creole.
The term Creole derives from the Portuguese word " crioulo " meaning an individual of European ancestry who was born and reared abroad. Haitian Creole developed when slaves who were taken to the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue from various areas of the west coast of Africa interacted with each other and with Europeans. Although predominantly French, some Spanish and Amerindian (Carib and Arawak) words have entered the language. While Haitian Creole has a French word base, the two languages are distinct. The sentence structure of Creole is basically African, but it has its own grammar, morphology, and syntax.
Haitian immigrants to the United States, especially the more recent ones, communicate best in Creole. This causes problems in interaction with Americans who have little knowledge of Creole and believe that all Haitians speak French.
GREETINGS AND OTHER COMMON EXPRESSIONS
Common Haitian greetings and other expressions include: Allo ("ah-low")—Hi!; Bonjou ("boon-ZHEW")—Good morning/day; Bonswa ("bon-SWA")—Good afternoon/evening; Ki jan ou rele? ("kee jan oo ray lay")—What is your name?; M rele... ("m ray lay ...")—My name is ...; Kote ou rete? ("ko TAY oo ray TAY")—Where do you live?; Ki numewo telefon ou? ("kee new meh-wo tele FON OO")—What is your telephone number?; Suple ("soo-PLAY")—Please; Chita ! ("SHEE-tah")—Sit down!; Kanpe ! ("kan PAY")—Stand up!; Mesi ("MAY-see")—Thank you; Orevwa ("oh-ray-VWAH")—Goodbye.
Family and Community Dynamics
The family is the nucleus of Haitian society; within it, individuals are dependent upon each other. The traditional Haitian family is a composed of father, mother, children, and grandparents. The family is involved in all decision-making for its members. The patriarchal system is prevalent, but many women rear children without the consistent presence of the father. By tradition, the father is the breadwinner and authority figure. The mother is the household manager and disciplinarian.
Family honor is of utmost importance. Family reputation is so important that the actions of a member of the family are considered to bring either honor or shame to the entire family. A family's reputation in society is based on honesty and former family history. Offspring of the grandes familles are considered excellent prospects for marriage.
From birth, males are granted more freedom and educational opportunities than females. Transgressions in behavior are more readily overlooked in males, and the male "macho" image is admired since men play the dominant role in society. Females in urban areas of Haiti lead a sheltered and protected life. The family and educational system prepares them for marriage and respectability. Social mobility outside the home is usually limited. Adolescent girls do not go out alone and their activities are closely controlled. They are expected to help with chores and care for siblings at home. Women in rural areas have always worked. They farm as well as perform household tasks. They are the backbone of the economic stability of the family. Traditionally, clear distinctions have existed between male and female roles. These are changing due to economic conditions. More urban women are working outside the home, enjoying some degree of freedom, and are less willing to play a subservient role to the male. This is especially true in the United States. Many women want a greater voice in the decision-making processes of their homes.
Haitian American parents are generally strict with their children, as is customary in Haiti. The children are monitored by the adults of the family. Adult rules are to be respected and obeyed without question. Children are expected to live at home until they are married. Haitian American children seem to accept these customs and values despite the freer attitudes and lifestyles they see in their American counterparts. Haitian parents have immigrated to seek a better standard of life for their children and they want to obtain a good formal education for them. They want their children to grow up to be obedient, responsible, and close to the family.
Treatment of the elderly in Haiti differs from that in the United States. Senior citizens are highly respected because they have wisdom that can only come from living a long life. Sending an aged parent to a nursing home is unthinkable for Haitians. Children vie with each other as to whom will be granted the privilege of caring for the parents.
Haitian families maintain regular contact with relatives in Haiti by visiting them during winter or summer vacations. Some also return during the carnival period and for relatives' funerals. Still others return for familial Voodoo gatherings. The Voodoo believers, who cannot return to the island because they do not have resident status, often help pay for such ceremonies. Haitian Americans keep in regular contact with family members in Haiti and even send money home for child care and other family matters. There is a common belief that once you take in a Haitian there will come other Haitians.
Haitian Americans also maintain contact with a network of friends and neighbors. This network enables them to know what is happening around their communities and to help each other. Old friends in Haiti have a common background and maintain their relationships in the United States. The immigrants try to maintain survival contacts with neighbors in the same apartment buildings. The more interaction the family has with other Haitian immigrants, the more the community is able to maintain its cultural tradition, its folklore, the Creole language, and other aspects of social life.
The most common marital relationship among the rural and urban lower class was plasaj, an arrangement not recognized by the state. The man and woman often make an explicit agreement about their economic relationship at the beginning of the marriage. The husband is required to cultivate at least one plot of land for the wife and to provide her with a house. The wife is expected to perform most household tasks. The plasaj previously would take place with beautiful traditional ceremonies and secret ritualistic sacrifices to the ancestors. Because weddings were expensive, many couples waited several years before having them. Due to the expense, however, few of these ceremonies remain today. The upper class traditionally had civil and religious marriage ceremonies, which were arranged mainly for prestige rather than legality. The "best" families could trace legally married family members back to the nineteenth century.
To Haitians, death goes far beyond the immediate family. It includes the various loa (lesser deities) and the many dead relatives and ancestors. Some Haitians believe that the dead live in close proximity to the loa, in a place called "Under the Water." Others hold that the dead have no special place after death. Many believe that a dead person will become a loa. Sometimes the spirits of the dead do not go quietly but remain behind to annoy the living.
Burial ceremonies vary according to local tradition and the status of the person. Relatives and friends expend considerable effort to be present when death is near. The family does not express grief aloud until most of the deceased's possessions have been removed from the home. Persons who are knowledgeable in the funeral customs wash, dress, and place the body in a coffin. Mourners wear white clothing which represents death. A priest may be summoned to conduct the burial service. The burial usually takes place within 24 hours.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHER ETHNIC MINORITIES
Haitians face a identity dilemma in the United States. Although they are different in national origin, they are almost physically indistinguishable from other black Americans. They cannot easily merge with the rest of the black population because of their language and culture. Haitian Americans perceive differences between themselves and other blacks. Most seek a middle ground between being merged with the rest of the black population and complete isolation. Haitian language and culture are preserved at home, which makes it possible for Haitian immigrants to separate themselves from the Afro-American culture around them. Traditional Haitian values are carefully guarded. They adapt to the dominant American culture while retaining their distinctive lifestyle at home. By the late 1990s, a distinct Haitian American identity was slowly forming in the public eye.
Religion is a basic force in the lives of Haitians who have migrated to the United States and they continue the beliefs that they brought with them from Haiti. Religious groups and churches serve as a powerful unifying element in the lives of the immigrants.
The national religion of Haiti is Roman Catholicism. The first missionaries were Catholic, and the schools that they established are still highly regarded for their educational standards; it is common for even the non-Catholic children to attend Catholic schools. Protestant churches are strong and vigorous in Haiti. Protestant missionaries have increased substantially and represent Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal as well as other evangelical denominations.
An important focus of Haitian religious life centers around Voodoo, which blends elements of Catholicism with those of diverse African beliefs resulting in Haitian Voodoo. It appears throughout the art, music and social customs of Haiti. Voodoo is a set of beliefs and practices that deals with the spiritual forces of the universe and attempts to keep the individual in harmonious relation with them as they affect his life.
A key to understanding the relationship and interplay between Catholicism and Voodooism is the fusion of the two belief systems. Children born into rural families are generally baptized twice, once into the Voodoo religion and once in the Catholic church. Voodoo means many things. It means an attitude toward life and death, a concept of ancestors and the afterworld, and a recognition of the forces which control individuals and their activities.
Those who practice Voodooism believe in a pantheon of gods who control and represent the laws and forces of the universe. In this pantheon, there is the Supreme Deity, the master of all gods, the loa who are a large group of lesser deities, and the twins known as marassas. Twins are believed to have special powers and once a year special services are held for them.
In Voodoo the major gods are classified into the four natural elements: water, air, fire and earth. There is also a god of love, of death, etc. These lesser gods (loas) are analogous to the saints of the Catholic Church and those of African gods. These gods are not only expected to protect people, but they are also expected to accord special favors through their representatives on earth which are the hougans (priests) and mambos (priestesses). In Voodoo, the soul continues to live on earth and may be used in magic or it may be incarnated in a member of the dead person's family. This belief is similar to Catholicism in that the soul is believed to be immortal. Elaborate burial customs have been established to keep the dead buried in the ground. It is believed that corpses that have been removed from their tombs may be turned into zombies, who then serve the will of their masters.
Voodoo worship centers in family groups and cult groups headed by a hougan or mambo. Ceremonies are performed annually for such events as Christmas and the harvest and also for specials occasions such as initiations and memorial services. Believers have obligations for the worship of their loa and their ancestors. Expert help is called in to help with the ceremonies which consist of Roman Catholic prayers, drumming and dancing, and the preparation of feasts. Each group of worshipers is independent and there is no central organization, religious leader, or set of beliefs. Beliefs and ceremonies often vary, depending upon family traditions.
Employment and Economic Traditions
When François Duvalier came to power in 1957, many dissident politicians, middle-class professionals, and tradespeople left Haiti and headed for New York City. The most recent wave of immigrants has included the poorer people of Haiti, who have entered the migrant workforce or the menial jobs in the New York City area. Haitian Americans are hard-working and use the lower-status jobs as springboards to better, more permanent positions. Many businesses dependent on trade with Haiti have been hurt by the international embargo against the country. This is especially true in Little Haiti in Miami where unemployment is running about 30 percent. From an analysis of the 1990 U.S. Census data, about six percent of the nation's Haitian households or about 5,300 individuals collect welfare benefits, compared to about five percent of households generally. Groups like the National Coalition for Haitian Rights was trying to change that in 1998. The Coalition was developing leadership training and education programs to empower the Haitian community.
Haitian Americans are accustomed to using rotating credit associations as an avenue of saving. Such associations are called in Creole "sangue," "min," or "assosie." They rotate money to members of the association from a lump-sum fund into which each member has contributed an amount of money. It is assumed that the Haitians adapted this system of contribution from their West African friends who call it "esusu." Haitian immigrants, especially undocumented ones who have no banking accounts, use the sangue to buy homes and finance various business ventures.
Politics and Government
New York City has traditionally been the center for Haitian opposition politics. More than 30 political groups opposed to the dictatorship of François Duvalier have been in existence there since 1957. Some have had to operate secretly because of fear of reprisals against family members back home in Haiti. Political activities in New York have occurred during three periods. The first period was from 1956 to 1964 when former Haitian officials dominated and hoped to install a new president and to introduce reforms in the Haitian government system. Several attempted invasions of Haiti occurred during this period. The next period of activity occurred during the years from 1965 through 1970. The Haitian American Coalition (La Coalition Hatienne) was formed in 1964, composed of the groups Jeune Haiti, Les Forces Revolutionnaires Haitiennes, Le Mouvement Revolutionnaires du 12 Novembre, and followers of ex-President Paul-Eugene Magloire. The Coalition published a newspaper Le Combattant Haitien and broadcast messages to Haiti on Radio Vonvon. In 1970 the coalition was dissolved and La Resistance Haitienne was organized, which had more popular support. In 1971, the Comité de Mobilisation was formed to attempt to overthrow Jean-Claude Duvalier. This group was dissolved and in 1977, Le Regroupement de Forces Democratiques was formed to force Duvalier from power after he had completed his six-year term. Involvement in the American political process began in earnest in 1968 when Haitian Americans formed the Haitian American Political Organization. This organization was formed to lobby on behalf of the Haitian American community. Haitian Americans have worked in various elections to increase their presence as political force to obtain public services to be provided to the community.
On April 20, 1990, more than 50,000 Haitian Americans marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to protest the action of the Centers for Disease Control and the American Red Cross. These organizations had ruled that no Haitian could donate blood because all Haitians were AIDS risks. This was one of the largest demonstrations of its type and encouraged local leaders to find a Haitian candidate for the city council from Brooklyn.
Currently, an increasing amount of political activity has involved attempts to help the "boat people" who have tried to escape oppressive conditions in Haiti. The Haitian Refugee Center in Miami and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights work to help those refugees trapped in the American legal system and facing possible deportation. The Coalition also worked to help Haitians in Haiti. The group reported in 1997 that the police force in Haiti, trained by the United States, engaged in abusive tactics. It also showed that the United States and the European Union were engaging in useless judicial reform efforts, prompting a policy change.
The American Revolution saw the participation of freedmen from Saint Domingue who fought under General Lafayette at Savannah in 1779. From 1814 to 1815, Joseph Savary headed the Second Battalion of Freemen of Color which fought under General Andrew Jackson. Savary was the first black to hold the rank of major in the U.S. Army.
Since the largest number of immigrants arrived in the United States after World War II, there was not a great involvement on their part in earlier wars. Many Haitian Americans, however, served in Vietnam. Haitian Americans currently serve in the U.S. armed forces; indeed, many of them were sent to Haiti to serve as Creole interpreters during the efforts to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Individual and Group Contributions
Michel S. Laguerre, an anthropologist in the Department of Afro-American Studies, University of California at Berkeley, has researched many aspects of Haitian American life and has published numerous books and articles. Tekle Mariam Woldemikael, a sociologist in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Whittier College in Whittier, California, has written several studies concerning Haitian Americans. Carole M. Berotte Joseph, who was born in Port-au-Prince and came to the U.S. in 1957, is the Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Student Services at the City College School of Education in New York City where she is an authority on bilingual and foreign language teaching; she is a founder of the International Alliance for Haiti, Inc. Michaelle Vincent, the District Supervisor Binlingual and Foreign Language Skills of the Dade County (Florida) Public Schools, is a consultant on Haitian culture and the Creole language, developing and implementing seminars on Haitian culture; she also hosted a daily radio show in Haitian Creole on WLRN in Miami.
JOURNALISM AND BROADCASTING
Joel Dreyfuss, editor of PC Magazine, emigrated from Haiti in the 1950s; he has published extensively in computer magazines as well as the New York Times. Marcus Garcia is the editor and publisher of Haiti En Marche, a weekly newspaper published in Miami; most articles are published in French but there is a section in Creole for Creole language speakers. Raymond Cajuste is a filmmaker and host of a program on Radio Tropicale. Ricot Dupuy is the station manager of Radio Soleil which was created after the 1991 coup in Haiti; he also helps new refugees with their needs upon arriving in New York.
The migration of Haitians to the United States has caused a boom in its music. Haitian music serves as an anchor connecting individuals with their country, one another, and themselves. Music functions as a sanctioned means of social protest. Wyclef Jean, one-third of the rap group, The Fugees, is a source of pride for Haitians and Haitian Americans. Not only does he incorporate his country's music in his rap songs but he also gives back to his fellow countrymen through benefit concerts. Theodore Beaubrun is the lead singer and composer of the Boukman Eksperyans whose songs assault Haiti's evildoers; the music is steeped in the symbolism of Voodoo and Haitian history. Dieudonne Larose, a composer who lives in Montreal, is transforming Haitian music and writes in the style of the old favorites of compas, Haiti's well-known dance music; he criticizes whites for racist attitudes toward black governments and warns Haitians to work hard and to respect the law.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
John James Audubon (1785-1851) was born in Cayes. His drawings of birds in America are an invaluable source of information for naturalists and anthropologists.
Marc Jean-Louis emigrated to the United States at a very young age. He lives in South Florida and has made many contributions to Haitian art.
Haiti en Marche.
Published weekly in French. There is a section in Creole for Creole speakers.
Address: Miami, Florida.
Published weekly in French, Creole, and English.
Address: 50 Court Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201.
Published weekly in French.
Address: 1398 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11210.
"L'Heure Haitienne" is broadcast on Sunday mornings.
Address: Columbia University, 208 Ferris Booth Hall, New York, New York 10027.
"Moment Creole" is broadcast every Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Contact: Claude Tait.
Address: 801 Second Avenue, New York, New York 10017.
"Eddy Publicité" is broadcast every Saturday from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. It features a mix of Haitian music, news and discussion of community issues.
Contact: Otto Miller.
Address: 449 Broadway, Second Floor, New York, New York 10013.
This station broadcasts various programs daily aimed at the Haitian American audience.
Address: 112 Tillary Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201.
Radio Tropical and Radio Soleil d'Haiti are subcarrier stations that broadcast 24 hours a day over special radios sold to listeners. They broadcast talk, call- in shows, news, gossip, and social announcements.
Several cable companies offer programs aimed at their local Haitian American communities. Programs air political debates and instructions on coping with life in the United States.
Organizations and Associations
Caribbean Haitian Council (CAHACO).
Provides cultural normalization of and advocacy for Haitians and other Caribbean groups.
Address: 26 Ashland Avenue, East Orange,
New Jersey 07017.
Telephone: (201) 678-5059.
Friends of Haiti (FOH).
Founded in 1971, FOH attempts to generate support for the Haitian national liberation struggle. It distributes information on the Haitian social structure and the liberation process, with an emphasis on U.S. economic, political and military involvement. Friends of Haiti maintains a data center on Haiti and has a library of 3,000 volumes.
Contact: Mauge Leblanc, Coordinator.
Address: 1398 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11210.
Telephone: (718) 434-8100.
Fax: (718) 434-5551.
Haitian American Foundation, Inc. (HAFI).
Founded in 1990, HAFI works to help, educate and assist Haitian immigrants and other ethnic groups become self-sufficient. It sponsors programs that provide acculturation, vocational skills training, English classes, counseling, food distribution, and technical assistance to small business.
Contact: Ringo Cayard, President.
Address: 8340 Northeast Second Avenue, Suite 103, Miami, Florida 33138.
Telephone: (305) 758-3338.
Haitian Refugee Center (HRC).
Founded in 1974, the Center provides free legal support and educational services to indigent Haitian aliens in their political asylum proceedings. It works to impede deportations and to publicize the plight of refugees.
Contact: Philies Auguh, Executive Director.
Address: 119 Northeast 54th Street, Miami, Florida 33137.
Telephone: (305) 757-8538.
Fax: (305) 758-2444.
Haitian Studies Association.
Encourages research and interest in Haiti, the Haitian people, and their culture.
Contact: Dr. Leslie G. Desmangles, President.
Address: Trinity College, McCook Hall, 300
Summit Street, Hartford, Connecticut 06106.
Telephone: (617) 287-7138.
National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR).
Founded in 1982, NCHR attempts to obtain humane treatment, due process of law, and legal status for Haitians seeking asylum in the United States. Its goals are to obtain fair treatment for Haitians in their quest for asylum; convince the public of the need for legal status for refugees; stop the U. S. Coast Guard interdiction of Haitian boats; and increase the awareness of the social, economic, and political causes of the Haitian flight from Haiti.
Contact: Jocelyn McCalla, Executive Director.
Address: 275 Seventh Avenue, 25th Floor, New York, New York 10007.
Telephone: (212) 337-0005.
Fax: (212) 337-0028.
Online: http://www.nchr.org .
Museums and Research Centers
Many museums of African American history contain Haitian collections or substantial exhibits of Haitian culture items, including: Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia; Black Heritage Museum in Miami; Museum for African Art in New York City; Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles; and National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Amistad Research Center.
The Center contains material relating to ethnic history and race relations in the United States, with concentration on blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Haitians.
Contact: Dr. Donald E. DeVore, Director..
Address: Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, Tilton Hall, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118.
Telephone: (504) 865-5535.
Fax: (504) 865-5580.
Online: http://www.arc.tulane.edu .
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem).
This is a reference library devoted to material by and about Black people throughout the world, with major emphasis on Afro-America, Africa, and the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Among its Haitian holdings is the Kurt Fisher and Eugene Maximilien Collection of Haitian manuscripts.
Contact: Howard Dodson, Chief Librarian.
Address: 135 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, New York 10037-1801.
Telephone: (212) 491-2255.
Fax: (212) 491-6760.
Online: http://www.nypl.org .
Sources for Additional Study
Chierici, Rose-Marie Cassagnol. Demele: "Making It": Migration and Adaptation Among Haitian Boat People in the United States. New York: AMS Press, 1980; pp. 1-12.
Dreyfuss, Joel. "The Invisible Immigrants: Haitians in America Are Industrious, Upwardly Mobile and Vastly Misunderstood," New York Times Magazine, May 23, 1993; pp. 20-21, 80-82.
Gollab, Caroline. The Impact of Industrial Experience on the Immigrant Family: The Huddled Masses Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.
Laguerre, Michel S. American Odyssey: Haitians in New York City. New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.
——. The Complete Haitiana: A Bibliographic Guide to the Scholarly Literature, 1900-1980. Millwood, New York: Kraus International Publications, 1982.
Sontag, Deborah. "Haitian Migrants Settle In, Looking Back," New York Times, June 3, 1994; p. A1.
Valburn, Marjorie. "Former Ragtag Immigrant Organization Evolves Into Coalition Pushing Haitian-American Rights," The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 1999; p. A24.