September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document


Article Order:4

Title:A constantly evolving identity

Author:Keren Lentschner


Original Language:French

Translator:David Ronis


Blurb:For over roughly half a century, Haitians have fled to America to escape the dictatorship and misery of their homeland. The still-young Haitian community in the United States, divided over its attachment to its homeland and ambivalent about the model of American life, continues to search for an identity.


Body:Over roughly a half century, more than two million Haitians have either found refuge or were born in the United States. America is the first place Haitians turn to as they flee the dictatorship in and misery of their homeland, the poorest in the West.

Although the Haitian community has been established in the United States since the 1960s, its racial roots on the continent date back to the 18th century. Wealthy French merchants, who regularly traveled to the American colonies Louisiana, South Carolina, New Orleans customarily brought their Haitian slaves with them, some of whom decided to stay. Later, after the Haitian Revolution in 1804, many Haitian servants chose to join their old masters in America.

Massive immigration to the United States did not begin until the 1960s, when refugees fled Jean-Claude (Papa Doc) Duvalier and his regime of persecution. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, agronomists, and accountants began to settle on the East Coast. In New York, they chose to live in Harlem, around Columbia University. A middle class Haitian immigrant community gradually formed. New York was the promised land of milk and honey, recounted a smiling Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor-in-chief of the Haitian Times, New Yorks only English-language Haitian news weekly, who arrived in the United States at the age of eight and later married an American. Back home, photos circulated of those who had succeeded here. They were dressed in the American style, proudly posing in front of their cars, symbols of their social status, said the journalist, trying to convince those who had not yet taken the step to emigrate.

Yet in the 1990s, immigration became more difficult. This is when the first boat people reached the American coast, a phenomenon that continued up until Oct. 29, when 229 people requesting political asylum landed in Miami after an eight-hour voyage in precarious conditions. At the same time, the economic profile of those who immigrated grew poorer, with country farmers increasingly being the ones who wanted to get to America. Community centers, which didnt exist in the 1980s, multiplied in response to the demand, providing help for new immigrants filling out official forms and adapting to the American way of life. At schools during recess, children of first-generation Haitian immigrants made fun of newcomers. Likewise, the gap widened between those who were born here (more than half) or arrived as young children and had been Americanized by virtue of the educational system, and the others, who often still considered themselves in exile, expecting to return to their country.

Such a return has proved more and more difficult given the current bogged-down state of affairs in Haiti. Since 80 percent are American citizens, out of necessity, the Haitian community has seen to it that its people have become more sophisticated, explained Pierre-Pierre, so that they better understand the country where they live and the way their community functions. A few years ago, if I went to a local hairdresser, for example, and encouraged him to apply for American citizenship in order to vote, he didnt understand. Today I see that theres been a lot of progress and its going to continue. Its inevitable. It is the mission of Haitian Times, explains the journalist, to be the bridge that connects directly into the heart of the Haitian-American community.

As in all diasporic communities, the goal is to achieve a balance between attachment to ones native country and its traditions, which can be very strong for recent immigrants, and integration into ones adopted country. And, taking into account the uniqueness of the Haitian community, he says we must create for ourselves a new identity. We are black but we speak French. This makes us exotic but also certainly odd. Added to this are the thorny problems of relations between Haitian-Americans and African-Americans. There is peaceful coexistence in New York but relations are tense in Florida, where Haitians dont hesitate to make their voices heard, and are frequently compelled to bring up immigration problems. Between 1990 and 1999 the Haitian population there has more than doubled, growing from 385,000 to approximately 820,000.

Divided, essentially, between New York (approxamately 841,000), Florida, New Jersey (133,000), and Massachusetts (78,000) and extending south, particularly to Texas (24,000) and west to California (10,300), the Haitian community is still very close-knit. Like most ethnic groups, it has its restaurants, stores, numerous shops for religious articles and media outletsthree French and one English-language weekly newspapers, several radio stations broadcasting in Creole and French and local television programs. But, more and more, its tending to open itself to the outside world. Everyone knows one another, explains Garry Pierre-Pierre. With our community centers, our churches as well as our media, we have many occasions to be together. But in our progression from being a community of exiles to one of immigrants, we are taking steps towards more interaction with non-Haitians. When our children go to school, we must meet the principal… In this way, daily life obliges us to go outside of our community.

Proof of this is evident in the socio-professional distribution of the Haitian community. There is a significant Haitian presence not only in health-related fields, the most respected professions in this culture, but also in education and financial services. In New York State, Haitian doctors represent one third of all black doctors despite the much larger number of African-Americans. On the national level, Haitians account for almost 5,000 doctors and more than 10,000 engineers. Today 41 percent of Haitian nationals between the ages of 25 and 60 have university degrees. According to analysts, that figure should grow considerably over the course of the next 20 years.

In politics, Haitians are not idle, with several elected representatives in the northeast and in Florida: Marie St.-Fleur has been a state representative in Massachusetts since 1999, and Philip Brutus has been a state representative in Florida since 2000. As the number of political participants from the heart of the Haitian community increases, they are happily courted by Republicans and Democrats alike. Gubentorial candidates Carl McCall and George Pataki both made visits to Haitian-Americans in Flatbush, Brooklyn during the election campaign. This political courting can take place anywhere, even in church. There, Haitians, traditionally devout Catholics, find themselves en masse on any given Sunday in a place which offers spiritual as well as social nourishment. A community in which the slight majority vote Democratic, according to observers, Haitians seem convinced that this party is most favorable to them, particularly on matters of immigration.

The images of boat people throwing themselves into the water upon arrival at the Miami waterfront last month was on the minds of many this past November 5th. Haitians are politically liberal and socially conservative, qualified Garry Pierre-Pierre, who regrets that few Haitians go to the polls. In order to heighten his readers awareness, his newspaper insists that, in voting, residents can demand accountability from their government on matters of education, housing, garbage collection, road repairs and hospitals. This lack of interest in American politics can be explained by a reluctance to adapt to the American way of life and its political system, but also by a certain firmly-rooted bitterness in the minds of many Haitians.

Expressing his feelings regarding the isolation of this old French colony, wounded not only by history, but also by the chaos that currently reigns there, Pierre-Pierre laments, It took 80 years for the United States to recognize Haiti, the first independent black country, as a nation. Other countries didnt take as long to recognize us. And today, Israël Camille and Odatte Ronel, his colleagues at Radio Lakay, a radio station which broadcasts in French and Creole via the Internet, agreed with that sentiment, regretting that Western nations have punished Haiti by declaring a de facto embargo. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have, indeed, called for the establishment of true democratic process in order for economic aid to resume. For their part, in 2000 the United States suspended anallocation of US$500,000 which had been earmarked for multilateral aid.

In a community where return to the homeland remains an ever-present objective, the French language continues to play a unifying role. If those who are more Americanized have somewhat neglected French in favor of English, the language of integration, and have worked hard to make their children trilingual, the language of Molière continues to be used, often mixed in with Creole and English in conversations among friends. The three francophone weekly newspapers (Haïti Progrès, Haïti en Marche and Haïti Observateur), the many radio stations that broadcast a large number of their programs in French, and the Haitian literature available in French bookstores contribute to keeping French language at the heart of the Haitian community. When I was in college, I was called Frenchy. The girls always asked me to speak in French, mused Garry Pierre-Pierre.

For others, particularly those whose children were born and have gone to school in the United States, English has replaced French. However, memories of Haiti are never far away. Back home, the official language, French, is the language not only of the government but particularly of the elite, used by those in power in order to divide the classes, reminds Pierre-Pierre. If attachment to the French language seems at times far off, Haitians claim to have a state of mind close to that of the former colonists in their native land. To our way of thinking, we are French, analyzes the journalist very dogmatic, intellectualizing a lot, culturally very arrogant and proud of our way of viewing the world…

Still young, the Haitian community in the United States, composed of four generations with different pasts, divided over its attachment to its homeland, its French language and ambivalent to the model of American life, continues to search for an identity.

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