In Little Haiti

Edna Bonhomme

When I was seven or so, my aunt Fifi would take my cousins, siblings and me to demonstrations outside the Immigration and Naturalisation Services building on 79th Street in Miami. We were protesting against the policy – introduced by his Republican predecessors but continued under Bill Clinton – of intercepting Haitian refugees at sea and imprisoning them in Guantánamo Bay. We stood with the other Haitians, clutching aunt Fifi with one hand and waving our other fists in the air, shouting and chanting in a mixture of English and Kreyòl: ‘Let the Haitians in!’

People had begun to leave Haiti in small numbers in the 1960s. The wealthier or educated were often able to secure visas and travel legally by air to the north-eastern United States or Quebec. My parents, aunts and uncles fled over the course of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unlike those who made it to New York or Montreal, most of the Haitians of my parents’ generation who travelled to Miami on overcrowded boats were running from grinding poverty as well as the violent, US-backed regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Twenty-five thousand Haitians arrived in South Florida by sea in 1980. They saw, as Warsan Shire’s poem puts it, that ‘the water [was] safer than the land.’

Their new home was Lemon City, fifteen minutes north of downtown Miami, between the African American neighbourhood of Liberty City and the Afro Dominican community in Wynwood. My mother found her first job at a garment factory in nearby Overtown. Viter Juste, a community leader and activist, wanted the area to be called Little Port-au-Prince but it eventually became known as Little Haiti. More than 100,000 Haitians now live in Miami Dade County, and most of them have passed through Little Haiti at some point, equipped only with a name, a phone number, a scrap of paper with a cousin’s address.

It was in Little Haiti in 1978 that Carmelau Monestime founded the first Kreyòl radio station in the US. It featured music, discussion, stories and advertisements for food suppliers or migration lawyers. To my ears, the station was a shambolic cacophony of people speaking over each other; for my parents, it sounded like home. Serge Toussaint and other Haitian artists covered the walls with brightly coloured murals and signs for bakeries, botánicas and churches.

‘Parol gen zel,’ the proverb says: ‘Words have wings.’ In Little Haiti my first language was Kreyòl. I learned about the revolution from the songs about Boukman and the children who joined him in protest against the French. I only learned English when I started school, at Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary. The neighbourhood nurtured Haitians just as much as Haitians nurtured the neighbourhood.

Last month I went back to Miami for the first time in years. Returning to Little Haiti was like going through a portal to my childhood. Chickens were pecking the earth beneath the statue of Toussaint L’Ouverture, men were playing dominoes on the porches, and the banyan trees overshadowed the palms. The playground by my old school was sleeker than I remembered, with new swings, and a soft green artificial surface on the ground. But there were no children playing there. The neighbourhood felt flat, no doubt in part because of the pandemic, but also because of the long slow departure of Haitians from the community, including most of my family.

Most residents of Little Haiti can’t afford to buy their homes. The area faces higher rates of unemployment and poverty than many other parts of the city. Absentee landlords leave the houses to decay, or tear them down, awaiting the creep of gentrification north from Wynwood. Vacant land is more profitable than housing people in Little Haiti. There are still Haitians living in the house I grew up in, but the neighbours have gone. The lots on either side are empty and overgrown. The social housing project that my aunt Melo’s little scrap of paper took her to in 1978, where several of my cousins grew up, is now a private gated community with a security guard.

If Donald Trump had had his way and got rid of the birthright citizenship of people like me, with parents from ‘shithole countries’, I would not be a US citizen, but I wouldn’t be Haitian either, since Haiti doesn’t recognise the citizenship of those born overseas. I would be stateless. Double consciousness, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, means ‘always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’. The Biden administration is still deporting Haitians.

I went to Miami soon after Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in Port-au-Prince on 7 July, and just before the earthquake that hit south-western Haiti on 14 August. The reverberations of the latter will reach Florida in the form of new waves of migration, while the former was shaped in part by exile politics and American imperialism; the assassination was carried out by mercenaries reportedly connected to a Miami-based Haitian-American. Miami is home to the oppressors of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as their victims.