For America's poorest immigrants, the Haitians, terra firma was hard to reach in the first place; but once here, their footing remains uncertain. When one young Haitian woman landed on Miami Beach in an overcrowded boat -- after going adrift on Cuba -- she considered the television cameras greeting her to be a warm welcome from the American people.
Nearly five years later, she picks peas and tomatoes seasonally, and neither her job nor her immigration status is secure enough to send for her four children living meagerly in Haiti.
Miami's ``Little Haiti'' is a community in limbo. Haitians here are the poorest of the poor. Many of them are either here illegally or, if they arrived before 1981, are classified ambiguously as legal entrants with ``status pending.''
Yet south Florida has become the destination of choice for Haitians fleeing desperate poverty and a dictatorship widely acknowledged to be corrupt and repressive. So many Haitians arrived in 1981, nearly 25,000, mostly on primitive vessels, that Coast Guard patrols in the Caribbean began intercepting them, cutting the flow to a trickle.
Yet Little Haiti continues to grow. Now Dade County planners estimate that 50,000 to 60,000 Haitians live in Miami.
The ghetto neighborhood of aging little houses has changed little on the surface. Yet it is transformed.
At Rev. Tom Winsky's Roman Catholic church, the central musical instrument is the conga drum. The young people bringing gifts for God down the aisles move in a lilting, swaying dance inherited from old African rites, their hips draped with bright colors. Mass is said in Creole, a combination of French and African dialects that is Haiti's language.
``The community has improved because of the Haitians,'' says Father Winsky, who publishes a monthly newspaper in Creole. ``79th Street used to be adult bookstores and streetwalkers. . . . If given half a chance, [the Haitians] will do very well.''
In spite of their uncertain status, Haitians are showing an eager adaptability. They are fast developing a reputation as wholesome and hard-working and have established a low-crime community.
At Miami Edison Senior High School, where a third of the student body is now Haitian, four of the eight students with straight ``A'' averages are Haitian. Ten of the 27 honor-roll students are Haitian.
Yet last year several hundred Haitian students graduated from high school without immigration papers or social security numbers because their parents had been afraid to register them with immigration agents. These students could neither attend college nor get jobs, according to Roger Biamby, director of the Haitian-American Community Association of Dade County.
Haitians are popular with the employers that have hired them. Coming from a poor farm economy, they work enthusiastically for wages at or near the legal minimum. Yet other employers are reluctant to hire them because they fear they may be illegal, because many Haitians only speak Creole, or because of the stigma Haitians bear as boat people from a backward country.
The stigma has been especially hard for young Haitians in American schools.
The most obvious tensions have eased. In 1980, confrontations between Haitians and black American students came so fast and thick at Miami Edison that guidance counselor Roland Jean-Louis, a Haitian himself, once settled 16 in one day.
The atmosphere has changed now, and if Haitian students were once embarrassed by classroom announcements given in Creole, now American students will call for such announcements on behalf of their Haitian classmates, says Mr. Jean-Louis.
But a residue of the old scorn remains. Last year, a well-liked young honor student at Miami Edison High School took his own life after his American girlfriend discovered he was Haitian. ``It opened up our eyes and our minds to a number of things that we might have overlooked . . . that many would have found excuses not to attend to,'' says Jean-Louis.
One problem Haitians have faced is the public stigma of being named a risk group for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Another stigma is voodoo. The Haitian people are roughly 80 percent Roman Catholic and 20 percent Protestant. But Christianity has been superimposed over a pantheistic set of beliefs and practices, called voodoo, brought from West Africa.
``Besides being a religion, it's a world view,'' says Father Winsky. ``The Protestant pastor or the Catholic priest working in the Haitian community has to evangelize the world view of voodooism. . . . It's a sacralized world view. God is everywhere. The sacred is everywhere.''
``It will take centuries,'' says a Bahamian who works with Haitians, before all traces of voodoo disappear from Haitian culture.
``We have a very rich culture, a very rich tradition,'' says Mr. Biamby. ``We continue to have problems in articulating that richness. Stereotypes have prevailed.''