Miami's Haitians Live In the Shadow of Tragic Events in Their Homeland

LIFAITE SAINTILME left his construction job last week to picket the federal building here with 50 other Haitians. He asked that the United States help exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide "go back in power - there is too much killing," in the land he left 14 years ago in a small boat.

While Mr. Saintilme and 50 others protested the current US policy of returning all Haitian boat people to Haiti, the rest of the estimated 100,000 Haitians here stayed away. But a half-dozen Creole-language radio stations in southern Florida kept them aware of recent hot news:

* The United Nations Security Council approved an embargo on oil and arms sales to Haiti on June 16.

* The last 14 Haitians boat people that had tested positive for the HIV virus arrived in Miami on June 21, after months at the Guantanamo Naval Base on Cuba.

* The Supreme Court upheld the repatriation of boat people the same day.

* President Aristide began talks involving Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the coup leader who ousted him, on June 27.

Between 1977 and 1981, from 50,000 to 70,000 Haitian boat people arrived and settled in Little Haiti, a 500-square-block zone adjacent to Liberty City, a black neighborhood hard-hit by rioting in 1980. Today, some 200 pastel-colored shops with poetic-sounding names in Creole or French line 54th Street in Little Haiti. The brassy rhythms of compas music echoes from stores and passing car radios. But the store shelves are often bare, and few provide more than a meager living to the owners.

One of the busiest places in Little Haiti is the waiting room of the Haitian Refugee Center, packed with worried-looking people seeking legal help about immigration problems. Few will speak to a reporter, give their names, or be photographed, because they still worry about families back in Haiti.

Haitians work mainly in clothing and furniture factories and do menial chores in restaurants and hotels. Some have agricultural jobs that survived Hurricane Andrew. Their median earnings were just $680 per month in 1985, worse than Mariel Cubans, Dominicans in New York City, and Vietnamese refugees in California, according to anthropologist Alex Stepick III of Florida International University.

Researcher Sue Chaffee says many Haitians work informally inside the community: Women prepare food to sell, watch children, or sew; men fix cars, paint, or do construction work.

"Haitians are very hard-working people," says Mercedes Toural, director of bilingual education and foreign languages for Dade County Public Schools. "They come in and do not try to be a burden."

Ms. Chaffee says Haitians "push their kids in education, a lot are in magnet programs." And she says the Haitians are adopting black culture externally. "They all wear Malcolm X T-shirts," she adds.

But while Haitians face the same prejudice as blacks in their new homeland and congressional black leaders have fought on their behalf, many Haitians here say they have as little social contact with American blacks as with whites. Their lives are spent among fellow Haitian refugees.

The former residents of the hemisphere's poorest nation also say they feel little hope that UN sanctions will improve Haiti's political situation.

"The oil embargo won't succeed," says Rolande Dorancy, executive director of the Haitian Refugee Center. Only the US, which trained Haiti's military, can get them out of power, she says. "The political situation is in US hands."

In her office are photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Aristide. On one wall looms a painting of a refugee boat foundering in high seas at night. One person sinks below the waves; a mother clutches a child.

"Haitians don't want to come here," she says. During the eight months that Aristide held office in 1991, she says, no boat people left the Caribbean island nation. The poverty was as great as ever, but the repression had been lifted.

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