Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haitians in South Florida

In November 2005 while doing fieldwork in Immokalee I came across a Haitian community. It was in the wake of hurricane Wilma and Immokalee’s streets were littered with uprooted trees, branches, garbage, rooftops and material remnants of human existence.

When I arrived at the Relief Center where I was to interview a couple of social scientists about the human cost of the hurricane, I found a long line of black parishioners forming a queue all the way to the parking lot and out of the center grounds.

“What’s this line for?” I asked the last woman in the line. She was ashy black with yellow eyes like she had never left her mother continent.

“For free stuff,” she said.

“What’s free?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and inverted her mouth stretching its corners as far low as she could.

“How would I know? Go find out yourself!”

I walked a few feet towards the door and stopped again to ask another woman what the line was for.

“Free stuff,” she said. This time, I pressed with a more specific question.

“Food?” I asked.

“Don’t know yet,” she said before she switched back to Creole and resumed her chitchat with the women around her.

A few minutes later when the door opened, I waved at Sister Mary. She waved back and let me in.

“What’s going on?”

“Haiti. That’s what’s going on.” It’d been just a couple of months since last time I sat with her, but she looked older. Like the hurricanes had crossed paths right on her white face. Sister Mary had been a relentless advocate for the rights of immigrant farm workers in South Florida and had spent the last twenty years, since she left her motherland Belgium, feeding, clothing and counseling Central American and Caribbean migrants.

“I already made peace with God and, I’m sure, He’s forgiven me,” she said as she looked at the women queuing outside in the sun. “Look at them. Did you see any Mexican?” Before I replied she said, “No, no Mexicans. Do you know why?” I said no.

“Because they’re working out in the fields. For god’s sake. Working.”

Before the hurricane season hit, homeland security pickup trucks could be seen everywhere in South Florida. Sometimes they raided the fields and packaging warehouses looking for undocumented laborers, but other than forcing them to run, scatter and hide like scared animals, “la migra” didn’t do much. The white and green trucks were the government loud speakers. They were there to remind farmers and workers that immigration laws were about to get tougher and undocumented workers would be deported on the spot. At least that was the message heard across the groves. And that same message forced thousands of fieldworkers into a Diaspora of sorts towards post-Katrina New Orleans where anyone willing to work was hired, no questions asked.

Strawberry -planting crews disappeared; orange groves were severely short-handed, tomato-field laborers overworked. This forced migration of workers left South Florida farmers scrambling for manual labor. And now hurricane Wilma had exacerbated the need for able bodies. Two days after hurricane Wilma, the Mexicans who had braved the winds in their dilapidated trailers and waited out the storm, returned to work.

“You saw them this morning, right?” Sister Mary asked as she fanned her rosy face with a fax that has just come in from FEMA. “These Mexicans are out there, stooped over, some of them with their babies on their backs. Did you see that?” I nodded. “And don’t you think it’s odd that now with this huge demand for manual labor, we have Mexicans working and Haitians begging? I mean, doesn’t that tell you something?”

We were standing by the window, looking out on the line of women through the shutters. The Center had been distributing food, toiletries, clothes, diapers, baby formula, toys, etc. The storage room was bursting with donations. The only way to stop people from begging was to stop giving them free stuff. And to stop the arrival of donations, was to the Center, the equivalent of asking people to stop caring.

“I love them, Haitians. I do just because they are God’s children,” Sister Mary said, loudly enough for the rest of the staff to listen. They stopped momentarily and paid attention. “But God knows, I don’t like them.” People nodded in agreement and I heard, “me neither,” from a desk and “nor me,” from another.

“Show her the men,” the pastor/social worker/counselor/fund raiser whispered as he moved bags of groceries from one room to another. Sister Mary took me to the back of the office and opened a door to the Center backyard. There, under the trees, sprawled on straw mats, lay the Haitian men, waiting for the BBQ the Center was about to cook.

“See what generosity does?” The pastor shouted from across the office. “You don’t see parasites in Haiti. There? If you don’t work, you die. But here? Look at them. A thing of beauty!”

As I got in my car, I noticed a Haitian woman sitting on the curb with her baby. She had just collected a couple of plastic bags with donations and a 24-can box of baby formula, which must have seemed a redundancy to her as she tossed over her shoulder half of the cans. She noticed me, and as she disposed the last of the of the baby formula, she said, “la même merde”, the same shit.


  1. As always, your writing amazes me. It would be easy right now to write a story about the poor downtrodden Haitians and their earthquake damaged homeland. The television is full of stories like that, as are the newspapers and magazines on the racks. It takes far more courage, far more intellectual integrity to look deeper into the situation and pass along insights that need to be shared.

    I love your blog posting. Please keep it up. It's valuable and touching. It poses the question, Why is Haiti so desperately poor, while on the other side of Hispaniola there are Dominicans prospering nicely? The weather is the same, the land is the same, the ocean is the same - everything is the same. But on one side of the line they starve while on the other they thrive. Could it be the government? I think so. And isn't the government a reflection of the people - at least to some degree? Yes, yes it is.
    Nice work. I've bookmarked your page and I'll be back. Count on it.

  2. Too many times we, who are able bodied - and have the ability to change things, tip-toe around the issues because we find them uncomfortable. We don't want to rock the boat or go against the flow because that would mean we have to admit we that have tendancy to be asleep at the wheel. I have wondered aloud several times to friends since the massive earthquake that if we had only done more, if we had created clothing factories there instead China or Korea or where ever, if we had developed it into a tourist island, would they have had better infrastructure? Would they have been better suited to endure the natural clash of the earth's plate?. Just a thought. Teach someone to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day.

    Why do we pick Mexicans over other imported cultures to labor for us? (Besides that things have shifted since I was growing up. I well remember helping the paid laborers - black and white - work in the tabacco fields. We have grown physically soft.) What is it about the Mexicans that we prefer? Mexicans certainly have a reputation across the US to be the best workers . . . but then talk to a cab drive in Miami or New Orleans. Chances are they will be Haitian. You will find that they are enterprising, gentle, intelligent and desire to give good service because they want good tips.

    Maybe the Haitians have not had an adequate chance to compete with the Mexicans as good laborers because of preconceived notions. Or maybe the Haitians in the US are being programmed get free things. Maybe we should not only teach the Haitians standing in line for free things, but we should teach all those who have now stood in line for generations for free things and handouts to work for their things. Even if we have to start small.

  3. I immigrated to South Florida at 14 years of age. And during my first year there, my only friends were the Haitians, because the Whites and Blacks were too good, the Cubans were too hateful and I was one of two Puerto Ricans in the whole high school.

    For two years, those people were my friends. Unfortunately, like many poor people in this country--who do not join the military to try to escape poverty--an enigmatic feeling of entitlement for some reason overpower the original American ideals of hard work and freedom.

    What you saw is real, but I do not think this is just the Haitian culture, nor their "ways" in their country. Most people do not know that Haiti was the first all black country in the West. And they are still proud of that fact. Unfortunately, many factor, not only their government, took their quick rise to power away. Overall, I think some have fallen into the unfortunate game of the "poor me" syndrome.

    My Haitian friends dealt with the same hatred I dealt with. They learned a language that did not want to accept them, while holding on jobs and running households. They worked hard!

    I believe this is a bigger issue. For those unfortunate ones who simply make it to a field to be mistreated and under-payed, perhaps this is their "stick to the man" way of dealing with their pain. Why come to the land of the free to live, sometimes, worse than when you were in your home country?

    This is not different than the third generation welfare babies in the ghettos, barrios and trailer parks in our great country.

    I think you had a true realization and enlightenment that our core ideals, morals and perceptions have long been gone. And that the American dream was updated a long time ago. Unfortunately, not every third world country has gotten that memo.

  4. Educate, educate, educate. We can donate millions of dollars, replenish their pantries, build their houses, and wait for the next earthquake or the next hurricane so that we can start all over again. Give jobs to the parents and education to the children; not “free stuff”.
    Haiti, by location, will undergo many difficulties. But thirty years from now, if they have to face another catastrophe, those educated children will have the means to emerge triumphant like many other nations have done it. Reinforce the school system. Build more schools and teach people to work rather than help them feel sorry for themselves.
    Loved your article. Look forward to reading more from you.

  5. Adrianna, thanks for sharing this powerful. Truth-telling is a difficult task, as I'm sure you know. And it is human nature to organize the universe into taxonomies that help us sort out people, places, things-the better to grasp that endlessly confusing place outside our brains called the universe. I think the mopst interesting thing about this is the compassion fatigue you witnessed among the people being forced, by conscience or job description, to care for people they don't like. I know lots of Haitian immigrants who work as hard as any other immigrant group, so I'm not sure that the demarcation is as neat as you propose. Perhaps the problem is not the Haitians as much as it is us: ready to give free things as long as we don't have to give up our place at the top of the pyramid.

    Blogging is tough work, too. Since people form opinions of who you are from tiny snippets of your writing. It requires opening yourself to the drive-by critics (like me) who can pontificate in your comments section without any risk beyond having our comments deleted. Welcome to the blogosphere! Looking forward to reading more.