The place where a person spent most of his younger years has a lot to do with his childhood. When it comes to me, the Northeast Section of Miami, commonly called Little Haiti, played a large part of my upbringing. That was 25 years ago. It was the place where the entire diaspora wanted to be. So, I thought. Back then, when one spoke of Miami in a folkloric sense, it was mainly about the festive ambiance, the little coffee shops, the Haitian pastries, the griyo (fried pork should cut into cubes), the Creole radio programs, the annual carnival and more…..It was and still is the place where a Haitian can live exclusively in Creole, just like a native speaker of Spanish would do in Little Havana, in the southwest part of town.
Miami was also the place where I got my first taste with leftist politics, something that has shaped my character to these days, for until Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti at the predawn hours of 1986, Little Haiti was a bastion of the exiled opposition to his fascist regime. I was young, and my passion, conviction and patriotism ran deep in my veins. The struggle for equal protections under the law for Haitian refugees was what I then called the holy fight for justice, and it was down on 54th Street where we drew the line, using it as a staging area to galvanize support for the cause.
Between managing school and political activism, there was another thing that I could never forget when those childhood memories strike like a thief in the night. I loved music, and every Friday evening, a group of friends held conference calls to pinpoint the locations of all upcoming Saturday night private parties in and around town. After vetting the locations, if we found them to be unattractive, we directed our attention to 29th Street at the YWCA, where Harold D’Or—master DJ—rendezvoused the young people for another night in paradise.
Sunday afternoon was when famed local band Odyssey One invited the young folks to a Konpa bash at its official spot on 36th Street, right off North Miami Avenue for an afternoon to remember.
We were all there. Ronel Dauphin, tall, handsome and very skillful at sweet-talking the girls into the dance floor, Bertin Semelfort, fearless young man with a daring attitude—never takes no for an answer from any girl, Ti-Lanlan Corneille, macho and sneaky as a pigmy rattler, Jude ‘Chico’ Alcindor, older but always positioned himself as the wise player. Chico was the quintessential ADVISOR. The girls seemed to believe in us, Martine, Carole, Adeline, Colette, Suzette, Ginette, Genise, Béatrice etc….
The latter was a girl with strange purplish blue eyes who strolled with long strides and who spoke with a meticulousness that intimidated everyone. In my pack, I was the only one she would tolerate. I stress here on the word “tolerate”, for I never knew if she truly accepted my company. Most of these girls were born in The Bahamas, and their Creole was as rusty as iron spoons buried beneath cultivated lands. Oh, we used to tease them!
Modern Konpa was in full ascendance, and exotic music bands like Zin, Djet-X were my favorites. It was the best of times. Mixing school, politics, and music, life seemed endless. Little Haiti was indeed the place to be.
A nosedive into oblivion
Now, this place has become a disfigured, desert land where its inhabitants seem trapped on all sides. Last week, I went down to visit my mother who lives in Pembroke Pines. Out of nostalgia, I took my daughter to the narrow streets of Little Haiti. It was heartbreaking. The houses were still there, but now crumbling and poorly maintained. Signs of poverty were everywhere. All along Northeast Second Avenue and 54th Street, long lines of disenfranchised folks stood motionless, gazing at sky. Women and under-age children roamed the streets in an aimless fashion. On 59th street, near Toussaint Louverture Elementary School, groups of men sat under dust-caked tree branches, playing dominoes.
It’s hard to imagine this was the place they used to call the Capital of the Haitian Diaspora. I have no statistics about the employment rate in this part of Miami, but I won’t be surprised if it is revealed to be more than 60%.
The irony is that every election cycle, local Haitian politicians fight bitterly to serve Haitian-Americans. They all claim to have the ticket that will lead their fellow citizens out of poverty. However, they have little to show for it. Honestly, Little Haiti is part of the City of Miami. Consequently, it is the responsibility of city officials to address these urgent urban needs. But many Haitians are very influential in Miami-Dade County. They could do some things on behalf of their fellow countrymen. Of course, those who fought in the 1980s and 90s have long vanished from the scene. They are now either living in other parts of the country, or have returned to Haiti or simply have long passed on, like good-old friends Hervé Florival, poet Maxo Calixte, Serge Holy, flamboyant activist Fritz D’Or who was gunned down in the twilight zone just as dusk was poised to make its presence felt in the subtropical Little Haiti night.
Today, those who claim to be South Florida’s new Haitian leaders do not dwell on their predecessors’ past experiences. They speak in an arrogant posture, trivializing politics—the politic of integration, that is. Meanwhile, misery at its rawest form is all they have to show for while driving around the many Haitian neighborhoods of South Florida. Little Haiti itself is slowing taking a nosedive into oblivion. It hurts!
Note: Dr. Ardain Isma is essayist and novelist. He teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at UNF (University of North Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org