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The Invisible Immigrants (Joel Dreyfus, 1993)

Posted: Fri Mar 11, 2005 9:18 pm
by admin
Nearly 12 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the following article, while reading the prestigious Sunday Times magazine, included in the Sunday New York Times. I later asked Joel to send me an electronic version. He did and for a while, it was reprinted in Windows on Haiti (nearly 7 years old!) It is my pleasure to introduce it again, for the first time on the forum.

[quote]The Invisible Immigrants
The New York Times - Sunday, May 23, 1993by Joel Dreyfuss

"Where are you from?" In multiethnic America, the question is a way to classify you: to embrace or dismiss you. For those of us who came to America from Haiti 20 or 30 years ago, the question was usually a signal to brace ourselves. If our interrogators knew anything about our native land just a few hundred miles south of Miami, it was not likely to
be very positive. "Aha!" people would say once we had answered, "Voodoo. Poverty. Papa Doc." It was a snapshot that, denying the complexity of our country, imprisoned us in a stereotype. Today the response is "Aha! AIDS. Boat People."

For 12 years, the news media have dutifully reported the thousands of black people packed to the gunwales of leaky boats trying to make their way to Florida or, once there, quarantined because they are H.I.V. positive.

Despite the stereotypes and our having come from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, we Haitians have established ourselves in the United States as an industrious, upwardly mobile immigrant group with a strong work ethic. We are cabdrivers and college professors, schoolteachers and police officers, stockbrokers and baby sitters, soldiers and politicians, bankers and factory workers. "By and large, one can compare the Haitian immigration experience in the United States to that of other, more celebrated, immigrant groups," says Mich
el S. Laguerre, an anthropologist of Haitian origin who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. "They are young, aggressive, even pushy, and to that extent, not very different from other immigrants."

There were about 290,000 who claimed Haitian ancestry in the 1990 census, but that does not include the tens of thousands who are here illegally or second- and third-generation Haitian-Americans who simply identify themselves as black, Laguerre explains. Even legal immigrants may not want to admit to roots that go back to a Caribbean nation so often associated with superstition and poverty. Laguerre, who has written extensively about Haitians in America, estimates that as many as 1.2 million people in the United States are of Haitian ancestry.

The two largest communities are in southern Florida (300,000) and the New York metropolitan area (500,000), with smaller communities in Boston and Chicago. Yet, for the most part, Haitians are invisible immigrants, hidden by the banality o
f success. Detailed data from the 1990 census has not yet been released, but experts say that few Haitian immigrants are on welfare. And police say that even fewer get in trouble with the law.

This is not to suggest that all is wonderful for Haitians in America. Many are undocumented, trapped in fear and dead-end jobs. Behind the facade of pride and achievement, there is a litany of social problems: battered women, homeless families, economic exploitation. But like most immigrants, Haitians busy themselves in the pursuit of the American dream.

"Even some of those who came on boats are homeowners now," says the Rev. Thomas Wenski, director of the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center in the Little Haiti district of Miami. "It's a tribute to the Haitians' resourcefulness and their self-discipline."

My own family settled in New York in the 1950's. The Haitian community was small, consisting mostly of mixed-race members of the so-called elite. Many could be mistaken easily f
or white or Hispanic. Back then, when New Yorkers learned we were Haitian, the reaction was mostly bewilderment. Most had never heard of Haiti, and they knew even less about it. "Tahiti?" I was asked more than once. We were proud to tell them about the world's first black republic, about our own struggle for independence and about Alexandre Dumas, the author of "The Three Musketeers" and the son of a Haitian general.

We had to explain that Haiti's middle and upper middle classes had their unique melting pot: Africans, Europeans, Arabs, Asians, Jews. That yes, most light-skinned Haitians were members of the elite, but so were some very dark-skinned Haitians. Status back home was a matter of history and family and circumstance, much more complex than the simplistic racial definitions in the United States. But we had no easy explanation for the sharp disparities of power and income back home, of the even sharper division among social classes - and of the treacherous politics that had forced us to Am

My family was typical of the ethnic stew that prevailed in Haiti's middle class. Emmanuel Dreyfuss, a Jew from Amiens, France who had served in the French Army in Indochina, sailed west in the 1880's in a wave of European emigrants and landed in Haiti. He would never confirm any relation to Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer whose anti-Semitic persecution had outraged the world and bitterly divided France, but my father remembered that mere mention of the case was enough to set his father's pince-nez quivering and his hands shaking. Dreyfuss married into a fair-skinned and class-conscious family of South American and French origin, which traced its roots in Haiti back to the 1700's.

My mother came from an equally haughty black family in Haiti's north, where Henri Christophe, one of the three leaders of the struggle for independence, had ruled. In fact, one of my great-great-grandfathers had helped build the Citadelle, Christophe's mountaintop fortress in the early 1800
's, and another, Jean-Baptiste Riche, who had been a general in Christophe's army, served as a president of Haiti in the 1840's. But all that history and all that pride counted for naught in America. I remember well as a 7- or 8-year-old my bewilderment when my mother tried to explain why a cab wouldn't pick us up at the Miami airport because we were "colored." America - at least on matters of race - was a great social leveler.

Our community was centered on the West Side of Manhattan, mostly around 86th Street along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue (West End Avenue and Riverside Drive landlords would not often rent to blacks - even exotic, light-skinned foreigners with French accents). A number of families managed to congregate at the Bretton Hall on 86th and Broadway and the Oxford Hotel at 88th and Amsterdam. My sisters and I went to the local Catholic schools. As in most families, our parents spoke French to us, Creole to each other, and did their best to preserve the memories of home. The nost
algia was most obvious at the loud Sunday dinners with steaming dishes of our savory foods from home - spicy chicken and goat, rice and djondjon, a dried mushroom - Haitian music, loud arguments in Creole and French and much laughter.

Some of our neighbors came from other highly respected Haitian families, but in New York, they were just blacks who took care of other people's children, cleaned other people's apartments, worked in the garment factories around 34th Street or drove cabs. The weekend gatherings were an opportunity to regain self-respect, to cast off the burden of being black in a white world and to recall what they had lost: privilege, status, servants, warm weather. Few from that old middle and upper class had plans to set down roots in America.

The first hint that our stay might be long came when the nature of the Haitian community began to change in the 1960's. Since Francois Duvalier had taken power in 1957, many of my parents' friends had expected him to be ousted i
n a matter of weeks or months. After all, that was the pattern for Haitian presidents. But his regime, swept into office on a vague platform of "black power," became unusually tenacious. Duvalier instituted a reign of terror uncommon even for Haiti. Schoolchildren were bused to public executions. Opponents, real or imagined, were beaten or killed with impunity. Those who had stayed behind lived in daily fear of arbitrary arrest. The Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier's vicious militia, swaggered through the towns and villages in dark glasses and denim suits, with pistols tucked in their belts.

New arrivals to our community from Haiti were now politicians and professionals who had finally grasped the scope of Duvalier's brutality. One frequent Sunday guest was a former Senator who had been forced to flee after running afoul of the regime. He came from a prominent political family and he lived for politics. He and his cronies crowded the benches on a Broadway traffic island on weekends, naming each other t
o hypothetical cabinets and reading position papers out loud in flawless French, waiting for the change of Government. But on weekdays, the Senator pushed a hand truck through the bustling traffic of the garment district. Sharp-tongued Haitians were merciless. "Make way for the Senator," they shouted as he maneuvered down Seventh Avenue. "Make way for Senator Broadway."

After "Papa Doc" Duvalier died in 1971 and his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude, was placed at the head of the government as "President-for-Life,'' the exodus accelerated. Many of the new arrivals were working-class Haitians, chased out by the realization that no improvement in their lives was likely under a regime led by a boy more interested in fast cars and women than in public works and budgets. The stream of refugees became a flood, many of them illegals who came on tourist visas. They were not "people we know," the elite sniffed.

The West Side was no longer the Haitian haven. Gentrification had priced the neighborhood
out of reach. People began moving to Flushing and Elmhurst, in Queens. The new, poorer arrivals settled around Nostrand and Flatbush avenues in Crown Heights. Florida, with employment opportunities at Miami Beach resorts and weather reminiscent of Haiti's, became a new center of Haitian activity.

"The boat people are a tragic aspect of Haitian life," says one Haitian immigrant. "But most of us are not boat people and we hate being lumped with them." I can understand his anger. The majority of Haitians arrive in the United States by plane. The daily American Airlines Flight No. 658 between Port-au-Prince and Kennedy Airport disgorges passengers who reflect the range of Haitians living in the United States. There are those who are returning from visiting relatives back home: the prosperous upper-middle-class Haitians are deliberately casual in their designer jeans and resort wear; the working-class immigrants wear their Sunday best and carry the bags of food from home that they hope to slip by aler
t customs officials. Then there are the new arrivals, often shivering in their thin suits and dresses and glancing about with open anxiety for the relatives and friends who are supposed to meet them.

In the Haitian enclaves of New York and Miami, a strong entrepreneurial spirit has spawned grocery stores, barbershops, restaurants, real-estate firms and medical clinics. Bustling shopping districts have taken on a strong Caribbean flavor, laced with Haiti's African-inflected Creole and driven by the beat of merengues and compas. Haitian weekly papers report the minutiae of political maneuverings back home. Radio and cable television programs air heated political debates and, increasingly, instructions on coping with life in America. Farther north, the computer boom along Route 128 in Massachusetts has created plenty of factory jobs for Haitians.

The latest wave of Haitian immigrants comes on the bicentennial of the first. Haiti, then called St.-Domingue, was the richest of the French colo
nies. In the 1790's, the black populace of the island revolted against slavery and there was a panicked exodus. Thousands of whites, free blacks and slaves fled to American seaports, contributing to large French-speaking communities in New Orleans, Norfolk, Va., Baltimore, New York and Boston.

Immigrants from Haiti who made their mark in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries include Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a trapper who settled on the shore of Lake Michigan and became the founder of the city of Chicago. There was also Pierre Toussaint, whom the Vatican is considering naming the first black saint from the United States. Toussaint, a devout Catholic, came to New York as the slave of a French family in 1787. He became a prominent hairdresser to New York's rich, and a major fund-raiser who helped the sick and the destitute.

France remained the center of the universe for most educated Haitians. Only a few middle-class Haitians chose the United States, which the elite sa
w through Francophile eyes as a nation bursting with energy but lacking in civilization. My own father was considered something of a rebel when he decided to come to America in 1927 to accept a scholarship to graduate school at Yale. During World War II, with access to Europe cut off by the war, growing numbers of Haitian scholars came here. Felix Morisseau-Leroy, a renowned poet and playwright, lived at the International House on Riverside Drive with a half-dozen men and women who would be Haiti's brightest literary stars in the postwar years. Morisseau-Leroy recalls few racial incidents. "We were treated well," he says. "We had the feeling that the Americans had been told to be nice to us." The slow migration of Haitians to the United States might have remained unnoticed by most Americans had not the first bodies washed up on the Florida coast in 1979. The very poor were now determined to escape the dictatorship of Baby Doc, which had changed the emphasis of Government from terror to just plain larceny. Bl
aise Augustin, a native of St. Louis-du-Nord, an impoverished town in Haiti's northwest, saved enough money to take a boat to the Bahamas in 1977. When the newly independent island began expelling Haitians, Augustin headed for Florida. He was one of several dozen Haitians pushed off an overcrowded boat by a panicked smuggler. A woman and her four children drowned. Augustin managed to make it to the Florida shore. The son of peasant farmers, Augustin is a small-boned slim man with an uncanny resemblance to exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Like many boat people, he has unusual energy.

Policy makers argue about whether the Haitians are economic or political refugees. Augustin's description of the obstacles he faced back home explain why a simple answer is difficult. "If you saved some money and bought some cement blocks to add to your house or opened a small grocery story, everyone noticed," he says. "Sooner or later, the local Tontons Macoutes or chef de section (a regional military chiefta
in) approached you for a loan. If you refused, he might denounce you as an opponent of the Government and have you arrested.

"In Haiti, it's very hard to move up," says Augustin. "The U.S. is a country with a lot of complications, but if you're smart, you can get ahead."

Today, Augustin is an outreach worker for a Catholic church in Pompano Beach, 20 miles north of Miami. He owns his home and a car. He and his wife have opened a small variety store to serve the town's growing Haitian population. He has taken a course in photography and now takes pictures at weddings and baptisms. The store shares a tiny mall with a sleepy Haitian restaurant and a Haitian doctor's office. It stocks Haitian foods, records and tapes. An employee helps Augustin's wife with the store while he is engaged in church business. "I have a vision of becoming a businessman," says Augustin, modestly.

Augustin's story - and his ambition - are repeated again and again in south Florida. Dr. David Abellar
d, who lives a few miles farther north along the Florida coast, is a fine example of the immigrant success story Americans like to celebrate. As a boy growing up in a hilltop village, he woke before dawn and walked miles in bare feet to attend school. On Saturdays, he helped his peasant mother sell vegetables in the market. Today, he has a profitable medical practice in Lake Worth, 60 miles north of Miami. A steady stream of affluent patients passes through his waiting room. Abellard has no nostalgia about home. "I had influential friends," he says, citing connections made in high school and at the University of Haiti, where he earned degrees in law and medicine. "I could have been a minister. But it would have been very unstable. I might have been shot."

LITTLE HAITI, which tourist-conscious Miami officials have touted as an example of immigrant entrepreneurship, may have passed its peak. The several blocks of shops, restaurants, travel agencies, community centers, law offices and doctors' clinic
s that display signs in French, Creole and English seem worse for wear. A bad imitation of Port-au-Prince's famous Iron Market sits seedy and half-empty.

Haitians in New York have also begun to abandon their traditional enclaves in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. The ads in Haiti -Observateur, the largest Haitian paper in the United States, with a circulation of 30,000, are directed to Haitians in northern New Jersey, Spring Valley, N.Y., Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York, Boston and Montreal.

Radio and television are the glue that holds these geographically dispersed communities together. Programs like "Moment Creole," which airs every Sunday on WLIB-AM from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M., and "Eddy Publicite" on WNWK-FM, offer a mix of Haitian music, news and a discussion of community issues. There is even a radio "underground," subcarrier stations that require a special radio, but offer freewheeling discussion, call-in shows, news, gossip and nuts-and-bolts services like death announcements
. Radio Tropical (50,000 subscribers) and Radio Soleil d'Haiti (10,000 subscribers) both broadcast 24 hours a day over special radios that the stations sell to listeners for between $75 and $120. Several cable television programs have also begun to target Haitian audiences. Some focus on community or health issues - or politics. Others simply show videos made by Haitian performers.

The ability of broadcast media to reach an audience of a half a million interests Wilner Boucicault, 43, whose A&B Furniture & Appliances in Brooklyn is one of the largest Haitian-owned businesses in New York. He has ambitions to help propel Haitian immigrants to the next important stage in their Americanization - politics. "Haitians are ready," says Boucicault, who came to New York from Haiti at age 19, attended New York University and eventually opened the store with a partner. "Since Aristide, Haitians have developed a political consciousness. They have to organize themselves here." He and other Haitians trac
e their American political awakening to April 20, 1990. That was the day more than 50,000 Haitians marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. They were protesting the most damaging label yet attached to Haitians. The Centers for Disease Control and the American Red Cross had ruled that no Haitians could give blood because all Haitians were AIDS risks. That ruling, the only one ever applied to one nationality, was later rescinded.

The size of the march, and the ability of Haitian leaders to organize it, stunned New York's political establishment - and the organizers themselves. "We told the police we expected 5,000 people, but we hoped 25,000 would turn up," says Fritz Martial, a vice president at Inner City Broadcasting. "When we saw the size of the crowd, we ran to the front of the line in panic." Now Martial, Boucicault and others are looking for a Haitian candidate to back for City Council from Brooklyn, which has the highest concentration of Haitians in New York.

Bringing no h
istorical baggage to their American relationships, Haitians tend to get along with neighbors from different ethnic backgrounds. In Crown Heights, where American-born blacks and Hasidic Jews have been at odds, Haitians mention Jews as a model of effective political organization. Haitian stores sit side by side with shops owned by Dominicans and British West Indians.

On Sundays, neatly dressed Jamaicans and Trinidadians, flow out of Methodist and Evangelical churches, shouting to their children in English patois. On the same streets, Haitians pour out of the Catholic churches, shouting caution in French and Creole to their suited and ribboned children.

Even Haitians like me, who have been in America far longer than in Haiti, retain a close identification with our native land. We agonize over the political turmoil there, and we rage over United States inaction. But while we look for ways to help, we have no plans to go back. Ghislain Gouraiges Jr., 34, and his family left Haiti when he was
8 years old. Gouraiges grew up in Albany, where his father taught at the State University. Today Gouraiges works for Citibank in Miami, where he manages the accounts of multimillionaires and looks the part: well-tailored pinstripes, suspenders, two-tone shirts and gold cufflinks. There is no trace of Haiti in his English and he has no ambition to return there. Yet, "I feel Haitian," he says. "One of the reasons I moved here was to be closer to Haiti." For those who have difficulties grabbing the first rung of the ladder of American success, a group of self-help programs and social agencies is evolving. Haitian-Americans United for Progress sits in a nondescript storefront on a section of Linden Boulevard in Queens dominated by Haitian businesses. On a Saturday morning, the Haitian-American Women's Advocacy Network is meeting. They have contacted American feminist groups for advice and are drawing up a constitution and a charter. "Many Haitian women need help integrating themselves into American society," say
s Marie Therese Guilloteau, one of the organizers. "They have a different role here." In Brooklyn, a community organizer, Lola Poisson, just won a $400,000 New York City grant to provide mental health services to Haitians and other Caribbean immigrants. Poisson says she wants to provide an "extended family" for Haitians, who often feel emotionally lost in New York.

At the Haitian Information Center on Flatbush Avenue, the entire staff is unpaid. Daniel Huttinot, one of the founders, says the organization was started to counter misinformation about Haiti and Haitians, but its staff soon learned that Haitians had more pressing needs. They switched gears and now offer help with immigration problems, teaching language classes and courses in computers. In Miami, the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center offers literacy classes, Sunday school, preparation for the high-school equivalency exam and help in job placement.

Getting these services is hardly unusual for new immigrants. What is rema
rkable is the involvement of Haitians, who came from a country where social services and philanthropy are usually left to foreign missionaries. In a way, this charity is a sign of their Americanization.

A subject of ambiguity for Haitians is race. Most are eager to talk about their country's role as the first independent black nation in the modern era. Even middle-class Haitians are now willing to acknowledge the deep African roots of Haitian culture. But they are less sure about the value of being categorized with African-Americans. Most will acknowledge that many of the obstacles they face are racial. "They want to force us to live in black neighborhoods by pricing us out of the white areas," complains Augustin, the young entrepreneur in Pompano Beach. "We need the help of black Americans to help save Haiti, and to help against what whites do to us here." Yet, almost as quickly, he begins to delineate the differences he perceives between African-Americans and Haitians. "We have a different cultu
re. We are completely different," says Augustin, echoing comments I hear frequently in discussions with Haitians. What these perceived differences are depends on what experience the Haitians have had with black Americans. Those in Miami's Little Haiti, which abuts impoverished Liberty City, often talk in stereotypes. "The blacks" are not clean, they say. They do not work. They don't care about their homes. When pressed, Haitians acknowledge that they have heard about the black middle class. But living near poor black neighborhoods that most successful blacks escaped long ago, many Haitians say they don't know any "good blacks."

Most Haitian-Americans seek a middle ground between assimilation and ethnic isolation. Edeline Leger, 15, and her sister Edna, 13, live in Lincroft, a New Jersey suburb. They were both born in the United States. Their father, Eddy, is a settlements manager for the brokerage firm of Kidder Peabody. Although the two girls have never been to Haiti, they are its staunch defen
ders. They write book reports in school on Haitian topics and don't hesitate to speak in defense of the country they've never seen. "We're not ashamed of Haiti, " Edeline says. "We tell everybody we're Haitian."

I suspect that being Haitian teen-agers in a predominantly white suburb makes them exotic, as we were decades earlier. But I find myself comforted by their self-assertion. Haitians will change in America and they will learn to flex their new economic and political muscle. They are now moving more deeply into the mainstream, away from Little Haiti to the Miami suburbs, from Brooklyn to Westchester, from the West Side to Long Island and New Jersey, from Boston to Newton and Brookline. But they seem in no danger of losing their identity. No one says "Tahiti?" any more when we say Haiti, and even the boat people label and the AIDS label will pass too. Someday the other Americans will even appreciate our role as a new link in the long chain of hyphenated Americans.

Copyright © 19
93 The New York Times Company [/quote]