In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Ethnic battle over Little Haiti hurts all

Among the myriad injustices heaped upon the Haitian people, the snub by Miamians who’d like to see the endearing “Little Haiti” nickname disappear from the city may seem small scale by comparison.

But the territorial matter in question — whether to bestow official designation to a part of Miami casually referred to as Little Haiti, an area that includes historic Lemon City — has unleashed unnecessary fury and prejudice.

It’s become another hurtful, sad episode in the ancient battle between old timers and newcomers. And it has pitted against each other respected activists in two communities — African Americans and Haitian Americans — who should be allies, not bitter adversaries.

“I understand and appreciate the longing Haitian Americans have for their own neighborhood designation, but basically we were here first,” retired psychologist Marvin Dunn wrote in a letter to the Miami Herald that calls Lemon City, an agricultural community settled after the Civil War by South Carolina farmers who brought black workers, the city’s “oldest community.”

We were here first.

I’ve heard those code words spoken so many times before, and as misguided (and inaccurate) as they are in almost every occasion, including this one, I respect the feelings of disenfranchisement behind them. Dunn makes a case that African-American history in Miami is “difficult enough as it is to document and protect” without newcomers changing original names.

No doubt that all of Miami’s history should be honored and remembered — and the way to visibly accomplish that is by engaging in meaningful historic preservation, not just talk: Restore, not erase, buildings. Place attractive instructional markers and maintain them. Teach local history in our classrooms.

In other words, build a culture of conservation.

But an ethnic battle, who needs that?

“Haitians arrived in the 1980s, a mere blink on the historical record,” Dunn argues. “What is to happen if in 40 years another ethnic group, say Mexicans, populate the area? Name change to Little Mexico? The Miami City Commission should do the right thing and leave history alone.”

That a figure as respected as Professor Dunn feels it’s acceptable to invalidate other ethnic groups, particularly already nationally maligned groups like Haitians and Mexicans, to elevate another only points to the frailty of our community’s harmony — and to deeper divisive issues.

The perception (and reality) that there’s a small pie to divide only leads to misery for all. But if anyone should understand struggle and stand proudly behind Haitian Americans, it’s the African American community.

Slaves and free blacks waged a successful war against the French, and Haiti became in 1804 the first independent nation in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Haitians Americans are admirable survivors of tragedies that would quash most spirits: Stunning poverty, hand-me-down dictatorships, unstable democratic governance, and as if that weren’t enough, killer floods, mudslides and earthquakes.

That thousands have made it to these shores is nothing short of miraculous.

Migrant smugglers take advantage of their plight, ferry them in packed boats and don’t think twice before throwing them overboard to lighten the load in bad weather or to outrun the law. A Coast Guard rescue only means a ticket back home. Scores are interdicted at sea and returned to Haiti.

To say that those who’ve made it to Miami face tremendous adversity is an understatement. Haitians suffer here, too — from wholesale prejudice for being black and immigrant, for speaking Creole and French, and for cultural differences people don’t understand.

Yet Haitians persevere, becoming during the past three decades contributors in every sphere of society, from the arts to political life.

For people who’ve risked it all to start life anew, what’s the value of a name?

There’s the matter of pride, certainly, and history and heritage. Evoking the old homeland fuels the promise of working hard and making it in the new.

But, most of all, a name bestows a sense of belonging.

Little Haiti or Lemon City? Why not embrace both? Why should the Miami City Commission have to make a Solomon-like decision?

One need not take away from one group to give to another.

The area in question, roughly from 36th to 79th streets and from Interstate 95 to the Florida East Coast Railway, is vast enough to officially recognize all the neighborhoods encompassed within it — the Design District, Buena Vista, Lemon City, Little River — and to add Little Haiti to the mix.

The nickname for the area where Haitian refugees began to settle 30 some years ago evokes images of colorful murals and pastel storefronts, but its only prominent landmarks — the Little Haiti Cultural Center and the Caribbean Marketplace — are in a small area off Northeast Second Avenue and 59th Terrace.

The city commission’s efforts should be directed at enhancing those branded landmarks into which they’ve already poured resources. And activists’ energies would be better directed at helping the neighborhoods rise, strengthening institutions and engaging citizens instead of marginalizing them. All of this area needs the attention.

That Haitians Americans desire to add their stamp on the place they’ve come to embrace as home should be cause for celebration.

This quintessential arrival city was built on the dreams of people from elsewhere.

Lemon City. Liberty City. Little Havana. Little Haiti.

It’s who we are, and indeed, names do matter.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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