Miami Stories

Filmmaker: Little Haiti a place where activists gather to discuss and take action

A mural of Viter Juste, the ‘father of Little Haiti,’ by artist Serge Toussaint.
A mural of Viter Juste, the ‘father of Little Haiti,’ by artist Serge Toussaint. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

I call Little Haiti home. Though I don’t physically live there, it’s part of what I refer to as “My Miami,” and a big part of what makes this city so cool. Over the past seven years living in South Florida, I’ve had many moments reflecting on the similarities between Harlem, the place I was born and raised, and Haiti, the country where my spirit flies to every night as I dream.

Just like Harlem, Little Haiti has been viewed negatively; it’s perceived as a tough ghetto. Drugs, gang violence and abandonment have overshadowed the positive cultural contributions. But the truth is that Little Haiti is a place like any other, where people work and spend time with family and friends, fall in love, make great art. Viter Juste, known as the “Father of Little Haiti,” led the community in renaming the neighborhood, from historic Lemon City, which was one of the oldest black neighborhoods in Miami, to Little Haiti, because of the mass exodus of Haitians who settled in the area due to the political instability in Haiti in the 1970s. But this settlement of Haitians in Miami, and the subsequent renaming of the area, exacerbated the divide between Haitians, African Americans and other black Caribbean communities. Something similar happened in Harlem, too. As a kid, this divide led me to hide my identity because of the teasing and hazing most Haitians received in school. It was a tough time and easier to pass as African American than to acknowledge being Haitian.

Little Haiti was not the most attractive place for my family, the typical pseudo-Haitian bourgeoisie. They were able to achieve slight opportunity and stayed far away from Black Harlem and the Haitian community in NYC. And like most South Florida Haitians who tasted a bit of the American dream, they left Little Haiti and invested their modest earnings in other communities in Florida, such as Kendall or Broward County.

Regardless of the economic hardships and disparities and lack of government investment in Little Haiti, the people of the community, many of them so-called “boat people,” persisted despite prejudice and discrimination, and they opened businesses, bought homes, worked multiple jobs to try to get to their piece of the dream, and created one of the most culturally relevant communities in Florida.

I fell in love with Little Haiti when I screened my documentary film, “Harlem’s Mart 125: The American Dream,” at the Little Haiti Cultural Center back in 2010. It was a pretty new facility at the time, and I began to meet fascinating people. I loved to eat at Leela’s Restaurant, grab a book on Haiti at Libreri Mapou, stop by the Little Haiti Thrift Store to sift through their “made in Haiti” jewelry and get my dance on at Big Night in Little Haiti (now called Sounds of Little Haiti), a free Haitian music concert every third Friday of the month at the Cultural Complex. The center began to attract all kinds of amazing programming, and as years went by, the cultural activities began to grow. Under Sandy Dorsainvil, the former director of the Cultural Complex, and groups like NEP2, the Haitian Cultural Alliance and others, in just a matter of three years, Little Haiti became what is now one of the hottest cultural enclaves in the city of Miami.

It’s been attractive to politicians, too. In just one year, I’ve seen Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, former mayor of NYC Rudolph Giuliani, Bernie Sanders, and a slew of other world leaders and celebrities visit the center. Little Haiti has landed on the global stage.

Just like Harlem is a Mecca for black civil liberties activists and others, Little Haiti has always been the place where activists gather to discuss and take action when politics are affecting the Haitian diaspora community. It warms my heart to meet them and help. Lately, I’ve volunteered with political activist Marleine Bastien who is working on issues dealing with the gentrification of Little Haiti. As three huge developers come into the community, just like what happened in Harlem, many residents feel like they are at a crossroads.

I plan to be there, waving my Haitian flag, on Friday when when international pop star Wyclef Jean was set to perform May 19 at The Sounds of Little Haiti fundraiser. Another event that makes me proud and hopeful is the Little Haiti Book Festival created by Jan Mapou of Sosyete Koukuy in partnership with the Miami Book Fair. It will take place on Saturday evening, May 27, and all day Sunday, May 28. Authors from Haiti and the diaspora will be in conversation (with simultaneous translation into English), there will be free books for children, workshops for writers and delicious food, music and dance — a Voudou ceremony will close out the night. I will be there too, waving my books by Haitian authors and celebrating our rich, intellectual heritage. I will also screen a film based on a novel by one of Haiti’s most important authors, Dany Laferrière.

I celebrate the courage of the people who came here for a better life, and I will work to make sure that these courageous people can stay here for decades to come, always maintaining love for their homeland of Haiti and their home, Little Haiti.

Rachelle Salnave is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, creator of Ayiti Images Film Series and Adjunct Film Professor at Miami Dade College. Her film, La Belle Vie: The Good Life, re-airs on WPBT2, Monday, June 19th at 10 p.m. http://www.labelleviefilm.com/

Little Haiti Book Festival takes place Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28, free and open to the community at the Little Haiti Cultural Center complex, 212 NE 59th Terr. in Little Haiti. For more information please visit miamibookfair.com

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