Chile is used to welcoming migrants. But Haitians don’t always get a warm reception

How Chile is coping with an influx of Haitian migrants

Haiti lost 1 percent of its population, nearly 105,000 people, to Chile last year in search of a better life, but the unprecedented migration is not without consequences or controversy.
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Haiti lost 1 percent of its population, nearly 105,000 people, to Chile last year in search of a better life, but the unprecedented migration is not without consequences or controversy.

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SANTIAGO, CHILE — The graying comic yells “Hola negrito” into the crowd gathered at the Plaza de Armas, delivers some one-liners and then spies a couple eating vanilla ice cream.

“Where are you from?” Cristián Matias asks the man and woman, who proudly respond: Haiti.

“It’s a good thing you’re not eating chocolito, otherwise you would eat your fingers,” the street performer quips.

The mostly Chilean crowd laughs. The couple look offended.

Moments later, the comedian drops another insult, this time shouting “Masisi” — a Creole pejorative for gay men — as two young Haitian men cut through the masses.

Matias insisted later to a reporter that he’s not a racist and that the jokes are all in good fun. But Haitians, and experts on racism and discrimination in Chile, say such crude remarks are the kind of subtle — and not so subtle — acts of humiliation and racism the black migrants are routinely subjected to in the South American nation.

“Racism is really strong in Chile right now,” said Yvenet Dorsainvil, a Haitian immigrant and author who moved to Chile nine years ago to attend college. “It’s so strong that sometimes you think people are from another century.”

Thousands of young Haitians are looking for economic opportunity in Chile. But they don't always find it.

As Chile becomes a leading destination for migrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and South American countries with black populations, the surge in migrant arrivals is giving rise to concerns about xenophobia and growing racism in a society that has long regarded itself as not just white, but whiter than most other Latin American countries. While not unique to Chile, racism takes on special characteristics here, observers say, from the outright to the more nuanced violence or micro-aggressions.

“There shouldn’t be any reason to link migration with racism because they are two very distinct phenomenons,” said María Emilia Tijoux, a Chilean sociologist and race expert. But she said Afro-Latin American migrants and those from Haiti are experiencing different levels of violence as a result of racism in Chile, and “the ones suffering most directly from this racism are the Haitians.”

“The situation of Haitian men and women here is very serious,” she said.

Peruvians, Colombians, Haitians and other Latin American migrants living in Chile gathered to protest against the racism and the exclusionary. Esteban Felix AP

In less than a decade, Chile, a country where blacks previously had been barely visible, has seen its black population dramatically surge. At less than 5,000 in 2010, the Haitian population has now hit more than 100,000, the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said.

This increased visibility of Haitians, Tijoux said, has subjected them to all forms of racism in their everyday lives, from the way they are viewed by Chileans to how they are treated, both of which hamper their integration into Chilean society.

Sometimes, the acts — like Matias’ remarks — are subtle enough that Haitians don’t recognize them as racist, especially if they don’t understand much Spanish. Other times, it’s beyond obvious, such as when authorities found five Haitians earlier this year being housed in an animal stable in the municipality of Villarrica, Araucanía region.

“They are objects of exploitation,” Tijoux said of Haitians. “They are being found in animal corrals. They are not paid the minimum wage. They are not given a current work contract, they have very long working hours and they are continuously being mistreated.”

Marc-Henri Romulus, 28, vacillates between staying and leaving. He’s tired, he said, of the micro-aggressions like when a young Chilean boy, shopping with his father in a local street market, yelled out, “Masisi” to him.

“Once they tell me that,” he said, “I am going to curse their mothers and they don’t want you cursing their mothers.”

A surge in back migrants from Haiti is giving rise to concerns about xenophobia and growing racism in Chile, a society that has long regarded itself as not just white, but whiter than most other Latin American countries. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

Romulus, who confronted the duo, said the move to Chile wasn’t his idea. It was his father’s, who greeted him at the door in Haiti one day with his passport and an airline ticket to the Dominican Republic and then Santiago, believing Chile presented better opportunities.

“Sometimes, I can’t believe I left my home to come take humiliation in a foreign land,” he said.

Saintila Pierre, 45, who left a six-bedroom house and a tailoring business in his native Gonaives, said it was fear for personal safety — a common reason for leaving for those who had jobs back in Haiti — that forced him out, knowing that he had almost no recourse with Haiti’s corrupt criminal justice system. Now he works at least 10 hours a day, five days a week and makes $500 a month working in a factory.

“If I am five minutes late to work, they start taking money from me,” he said. “They do it for all of us, except for their people.”

Asked who “their people” are, he said, “Venezuelans and other Spanish migrants.”

“This is a nation that’s very racist. They mistreat us a lot,” he said, to a chorus of agreement from several other Haitian migrants gathered in a yard in a Santiago neighborhood.

Young Haitians are gambling on a future in Haiti. But once they arrive, they realize the South American country is anything but a land of boundless opportunities. In addition to language and cultural barriers, they also face racism. Jacqueline Charles jcharles@Miamiherald.com

Haitians say they often turn a blind eye to Chileans’ prejudice because they have a bigger problem: trying to earn a living. But sometimes it’s hard to ignore what’s going on.

In the same week President Donald Trump reportedly referred to Haiti as a “shithole” country, angering Haitians everywhere, those in Chile were already reeling from a documentary, “Adios Haiti,” airing on Chilean television. Pitched as a way “to learn about the harsh reality of [Port-au-Prince’s] inhabitants, with unbearable heat, dirt and sewage everywhere,” the documentary fueled tensions and accusations of racism by Haitians who fear the spotlight, worrying that all Chileans will now view them negatively.

“A lot of Chileans have started to look at us badly, as if we don’t have anywhere back home that’s good, as if we all used to live worse than how we are living here,” Romulus said.

Dorsainvil, who has lived in Chile for almost a decade, understands the Haitian community’s angst about drawing attention to themselves while their future in the country remains uncertain.

The author of Chile’s first Spanish-Creole dictionary, Dorsainvil, 31, has experienced all forms of racism, he said. Recently, when he tried to take two friends visiting from Brazil to a club, he was questioned exhaustively at the entrance about how much money they had to spend.

When he asked why other non-Haitians were allowed in without questioning, he was told “because they are tourists. Haitians are not tourists.”

Last year, after he published his dictionary, Dorsainvil said his Facebook page was inundated with racial epithets including people calling him “a monkey” and telling him “to go back to the forest.”

A surge in back migrants from Haiti is giving rise to concerns about xenophobia and growing racism in Chile, a society that has long regarded itself as not just white, but whiter than most other Latin American countries. Jacqueline Charles jcharles@Miamiherald.com

“There is racism everywhere, but here they say what they want,” said Dorsainvil, who also advocates for migrants as a member of the National Coordinator of Immigrants.

He said it seems particularly aimed at Haitians. “If you have a black person who comes here from the United States and speaks English, they treat them well.”

He became so worried about the anti-migrant theme running through last year’s presidential campaign for then-candidate Sebastián Piñera that he agreed to appear in a video for the opposition, center-left presidential candidate Alejandro Guillier.Guillier ended up losing to Piñera but not before Dorsainvil’s video appearance unleashed racist rhetoric from a member of a far-right ultra-nationalist group.

One epithet-filled message referred to him as a “black bastard” and “black monkey” and demanded that he go back to Haiti.

But where Haitians experience the most racism and discrimination is in their employment, where they are often found in low-valued, low-paying jobs in agriculture, construction and street cleaning, Dorsainvil said — jobs frequently available to recent Haitian arrivals without papers. Even if they are professionals, they can’t work in their fields because Chile doesn’t recognize professional degrees from Haiti.

Last March, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, during a visit to Haiti, signed an accord with President Jovenel Moïse in which Chile agreed to recognize Haiti-issued high school degrees in hopes that Haitians could find better paying jobs or enter the university more easily.

Dorsainvil has unsuccessfully been trying to meet with Haitian officials in hopes of getting the parliament to finally ratify an agreement — dating back to 1901 — between Haiti and Chile that would recognize Haitian professional degrees in the South American country.

Twenty years ago, the number of African descendants in Chile was small and very localized in the Azapa Valley in northern Chile. Many in Chile had never seen a black person. But with the arrival of Afro-Peruvians in the late 1990s and Afro-Colombians in the early-to-mid 2000s, that started to change, said Chilean migration expert Cristián Doña-Reveco. The result, he said, is that “Chile realized it was a racist country because of all of the stereotypes Chileans had about Afro-descendants.”

“Chile has been described in media as the California of the south ... so there is this idea that migrants come to Chile for their American dream,” said Doña-Reveco, who runs the Latino studies program at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “The problem is that Chile is a very stratified society and Afro-descendant migrants will have problems getting integrated mostly because of the context of reception they face.”

Peruvians, Colombians, Haitians and other Latin American migrants living in Chile gathered to protest against the racism and the exclusionary populism of some presidential candidates. Esteban Felix AP

Haitians are especially vulnerable.

“People see Haitians selling candy in the street, then the stereotype of being black and being poor forms,” said Doña-Reveco. “This creates a negative attitude of many Chileans toward Haitians. In blogs and on the internet they would state things like ‘You’re just polluting the city.’”

Last year, Chile’s National Institute for Human Rights in its annual report devoted a chapter to the perceptions of Chileans toward black migrants and the country’s indigenous population. Among the findings: While a third of Chileans consider themselves to be “whiter” than other Latin Americans, about 25 percent of those living in metropolitan regions consider immigrants to be “dirtier” than Chileans. They also considered migrants “messy, unpunctual, rude, irresponsible, dirty.”

And while the report’s authors believe that “most of the Chilean population is not racist,” based on their responses to a survey, they expressed concerns about the prejudices Chileans hold — such as the 47 percent who said they could justify violence against migrants and 32 percent who view black migrants as exotic and responsible for an increase in infidelities.

With no one tracking racist incidents, the study’s researchers highlighted media reports. Among them: an employer in Valdivia asking Haitians to certify they didn’t have leprosy after one Haitian migrant was diagnosed with the disease, and the ongoing investigation into the high profile death of a Haitian mother, Joane Florvil, after she was arrested by police under unclear circumstances.

Scholars and observers say Chileans tend to forget the country’s history with African slaves. Slavery ended in 1832.

“Many in Chile have this outlook that we’re the product of some pure race,” said Rodrigo Delgado, the mayor of Estación Central district of Santiago, whose grandfather migrated to Chile from Palestine. “People have forgotten that most of us are the fruits of migration.”

But that was a different kind of migration that came mostly from Europe and the Middle East. And today, Chileans refer to those individuals or white immigrants as “foreigners,” and the newcomers from Haiti as “migrants.” Delgado calls this view of immigration “discrimination.” Tijoux says it’s outright racist.

Richard Joseph, 40, a Haitian immigrant who became a national hero recently when he risked his life to save a Chilean woman trying to commit suicide, said the racism Haitians suffer in Chile is far less than they experience in the Dominican Republic. A one-time resident of the Dominican Republic, which shares the same island with Haiti, Joseph moved to Chile after a Dominican court in 2013 stripped citizenship from thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, making it impossible for him to find work.

Richard Joseph, a Haitian immigrant in Chile, recently became a national hero after saving a Chilean woman from a suicidal fall in Santiago. Joseph recalls the moment she fell into his arms.

“There are Chileans who are racists who don’t want to work with blacks, who don’t want to befriend blacks,” said Joseph, who works as an airline agent. “But there are also those who want to know about us, who want to know about our culture, who want to know about our language, how we think, how we react.”

Rodrigo Castro is one of them. The Chilean man who runs a produce business at a farmer’s market in Santiago’s Cerrillos district, provides housing and jobs to Haitians like Sonel Vilcenat, 25, who landed a job with Castro just two days after arriving here.

“They are responsible, they are super honest,” Castro said of Vilcenat and his other Haitian employees. “They will never steal money. They are very good people and always thank you for everything.”

Jacqueline Charles: @Jacquiecharles

This project was made possible by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation - United States. The story does not reflect the views of the French-American Foundation or its directors, employees or representatives.

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