Roots of Little Haiti remain strong in face of gentrification

Marley Abouna climbs an outdoor art piece during the third annual Caribe Arts Fest, held this year at the Little Haiti Cultural Center last year.
Marley Abouna climbs an outdoor art piece during the third annual Caribe Arts Fest, held this year at the Little Haiti Cultural Center last year.

Growing up in Miami in the ’80s and ’90s, you were publicly shamed for being Haitian. You had to practically deny your heritage just to fit in, avoid fights at school and not be ridiculed because of your last name. Everyday was a fight to stay true to your heritage while also dodging all sorts of name-calling and stereotypes about who we were as a people.

No other immigrant group in South Florida was ostracized to this magnitude, and it hurt like hell to not be accepted in this community, especially if this is where you were born and raised. We sought comfort by building our own little communities, creating local shops and businesses that also served as gathering hubs. We kept our culture strong through unity.

Decades later, we can publicly boast about our Haitian heritage without shame or ridicule. We hold public office and own businesses. We have also raised a second and third generation of Haitian Americans.

But things are starting to feel familiar again — and not in a good way. The pitting of “this” community against “that” community; Little Haiti vs. Lemon City.

There are many by people who have special interests in Little Haiti. Recently, when the Miami City Commission unanimously voted to make Little Haiti an official name, no amount of words could explain the emotions behind the celebratory tears that those in the Haitian community shed. We came to Miami like many other immigrant groups and fought tooth and nail to make it feel like our home away from home despite being rejected.

Imagine not feeling welcomed by the entire community, then finally having the neighborhood where we sought refuge and respect officially recognized. Now, once again, we’re being made to feel like we should be ashamed to call Little Haiti home.

There has been contentious debate around the recent naming of Little Haiti. I’ve also seen who the loudest voices against the naming are: developers, special-interest groups, as well as those pushing the products of gentrification.

All of a sudden, there’s this concern for African Americans and Bahamians and protecting their heritage in Lemon City. Where was this concern when the boundaries of West Coconut Grove were being encroached upon? Where was this care when Overtown was destroyed, soon to be unrecognizable in a matter of a few years?

Where was the concern for the people of Liberty Square? Where’s the concern when the cultural identity of our communities are being manipulated in the name of gentrification and this “New Miami?”

Where were these same people even recently when Haitians were the ones who were providing the foundation of Little Haiti? These same developers, galleries, restaurateurs and shop owners were absent.

They can’t tell us that we don’t deserve Little Haiti, or that concern about the preservation of African-American and Bahamian heritage and identity is sincere.

I pay homage to the earliest residents of Lemon City who built up the community and preserved it as their own. I certainly understand why the original residents want to remember Lemon City.

However, we are one heritage whether African American, Bahamian, Haitian, Jamaican, Trinidadian or Afro-Latino. When one segment of our community wins, we all win. Miami is changing quickly. It won’t look the same in just a few short years. So if it takes keeping the name Little Haiti alive so that two and three generations from now, people will know that there was this black diaspora that existed, then we still win.

Let’s not allow this division to pit members of the diaspora against each other just because it suits these new interests in Little Haiti. Keep Little Haiti alive.

Fabiola Fleuranvil is the CEO of Blueprint Creative Group in Miami.