When I was little, I knew we were different. Not only because of my parents and their thick accents, but because of the lines they drew around us and the other children in the neighborhood. I remember my mother saying, “You are not to go and play with those kids! They are not like us!” Even now, 30 years later, it rings out like an echo.
A black mom boomerang.
There was a feeble metal gate around the apartment we lived in. Me and my brothers were the only kids who lived in our building. The other kids, the ones I often saw at school, lived in the houses that wrapped around ours, and they were allowed to run free, back and forth, being kids. Not us. We weren’t allowed to play with the American kids. I was so shocked the first time I heard my mother say it. They were the same color as us. I suppose I would have taken it better if she had said we couldn’t play with the white kids, but there weren’t any to play with anyhow. They only existed at school. Kids like us were bussed in with our greasy paper bag lunches and thick lips.
I went to school in West Boca and lived in East Delray. Worlds apart. I couldn’t play at school, because the kids didn’t like us, and I couldn’t play at home because my mom didn’t like the kids. We had it rough. One day, I told my mom I hated her because she wouldn’t let me go over to April’s house. April was my best friend. She was boisterous and exciting! I of course got a beating for saying that. My brothers were the audience. I remember going to hide in the closet by the water heater so I could fume. She found me and wore me out. Her feelings were hurt. Or maybe she thought she had to whip the Maroon out of me. I get that. I just wanted to be like the other kids! Already, we were eating different foods and listening to different music than everyone else, and lots of times we had to walk to get where we needed to go. I felt super marginalized.
Until I met some Haitian kids.
It started while I was in elementary school. A kid would walk up, put a hand out to shake yours and say, “Congratulations, you’re a Haitian.” Most times, both parties would just laugh. At other times, there would be a halfway serious punch thrown. On rare occasions, a fight would break out. No one wanted to be called a Haitian. They were the new kids all the time. Very quiet. Sometimes dressed in clothes that didn’t make sense from a chromatic point of view. Thick hair. Lots of grease. More barrettes than anyone else. Sometimes there were tons of ribbons. Heavy perfume, probably Razac. Look it up. Order some. Superior moisturization and fragrance.
The migration wave my siblings and I witnessed was brought on by nightmarish conditions in Haiti. There has scarcely been a time in history where the citizens of Haiti haven’t been crippled by some corrupt political regime. When we were growing up, Aristide had just been overthrown and Haiti was under military rule. An estimated 3,000 people were killed. Others fled. To South Florida, and New York, and other parts of the Caribbean. My father used to tell me stories of how Haitian immigrants traveled to Jamaica seeking shelter. Many were turned away. He never explained why. In my adult life, I have met a couple Haitian people who tell me they were born or raised in the Bahamas. Or Turks and Caicos. When Haitians first started moving into the United States, they weren’t allowed to donate blood. They were blamed for an influx of tuberculosis and HIV cases. Bear in mind that the US had a huge hand in making their already fragile political/social situation worse. Though the government allowed the Haitian citizens to come here, they were highly stigmatized for at least a decade.
One day, when I was in the third grade, a Haitian girl was violently attacked on the bus ride home. Tonya Jackson led the assault. She was the prettiest girl on our bus, and maybe even the prettiest girl at the school. The victim- Sheila-was sitting alone in her seat, holding her books to her chest when Tonya just started punching her. She didn’t fight back. Someone stopped it-the bus driver I think. I just remember Sheila crying and saying she didn’t do anything.
When she walked off the bus, her clothes were askew and her face was swollen, and bruised.
When my Haitian peers weren’t getting jumped on, they were being ridiculed for the way they smelled, or asked whether or not it was true that they ate cats. At other times, they were alienated because people said they did voodoo. I am going to guess these rumors came from people’s parents. My mother never said anything bad about Haitian people or their children. But my father did. He always said they were nasty, they didn’t bathe, or they had roaches. It was horrible. This was even more interesting because he said crazy things about other Caribbean people too. We were told to stay away from the Trinidadians because they thought they were better than others. The Bajans had sex in their butts. The Guyanese had AIDS. I don’t know where he got this stuff from. He was only okay with other Jamaicans apparently. He seems to have widened his scope now. In recent years, he has gone on to work with several Haitian people. As a matter of fact, I had a very basic conversation in Creole with a new client of his while I was there painting his office.
I am in love with Haiti and Haitian culture.
I think my fascination started when I was teaching at Atlantic High. I had gone there as a student, and by that time (1999-2002), the tide had turned as far as attitudes toward Haitian people were concerned. Haitian flag day was widely celebrated on our campus. Flags, bandanas, and tee shirts emblazoned with the crest from the island’s flag adorned many chests, and backsides. Creole was widely spoken in the halls. My first high school boyfriend was Haitian. My father was obviously peeved by this fact, but the relationship didn’t last long anyway. No biggie. As a teacher, I was able to gain more insight into the lives of the people a few islands away from the one I was born on. The students taught me words! They brought me food! I felt like the few phrases I learned made me a bit of an insider. Additionally, I got to understand that the Haitian culture, and its respective language had roots in some of the same ones as mine (Yuroba, Spanish, Taino, Portuguese). We were so connected!
Now, obviously as an educated woman, I already knew that, but it didn’t really hit home until one day a student called me, “Je Ch`ech” which in english translates to “Dry Eyes." Although the meanings are different, in patois, there is a term called “Red Eye,” which means that you are envious of someone else. According to my grandmother, “Dry Eye” is also used in patois to mean you’re behaving in a way you know you shouldn’t. As a lover of language, especially the ones surrounding my heritage, this was a big deal! A revelation. I annoy all my Haitian friends when we talk on the phone now, because they will give me a piece of news and I may reply with, “Kisa, Jezi! Or Mezanmi!” One of my closest friends loves to remind me that I am Jamaican and not Haitian.
At this point in my life, I am disappointed that my Haitian friends haven't yet taken me to their mother country for a genuine experience. Some of them are afraid to go because of concerns about crime in certain areas. Others fret over the so-called “zombies” who roam the dark streets at night. I am not concerned about either of those things. I live in Inglewood, California.
As I sit on my porch eating ackee and saltfish, Haiti is on my mind. I know it won’t be long until I am in Jacmel wearing a fantastic bikini, eating Djon Djon or L`egume with my people.
by LaToya Samantha Leidig LaToya Samantha Leidig emigrated from Nassau, Bahamas to Delray Beach, Florida when she was two years old. Her Jamaican parents left the Caribbean in search of solace from political unrest, and the promise of the American Dream. After earning her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science at Bethune-Cookman College, LaToya became a humanities instructor at her former high school. She has since maintained a career as a teacher working with At-Promise students in Florida, Maryland and California.
LaToya is a writer with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University. She maintains a blog with writings dedicated to parenthood and social justice, and is the author of a thought-provoking children’s book called Poor. Mr. Monday. LaToya is also a diversity trainer and sits on several committees at her current school. She is dedicated to fighting for quality educational access for all students.