Haitian Americans

views updated May 17 2018


by Felix Eme Unaeze and Richard E. Perrin


Haiti, an independent republic since 1804, is the oldest black republic in the world. It is located in the West Indies on the western third of the Island of Hispaniola, which lies between Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. The eastern two-thirds of the island is the Dominican Republic. Haiti, which occupies a total area of 10,714 square miles (27,750 sq. km.), is slightly larger than the State of Maryland. Mostly rough and mountainous in terrain with Massif de la Selle and La Hotte among the main ranges, Haiti also contains a few plateaus and plains such as the Northern Plain, Artibonite, and Cul-de-Sac. Haiti has a tropical climate with temperatures that vary between 70 and 90 degrees all year, although December and January can be quite cool. There are two rainy seasons, one beginning in April and ending in May, and the other beginning in October and ending in November. Tropical thunderstorms are frequent during the summer.

In 1992, Haiti's population was estimated to be about 6.5 million inhabitants, with approximately 71 percent living in rural areas and about 29 percent in urban centers. Haiti records one of the highest population densities in the world, with about 600 persons per square mile. The birth rate is about 44.6 per 1000 people and the fertility rate is about six children per woman. The death rate is about 15.6 deaths per 1000 persons. Life expectancy at birth is 53 years for males and 55 years for females.

The people of Haiti are primarily of African descent, although a smaller percentage is mulatto, and therefore of European and African descent. Creole is the main language spoken with about ten percent of the population fluent in French. The literacy rate is 23 percent. About 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and ten percent is Protestant; Voodoo is practiced by a majority of the people. The capital city is Port-au-Prince, the country's largest city, which boasts a population of about 1,148,000 people. Other major cities are Cap-Haitien, Gonaives, Les Cayes, Jeremie, and Jacmel. The national flag is horizontally blue over red with the national arms on a centered white panel. The national anthem is La Dessalinienne: Pour le pays, pour les ancêtres, which translates as "for the country, for the ancestors," with lyrics by J. Lherisson and music by N. Geffrand (1903).


The island, which was first inhabited by Indian tribesthe Arawaks, the Tainos, and lastly the Caraibescalled their country "Quisqueya" and later "Haiti," which means "the body of land." The island has had a turbulent and bitter history. When Christopher Columbus landed at the Mole St. Nicholas Bay on December 5, 1492, he claimed the island in the interest of the Spanish rulers who had financed the expeditionFerdinand and Isabellaand called it "Hispaniola," which means "Little Spain."

Although the Indians welcomed the new settlers, the discovery of gold in the riverbeds sent the Spaniards into a frenzied search for the coveted nuggets. The Indians died by the thousands from diseases introduced by the Spaniards, who also enslaved the natives, treated them with extreme cruelty, and massacred them. The Indian population was reduced from about 300,000 to less than 500. In 1510, the Spaniards began to import their first African slaves from the West Coast of Africa to work in the gold mines. The French, who came in 1625 and changed the name of the island to Saint Domingue, fought the Spaniards to keep a hold on part of the territory. After Spain signed a treaty in 1697 in which it conceded the western part of the island to France, the colony developed rapidly under French rule. The 700,000 slaves who worked cotton, sugar cane, and coffee plantations generated great wealth for the plantation owners; Saint Domingue became a prosperous colony in the New World and was called "the Pearl of the Caribbean."

After the French Revolution in 1789, the slaves revolted against the colonists and the movement spread to the north and then to the west and the south. Under the leadership of such famous generals as Toussaint L'Ouverture, the slaves made significant progress in their struggle. Self-educated, Toussaint served first in the Spanish army and then in the French army. He was one of the main instruments of Haiti's independence, defeating the English who had invaded Saint Domingue. He also administered and divided the country into districts without the approval of the mainland "Metropole." The French later grew angry with General Toussaint and placed him in a French prison where he died on April 7, 1803 from hunger and lack of medical care. Although disheartened, the indigenous army fought under Generals Dessalines and Petion, and beat the French army at every turn. French General Leclerc died of yellow fever on November 2, 1803; his successor, General Rochambeau, took refuge. Dessalines surrounded his officers and proclaimed the independence of Saint Domingue in Gonaives on January 1, 1804, and restored the former name of Haiti. Independence was won and the country became the second, after the United States, in the Western Hemisphere to become an independent republic.


Dessalines became Haiti's first head of state. Following the elaboration and ratification of a constitution, full powers were given to Dessalines on September 2, 1804. He proclaimed himself Emperor and took the name Jacques the First. He redistributed the country's wealth and converted most of the colonist plantations to state property. He made many political enemies who later resented his manner of governing. Ambushed on his way to Port-au-Prince, he was killed on October 17, 1806. After his death, a constituent assembly amended the Constitution and limited the powers of the president. General Henri Christophe, who had started a power struggle with General Alexandre Petion, withdrew to the northern part of the country and formed a new government; Petion was elected president in March of 1807, thus dividing the new nation. Petion governed the West and South while Christophe ruled the North. In March of 1811, Christophe proclaimed himself king and took the name of Henri the First. Because of his strict regulations, the Kingdom of the North became prosperous, and he erected monuments, which became symbols of power and authority. For example, the Citadel Laferriere, a monument to human endurance, was constructed by the labor of 20,000 men between 1805 and 1814 as a center of resistance against any attempt by foreigners to conquer the island. His ornate palace at Sans Souci near Cap Haitien and his vast citadel, though in ruins, are likewise marvels of massive masonry. When Christophe died in an apparent suicide in 1820, the North and South were reunited with Jean-Pierre Boyer succeeding Petion.

Twenty different presidents headed the Haitian government from 1867 to 1915, and Haiti's unstable political and economic conditions made it vulnerable to outside intervention. Haiti's rising external debt caused European countries to threaten force to collect. At this time, World War I was at its peak in Europe and in July of 1915, the United States Marines landed on Haiti's coast and occupied the country. Under the Monroe Doctrinea document stating U.S. opposition to European involvment in the Western Hemispherethe U.S. Marines remained in Haiti for 19 years from 1915 until 1934. The Haitian people resented American occupation and wanted to restore their national sovereignty. Guerrilla resistance movements were in place but were crushed. In 1946, a popular movement brought forth a rising middle class whose members asked for the sharing of power and liberalization of governmental institutions. The movement was aborted, which contributed to the fall of then-President Elie Lescot (1941-1946), and Dumarsais Estime was elected president. From that period on, all Haitian presidents, with the exception of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, have been deposed by military coup d'état.

In 1957, François Duvalier was elected president. He became a dictator, enforcing a reign of terror with his secret police, sometimes referred to as tonton macoute. Duvalier proclaimed himself President-for-Life in 1964 and his reign of terror continued. The Haitian economy began to deteriorate and the people were suffering seriously in the 1960s. He died in 1971 and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who was only 19 years old, succeeded his father. Both Duvaliers ruled for nearly 30 years. It was during this period that many Haitians fled Haiti. Jean-Claude followed in his father's footsteps, maintaining the same policies of hate and oppression. He was ousted by the Haitian people on February 7, 1986. From 1986 until 1990, four different provisional governments were put into power with the sole purpose of holding general elections, but popular discontent forced them out. Free elections were held on December 16, 1990; and, although the Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected by a majority of 67 percent, he was overthrown by the army on September 30, 1991, and took refuge in the United States. He was restored to his position through peaceful negotiation; he returned to Haiti under a United States military escort and was reinstated on October 15, 1994.


During the 1790s, Haiti was the most affluent of the French colonies. It was then that the black populace of the island revolted against slavery and there was a panicked exodus. Thousands of whites, free blacks, and slaves fled to American seaports, culminating in large French-speaking communities in New Orleans, Norfolk, Baltimore, New York City, and Boston. Immigrants from Haiti who arrived in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were determined to survive in their new land. Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, a trapper who settled on the shore of Lake Michigan was an early Haitian arrival; he settled and established a trading post on the river at a point that would later become the City of Chicago. Pierre Toussaint, a devout Catholic who came to New York as a slave of a French family in 1787, became a prominent hair dresser to wealthy New York patrons and also became a fund-raiser who helped the poor and destitute. France was a safe haven for many educated Haitians, and only a few middle-class Haitians chose to go to the United States. Many of them stayed to receive a university education. A renowned poet and playwright, Felix Morisseau-Leroy was one of the post-World War II immigrants.


According to the United States Census of 1990, there were about 290,000 people who claimed Haitian ancestry; however, this figure does not include the tens of thousands who were in the United States illegally. Moreover, there are second- and third-generation Haitian Americans who simply identify themselves as black; also, some legal immigrants may find it difficult to admit to roots that go back to a Caribbean nation so often associated with superstition and poverty. However, anthropologists estimate that about 1.2 million people in the United States are of Haitian ancestry.

There are five major documented periods of Haitian immigration to the United States: the period of French colonization; the Haitian revolution (1791-1803); the United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934); the period of the Duvaliers (1957-1986); and the overthrow of President Aristide (1991). For almost three decades, from 1957 to 1986, when François "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier were in power, political persecution caused Haitian professionals, the middle class, and students to leave the island in large numbers. Haitians emigrated in search of political asylum or permanent residence status in various countries such as the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, France, Dominican Republic, French Guyana, and Africa.

In the 1980s, many Haitian immigrants arrived in the United States by boat on the shores of Florida and were known as the "boat people." While President Carter gave such refugees a legal status similar to Cubans in 1980 with his Cuban-Haitian entrant program, 18 months later, President Reagan subscribed to a policy of interdiction and indefinite detention for Haitian boat people refugees. Six months later, in June 1982, a federal court ruled against such detention and several thousand refugees were released. In 1986, 40,000 Haitians who came to the United States seeking political asylum were given permanent resident status.

A similar pattern of events occurred in the 1990s. When Aristide was removed by military coup in 1991, there was another wave of Haitian boat people. Under Presidents Bush and Clinton, many were not allowed to reach the shores of the United States. Instead they were stopped at sea, and returned to Haiti. Others were put in detention camps; indefinite detention still occurred. Between 1995 and 1998, 50,000 Haitians were given asylum and temporary legal status, but not permanent like many of their Nicaraguan and Cuban counterparts. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights pushed for legislation to address this issue. In 1998, the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act was adopted, and those immigrants were given the opportunity to apply for such status.

As with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, Michel S. Laguerre has documented that volunteer lawyers and local activists have helped many refugees remain in their adopted country, through the generosity of various humanitarian organizations. However, Laguerrein his book American Odyssey: The Haitians in New York City has also recorded that some refugees attempted suicide while in detention. Despite the odds, the Haitian refugees had the energy and determination to survive in the United States. In her book, Demele: "Making It", social anthropologist Rose-Marie Chierici, herself a Haitian American, has recounted how Haitian immigrants used the Creole word "demele" to manage life in the face of hardship.

Every wave of migration from Haiti has come during political turmoil there; however, economic malaise has always accompanied such turmoil so it has been difficult to distinguish political from economic migrants. Some of the Haitian refugees were thought to have left their homeland because of economic rather than political reasons. Early Haitian immigrants stayed in cities in the United States where they could work and maintain contact with their homeland. The greatest concentration of immigrants are found in New York City, Miami, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Boston. Until 1977, Brooklyn was the heart of Haitian America; however, between 1977 and 1981, 60,000 Haitian boat people landed in South Florida, and the center of the Haitian Diaspora moved south to a community of stucco cottages and mom-and-pop businesses anointed "Little Haiti."

In the early 1980s, thousands of Haitian doctors, teachers, social workers and entrepreneurs moved from New York to Miami. Restaurants serving conch and goat meat and record shops blaring Haitian meringue music sprang up on 54th Street and Northeast Second Avenue. The Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant in Miami Beach also serves as a Haitian hangout.

Haitian immigrants are employed in all types of fields. Deborah Sontag reported in the New York Times on June 3, 1994, that among the early immigrants, Haitian workers include not only migrant workers in Homestead, Florida, but also wealthy doctors on Long Island, taxi drivers in Manhattan as well as college professors in Washington, D.C.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Like most immigrants in the United States, Haitians are busy in the pursuit of the American dream. Almost every Haitian American wishes to buy a home as a matter of status and security. This is implied in the saying, "Se vagabon ki loue kay," which means, "Respectable people don't rent." However, behind the facade of pride and achievement, there is a litany of social problemsbattered women, homeless families, and economic exploitation. The problems that face Haitian immigrants are enormous and complex. Moreover, the problem of undocumented immigrants who live in constant fear of being deported and thrown into Haitian jails has also led to stress-related emotional disorders, which frequently keep the immigrants from using such facilities as public hospitals. Instead, they rely on folk medicine to cure ordinary aliments or they seek a private clinic with Haitian medical personnel. Marc Abraham, a Haitian who has lived on Long Island for 37 years, "I think Americans see Haitians as desperate people instead of decent people who struggle." Abraham continues: "I have to understand that hostility, I guess, to take it off my heart. I mean, this country has enough problems without ours too."

According to Father Thomas Wenski, director of Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center in Miami, Haitians have been specifically and harshly excluded because of "America's endemic 'negrophobia' and inherent racism." Haitians have been excluded because of their race and economic condition. "Thus," says Wenski, "one must ask: will the Haitians be able to assimilate into American society as other immigrant groups of the past? Again, Haitians are black and can Haitians hope for a 'piece of the American pie' while native-born American blacks still fight for crumbs? Many would see an eventual amalgamation into the African American community but does such a view give too much importance to race as a determinant and underrate such values as religion and culture?" (Fr. Thomas Wenski, "Haitians in South Florida," unpublished research done in Miami, Florida, July 1991.)

The tide seemed to be changing by 1998. In a box office, black-oriented hit movie that summer, Stella Got Her Groove Back, a remark is made about Haiti being full of carriers of the disease AIDS. The Haitian-American community, led by the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, organized a protest. The film's distributor, Universal, apologized, and the line was removed from the video version of the film. This was seen by the Haitian American community as a victory in respect for Haitian Americans.


Haitian Americans, by nature, have a strong belief in the culture, traditions and mores of their homeland. Haitian Americans believe, for example, that several types of illness are of supernatural origin and caused by angry spirits. Most believe that a Voodoo family has a spirit protector whose role is to protect its members from the malevolent powers of other spirits.

The institution of the family has made possible their enclaves in the United States. It is here that a bond with the old country is maintained, consciously or unconsciously. Laguerre has noted: "The family provides a niche within which a cultural continuity can be adapted to the exigencies of the new environment. Through the medium of the family, which influences the behaviors of its members through the mechanism of socialization, immigrants were able to retain some of their cultural heritage and develop an awareness of their ethnic legacy."

Haitian families spend their leisure time within their own family and friendship groups. Visits are made to friends and relatives especially on the weekends. It is important to be warm and hospitable to visitors by offering them food and drink. Visitors are usually parents, other relatives, in-laws, and friends. Haitian social circles commonly celebrate birthdays, first communions, and baptisms among other special occasions and holidays. Larger numbers of people attend weddings and funerals.


Haitians have a keen sense of humor which is reflected in many of their proverbs: Beyond the mountains there are more mountains; A dog has four paws, but it can go only one way; Little by little the bird makes its nest; Only the knife knows what is in the heart of the yam; The goat looks at the home owner's eyes before entering his house; Every vein affects the heart; An empty sack cannot stand up; With patience you will see the belly button of an ant; All that you do not know is greater than you; The big water pot is not a spring; You can hurry as much as you like, but being in too big a hurry will not make the day dawn.


Haitian cooking is a unique blend of many cultural influences. It is a mixture of the traditions of Europeans, West African slaves, and indigenous people of the island. The most common ingredients used in Haitian cuisine are black-eyed peas, squash, pumpkins, cassava, rice, cornmeal, and plantain. The meat served tends to be spicy and high in salt and fat. In the United States, Sunday dinners often consist of spicy chicken and goat, rice and djondjon, a dried mushroom.

Pois et ris is a combination of kidney beans and rice and is considered the national dish of Haiti.Kabrit boukannen ak bon piman is a traditional favorite both in Haiti and the United States. It is barbecued goat with hot pepper. Soup joumou is a pumpkin soup. Kasav ak manba is homemade peanut butter, made with or without spices and hot peppers; it is often eaten with cassava bread. Griyo ak bannan is deep-fried pork and fried plantain. Pwason fri is a fried fish often sold with fried plantain and fried sweet potatoes. Accra or calas are black-eyed pea patties and the tradition of eating them on New Year's Eve means luck for the coming year.


Haitians celebrate Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Carnival or Mardi Gras, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day on the days that are traditionally celebrated in other parts of the world. Flag and University Day is the most celebrated national holiday and is held on May 18. Other important holidays are Independence Day (January 1), Ancestors Day (January 2), the Anniversary of Dessalines' Death (October 17), and Discovery of Haiti Day (December 5).


Health care beliefs vary widely among Haitian Americans. Immigrants from rural areas usually do not seek help from a physician but rely instead on folk healers. Immigrants from the cities are more likely to go to a physician or other professional health care provider. Social class and education also influence the type of medical help sought. Those from a lower social class or those who have not attained legal status in the United States rely on health care that is readily available to them such as home remedies, family recommendations, folk healers, and Voodoo medicine. The mother or grandmother is usually responsible for diagnosing symptoms and keeping alive the traditions of the family in treating sickness. First-generation Haitian Americans initially try home remedies prepared by members of the older generation; if these are unsuccessful, the person is advised to seek help from a physician, folk healer, or Voodoo priest. The use of folk healers is often limited because the medicinal preparations and elements of traditional health care are not available locally. The size of the local Haitian group affects the number of traditional healers.

The Voodooist folk healer is a Voodoo priest who has studied the mythology of spirits and which plants have the properties necessary for home remedies. Treatment involves prayers and herbal remedies. Neighborhood licensed pharmacies specialize in herbal remedies and French medications. They have Haitian personnel and sell the type of products from home which are familiar to Haitian Americans. Haitians consider eating well, good personal hygiene, and keeping regular hours as important qualities for maintaining good health. Fat people are considered healthy and happy, whereas thin people are believed to be in poor health caused by psychological and emotional problems.

The following statements may be used by a Haitian American when he is ill: Kom pa bon (I do not feel well)indicates a temporary situation and that the person will soon be well; Dan tan zan tan moin malad (I feel sick from time to time)indicates how the person feels about his/her general health; Moin an konvalesans (I am convalescing)indicates that the person was sick and is now getting better; Moin malad (I am sick)indicates the person is ill but the illness will not lead to death; Moin malad anpil (I am very sick)indicates that the person is in a critical condition; Moin pap refe (I will never get well again)indicates that the person is going to die from the illness.

Haitians from rural areas believe that illness can be of supernatural origin or natural origins. Natural illnesses are called maladi pei (country diseases) or maladi bon die (diseases of the Lord). Natural illnesses last for only a short time. Supernatural illnesses appear suddenly and the person does not feel any previous signs of illness. Angry Voodoo spirits are believed to cause several types of illness. This occurs when a person offends the family's Voodoo spirit protector in some manner. A Voodoo priest is consulted to help in diagnosing the illness. The priest attempts to contact the spirit to find out the reason for the spirit's unhappiness, what the person must do to make the spirit happy, and what medications the ill person must take.

Another belief commonly held by Haitians of all classes is that of the effect of blood irregularities on causing dangerous illnesses. Terms such as san cho (hot blood) and san fret (cold blood) are used to describe various conditions. Blood is believed to control the hot or cold state of the body. Various "blood" terms are used to describe what condition or state of health a person is in during certain types of activity.

Gaz (gas), a common complaint, can cause pain and anemia. It can occur in the head, shoulder, back, legs, or appendix. It is believed to cause kolik (stomach pain) and van nan tet (gas in the head), which causes headaches. A tea made of garlic, cloves, and mint or solid foods, such as corn, is used to treat these conditions. The milk of a nursing mother is believed to cause certain illnesses if it becomes "too thick" or "too thin." If a mother becomes frightened, the belief is that the milk moves to her head and causes a bad headache. It may also cause depression in the nursing mother and diarrhea in the baby.

Foods may be divided into hot, cold, or neutral categories and are believed to affect the health of an individual. Anything that creates an imbalance between "hot" and "cold" factors may cause illness or discomfort. Treatments which must be used to treat these illnesses are the opposite of the class of the disease. "Hot" medicines are used to treat "cold" conditions. Patent or herbal medicines are also used to treat these diseases. Cough medicines ("hot") are used to treat coughs and colds ("cold").

The following home remedies are used: Asorousi is a tea boiled from leaves that will restore a person's appetite; Fey korosol is used to bathe a child's head to cure insomnia; a variety of leaves are used for gas or if a child's stomach is swollen; and warm oils are used in combination with massage to solve a number of problems from aching or sprained bones to displaced organs.

Haitian Americans often believe that only traditional healers have the knowledge and skills to treat particular illnesses so that it does not make sense to take these complaints to an American doctor. Haitian Americans often have problems with the behavior of American physicians during an office visit. The patient expects the physician to receive him or her with a few moments of conversation about the patient's life in general and then a straightforward, hands-on examination of the patient. The examination should not include a long list of questions by the doctor; it is the doctor, not the patient, who is supposed to determine what is wrong. Patients respect doctors who try to learn about their cultural beliefs and practices.


Two languages are spoken in Haiti: Creole and French. French is the official language and is spoken by the educated elite. The great majority of Haitians, however, speak only Creole.

The term Creole derives from the Portuguese word "crioulo " meaning an individual of European ancestry who was born and reared abroad. Haitian Creole developed when slaves who were taken to the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue from various areas of the west coast of Africa interacted with each other and with Europeans. Although predominantly French, some Spanish and Amerindian (Carib and Arawak) words have entered the language. While Haitian Creole has a French word base, the two languages are distinct. The sentence structure of Creole is basically African, but it has its own grammar, morphology, and syntax.

Haitian immigrants to the United States, especially the more recent ones, communicate best in Creole. This causes problems in interaction with Americans who have little knowledge of Creole and believe that all Haitians speak French.


Common Haitian greetings and other expressions include: Allo ("ah-low")Hi!; Bonjou ("boon-ZHEW")Good morning/day; Bonswa ("bon-SWA")Good afternoon/evening; Ki jan ou rele? ("kee jan oo ray lay")What is your name?; M rele... ("m ray lay ...")My name is ...; Kote ou rete? ("ko TAY oo ray TAY")Where do you live?; Ki numewo telefon ou? ("kee new meh-wo tele FON OO")What is your telephone number?; Suple ("soo-PLAY")Please; Chita ! ("SHEE-tah")Sit down!; Kanpe ! ("kan PAY")Stand up!; Mesi ("MAY-see")Thank you; Orevwa ("oh-ray-VWAH")Goodbye.

Family and Community Dynamics

The family is the nucleus of Haitian society; within it, individuals are dependent upon each other. The traditional Haitian family is a composed of father, mother, children, and grandparents. The family is involved in all decision-making for its members. The patriarchal system is prevalent, but many women rear children without the consistent presence of the father. By tradition, the father is the breadwinner and authority figure. The mother is the household manager and disciplinarian.

Family honor is of utmost importance. Family reputation is so important that the actions of a member of the family are considered to bring either honor or shame to the entire family. A family's reputation in society is based on honesty and former family history. Offspring of the grandes familles are considered excellent prospects for marriage.

From birth, males are granted more freedom and educational opportunities than females. Transgressions in behavior are more readily overlooked in males, and the male "macho" image is admired since men play the dominant role in society. Females in urban areas of Haiti lead a sheltered and protected life. The family and educational system prepares them for marriage and respectability. Social mobility outside the home is usually limited. Adolescent girls do not go out alone and their activities are closely controlled. They are expected to help with chores and care for siblings at home. Women in rural areas have always worked. They farm as well as perform household tasks. They are the backbone of the economic stability of the family. Traditionally, clear distinctions have existed between male and female roles. These are changing due to economic conditions. More urban women are working outside the home, enjoying some degree of freedom, and are less willing to play a subservient role to the male. This is especially true in the United States. Many women want a greater voice in the decision-making processes of their homes.

Haitian American parents are generally strict with their children, as is customary in Haiti. The children are monitored by the adults of the family. Adult rules are to be respected and obeyed without question. Children are expected to live at home until they are married. Haitian American children seem to accept these customs and values despite the freer attitudes and lifestyles they see in their American counterparts. Haitian parents have immigrated to seek a better standard of life for their children and they want to obtain a good formal education for them. They want their children to grow up to be obedient, responsible, and close to the family.

Treatment of the elderly in Haiti differs from that in the United States. Senior citizens are highly respected because they have wisdom that can only come from living a long life. Sending an aged parent to a nursing home is unthinkable for Haitians. Children vie with each other as to whom will be granted the privilege of caring for the parents.

Haitian families maintain regular contact with relatives in Haiti by visiting them during winter or summer vacations. Some also return during the carnival period and for relatives' funerals. Still others return for familial Voodoo gatherings. The Voodoo believers, who cannot return to the island because they do not have resident status, often help pay for such ceremonies. Haitian Americans keep in regular contact with family members in Haiti and even send money home for child care and other family matters. There is a common belief that once you take in a Haitian there will come other Haitians.

Haitian Americans also maintain contact with a network of friends and neighbors. This network enables them to know what is happening around their communities and to help each other. Old friends in Haiti have a common background and maintain their relationships in the United States. The immigrants try to maintain survival contacts with neighbors in the same apartment buildings. The more interaction the family has with other Haitian immigrants, the more the community is able to maintain its cultural tradition, its folklore, the Creole language, and other aspects of social life.


The most common marital relationship among the rural and urban lower class was plasaj, an arrangement not recognized by the state. The man and woman often make an explicit agreement about their economic relationship at the beginning of the marriage. The husband is required to cultivate at least one plot of land for the wife and to provide her with a house. The wife is expected to perform most household tasks. The plasaj previously would take place with beautiful traditional ceremonies and secret ritualistic sacrifices to the ancestors. Because weddings were expensive, many couples waited several years before having them. Due to the expense, however, few of these ceremonies remain today. The upper class traditionally had civil and religious marriage ceremonies, which were arranged mainly for prestige rather than legality. The "best" families could trace legally married family members back to the nineteenth century.


To Haitians, death goes far beyond the immediate family. It includes the various loa (lesser deities) and the many dead relatives and ancestors. Some Haitians believe that the dead live in close proximity to the loa, in a place called "Under the Water." Others hold that the dead have no special place after death. Many believe that a dead person will become a loa. Sometimes the spirits of the dead do not go quietly but remain behind to annoy the living.

Burial ceremonies vary according to local tradition and the status of the person. Relatives and friends expend considerable effort to be present when death is near. The family does not express grief aloud until most of the deceased's possessions have been removed from the home. Persons who are knowledgeable in the funeral customs wash, dress, and place the body in a coffin. Mourners wear white clothing which represents death. A priest may be summoned to conduct the burial service. The burial usually takes place within 24 hours.


Haitians face a identity dilemma in the United States. Although they are different in national origin, they are almost physically indistinguishable from other black Americans. They cannot easily merge with the rest of the black population because of their language and culture. Haitian Americans perceive differences between themselves and other blacks. Most seek a middle ground between being merged with the rest of the black population and complete isolation. Haitian language and culture are preserved at home, which makes it possible for Haitian immigrants to separate themselves from the Afro-American culture around them. Traditional Haitian values are carefully guarded. They adapt to the dominant American culture while retaining their distinctive lifestyle at home. By the late 1990s, a distinct Haitian American identity was slowly forming in the public eye.


Religion is a basic force in the lives of Haitians who have migrated to the United States and they continue the beliefs that they brought with them from Haiti. Religious groups and churches serve as a powerful unifying element in the lives of the immigrants.

The national religion of Haiti is Roman Catholicism. The first missionaries were Catholic, and the schools that they established are still highly regarded for their educational standards; it is common for even the non-Catholic children to attend Catholic schools. Protestant churches are strong and vigorous in Haiti. Protestant missionaries have increased substantially and represent Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal as well as other evangelical denominations.


An important focus of Haitian religious life centers around Voodoo, which blends elements of Catholicism with those of diverse African beliefs resulting in Haitian Voodoo. It appears throughout the art, music and social customs of Haiti. Voodoo is a set of beliefs and practices that deals with the spiritual forces of the universe and attempts to keep the individual in harmonious relation with them as they affect his life.

A key to understanding the relationship and interplay between Catholicism and Voodooism is the fusion of the two belief systems. Children born into rural families are generally baptized twice, once into the Voodoo religion and once in the Catholic church. Voodoo means many things. It means an attitude toward life and death, a concept of ancestors and the afterworld, and a recognition of the forces which control individuals and their activities.

Those who practice Voodooism believe in a pantheon of gods who control and represent the laws and forces of the universe. In this pantheon, there is the Supreme Deity, the master of all gods, the loa who are a large group of lesser deities, and the twins known as marassas. Twins are believed to have special powers and once a year special services are held for them.

In Voodoo the major gods are classified into the four natural elements: water, air, fire and earth. There is also a god of love, of death, etc. These lesser gods (loas) are analogous to the saints of the Catholic Church and those of African gods. These gods are not only expected to protect people, but they are also expected to accord special favors through their representatives on earth which are the hougans (priests) and mambos (priestesses). In Voodoo, the soul continues to live on earth and may be used in magic or it may be incarnated in a member of the dead person's family. This belief is similar to Catholicism in that the soul is believed to be immortal. Elaborate burial customs have been established to keep the dead buried in the ground. It is believed that corpses that have been removed from their tombs may be turned into zombies, who then serve the will of their masters.

Voodoo worship centers in family groups and cult groups headed by a hougan or mambo. Ceremonies are performed annually for such events as Christmas and the harvest and also for specials occasions such as initiations and memorial services. Believers have obligations for the worship of their loa and their ancestors. Expert help is called in to help with the ceremonies which consist of Roman Catholic prayers, drumming and dancing, and the preparation of feasts. Each group of worshipers is independent and there is no central organization, religious leader, or set of beliefs. Beliefs and ceremonies often vary, depending upon family traditions.

Employment and Economic Traditions

When François Duvalier came to power in 1957, many dissident politicians, middle-class professionals, and tradespeople left Haiti and headed for New York City. The most recent wave of immigrants has included the poorer people of Haiti, who have entered the migrant workforce or the menial jobs in the New York City area. Haitian Americans are hard-working and use the lower-status jobs as springboards to better, more permanent positions. Many businesses dependent on trade with Haiti have been hurt by the international embargo against the country. This is especially true in Little Haiti in Miami where unemployment is running about 30 percent. From an analysis of the 1990 U.S. Census data, about six percent of the nation's Haitian households or about 5,300 individuals collect welfare benefits, compared to about five percent of households generally. Groups like the National Coalition for Haitian Rights was trying to change that in 1998. The Coalition was developing leadership training and education programs to empower the Haitian community.

Haitian Americans are accustomed to using rotating credit associations as an avenue of saving. Such associations are called in Creole "sangue," "min," or "assosie." They rotate money to members of the association from a lump-sum fund into which each member has contributed an amount of money. It is assumed that the Haitians adapted this system of contribution from their West African friends who call it "esusu." Haitian immigrants, especially undocumented ones who have no banking accounts, use the sangue to buy homes and finance various business ventures.

Politics and Government

New York City has traditionally been the center for Haitian opposition politics. More than 30 political groups opposed to the dictatorship of François Duvalier have been in existence there since 1957. Some have had to operate secretly because of fear of reprisals against family members back home in Haiti. Political activities in New York have occurred during three periods. The first period was from 1956 to 1964 when former Haitian officials dominated and hoped to install a new president and to introduce reforms in the Haitian government system. Several attempted invasions of Haiti occurred during this period. The next period of activity occurred during the years from 1965 through 1970. The Haitian American Coalition (La Coalition Hatienne) was formed in 1964, composed of the groups Jeune Haiti, Les Forces Revolutionnaires Haitiennes, Le Mouvement Revolutionnaires du 12 Novembre, and followers of ex-President Paul-Eugene Magloire. The Coalition published a newspaper Le Combattant Haitien and broadcast messages to Haiti on Radio Vonvon. In 1970 the coalition was dissolved and La Resistance Haitienne was organized, which had more popular support. In 1971, the Comité de Mobilisation was formed to attempt to overthrow Jean-Claude Duvalier. This group was dissolved and in 1977, Le Regroupement de Forces Democratiques was formed to force Duvalier from power after he had completed his six-year term. Involvement in the American political process began in earnest in 1968 when Haitian Americans formed the Haitian American Political Organization. This organization was formed to lobby on behalf of the Haitian American community. Haitian Americans have worked in various elections to increase their presence as political force to obtain public services to be provided to the community.

On April 20, 1990, more than 50,000 Haitian Americans marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to protest the action of the Centers for Disease Control and the American Red Cross. These organizations had ruled that no Haitian could donate blood because all Haitians were AIDS risks. This was one of the largest demonstrations of its type and encouraged local leaders to find a Haitian candidate for the city council from Brooklyn.

Currently, an increasing amount of political activity has involved attempts to help the "boat people" who have tried to escape oppressive conditions in Haiti. The Haitian Refugee Center in Miami and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights work to help those refugees trapped in the American legal system and facing possible deportation. The Coalition also worked to help Haitians in Haiti. The group reported in 1997 that the police force in Haiti, trained by the United States, engaged in abusive tactics. It also showed that the United States and the European Union were engaging in useless judicial reform efforts, prompting a policy change.


The American Revolution saw the participation of freedmen from Saint Domingue who fought under General Lafayette at Savannah in 1779. From 1814 to 1815, Joseph Savary headed the Second Battalion of Freemen of Color which fought under General Andrew Jackson. Savary was the first black to hold the rank of major in the U.S. Army.

Since the largest number of immigrants arrived in the United States after World War II, there was not a great involvement on their part in earlier wars. Many Haitian Americans, however, served in Vietnam. Haitian Americans currently serve in the U.S. armed forces; indeed, many of them were sent to Haiti to serve as Creole interpreters during the efforts to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Individual and Group Contributions


Michel S. Laguerre, an anthropologist in the Department of Afro-American Studies, University of California at Berkeley, has researched many aspects of Haitian American life and has published numerous books and articles. Tekle Mariam Woldemikael, a sociologist in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Whittier College in Whittier, California, has written several studies concerning Haitian Americans. Carole M. Berotte Joseph, who was born in Port-au-Prince and came to the U.S. in 1957, is the Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Student Services at the City College School of Education in New York City where she is an authority on bilingual and foreign language teaching; she is a founder of the International Alliance for Haiti, Inc. Michaelle Vincent, the District Supervisor Binlingual and Foreign Language Skills of the Dade County (Florida) Public Schools, is a consultant on Haitian culture and the Creole language, developing and implementing seminars on Haitian culture; she also hosted a daily radio show in Haitian Creole on WLRN in Miami.


Joel Dreyfuss, editor of PC Magazine, emigrated from Haiti in the 1950s; he has published extensively in computer magazines as well as the New York Times. Marcus Garcia is the editor and publisher of Haiti En Marche, a weekly newspaper published in Miami; most articles are published in French but there is a section in Creole for Creole language speakers. Raymond Cajuste is a filmmaker and host of a program on Radio Tropicale. Ricot Dupuy is the station manager of Radio Soleil which was created after the 1991 coup in Haiti; he also helps new refugees with their needs upon arriving in New York.


The migration of Haitians to the United States has caused a boom in its music. Haitian music serves as an anchor connecting individuals with their country, one another, and themselves. Music functions as a sanctioned means of social protest. Wyclef Jean, one-third of the rap group, The Fugees, is a source of pride for Haitians and Haitian Americans. Not only does he incorporate his country's music in his rap songs but he also gives back to his fellow countrymen through benefit concerts. Theodore Beaubrun is the lead singer and composer of the Boukman Eksperyans whose songs assault Haiti's evildoers; the music is steeped in the symbolism of Voodoo and Haitian history. Dieudonne Larose, a composer who lives in Montreal, is transforming Haitian music and writes in the style of the old favorites of compas, Haiti's well-known dance music; he criticizes whites for racist attitudes toward black governments and warns Haitians to work hard and to respect the law.


John James Audubon (1785-1851) was born in Cayes. His drawings of birds in America are an invaluable source of information for naturalists and anthropologists.


Marc Jean-Louis emigrated to the United States at a very young age. He lives in South Florida and has made many contributions to Haitian art.



Haiti en Marche.

Published weekly in French. There is a section in Creole for Creole speakers.

Address: Miami, Florida.

Haiti Observateur.

Published weekly in French, Creole, and English.

Address: 50 Court Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201.

Haiti Progress.

Published weekly in French.

Address: 1398 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11210.


WKCR-FM (89.9).

"L'Heure Haitienne" is broadcast on Sunday mornings.

Address: Columbia University, 208 Ferris Booth Hall, New York, New York 10027.

WLIB-AM (1190).

"Moment Creole" is broadcast every Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Contact: Claude Tait.

Address: 801 Second Avenue, New York, New York 10017.

WNWK-FM (105.9).

"Eddy Publicité" is broadcast every Saturday from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. It features a mix of Haitian music, news and discussion of community issues.

Contact: Otto Miller.

Address: 449 Broadway, Second Floor, New York, New York 10013.

WNYE-FM (91.5).

This station broadcasts various programs daily aimed at the Haitian American audience.

Address: 112 Tillary Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201.

Radio Tropical and Radio Soleil d'Haiti are subcarrier stations that broadcast 24 hours a day over special radios sold to listeners. They broadcast talk, call- in shows, news, gossip, and social announcements.


Several cable companies offer programs aimed at their local Haitian American communities. Programs air political debates and instructions on coping with life in the United States.

Organizations and Associations

Caribbean Haitian Council (CAHACO).

Provides cultural normalization of and advocacy for Haitians and other Caribbean groups.

Address: 26 Ashland Avenue, East Orange,

New Jersey 07017.

Telephone: (201) 678-5059.

Friends of Haiti (FOH).

Founded in 1971, FOH attempts to generate support for the Haitian national liberation struggle. It distributes information on the Haitian social structure and the liberation process, with an emphasis on U.S. economic, political and military involvement. Friends of Haiti maintains a data center on Haiti and has a library of 3,000 volumes.

Contact: Mauge Leblanc, Coordinator.

Address: 1398 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11210.

Telephone: (718) 434-8100.

Fax: (718) 434-5551.

Haitian American Foundation, Inc. (HAFI).

Founded in 1990, HAFI works to help, educate and assist Haitian immigrants and other ethnic groups become self-sufficient. It sponsors programs that provide acculturation, vocational skills training, English classes, counseling, food distribution, and technical assistance to small business.

Contact: Ringo Cayard, President.

Address: 8340 Northeast Second Avenue, Suite 103, Miami, Florida 33138.

Telephone: (305) 758-3338.

E-mail: [email protected].

Haitian Refugee Center (HRC).

Founded in 1974, the Center provides free legal support and educational services to indigent Haitian aliens in their political asylum proceedings. It works to impede deportations and to publicize the plight of refugees.

Contact: Philies Auguh, Executive Director.

Address: 119 Northeast 54th Street, Miami, Florida 33137.

Telephone: (305) 757-8538.

Fax: (305) 758-2444.

Haitian Studies Association.

Encourages research and interest in Haiti, the Haitian people, and their culture.

Contact: Dr. Leslie G. Desmangles, President.

Address: Trinity College, McCook Hall, 300

Summit Street, Hartford, Connecticut 06106.

Telephone: (617) 287-7138.

E-mail: [email protected].

National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR).

Founded in 1982, NCHR attempts to obtain humane treatment, due process of law, and legal status for Haitians seeking asylum in the United States. Its goals are to obtain fair treatment for Haitians in their quest for asylum; convince the public of the need for legal status for refugees; stop the U. S. Coast Guard interdiction of Haitian boats; and increase the awareness of the social, economic, and political causes of the Haitian flight from Haiti.

Contact: Jocelyn McCalla, Executive Director.

Address: 275 Seventh Avenue, 25th Floor, New York, New York 10007.

Telephone: (212) 337-0005.

Fax: (212) 337-0028.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.nchr.org.

Museums and Research Centers

Many museums of African American history contain Haitian collections or substantial exhibits of Haitian culture items, including: Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia; Black Heritage Museum in Miami; Museum for African Art in New York City; Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles; and National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Amistad Research Center.

The Center contains material relating to ethnic history and race relations in the United States, with concentration on blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Haitians.

Contact: Dr. Donald E. DeVore, Director..

Address: Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, Tilton Hall, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118.

Telephone: (504) 865-5535.

Fax: (504) 865-5580.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.arc.tulane.edu.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem).

This is a reference library devoted to material by and about Black people throughout the world, with major emphasis on Afro-America, Africa, and the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Among its Haitian holdings is the Kurt Fisher and Eugene Maximilien Collection of Haitian manuscripts.

Contact: Howard Dodson, Chief Librarian.

Address: 135 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, New York 10037-1801.

Telephone: (212) 491-2255.

Fax: (212) 491-6760.

Online: http://www.nypl.org.

Sources for Additional Study

Chierici, Rose-Marie Cassagnol. Demele: "Making It": Migration and Adaptation Among Haitian Boat People in the United States. New York: AMS Press, 1980; pp. 1-12.

Dreyfuss, Joel. "The Invisible Immigrants: Haitians in America Are Industrious, Upwardly Mobile and Vastly Misunderstood," New York Times Magazine, May 23, 1993; pp. 20-21, 80-82.

Gollab, Caroline. The Impact of Industrial Experience on the Immigrant Family: The Huddled Masses Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.

Laguerre, Michel S. American Odyssey: Haitians in New York City. New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.

. The Complete Haitiana: A Bibliographic Guide to the Scholarly Literature, 1900-1980. Millwood, New York: Kraus International Publications, 1982.

Sontag, Deborah. "Haitian Migrants Settle In, Looking Back," New York Times, June 3, 1994; p. A1.

Valburn, Marjorie. "Former Ragtag Immigrant Organization Evolves Into Coalition Pushing Haitian-American Rights," The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 1999; p. A24.

Haitian Americans

views updated May 18 2018

Haitian Americans


Identification and Location. The Haitian population in the United States consists of persons born in Haiti and persons of Haitian descent. Some Haitians refer to themselves as members of "the Haitian community." Depending on the context, that term may encompass Haitians who have settled in a particular location such as New York or Miami or all Haitian immigrants to the United States. The term diaspora also has become popular among Haitian immigrants, who use it to convey their sense of belonging to a distinct group that lives in the United States but sees Haiti as its home.

Because the large-scale migration of Haitians to the United States was precipitated in part by the civil disorder that accompanied the beginning of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1957, most of the immigrants at first saw themselves as transients and political exiles. This sense of impermanence, as well as long-standing divisions in Haitian society along class, color, and political lines, prevented Haitians from developing collective responses to the problems they faced as immigrants in the United States. As the migration increased in the 1970s, American political leaders and the media began to brand Haitians as undesirables, and the U.S. government refused to recognize the immigrants as political refugees. In the 1980s the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classified Haitians as a human immunodeficiency virus risk group. Although the CDC later rescinded that label, its action had negative consequences for many Haitian immigrants, who lost their jobs or faced increased difficulty finding work or housing. As a result of the discrimination they faced as Haitians and as black newcomers, many of the immigrants came to share a common and distinct Haitian ethnic identity. As of 2002 Haitians have entered a period of intense reflection on their position, status, and role within U.S. society and their relationship to Haiti. Issues of naturalization, dual citizenship, empowerment, and participation in American political life have become part of their agenda.

Demography. There are no reliable figures on the number of Haitian immigrants and people of Haitian descent in the United States. The 2000 U.S. Census reported an estimate of 657,077 people who claim Haitian ancestry. That total does not count the undocumented immigrants in many households. In 1996 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimated that there were 105,000 undocumented Haitians in the United States. Most researchers of Haitian immigration think these figures considerably underrepresent the size of the Haitian population in the United States, and spokespeople for Haitian media and community organizations generally provide higher estimates. According to the Haitian Television Network, there are 2 million Haitian Americans in North America, of whom 650,000 live in New York and 500,000 live in Florida.

Linguistic Affiliation. Immigrants educated in Haiti have different levels of knowledge of French, but all Haitians speak Kreyol (Creole), which is a distinct language, not a dialect of French. Schooling in Haiti is predominantly in French, but most people are unable to attend school long enough to become literate and attain proficiency in French. Kreyol is the language that developed when slaves integrated linguistic elements and structures from African languages, French, and trading languages used in Africa and the Caribbean. It is a fully developed language for which linguists have developed a standardized system of orthography. However, it is only recently that Kreyol is being taught in Haiti, and so most adult Haitians, even if they are literate in other languages, do not know how to read or write in Kreyol.

In the 1970s a group of exiled Haitian priests launched a campaign to legitimize the use of Kreyol and began to employ it in the celebration of Mass and in other public events in the United States. This created controversy among Haitian immigrants, particularly concerning the adoption of Kreyol as the language to be used in bilingual programs for Haitian students in New York public schools. By the 1990s Kreyol had moved from being the language Haitians used predominantly only among themselves to the language used at most Haitian meeting and public occasions in the United States. The importance of Kreyol is reflected in the recognition by federal and state agencies in areas of dense Haitian settlement such as the New York metropolitan region that Haitian Kreyol is a major immigrant language. About half of first-generation Haitian immigrants can speak English well. Most Haitians learn some English. Many Haitian children raised in the United States prefer to speak English and often refuse to respond to their parents when spoken to in Kreyol or French. Although, in high school or college Haitian students become interested in learning French or Kreyol.

History and Cultural Relations

During the late eighteenth century many free black Haitians came to the United States to participate in the American Revolution. Those revolutionary soldiers included a future leader of the 1804 Haitian revolution, Henry Christophe. Established in 1804 by the only successful slave uprising in history, Haiti was the first black nation in the Western Hemisphere. With the abolition of slavery and the creation of the Haitian state, many slave owners, accompanied by some of their slaves, took refuge in the United States. Haitians continued to arrive in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, settling in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York City, where they contributed to the cultural and economic development of those cities. Traces of that immigration are found in traditions, lore, customs, and biographies of some Haitian American or African American families. In the 1920s and 1930s some Haitian intellectuals, artists, and trade unionists were active participants in the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Until 1932 little was known about the volume of Haitian immigration because the U.S. government kept no records of Haitian immigration. From 1932 to 1950 only 5,544 Haitians entered the United States as immigrants. From 1959 to 1998, 375,938 Haitians entered the United States with permanent resident visas and 1,832,781 arrived with nonimmigrant or tourist visas. Until the 1980s many of the immigrants who arrived with tourist visas were able to regularize their status and become permanent residents and an unknown number of people still over-stay their visas in their search for political and economic security.

Between 1971 and 1981 more then 60,000 Haitians arrived in southern Florida on small wooden sailboats. A large number of men, women, and children drowned while attempting to sail to the United States. Sometimes their bodies washed up on Florida's beaches, but this dramatic evidence of a people fleeing a repressive regime did not alter the U.S. policy of refusing Haitian refugees political asylum, placing them in detention camps, and deporting them. The refugees believed they were rejected because they were black and because the U.S. government supported the Duvalier dictatorship. Haitians were portrayed in the United States as impoverished, illiterate, and diseased and were labeled "boat people." Those negative images ignored the diverse composition of the refugee population and the Haitian communities in the United States and the presence of a middle class.

The U.S. government's treatment of Haitian refugees led to mass demonstrations by Haitians, class action suits by American civil rights advocates, and increasing pressure by the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1980 U.S. public attention focused on Haitian immigration when within a few months 12,500 Haitians and 125,000 Cubans arrived on small boats in southern Florida. As a result, the Carter administration was forced to grant temporary admittance to both Haitian and Cuban refugees by creating a special Cuban-Haitian Entrant Status. The practice of deporting Haitians and denying them refugee status continued under the Reagan and Bush administrations. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard began to stop Haitian boats at sea and return refugees to Haiti.

The 1990 election of Jean Betrand Aristide to lead the first democratic government in Haitian history helped slow the migration. When a military coup of generals with connections to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overthrew Aristide, Haitians again began to flee to the United States. Most of those individuals were apprehended before they could reach the United States and were returned to Haiti to face the retribution of the military government. In 1994 the INS processed 10,400 applications of persons who filed for refugee status but approved only 18 percent of those applications. The flight of refugees abated when Aristide was restored to his presidential position. However, by the year 2000, Haitians were again risking their lives by boarding small wooden boats to flee their homeland. This time they fled the political violence of forces maneuvering for power, and the growth of despair and crime that has accompanied economic globalization in Haiti.

The Haitian migrations of the 1950s and 1960s included members of the upper class as well as entrepreneurs, professionals, and skilled workers. Among those who arrived during that period was a relatively large contingent of affluent mulatto families as well as prominent members of the political class. The majority of those immigrants were urbanites, with most coming from Port-au-Prince, the capital. As political and economic conditions continued to deteriorate in Haiti from the 1960s to the 1990s, the social base of the migration broadened. First came Haitians who had been born in rural villages or in towns but had lived in Port-au-Prince, followed by people coming directly from rural areas. Many in the latter group had fewer skills and less education and money than the first arrivals.


The New York City metropolitan area was the first region of dense Haitian settlement, and in 1993 more than one-third of newly arrived Haitian immigrants continued to settle there. Another third of the newly arrived immigrants settled in Miami or other cities and towns in southern Florida. Boston, Massachusetts; Newark, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Orlando, Florida; and Washington, DC, also have sizable Haitian settlements. However, Haitian immigrants have been willing to settle wherever they can find employment, including cities in California and Illinois. Almost all Haitian settlements are in urban area, although in the 1980s many Haitian immigrants were migrant farm workers. Haitians also settled in areas such as Belle Glade, Florida, and worked in agricultural areas along the East Coast.


Subsistence. Haitians tend to enter the work force as low-paid wage earners who work long hours, often without benefits. Haitians as a group have a high level of employment. Women are employed almost as frequently as men. In 1990, 34 percent of the Haitian American population worked in service occupations, 21 percent as factory operatives, 21 percent as clerical or technical workers, 9 percent as professionals, 5 percent as managers, and 3 percent as farm workers. In New York Haitians work in industries such as health care, hotels, office cleaning, and transport services. Women in particular work in the home health care industry. Haitians participate actively in trade union activities in the hospital and hotel industries. The Haitian immigrant population is more highly educated than is the Haitian population as a whole.

Because of Haiti's weak economy, further impoverished by political corruption and repression, many doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers are unable to find employment or obtain a decent standard of living in Haiti and are forced to migrate. During their first years of settlement in the United States many of these professionals experience downward mobility, impeded by linguistic and racial barriers. However, most Haitian immigrants with a professional education eventually are able to join the American middle class. Beginning in the 1980s, when it became more difficult for foreign-trained medical personnel to obtain U.S. certification, Haitian doctors and nurses faced increased barriers to obtaining credentials.

Education continues to be a goal of Haitians after they migrate, and adults often attend school while working full-time. The 1990 U.S. Census reported that 41 percent of Haitian immigrants have less than a high school education, 48 percent have at least a high school education, and 11 percent have a college degree. Women are about as likely as men to obtain a high school or college education. Among Haitians with a professional degree, 63 percent are men. The second generation includes a sector of young professionals who earn high incomes as lawyers, computer specialists, accountants, and financial analysts. Other members of this generation drop out, discouraged by the lack of resources and opportunities provided by inner city schools

Individual income is low, averaging $11,894 in 1989, with 21 percent of families earning an income below the poverty line. However, the presence in households of several adult wage earners often allows households to pool resources; the mean household income in 1989 was $32,161.

Haitian immigrants are among the growing number of immigrants in the United States who live transnational lives. They have settled permanently in the United States yet maintain strong ties to Haiti, which they still call "home." Haitian people of all class backgrounds live their lives across national borders, connected to family, friends, business associates, and political movements in Haiti. Most Haitians do not arrive in family groups but through chain migration. The immigration of one member of a family household is made possible through a pooling of the resource of those left behind. The immigrant then uses his or her wages to sustain family members still in Haiti and provide money for the migration of other members of the family. Until changes in the immigration law in the 1980s women often migrated first because they could obtain permanent resident status by working as domestics. Remittances from Haitian immigrants sustain households throughout Haiti. As an unemployed man in Haiti put it, "When someone is in the United States, he is the wealth of people here."

Commercial Activities. Neighborhoods of dense Haitian settlement in Brooklyn and Miami provide a base for small businesses, including record stores, travel agencies, restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, and barber and beauty shops. Haitian doctors and dentists provide services for a Haitian clientele. The reduction in the number of manufacturing jobs, racial discrimination, and the difficulties they face in obtaining legal documentation force many immigrants to begin small informal businesses. Vans operated by male drivers offer regular and inexpensive transportation services in areas with large concentrations of immigrants. Women cater parties, weddings, and other social events, and their living rooms are transformed into day care centers. People sell goods imported from Haiti from their homes; and earn money from dressmaking, tailoring, and repairing automobiles; and obtain commissions by transporting cash to Haiti. Haitian businesses that focus on financial services and the flow of money, cargo, and travelers across international borders have been growing in size and significance. The services provided include insurance, accounting, and the transfer of remittances and investments to Haiti. The largest businesses are cash transfer firms that send money and packages to Haiti as part of the ongoing pattern of maintaining transnational connections. By 1990 remittances sent through money transfer businesses totaled $125 million, which constituted about 30 percent of Haitian state revenue.

Division of Labor. An equal number of Haitian women and men have migrated to the United States. The degree to which Haitian women feel that migration has improved their lives depends on a number of factors, including their class background in Haiti and whether they have been able to obtain an education or employment security in the United States. Most adult women work, and women find that they virtually have two full-time jobs since they also are responsible for housework and childcare. Haitian men have been slow to contribute to the housework, although younger men do some cleaning and child rearing. Women often find their lives much more difficult in the United States because many had servants in Haiti. Some of the burden is relieved by having grandparents or other women in an extended family share the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In Haiti, there are two forms of cohabitation, legal marriage and a common law for a partnership called plasaj. There are many historical explanations on the origin of plasaj. Some associate it with a cultural legacy from Africa, others with slavery. Plasaj may also designate a relationship of one man with many women. This is particularly found among the peasantry. In general, a rich peasant may have many mistresses who bear his children. Although historically this latter has always been an arrangement between a man from the upper social classes and poorer women, today in Haiti even poorer men may have relationships with women in several different households. There are also forms of union that do not entail coresidence but include sexual relations, produce children, and require the father to contribute some form of economic support.

In the United States, two-thirds of Haitian adults marry, and marriage is an important and socially prestigious relationship for people of all classes. Formal marriage is less common among poorer people, who favor common-law marriages. Marriage often is seen as a project of mutual interest between a man and a woman rather than a source of friendship. Couples are often divided over long periods when one spouse is able to migrate and uses the opportunity to support family back in Haiti.

Many changes occur in family patterns with immigration to the United States, particularly among members of the middle class. Increasingly, these people tend to see husbands and wives as companions, yet there is also an increased rate of divorce. Most Haitian immigrants marry other Haitians, although there has been some intermarriage with other Caribbeans, African Americans, and Euro Americans.

Domestic Unit. Households often include members of an extended family, including siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of the husband and wife. Women rarely live alone with children. Extended kin beyond the household are important in the daily life of immigrant families. Kinship networks provide the primary support for Haitian immigrants when they resettle in the United States. Kin provide housing for new arrivals, assistance in finding housing and employment, and advice on American culture. After a newcomer is settled, an extended network of kin continues to provide companionship, assistance with childcare, and support in times of illness, job loss, or the death of a family member. Weekends often are spent at family gatherings. Husbands and wives often have their own kinship networks to which they look for support.

Socialization. In poorer families children sometimes are sent back to Haiti to be raised by grandparents or kin so that their parents can work full-time or hold more than one job. These separations are often painful for the parents and children but are seen as necessary for the survival of all the members of the family. Children usually are brought to the United States when they are teenagers so that they can learn English, attend an American high school, and obtain work. However, efforts are made to keep children within a Haitian family network because U.S. culture is seen as failing to teach children manners and respect for kin, elders, and teachers. Haitian children born or raised in the United States and living in inner-city neighborhoods interact most often with African American children and tend to adopt the cultural patterns of their peers, especially clothing and hairstyles. When they become young adults, second-generation Haitians often begin to use immigrant networks and family ties and may embrace some form of Haitian identity.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Haitian immigrants have formed a multiplicity of organizations. Participation in organized activities often helps them reestablish a network beyond family ties and provides social support. Haitian organizations also are an arena in which social status can be obtained or validated both in the United States and in Haiti. Organizations tend to be based in a single locality in which Haitians have settled rather than being regional or national. However, many organizations in the United States carry out activities in Haiti. Those organizations include soccer clubs and leagues; Masonic temples; associations of doctors, nurses, and other professionals; associations of artists, including dance troupes and theatrical groups; political organizations; Protestant churches; community organizations; and hometown associations. Many community organizations were established with the assistance of U.S. philanthropic organizations or churches and have been dependent on financial assistance from those sources. The services they have provided to assist newcomers include literacy classes, English classes, and counseling on immigrants' rights. In contrast, hometown associations, which are often called "regional associations," unite people from the same village, town, or city in Haiti to organize activities to assist people "back home." Funds are raised for projects that include clinics, electrification, cemetery reconstruction, and literacy assistance.

Political Organization. In 1991 the Aristide government formally recognized the familial, economic, religious, social, and political ties between Haitians in the United States and people in Haiti. The territory of the Haitian state is divided into nine geographic divisions called departments. Haitians in the United States were designated part of "the Tenth Department." By implication, the diaspora became part of the Haitian state. The designation of the Tenth Department gave public recognition to the fact that Haitian immigrants have participated in political processes that affect Haiti through lobbying, demonstrating, and organizing in the United States. Increasing numbers of Haitians have decided to become U.S. citizens. In the 1990s 102,304 people born in Haiti became naturalized citizens of the United States.

There has been increasing participation in the U.S. political process. South Florida is leading that trend with the election of increasing numbers of Haitian political leaders, including mayors. Both Miami and Rockland County in New York have elected a Haitian judge, and Massachusetts has elected a Haitian state representative.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Most Haitian immigrants self-identify as Catholics. Catholic parishes in areas of significant Haitian settlement, such as New York, New Jersey, Miami, and Chicago, have recruited Haitian priests. Haitian drummers and Haitian music often accompany the celebration of Mass in Kreyol. Haitian immigrants have formed lay organizations to support the Church and have looked to Catholic agencies such as Catholic Charities to provide assistance in settlement. In Haiti many more women attend Mass on a regular basis, but in the United States men have begun to participate regularly in church services. Haitian Catholic priests emerged as important community leaders in efforts to establish a democratic government in Haiti and contributed to the building of transnational political movements and efforts to raise money for literacy campaigns in Haiti. Catholic youth groups have become an important component of community life and provide support for young people who want to express a Haitian identity within an American context.

A growing minority of Haitians both in Haiti and among immigrants belong to Protestant congregations that include Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Methodists, and the Church of God (Eglise de Dieu). At first Haitians joined multiethnic congregations, but in many instances they were assisted by Protestant church organizations in establishing separate Haitian churches headed by Haitian ministers. Some of these congregations meet in established church buildings; others use storefronts. Haitian forms of healing using Protestant prayers and the assistance of bon anj (good souls) are practiced by some Haitian Protestants. Protestant churches have assisted in immigrant settlement, providing health fairs, employment assistance, and English classes. Some congregations are linked to churches in Haiti and send money for community health projects and schools there. In general these congregations have kept their distance from Haitian politics.

Ceremonies. The set of religious beliefs that Haitians call "serving the spirits," scholars refer to as Vodun or Vodou, and the U.S. media label voodoo is practiced in the United States. Services are held in the home of the priest or priestess and often last through the night. In New York the basement of a private house often is converted to a place of worship. Singing is accompanied by the use of three drums. The spirits speak through the initiates, who go into a trance and provide guidance, comfort, and healing for immigrants who must deal with the difficulties of adjusting to a new life. Women and men of all generations as well as children participate. Because their practice of serving the spirits has been misunderstood and distorted by the media, most Haitians are reluctant to talk about their knowledge of Vodou. Children learn not to speak about their experiences in public. Vodou also fosters transnational connections. Some believers return to Haiti for initiation or to fulfill responsibilities to the spirits. In public Vodou priests tend to be more prominent than priestesses, while in private women may predominate.

Arts. Haitian painting has achieved an international reputation, and Haitian artists who have settled in the United States have continued this tradition. Because Haiti is linked in the public mind with a "naive" style of brightly colored paintings depicting the Haitian countryside and vodou celebrations, artists who wish to pursue other styles or work in other media have had difficulty finding a place for their productions. Ritual objects such as embroidered and sequincovered flags depicting spirits have been recognized as an art form and displayed in American museums.

Since the beginning of large-scale migration bands from Haiti have toured in the United States, and recordings of their music are available in Haitian stores. The Haitian music industry has become transnational so that recording for audiocassettes or videos may be done in Haiti while production takes place in the United States. Older forms of dance music, such as minijazz and compas, with lyrics focused on male-female relationships, are being replaced by a "roots movement" in Haiti and among Haitian musicians in the United States. This music incorporates Vodou rhythms and melodies into an exuberant style that combines an awareness of Haitian suffering with the joy of resistance. Some of the newer bands include Haitians born in the United States. This newer music has been played on world beat radio programs and in urban dance clubs. Rara music, traditionally a peasant Vodun style in which bands take to the streets during Lent, has begun to be performed in parks in New York during the summer. Haitian immigrants with a middle-class background who know little about peasant culture become acquainted with their cultural heritage through the performance of "roots movement" music, including the transformed rara.

For the original article on Haitians, see Volume 1, North America.


Brown, K. (1991). Mama Loh: A Voudou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Buchannan, S. (1992). "Language and identity: Haitians in New York." In Caribbean Immigrants in New York, rev. ed., edited by C. Sutton and E. Chaney. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Charles, Carolle (2000). Gender and Poverty In Haiti. A UNDP Report. New York City.

(1992). "Transnationalism in the Construct of Haitian Migrants' Racial Categories of Identity in New York City." In Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Nationalism Reconsidered, edited by N. Glick Schiller, L. Basch, and C. Blanc-Szanton. New York: New York Academy of Science.

Chierci, R. Demele (1991). " Making It": Migration and Adaptation among Haitian Boat People in the United States. New York: AMS Press.

Laguerre, M. (1998). Diasporic Citizenship: Haitian Americans in Transnational America. New York: St. Martins Press.

Schiller, Nina Glick, and Georges Eugene Fouron (1991). '"Everywhere We Go We Are in Danger': Ti Manno and the Emergence of a Haitian Transnational Identity," American Ethnologist 17(2): 329347.

(2001). Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long Distance Nationalism and The Search for Home. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Schiller, Nina, ]., M. DeWind, L Brutus, C. Charles, G. Fouron, and Louis Thomas (1992). "All in the Same Boat? Unity and Diversity among Haitian Immigrants." In Caribbean Immigrants in New York, rev. ed., edited by C. Sutton and E. Chaney. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Smith, Michael Peter, and Luis Guarnizo, eds (1998). "Transnational Lives and National Identities: The Identity Politics of Haitian Immigrants." In Transnationalism from Below. 130161. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.

Stepick, A. (1998). Pride Against Prejudice: Haitians in the United States. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Woldemikael, T. (1989). Becoming Black American: Haitians and American Institutions in Evanston, Illinois. New York: AMS Press.


Haitian Americans

views updated May 23 2018

Haitian Americans

For more information on Haitian history and culture, seeVol. 2: Haitians.


There have been two major stages of Haitian immigration to America, the first in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the second in the late 20th century. Both stages were prompted by economic and political unrest in Haiti. The slave rebellion in 1791 in what was then the French colony of St. Domingue drove the first wave of refugees to the American coast, especially to the New Orleans area of Louisiana. After several more years of political upheaval, bloodshed, and general instability, the black general Dessalines declared himself the leader of the independent republic of Haiti and began slaughtering all remaining whites. Those whites who were able to escape, along with many free blacks and mulattoes, as well as some black slaves, fled to America.

The second stage of Haitian immigration to America occurred more recently, beginning in the late 1950s. This time Haitians were fleeing the brutal dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who succeeded him. At first, those who left Haiti were mostly well-educated professionals who could afford airfare and who had particular skills that were considered "desirable" enough for the United States to allow them to immigrate. As a result, Haiti suffered a severe "brain drain," adding to its internal troubles. Conditions worsened in Haiti, and by the 1970s life had become intolerable for many Haitians of all social and economic classes.

Lacking the necessary financial resources, most Haitian refugees from the 1970s until today have been forced to take desperate measures to leave Haiti and enter the United States. Thousands have piled onto small boats in recent decades, risking their lives and sacrificing all of their possessions for a chance at a better life in the United States. The first Haitian "boat people" arrived in Florida in 1972. Despite efforts by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Coast Guard, boat people continue to arrive in the 21st century.

Some owners and captains of small boats in Haiti have made tremendous profits smuggling refugees across the hundreds of miles of water between Haiti and Florida, or across the much shorter distance to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Cuba does not welcome Haitian immigrants, so it is only a stopping place on the journey to freedom.) Haitian individuals and families sell all they have to raise the money for passage on a boat. The boats are small and overcrowded, conditions are miserable, and the risks are great. Boats capsize, or captains force the passengers overboard to avoid arrest as smugglers. Perhaps hundreds of Haitians have drowned within sight of the U.S. shore. In 1981, a boat carrying more than 60 Haitian passengers, two of them women with nearly full-term pregnancies, capsized only 50 yards off the coast of Florida. Some managed to swim to shore, but 33 drowned, including the two pregnant women (leading the medical authority to list the number of dead at 35). This was only one tragedy among many that continue to claim the lives of Haitian refugees.

In 1981, U.S. president Ronald Reagan ordered a number of measures to stop the flow of Haitian refugees into America, but Haitians have continued to risk their lives to gain entrance into the country. Unfortunately, the United States has failed to live up to that designation in the case of Haitian immigrants. The Immigration and Nationality (McCarran–Walter) Act of 1952 severely curtailed legal immigration from West Indian nations. Although U.S. immigration reform in 1965 removed some of the restrictions, it is still difficult for the majority of Haitians to achieve legal immigration status in the United States. Nor are they officially considered "refugees."

The nonrefugee status of Haitians is extremely controversial, provoking accusations of racism on the part of the INS. Cubans, who are mostly white and fleeing a left-wing dictatorship, are welcomed as refugees and even assisted by the U.S. government in their efforts to immigrate to the United States. Haitians, who are black and fleeing a right-wing dictatorship or, currently, desperate economic and unstable political conditions, are not. In any case, lacking legal or refugee status, Haitians must enter the United States "illegally," subjecting them to various forms of harassment and shutting them out of employment, housing, and other opportunities.

Many incoming Haitians, particularly "boat people," are arrested upon entering the United States and placed in city and county jails, federal prisons, or detention camps, such as the Krome Center in south Florida. They may be held there for a period of months or even years. Some sign papers that say they agree to return voluntarily to Haiti, after which they are promptly flown back to that country from which they sacrificed everything to escape. Others are forcibly deported. A number manage to evade the INS and live as fugitives in their new home. The lucky ones are granted legal immigrant status, often through sponsorship by church agencies or other social justice organizations.

The most recent wave of Haitian immigration to the United States was prompted by the violent takeover in 1991 of the first democratically elected government in Haiti. Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the first democratically elected president of Haiti in 1990, only to be overthrown eight months later by former Duvalier supporters. Coup leaders then set up a military dictatorship that ruled by force. Masses of Haitians swarmed to the sea to escape the regime. The United States placed embargoes on Haiti to pressure the military to surrender its control, creating even more hardship for the Haitian people. Starvation and malnutrition became rampant in Haiti. Finally, when the United States threatened a military invasion in 1994, the Haitian military dictatorship stepped down and Aristide was returned peacefully to the presidency. When his term ended in 1996, he was succeeded by René Préval. Préval was unable to organize elections and instead filled government positions with local officials who supported him and the Lavalas party. The Lavalas party swept the first round of elections in 2000, causing the opposition to join together and boycott the second round, leaving Aristide a clear path to the presidency in 2001. But it was not to last for long: in 2004 Aristide was forced to resign and went into exile in Africa. With the help of the Organization of American States (OAS) and United Nations (UN), Haiti established an interim government and then held free and clean elections in February 2006. Préval was elected to serve as president again and chose Jacques-Edouard Alexis to once again serve as his prime minister. The UN Stability

Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), established in 2004, remains in the country to assist in peacekeeping and continued democratic freedom.

Conditions in Haiti remain extremely difficult, however. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and is one of the poorest in the entire world. Economic development is proceeding very slowly, and political stability has yet to be established securely. Despite their lack of welcome in the United States, Haitian refugees continue to make their way to America, hoping for a better life, even if it is as an illegal alien.

Although Louisiana was the preferred destination for Haitian immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries, only 1,010 Louisiana residents claimed Haitian ancestry in the 2000 U.S. Census. The largest Haitian populations today are in Florida (233,881) and New York (160,319), with a fair number also in Massachusetts (43,576) and New Jersey (39,902). The Miami, Florida, area has one of the greatest concentrations of Haitians in the United States (95,669 in 2000). Haitian immigrants have even created a "Little Haiti" section of Miami. According to the U.S. Census, the total Haitian American population has doubled in the past 10 years, reaching 548,199 in 2000 from 289,521 in 1990. Two-thirds of Haitian Americans (361,731) are foreign-born. Because so many Haitian immigrants are considered illegal aliens and are either in detention centers or in hiding, however, U.S. Census figures are undoubtedly quite low. It is impossible to know for certain just how many Haitian Americans live in the United States today.

Haitians, both those who immigrated to America and those who stayed in Haiti, had a tremendous influence on American culture in the 1800s. Those who came to the United States brought with them their French and Creole culture. The population of New Orleans increased from 4,446 in 1791 to 8,056 by 1797, mostly through the influx of Haitian refugees. Because they generally had more education and training than the colonists already there, the Haitians rose quickly to the upper ranks of society and shaped that society in significant ways.

The majority of Haitian refugees in the 19th century were Catholic. This is one reason they chose to settle primarily in Louisiana. As a sometime-French, sometime-Spanish colony, the dominant religion was Catholicism, as opposed to the fiercely Protestant character of the English colonies. Haitian Creole Catholics, and later Cajun Catholics, created a French Catholic flavor to Louisiana, especially New Orleans. The festival of Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"), a Cajun-Creole celebration preceding the beginning of Lent, is still a major annual event, drawing visitors from all over the world to New Orleans every February.

Many Haitian refugees today practice Vodou (also known as Voodoo), a blend of African folk religion brought to Haiti by the original African slaves, and the Catholicism of the slave owners. Vodou is predominantly concerned with appeasing the many spirits that rule nature. Ancestor worship is also of central importance. Voodoo has been inaccurately popularized in American culture as black magic, where pins are stuck into dolls and people are cursed or turned into zombies. In fact, Vodou practitioners use herbal remedies and a form of psychology interpreted as exorcism to bring people back into balance.

Early Haitian immigrants had many other effects on Louisianan society and culture. Louisiana is the only state in the United States today that continues to base its legal system on the Code Napoléon (a code of laws written by Napoleon Bonaparte); other states use English Common Law. Music, food, and architecture all show strong Haitian influences in Louisiana and other places in the South where Haitians settled (such as Charleston, South Carolina). These influences have since spread throughout general American culture. For example, the basic structure of blues singing—an introductory couplet that is repeated, with the theme then developed around the couplet—is based on Haitian folk music. Certain drums and rhythms, as well as the banjo, were introduced into American music by the Haitians. Creole cooking has become quite popular in mainstream American society. "Shotgun" houses (one room wide and several rooms deep with doors at both ends) were introduced by black artisans from Haiti in the 19th century and are identical to houses still found in Haiti today.

Perhaps most importantly, the successful slave revolt in Haiti seriously influenced both white and black Americans. White Americans became extremely fearful of a similar revolt occurring in the United States and strove to prevent their black slaves from gaining enough education or organization to consider rebellion. Many white Americans were also afraid that emancipating slaves in the United States would lead to a black insurrection (once free, they would take over). Black Americans saw the Haitian revolt as proof that blacks were indeed capable of self-rule. As the first independent black nation in the western hemisphere, Haiti became a symbol of pride for blacks in America.

Haitian refugees of the 18th and 19th centuries adapted quickly to mainstream American society with relatively few difficulties. This has not been the case for 20th and 21st century Haitian refugees. Classified as "illegal" by the INS, held in prisons and detention camps or forced to live as fugitives, and suffering from physical and mental health problems resulting from malnutrition, overcrowded conditions, and trauma, most recent Haitian refugees have found it difficult to survive—let alone thrive—in America. Those who are granted "legal" immigrant status often lack the language and job skills to succeed in the industrialized United States. A sizeable number end up working as migrant farm workers (as do many "illegal" Haitian immigrants), a scant improvement over their former lives in Haiti.

Some Haitian Americans have managed to create successful lives in the United States, including musicians Wyclef Jean and Joanne Borgella (featured on Season 7 of American Idol), and writers Edwidge Danticat and W. E. B. DuBois. Josaphat Celestin was the first Haitian American to be elected mayor of Miami, Florida, serving from 2001 to 2005.

Homosexuality is not accepted by the majority Catholic and Evangelical Protestant population in Haiti or among Haitian Americans. The widespread practice of Vodou, however, allows for more fluid expressions of sexuality and gender, giving Haitian and Haitian American homosexuals and transvestites a place to be themselves without suffering ostracism. Being a Haitian American homosexual, however, carries with it a double difficulty in the United States: not only is homosexuality not tolerated by many in American society, but there is a historical tie between the AIDS epidemic and Haiti. Due to the prevalence of HIV infection among Haitian immigrants in the 1980s when HIV/AIDS was first recognized in the United States, Haitians were included in the "high risk groups" for infection. Although U.S. policy later changed to list high risk activities rather than groups, Haitians continue to carry the stigma of AIDS.

A new study of gene sequence mutation and evolution published in 2007 reaffirmed the hypothesis that the U.S. strain of HIV, subtype B, originated from Haiti, though years earlier than previously suspected, sometime around 1969. According to this study, the original HIV infection of this strain came to Haiti from Africa around 1966, spread and mutated in Haiti for three years, then migrated to the United States with a Haitian visitor or immigrant. Many Haitian Americans are outraged that this supposition of Haitian origin for HIV/AIDS in the United States has resurfaced. To them it is not just a scientific study aimed at helping create effective vaccines for the HIV/AIDS virus but an accusation that they are carriers of a deadly disease. The stigma that resulted in the 1980s in Haitian Americans losing their jobs, non-Haitian friends, and the ability to carry on a normal life in society is being revisited upon them 20 years later.


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—by D. K. Daeg de Mott