Caribbean Casserole

On a Saturday afternoon in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a 40-something woman stood on the threshold of a shipping business on Bedford Avenue with two boys.

“Hey, how much?” she shouted, pointing to the five barrels in the front of “Big and Ready: Peters’ Shipping and Travel.”

“Twenty dollars,” storeowner Ian Peters responded from a back room with a glass partition.

“She knows the price,” said Peters, a Guyanese man, to others in the backroom. “Tell her to come in. See, she’s Haitian. They won’t come in; they’ll stand outside the door and wait for you to come to them.”

“This man must not want customers,” the woman begins in Creole. “He just sits back there and doesn’t come up front.”

They “argue” as the woman approached the back room and pulled out a $20 bill from her wallet. In the same breath she cussed him in Creole called him “baby” and inquired about the best phone card to Haiti. By the time she paid and left the store, they were smiling at each other.

Peters said most of his customers are Haitian. From the time he opened his store 10 years ago, he’s been learning about their customs and consumer preferences.

“They’re good people,” he said. Then adds jovially, “I’m looking for a Haitian woman to marry.”

New Yorkers from other Caribbean communities echo Peter’s sentiment.

Despite the cultural differences and stereotypes, Haitians are trying to make it in this country, along with others from the Caribbean. There are Haitians who say that the other Caribbean nations are jealous of Haitians for their historic achievement or look down on them because Haiti is tagged the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But for the most part, and especially among the youth, they get along.

“We have a good relationship, ” said Marie Labbe, who lives in Rosedale, Queens. “Its just that the culture is a little different. Our food is very different. They have a lot of curry, we don’t. Their music is different. The Trinidadians have calypso, the Jamaicans have reggae, and the Haitians have konpa. But we are all striving in this country.”

The U.S. Census Bureau lumps black Americans, West Indians and other blacks under one heading: black or African American. In New York State, blacks account for 16 percent, or 3 million of the 19 million residents. In Florida, 15 percent, or 2.3 million residents, are black.

Each black ethnic group has its own history, as they are quick to proudly point out. Within the Caribbean community Haitians often distinguish themselves from the larger group citing Creole as a primary reason among other cultural differences.

According to the census, 897,000 blacks live in Brooklyn and 445,000 in Queens. Miami-Dade County has almost 465,000. The Census Bureau, often criticized for undercounting residents, reports that 210,000 people of Haitian ancestry live in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area and 23 percent reside in Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk and Rockland counties. Brooklyn has the highest concentration at 88,673 followed by Queens with 45,839 Haitians.

In Flatbush and Cambria Heights, Queens, natives of the Caribbean islands have significantly influenced their neighborhoods. While they are recognized and applauded for their efforts, there has historically been friction among them.

Some Caribbean immigrants said they are offended when mistaken for being from an island other than their own.

“Each one said he was better than the other,” Haitian Fred Sanon, a former Flatbush resident during the 1970s and 1980s, said of Jamaicans and Haitians. “I got along with my landlord [a Jamaican], but other Haitians did not like Jamaicans and vice versa.”

Now a Springfield Gardens resident, Sanon said Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Haitians who’ve replaced the older African-American residents get along fine.

“When we start speaking our language, they feel we might be talking about them,” said Labbe, president of the La Vallee regional organization which supports the southwestern town in Haiti. “They get uncomfortable.”

Gerald Date, a security coordinator at a supermarket chain, said the Haitians he has lived around during the past seven years are friendly. Haitian children he’s watched grow up often knock on his door to say hi.

“We all get along very well,” said Date, a Grenada native. “They’re nice people, they’re very friendly people.”

As he fixed a fence on a Tilden Avenue block near Nostrand, Date pointed across the street to Chez Nemours restaurant, saying that the owner brings him bottles of Barbancourt rum upon returning from visits to Haiti.

“We all do try to help our people,” Date said, as he headed toward a group of Haitian men to borrow measuring tape. “People from Haiti, apparently, they’re very much together.”

Next to Date’s building, Jamaican Kipling Lee came out of a garage with Trinidadian flags hanging outside of it. At the hospital where he works, Lee said, they give each other advice, no matter where someone comes from.

Flatbush resident Andre Pierre, a security officer said, at a celebration of Haiti’s bicentennial at City Hall last week, that getting along “depends on who you are. I have a lot of Trinidadian and Jamaican friends.”

“We have more similarities, ” said Marlie Joseph, a Haitian computer network engineer who lives in New Jersey. “We all try to help the people back home.”

Joseph, a member of the La Vallee regional association said the money sent to relatives back home, or “lakay” as the Haitians say, is a common custom among all Caribbean immigrants.

On any given Saturday in the West Indian community, the money transfer and shipping businesses have a constant stream of customers. Barrels filled with sacks of rice, toilet paper, soaps, cereals, clothing and medications are shipped to the Caribbean.

At Sanon’s West Indian Bargain Center in Flatbush, Sanon said many islanders come in to inquire about the inverters, jump-start systems, bug zappers and used clothes he sells.

“We see each other quite differently because of culture, but we do [get along],” said Alberte Bernier, a Haitian writer in midtown Manhattan. “We don’t do joint ventures as we often could because we are really newly arrived immigrants who are trying to grow within the New York community.”

The Youngsters

As communities grow, so do its children—those who were either born here or who come during their teenage years.

In Trinidadian Tony Lewis’ 20 plus years in the United States he has met many Haitians.

“Through the school, Wingate High School, I made a lot of Haitian friends,” Lewis, 35, said. “We get a long fine unless someone misbehaves or says something bad.”

Some young Haitian-Americans jam to reggae music, to the dismay of many parents who abhor that “bidjonel,” Creole for racket.

Haitian musicians incorporate reggae, soca, and calypso into their konpa. At balls, disc jockeys often spin the latest hip-hop and reggae hits during intermission.

The relationships go beyond music to dating, marriage, business ventures, and other pieces of the social fabric.

At a youth speak-out session at Medgar Evers College in March, Haitian and non-Haitian teenagers talked about the differences and similarities between them.

James Kortu, 16, African-American, said he can’t tell which peers are Haitian by looking at them.

Cardan Gross, 17, a high school senior, said, “I really don’t have no problems with them. Everyone is cool with me you know.”

The youth might have friends from different countries, but some Haitian parents blame those friends for corrupting their children when they notice attitude changes.


Juodel Joseph, a Haitian federal security contractor who came to the United States 24 years ago, said there was a time when other nationalities use to say negative things about Haitians. He cites the politically charged commentaries about HIV/AIDS that stigmatized Haitians and led them to march over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1990 to protest that misnomer.

“That [label] resulted in a lot of people looking at Haitians as representatives of a problem,” Joseph said. “After 1990, the Haitian image improved.”

The friction, Labbe said, “is still there a little bit. It’s less than before, maybe now because there are Haitians in high places.”

Examples of Haitians gaining respect include acknowledgments Haitians get for their contributions to society—current and historic. At a City Hall reception last week, the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs honored General Consul Harry Fouche in recognition of Haiti’s bicentennial.

In school education, materials are translated into Creole for those who do not speak English. A host of female and male professionals have been promoted to high profile positions in various fields. Politicians with Haitian constituents make it a point to stop at Flatbush churches during election season.

The Haitian, and larger black community, was outraged after Flatbush Councilman Kendall Stewart, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, was quoted in the Daily News recently saying that “its a cultural thing” for Haitians, because of their poverty, to live in overcrowded homes and break locks if they don’t have keys.

Michelange Arty owns La Patisserie bakery, a few doors down from Stewart’s building at Nostrand and Clarendon streets. Like some others, Arty said the Haitian community should have more of a leadership role in the Caribbean community because of it’s large numbers.

“Our participation is not complete,” Arty said. Pointing to Stewart’s building, he added, “He is from St. VIncent. We put him there.”

With a laugh, the 30-year-resident said of Stewart’s comments, “That’s our thanks. We’re too slow. We should have more impact. We have more than enough people who have made it.”

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