To cope with their constant confrontation with prejudice and discrimination, most Haitians turn to the internal strengths of their culture. They recall Haiti's extraordinary revolutionary history. They turn their gaze toward heaven and attend church more frequently and in greater numbers than any other contemporary immigrant group. They extol their world-famous art and music, as well as their African- and French-influenced cuisine.
Haitians are devout Christians. Surveys have shown that nearly 75 percent of recent immigrants to South Florida attend church at least once a week. In a striking departure from the denominational makeup of Haiti, where some 80 to 85 percent of the residents are Catholic, nearly 40 percent of Haitian Americans are Protestant. Storefront churches abound in Little Haiti and a few Protestant congregations have had explosive growth. One Baptist church has converted a huge, former textile plant in Little Haiti into an impressive house of worship.
Religious communities provide a social support system for fellow immigrants. In rural Haiti, Vodou ceremonies draw families - immediate and extended - together. They help individuals cope with growing up, becoming ill, getting cured, and eventually dying. The religion provides avenues for prestige, an informal criminal justice system - through its rituals those who behave improperly can be chastised and disciplined without recourse to police and courts - and the opportunity to participate in a multitude of ceremonies involving music, dance, skits, and crafts. It has been said that the Vodou temple in Haiti is "sanctuary, clubhouse, dance hall, hospital, theater, chemist's shop, music hall, court and council chamber in one."
In the United States, Christian congregations fill many of those roles and more. When an immigrant is sick or in dire straits, fellow parishioners may gather at the person's house to pray together and/or informally contribute money to help. Churches formally aid with charity and other services. Pastors and priests command great respect. It is not accidental that the first democratically elected president of Haiti was a former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Many Haitian paintings are rooted in Vodou, and numerous celebrated artists began as Vodou priests. Vodou ceremonies frequently have veves, emblematic signs drawn on the ground with ashes, flour, coffee grinds, brick dust, and other powders: Haitian artists simply transformed these paintings from the earth to canvas. Even Christian paintings done by Haitian artists often have Vodou connotations. Catholic saints have Vodou counterparts, and Christian religious scenes may be suffused with Vodou imagery.
"Two things have kept the Haitian people going up to now. There is religion - belief in God, in Vodou - and there is music," explains one Haitian exile musician. Haitian music has become part of the American pop culture scene. By far the most popular Haitian musician in this country is Wyclef Jean, the Grammy-winning singer, composer, and arranger who has been referred to as the "hip-hop Amadeus." His former multiplatinum band, the Fugees, chose their name as an abbreviation for "those from refugee camps." Jean has also been honored for his continuing efforts in support of musical education and expanded opportunities for underprivileged children.
Haitian visual artists are now firmly established in major collections in the United States, and their works are bringing high prices at the leading auction houses. One of the most celebrated is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Born in Brooklyn, Basquiat moved from graffiti art to the avant-garde scene in New York during the 1980s. His meteoric rise to fame in the international art scene was cut short by an early death.
Writer Edwige Danticat, who was born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve, is an acclaimed, award-winning young author whose books retrace the Haitian experience.