The family is the primary foundation for Haitian life in the United States. In fact, families sponsor and organize the migration. Once here, émigrés are expected to maintain and reinforce kinship ties back home. Actually, the refugees' financial support for family in Haiti may well contribute to their poverty in this country. Shirking these obligations shames both the immigrants and their relatives in the homeland.
Nuclear families often expand to include more distant relatives and even former spouses. Children may often live with those relatives or with others not related by blood but still regarded as kinfolk. Children are at the core of Haitian life, greatly appreciated and linking families and households.
Although most Haitians arrive in the United States with little money, nearly all have "social capital," networks that can provide resources - housing, employment, and knowledge of the local rules of survival.
A new group is emerging in the Haitian-American community: the second generation. They are a diverse group, with different stories, strategies, and identities. Sadly, some have internalized the stereotypes that cling to their community.
Phede arrived in Miami when he was twelve years old and quickly assimilated. He became a "cover-up," hiding his Haitian identity by Americanizing his name to Fred, speaking English without an accent and never speaking Creole, not even at home. He had a job at McDonald's, sang in the church choir, became an honor student in high school, and hoped to become a lawyer.
One day, Fred's girlfriend, an African American, came to visit during his break at the restaurant. While they were talking, Fred's sister arrived and spoke to him in Creole. She blew his cover and he blew his cool. Fred screamed at her to never, ever speak Creole to him again. He did not want to be known as a Haitian. Four days later, the young man bought a .22 caliber revolver for fifty dollars. He drove to an empty lot near his home and killed himself with a bullet to his chest.
By becoming Fred, Phede aimed to gain acceptance by his peers in the predominantly African-American neighborhood where he lived and attended school. He tragically believed that covering up his national heritage was his only possible path to success. Phede's suicide made clear the pain and shame that constantly assail second-generation South Florida Haitian youth. Like him, many children and adolescents commit a form of cultural suicide by hiding their Haitian roots, claiming they do not know their native language.
They are likely to have conflicts with their parents over their efforts to Americanize and, like American youngsters, they struggle for independence. For adolescent females, these battles can be particularly difficult. In traditional Haitian families, parents exercise nearly absolute control over their daughters, especially concerning expressions of sexuality.
Haitian parents, like other immigrants, view education as a path for their children to improve their lives. Many Haitian children do indeed excel. Second- and first-generation Haitian immigrant youth have flourished at the nation's elite universities. Language and cultural differences, however, often deter parents from directly participating in school activities. They frequently lack enough English to help with homework; groups like Parent Teacher Associations are unknown back home.
Nevertheless, parents constantly tell their children that they expect them to succeed academically. As fifteen-year-old Aristide Maillol explains, "We are immigrants and immigrants must work hard to overcome hardship....[If] you study...[and] do what your mother, what your father, tell you, things will get better."
For middle-class students, the rewards of schooling are self-evident. For those from a poor or working-class neighborhood, however, it frequently appears that white Americans will get all the good jobs, that blacks and Latinos do not have the same opportunities. Believing that school is not worth the effort, an unfortunately large number of minority youths adopt an adversarial stance toward education. While many Latinos and African Americans do extremely well in school, others have given up hope.
Haitian youths in inner cities are often caught in this cultural vise. Their parents insist that they excel in school and maintain their Haitian heritage. At the same time, many of their African-American peers demean Haitian culture and maintain that racism blocks success for all blacks, regardless of academic achievement. Haitian youths must try to balance the expectations of their parents with the harsh realities of prejudice and discrimination that they confront. Some commit cultural suicide, but many more adopt dual identities, being American among peers and Haitian among family.
Six years after Phede's suicide, Herve stood before his classmates at the same high school Phede had attended. Herve, or Herb as he has begun to call himself, tapped out a beat with his fists, shuffled a few dance steps, and began to rap:
My name is Herb and I'm not poor
I'm the Herbie that you're lookin' for
A new generation
Of Haitian education and determination
I'm the Herb that you're lookin' for
Herb resolved the tension over his identity in a much healthier manner than Phede. He adopted an African-American style, Rap, but he flavored it with a distinctive immigrant ethic of hard work and success. He celebrated rather than concealed his Haitian culture.
As Haitians pass through adolescence they become both more American and more Haitian. They dress in American styles, eat American food, and speak English. At the same time, as they mature, they often prefer to identify not as American or even African American, but as Haitian American or even simply as Haitian. They overcome the shame that led Phede to kill himself and so many others to commit cultural suicide. They rediscover a pride in their Haitian roots.