Diversity No More

For many Haitians and other minority groups, Cambridge is less than the shadow of itself

By Muradieu Joseph, resident of Area 4

Joseph Muradieu

The Fight for Independence and Flight from Poverty

Haiti is among the richest countries in terms of history and culture. The history of Haiti is the history of an island populated by many ethnic groups and nationalities. Whites, blacks, mulattos, and Hispanics were among the multitude of people who rushed to this part of the world after the killing of the native Haitians by the Spaniards. The blacks did not come voluntarily. They were forced into slavery by the Europeans and were not considered human, but rather goods or property.

Although ethnic groups lived side-by-side on the island, it is fair to say that there was not any diversity. Diversity is the peaceful co-existence of people from different ethnicities. At the beginning of the war for independence a real diversity began when slaves and mulattos worked together to rid the island of slavery.

Haiti is among the poorest countries in terms of economy, and that has left a huge scar on Haitian pride. How did Haiti, once one of the most prosperous colonies, a country once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, sink into such deep poverty? People unfamiliar with Haitian history may think that poverty in Haiti is simply the result of bad management by Haitian politicians after its independence from France in 1804. That is not the whole truth. After winning independence with blood and sweat, the country had to pay a huge sum of money to the former colonist in order to gain recognition. Haitians were also living in fear of a possible French invasion. Twenty years after the proclamation of Haiti 's independence, France was threatening its former colony with the reinstitution of slavery.

Haiti 's independence threatened countries, including the United States, that relied on slavery to build their economy and their power as France had done. The independence of Haiti was a blatant negation of the racist theory in America that considered black people subhuman. The U.S. had even used Haitian slaves to help fight the British at Savanna, Georgia, during the Revolutionary War.

After independence, Haiti helped build many nations that were fighting colonialism, such as Venezuela and Columbia, by providing them with weapons and manpower. For that reason the United States refused to recognize Haiti and banned the country from participating in the first Pan American Conference held in Panama City, Panama (then part of Colombia ) in 1826. Only after the emancipation of slaves in the United States did the country finally recognize Haiti as an independent state—following a U.S. invasion and occupation that lasted nineteen years, from 1915 to 1934.

Independence did not turn Haiti into a society without class. The structure that existed during the colonial era persists today. Taking all the land, the mulattos became new landlords. Blacks continued to be oppressed and were left to work in the fields with no rights whatsoever. At the turn of the 20th century, the elite class, with the help of the U.S. Marines and the Catholic Church, attacked blacks in the very essence of their humanity by making it illegal for them to practice voodoo. For 200 years, the history of Haiti has been a history of class struggle. The mulattos, who account for only 1% of the population but hold all the wealth, have used all kind of strategies to maintain their control of the country even with a black president. The military is their most lethal weapon. Sadly, after 200 years of independence, this oppression has prevented 80% of the population in Haiti from learning how to read.

Throughout its independence, Haiti has had a history of being ruled by people with no sense of statesmanship who would put the country before their personal interest. In recent years, the political situation had taken its toll on Haitians. In 1957, when (Papa Doc) Duvalier came to power, Haitians began fleeing the country to avoid oppression by his regime, one of the must brutal dictatorships in the hemisphere. This period was the beginning of Haitian emigration. Most of those who left at that time were educated people who opposed the regime. They went primarily to Canada, where they were in great demand, especially as teachers, and to Africa during the collapse of French colonialism in the region where they helped in the formation of new African nations.

The economic situation in Haiti in the early 1980s caused a second wave of Haitian emigrants, most of whom reached the coast of Florida on wooden boats. These “boat people” were mainly uneducated. This was the time when Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier began his so-called economic revolution. Many peasants abandoned their villages in hope of finding work in Port-au-Prince. But the wages paid by the factories were so low that they could not take care of their families. At the same time, it made no sense to go back to their farms, because they could no longer afford to buy seed or fertilizer. As a result, the agriculture that used to be the main source of income for the majority of the population began to decline considerably. Those who chose to stay in the country fought against the Duvalier regime, whom they accused of being responsible for their misery. But Haitian who fled Haiti went everywhere in the United States, especially to New York and Boston.

New York has always been attractive to Haitians. It symbolized the United States ; people living in other parts of the U.S. would often simply say they live in New York. The Haitian community in Massachusetts is one of the oldest. Boston, next to New York and Miami, is the most talked-about city in Haiti. There is even a neighborhood named Boston in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. “Volo-Volo of Boston,” one of the most popular Haitian bands in the late 1970s or early 1980s, was formed in Boston.

Haitians in Cambridge

It is difficult to say why Haitians came to Cambridge. I moved here from New Jersey in 1995, a year before the end of rent control. The Haitian population in Cambridge at that time was estimated at 2,000 and the city was home to one of the largest Haitian nonprofit organizations, CHAMA. Haitians were a visible minority in this city that was proud to call itself “The People's Republic of Cambridge.”

In 1990 the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti brought a lot of attention to Haitians. It was a time of pride. Aristide was the only leader in recent Haitian history with whom the vast majority of the population could identify. The recent military coup d'état against Aristide has attracted much sympathy for Haitians. Civic associations such as the Eviction Free Zone (EFZ) play a major role in helping Haitians fulfill their dream of bringing democracy back to Haiti through Aristide. The EFZ has helped organized forums, protests, and fundraisers toward this end. From this struggle was born an important group within the EFZ called “Komite Kreole,” whose mission is to encourage Haitian involvement in important local issues such as affordable housing, education, living wage, etc. The EFZ remains one of the leading grassroots organizations in Cambridge, fighting alongside poor, minority, and working-class Cambridge residents. Its campaign for voting rights in municipal elections for non–U.S. citizens is well known. The EFZ also houses Haitian Women in Action, also known as FAAA.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is one of the driving forces behind the collapse of the diversity that we used to enjoy in Cambridge. Since the end of rent control, most of the ethnic groups that made Cambridge so attractive can no longer afford to pay the high rents and as a result have left or become segregated in public housing developments. Meanwhile, while renters are forced to leave the city, costly new condominiums are being built. The sense of community has been lost. For example, summer in Cambridge will never be the same; the colorful summer block parties that used to be the trademark of our city are about to become something of the past. People do not say “hi” because they are complete strangers. A look at Central Square shows how the physical appearance of the city is changing dramatically. Small community businesses are being replaced by big chains such as Starbucks, McDonald's, Burger King, and GAP. Church closings, too, have taken a toll on the Haitian community. Notre Dame of Pity in North Cambridge, a cultural gathering place for Haitians, closed in September 2003. Immaculate Conception Parish in North Cambridge closed on January 9, displacing more than 200 Haitian parishioners.

Unfortunately, some people tend to blame the victims because they do not seem to understand what it is to be oppressed. Haitians who are given the chance to escape oppression show that if they were living in a fair society they could have achieved extraordinary things. Haitians are great achievers. They are everywhere: on Wall Street, in the NBA, in Hollywood, at MIT, Harvard, etc. Haitians, like all people, just need an opportunity to succeed.

Fighting Discrimination against Haitian Workers in Nursing Homes

by Muradieu Joseph, resident of Area 4

Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in the United States, and one of its prevalent forms is the restriction of languages other than English. Recently, a ballot initiative that originated in Los Angeles appeared in Massachusetts. It proposed making English the only language to be used in schools. The ballot is a merciless weapon in the hands of those who view immigrants as a threat to the U.S. mainstream because they know that many immigrants don't vote even if they are qualified.

Locally, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), one of the largest faith-and community-based organizations in the area, has been leading a campaign to stop nursing homes from discriminating against Haitian nursing-home workers for speaking Creole. When Haitians speak their native language among themselves, administrators fear that they may be organizing into unions to demand better treatment. Haitian workers make up more than 80% of the nursing-home industry. The attitude of these administrators is even more discriminatory in that they don't have a problem with people who speak Spanish or Portuguese because those ethnic groups are statistically less threatening. Moreover, Haitian nursing assistants are treated as if they were not human beings; they are called names when they aren't being talked down to.

Coincidentally, on the 200th anniversary of the independence of Haiti, GBIO launched its campaign to restore civil rights for nursing assistants and for patients who are affected by the mistreatment of workers in many nursing homes in Boston. They organized a series of actions in which hundreds of nursing-home workers, community leaders, church leaders, and union leaders came together to denounce the culture of disrespect and abuses from nursing-homes administrations suffered by both workers and residents. GBIO brought the issue to a higher level by prompting government officials to take action against nursing homes where Haitian civil rights were being violated.

What many considered an up-hill battle came to fruition when Attorney General Tom Reilly, during a GBIO action in October 2004 in which close to nine hundred nursing-home workers and community leaders participated, agreed to issue an advisory to the nursing-home industry. At this event, GBIO made public a list of nursing-home administrators who had previously refused to meet to discuss basic civil rights documents aimed at changing the way they treat workers and residents. GBIO also recognized the administrators who had agreed to improve the working conditions at their facilities. In January 2005, less than a week after the attorney general issued the advisory, his office in conjunction with the Massachusetts Extended Care Federation conducted training for all supervisors, managers, administrators, and human-resource employees in the nursing-home industries. This is the most tangible victory for GBIO and its allies.