Haitians in LA, Maxine Waters

===In response to the terrible devastation in Haiti, Anthropology Now is offering special coverage of events in Haiti. For the next few weeks, Press Watch will be a dedicated Haiti Watch. Elizabeth Chin, a professor of anthropology at Occidental College who has worked for many years in Haiti joins us as a Featured Special Report guest blogger.For her previous posts, Click on ‘Read More’ in Press Watch. We will also be tracking news coverage of anthropologist Paul Farmer and his work on the relief efforts. And we encourage all concerned readers to donate generously to Partners in Health, the organization Paul Farmer cofounded that is working on the ground in Haiti. Please contact us with links and news on Haiti that we can share with our readers.===

*Elizabeth Chin is an anthropologist who has studied Haitian Folklore dance for over 20 years, both in the US and in Haiti. Currently a professor at Occidental College, she has been spending time in Haiti since 1993, sometimes doing fieldwork and sometimes not. She will return to Haiti in May to assist with the relief effort.*

Yesterday I went to a meeting at the Full Gospel Apostolic Church of God, in West LA. The small church, with its weirdly bouncy pews and awkwardly placed pillars, was stuffed to the gills with Haitians and with media representatives. The Haitians, as ever, were dressed for church, which to me is like being dressed for a wedding: beautiful suits complete with silk tie and pocket square and beaded dresses, fancy hats, girls in poufy gowns and barrettes in their hair and boys with little suits on. Also attending the meeting, which was organized by the church’s pastor along with an up-and-coming mover and shaker, Idor Laurent, was Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Some members of the Los Angeles City Council showed up, too, and a member of the State Assembly.

The Haitian community in Los Angeles is only about 10,000, broken up into two primary groups: the generally pretty well off ones who left Haiti in the 1970s, when Duvalier was still in power, and the more recent refugees who arrived in the 1990s, when political instability was extreme. These newer Haitians are on the whole from the less privileged element of Haitian society: not wealthy, not educated in Haiti, arriving speaking only Kreyol. The older group of Haitians, it seems to me, are Catholics while the newer ones are Evangelical Protestants. The newer immigrants live in the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods around or in South LA; the older ones are pretty well suburbanized.

As Black people who speak a foreign language, and whose culture is distinctly different from most of the African Americans around them in Los Angeles, Haitians here have often felt isolated, misunderstood, or both. Such big and little schisms weren’t on the radar screen yesterday, where the topic of solidarity was primary. There was a speech from Dr. Maulana Karemba, of the African American Cultural Center in South LA whose refrain was “We are all Haitian!” Members of a Nigerian Church, gloriously attired in spanking white robes, brought their own message of solidarity, as Nigerians, and on behalf of all of Africa. Maxine Waters of course had a great deal to say – from reestablishing her long-standing support of Haiti to a sly, “I don’t want to get political, but I’m Lavalas!” “Imagine what it could mean to a family in Haiti to get $50 a month,” she said.  She wants to start a kind of sponsorship program and urged people to save their money for something like that.   “So start saving your money now,” she said, “a dollar a day.”   After all the press had left, the basketball player Olden Polynice stood up – it was hard to miss since he’s 6’11”. He spoke about his continuing commitment to Haiti, and added, “by the way, I still am a Haitian citizen, and I’m proud of it.”

“Hot dogs for Haiti,” Richard Thiong, a Haitian with some Chinese in him, called out rather merrily, once the meeting has broken up. “Hot dogs for Haiti!” Round the back of the church, they’ve heated up hotdogs to sell to raise money. Actually, the hotdog is a weirdly appropriate choice, being a totally American and yet totally Haitian food. Many mornings in Haiti I’ve had ‘spaghetti hot dog’ for breakfast. You can feed a whole lot of people on a pound of spaghetti, a few hotdogs, 1 habanero pepper, one green pepper, some scallions and a tad of oil – the ingredients for ‘spaghetti hot dog.’.

I don’t know if it’s a Haitian thing or not, but laughing in these dark moments is something that my Haitian friend are definitely doing, when they’re not crying. “My mom thinks the TV is talking to her,” my friend Mona tells me from New York. “She’s got the beginning of dementia. And my sister, the one who lives in Haiti, she was here visiting when the earthquake hit, thank god. But you know what? Everybody is calling her every minute to tell her that her house fell down, and my sister is saying, ‘Don’t they think I already know that?’ She was so upset. So she went out to get her hair done so she wouldn’t have to talk to them. When she got back they were still calling, so she said, ‘You know what? I think I need to get my nails done!’ Yep, this is what she has to do because of that earthquake! Get her hair done! Get her nails done!”

Tip of the day: Don’t believe for a minute the ridiculous so-called reports about roving armed gangs, looting and ‘unrest.’ No doubt, there’s disorderliness and a disinclination to wait quietly in line, and no doubt people are going into fallen down stores to get food if it’s in there. Emails I’ve seen from people in Haiti right now say that the reports of crazy violence are utterly baseless.

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