|Posted on Sun, Feb. 11, 2007|
Haiti’s local roots recognized
A South Florida priest turned Haitian political figure was touched to see the gratitude of people he had helped in North Miami, as the city honored him and other Haitian-American pioneers.
BY TIM HENDERSON
thenderson@MiamiHerald.comWhen they arrived, few in South Florida knew anything about their homeland. Post office clerks sometimes asked if they had misspelled ”Tahiti” on their letters home.Today they’re considered pioneers of what’s now Little Haiti, and many now have roots in North Miami as well. The city honored many of them in recent weeks, including a suspended priest named Gerard Jean-Juste, once considered a leading candidate for president of the island nation.
Like many of Little Haiti’s pioneers from the mid-1960s, Jean-Juste helped the thousands who fled later, helping them adjust and demanding social justice for them.
He was visibly moved Wednesday as speaker after speaker from North Miami praised his efforts to help their families as they arrived in Little Haiti, either personally or through the Haitian Refugee Center he founded in 1978.
”I did not even remember these things. I had forgotten,” Jean-Juste said at a city-sponsored ceremony marking his 60th birthday. “The way I work, I finish one and go on to the next case. I didn’t expect anything from the person.”
He was also surprised that so many of his people had moved to North Miami since he went to Haiti in the early 1990s. He is now living in Broward County and undergoing cancer treatment as he fights to overturn his suspension for political activism and return to Haiti.
”I did not know there were so many Haitians in this city,” he said. He was always familiar with the city, and still uses his brother’s address there to receive mail, he said.
At least 80,000 Haitian-Americans live in the North Miami and North Miami Beach areas, according to the U.S. Census.
Others were honored at a ceremony Feb. 1 for those mentioned in a new book on the pioneers of Little Haiti, including North Miami Councilman Jacques Despinosse. Despinosse was known for his early radio shows devoted to encouraging citizenship and political power through voting.
”North Miami is the second step,” Despinosse said. “You start out in Little Haiti because it’s easy to get a little place, you don’t have to learn the language, and everything’s close so you don’t have to have a car.
“Then you go to North Miami and then maybe you think about Miramar. But Little Haiti is always there. It’s not going anywhere.”
The book’s author David Brown, who runs cultural tours of Little Haiti, said it’s important for Haitian Americans to remember Little Haiti even if they’ve moved on geographically.
”It’s a natural extension of the Haitian population,” Brown said of North Miami. “There’s a lot of Haitians in El Portal and Miami Shores, and then of course a much higher percentage in North Miami.”