By Gage Norris
On Sunday afternoon, Boston held its 16th annual Haitian American Unity Parade in honor of Haitian Flag Day. Filled with floats representing dozens of Boston-area churches, schools, music and dance groups, and political organizations, the parade stretched for a little over a mile on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, MA.
For Stivenson Saint Louis, 21, of Mattapan, this was the first Haitian Flag Day he’d attended since moving to the United States just over a year ago, and he was hopeful that it would remind him of the ones he’d celebrated as a kid. In a convenience store just off the main road, Saint Louis pulled a bright red Haitian flag shirt over his Nike tee, checking his reflection in the window.
“You can’t go to this parade without a flag,” he said, grabbing a small Haitian flag off the shelf and waving it enthusiastically. “It’s disrespectful!”
Indeed, Saint Louis fit right in as he made his way up Blue Hill Avenue. Flags were everywhere, on shirts, bandanas, dresses, and hats, tied or painted on the hoods of cars, and draped over the shoulders of marchers and spectators alike. He complimented everyone he passed on his way up the noisy street. He even paused for a picture with members of the Saint Belvi Haitian Adult Day Health Center, always the first group to arrive for the parade. The atmosphere was lively, but Saint Louis was feeling nostalgic.
“It’s not the same as in Haiti. In Haiti, the parade is better than this, more beautiful than this,” he said, pointing vaguely at the street around him. Shivering in the cold wind, a few nearby marchers nodded their agreement. Making their way towards the end of the parade at Harambee Park, they reminisced about parades from their childhood.
Maybe it was the brisk May weather, but many young Haitian Americans gathered in the park on Sunday felt the same way.
“Today is my birthday, but this is not even a party!” said Alexandra Duverneau, 23, of Dorchester. “I’m happy to see all these people appreciating their culture, but sometimes I think it’s not even the same culture. Even the way we dance, the way we sing, it’s different here.” She pointed towards the street, where Kreyol rap music was playing from the back of a truck. “That music doesn’t even make sense for Flag Day,” she said, pulling her jacket tighter to keep out the wind.
Across the park, a man shouted immigration and citizenship advice through a megaphone. When he finished, Charles Clemons Muhammed addressed the crowd, asking for the support in his campaign for state representative. Duverneau said the speeches weren’t appropriate for the spirit of the holiday. With help from her friends, she told the story of how Jean-Jacques Dessalines created the first Haitian flag, tearing the white from the middle of the French flag to signify freedom from European colonial rule.
For Saint Louis, Duverneau, and their friends, Sunday’s parade lacked the “heat” of the ones in Haiti, in more ways than one. “In Haiti, the parades last all day,” she said.
“Here, we just walk from the library to the park. But in Haiti, you don’t even know where the parade will end!” She and her friends grew quiet, seemingly lost in thought. Another political speech was starting in the distance. “Should we just go home now?” Duverneau offered. Her friends agreed.