Kenasha Paul, a Miami resident, can’t help but to raise her voice in excitement when she talks about the Caribbean Marketplace opening up again and the brunch award ceremony she will attend. The events are the first in-person Haitian Heritage Month activities that Paul, 33, will attend in two years.
Last year, the celebrations were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other Haitian-Americans, Paul felt “disconnected” despite enjoying the online-only events. So this year, many more Haitian-Americans are willing to brave the COVID-19 pandemic to fully live out the month set aside to recognize and celebrate Haiti and Haitian achievements.
“There’s always going to be some hesitation,” Paul said. “[But] I want to live life. I’m looking forward to enjoying the culture and being able to have those experiences again.”
More than 40 in-person events have been announced around Florida alone as the month opens. Some, like the Haitian & Hilarious Comedy Tour at the Miami Improv, have already sold out. Renowned musical groups, such as KAÏ and T-Vice, will perform at various venues. The Little Haiti Cultural Center (LHCC) will host 16 events that range from dance classes, an award ceremony, comedy shows, cooking demonstrations and more.
Elsewhere, Treasure Coast Cultural Festival (TCCF) has scheduled a festival on May 18. While there will not be a traditional Haitian Flag Day Parade as in years past, a caravan is being organized to safeguard people’s health.
LHCC, TCCF and other organizers of outdoor events say they will follow COVID-19 guidelines.
For LHCC, the weekend opener also marks the organization’s own re-opening since shutting down more than a year ago due to the pandemic. Local officials like District 5 Commissioner Jeffrey Watson and Mayor of Miami Francis Suarez will attend the opening ceremony Saturday.
About 250 people are allowed to attend each LHCC event, a steep drop from the 900 who once attended Haitian Heritage Month events before COVID-19. Masks are required, except for the dance or fitness classes, and participants will be socially distanced, to minimize the risk of catching the coronavirus.
“If they come out, that means they’re willing to take that chance,” said Nancy St. Leger a Haitian folklore dance teacher who will lead a LHCC dance workshop. “We’re going to do everything that we can to have a good time, enjoy ourselves as safely as possible, be respectful of each other’s spaces.”
Creating a New Chapter
Haitian Heritage Month was first celebrated in 1999 in Massachusetts, spread to various states with large Haitian enclaves and reached Florida in 2000. It was borne out of local celebrations of Haitian Flag Day, May 18, arguably most revered in Haitian history. As the events grew over the day into weeks, the expansion signaled a new chapter in the growth of the Haitian population, renewed pride as an immigrant group in a new homeland and emergent political bloc.
During the one-month celebration, Haitian-Americans reflect on Haiti’s history, culture and people as well as contributions made to the world by Haitians in the diaspora.
“Haitian Heritage Month is very important, especially as we’re looking at the history we have here in the U.S. with immigrants not being seen as contributors,” said Sandy Dorsainvil, LHCC’s managing director. “It’s important to celebrate the Haitians living here in the U.S. and the progress they made.”
LHCC will present six awards to Haitian-Americans for their contribution to the community.
Another aspect of the celebrations that many Haitian-Americans find moving is the re-telling of Haiti’s history.
“We come from ancestors who fought for our freedom, who showed up for others,” Paul said. “Despite all the challenges, we overcame many hurdles. That’s always something I see that’s amazing, something I want to share with my children as well.”
Haiti was the first Black country to gain independence, on Jan. 1, 1804. Haitians then helped several other countries gain independence like modern-day Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, northern Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
Seven months before becoming free, Haitians adopted its first flag on May 18, 1803. In LHCC’s Flag Day Celebration, nine different flags of Haiti will be on display. Keeping It Haitian Vendors Association will also hold a Haitian Flag Day Caravan Parade on a date to be announced.
Keeping It Haitian is an association that helps Haitian-American businesses gain economic stability and provide them with other opportunities.
On Pride and Festivities
To add to the history side of the celebrations, many Haitian-Americans look forward to Haitian Heritage Month because they want to disprove the stigma of being Haitian origin.
“We have this pride,” St. Leger said. “As much as they show that Haiti is a horrible place, a poor country, we made ourselves so important that we convinced other people that we’re important.”
Another feature of Haiti that will be highlighted is the country’s food. Neïma Belancourt-Heraux, co-founder of Sensory Delights Catering, will host a cooking demonstration to teach attendees how to cook legim, the meat and vegetable stew that is a fixture in Haitian cuisine.
“Food is extremely important in the Haitian culture,” Belancourt-Heraux said. “If you go to the small towns, that’s a way for people to welcome you into their homes. They may not have much but they will make sure to offer you something even if it’s coffee that was freshly roasted.”
“A lot of people love legim but would say they don’t know how to make it,” Belancourt-Heraux added. “We want to show them how to make it faster but still have the same end result.”
A Caribbean Market Day will pop up every Saturday at the Caribbean Marketplace in Little Haiti.
Haiti’s arts, music, language and dance will also be showcased through a variety of events.
“It’s going to feel great to actually get everything back up in going,” Belancourt-Heraux said. “It’s definitely going to bring back a sense of normalcy to the whole events side of things.”
Click the links below for more information about the Haitian Heritage Month festivities: