Little Haiti has historically been the cultural heart of the Haitian diaspora, and its community leaders have been instrumental in effecting change in U.S.-Haiti relations. The Haitian American community in Miami-Dade County is the largest in the United States. Reaching at least 100,000 residents by 2000, the county had become home to 41% of Florida’s Haitian population, according to the Brookings Institution. No other county came close, with King’s County in New York City and Broward coming far behind.
However, little research has been done on the community’s history. There are several reasons for this, but it seems one of the biggest is because the exact boundaries of Little Haiti remain unclear and hotly contested. As historian Paul George told The Miami Herald in 2013, “Nobody has a true definition of Little Haiti because there are no formal boundaries. It’s pretty subjective.”
Lemon City and Little River have their own deep histories. But Little Haiti remains an iconic ethnic enclave, a point of pride for the greater Haitian population as a whole that’s become firmly ingrained in Miami’s rich cultural tapestry.
From big Haiti to Little Haiti
In 1791, Haiti was known as Saint-Domingue, a French colony. It was the most profitable colony in the world, a top supplier of the world’s sugar. Slaves made up a majority of the population, and in an unprecedented feat, they rebelled and overthrew their colonizers, becoming the Republic of Haiti by 1804. However, that freedom came at a steep price. With the slave trade prospering across the world, the fight for Haitian independence elicited much fear and little sympathy. A nation of free blacks just to the south inspired horror in the U.S., which quickly moved to boycott Haitian goods and merchants. Even worse, by 1825, surrounded by a French flotilla threatening to storm its shores, Haiti was charged 150 million gold francs, more than 10 times the fledgling country’s annual revenues, to pay reparations for its own freedom. Though that sum was eventually reduced to 90 million francs, estimated at $17 billion today, Haiti was forced to pay it for well over a century.
Afterwards, Haitian politics were marked by competing regimes and struggles for power from both inside and out. From the 1950s until the mid-80s, Haiti was subject to the cult of Duvalier — a father and son dictatorship that ruled by brutality and force. In 1957, “Papa Doc” Duvalier consolidated power through sham elections, misappropriating aid money to fuel his militaristic rule and using his status as a practitioner of vodou to inspire fear by taking advantage of his people’s deep-seated religious beliefs. In the early 60s, a small number of Haitians started to leave, mostly wealthier classes with the resources to travel the U.S., but they mainly settled in the northeast United States, according to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first mass arrivals of Haitian refugees fleeing his rule landed in South Florida — referred to disparagingly as “Haitian boat people” at the time.
The influx of Haitians reached a high point in 1980, when approximately 25,000 Haitians came to South Florida seeking asylum, according to a Congressional report. Miami was in the midst of a perfect storm. Along with the Mariel boatlift, Miami absorbed a mass migration of more than 150,000 asylum seekers as it was in the midst of a drug crisis and racial tensions that would lead to the Miami Riots, the deadliest riots in history up to that point.
Even though they were escaping crushing poverty and political violence, including threats of kidnapping, torture, and Duvalier’s culture of fear, the United States government sent back as many Haitians as possible. When contrasted with the asylum granted to Cubans escaping Castro’s Communist regime, the politicized nature of U.S. refugee policy becomes apparent. As Ruth Ellen Wasem, specialist in immigration policy, wrote, “Human rights advocates express concern that Haitians are not afforded the same treatment as other asylum seekers.”
A political community emerges
Viter Juste was an activist for democracy in Haiti. Having been arrested before for his politics, he feared for himself and his family’s safety due to his vocal support forDuvalier’s opponent. He left in the mid-60s, bringing his family from New York to Miami in 1973.
In 1974, two years after the first much-publicized boatload of Haitians arrived, he met with Msgr. Bryan O. Walsh of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami for help. Walsh was instrumental in Operation Peter Pan and helped thousands of Cuban kids come to Miami. Though his efforts to help Haitian refugees are not as widely known, he and the Catholic Church were critical to the evolution of Miami’s Haitian political community.
Regarded as the father of Little Haiti, Viter Juste is credited with inspiring the neighborhood’s name after writing a letter to The Miami Herald arguing for the creation of a “Little Port-Au-Prince.” Editors decided to title the article “Little Haiti,” and the name stuck.
“My father was interested in developing a parallel and equal treatment of migrants, and he used the Cuban experience to rally the Haitian community,” said his son Carl Juste, a Pulitzer Prize–winning staff photographer for The Miami Herald. His efforts would take time to gain traction, however. Many Haitians came from a poor, rural background and, at the time, most were not involved in politics, in contrast to Cuban migrants, who quickly built a strong, well-connected network of lobbyists, politicians, and businesses that remains active to this day.
Yet Juste managed to organize Haitians in Miami both politically and socially. He opened a store called Les Cousins specializing in books and records, moving it from Downtown to Little Haiti in 1978. He helped launch the first Haitian newspaper, and was cofounder of the Haitian American Community Association of Dade. He helped Haitians learn English, get jobs, and apply for asylum. As his son Carl recalled, Viter created a community-wide political infrastructure run partly out of their home.
The Haitian community needed this, as Miami was wracked with tension throughout the 70s and 80s. “Haitians were constantly the other,” recalled Carl, who grew up during this time and witnessed the difficulty Haitians had integrating, even amongst fellow migrants and the African American community. “He wanted to build consensus,” Carl said of his father. “He was able to go across different ethnic groups.”
But consensus was hard to come by, considering that the Haitian community was spread across historic Lemon City, Little River, and as far north as North Miami Beach. As Carl recalled, “Eighty-first St. was the frontier for Little Haiti. Back then, El Portal and Miami Shores — Haitians didn’t like to drive or bus through there. They were so fearful of law enforcement, either because they were undocumented, or because law enforcement in Haiti was designed to find and kill.”
These fears of being found out and deported, a lack of support from other communities, and the social pressures all made it difficult for Haitians to become involved in local politics. But Viter Juste and other community leaders refused to give up and were able to develop momentum.
Haitians began integrating into the communities they settled. Local institutions that had been predominantly African American or Hispanic took on a new Haitian identity, including Edison Middle and Edison High School. The parish of the Cathedral of St. Mary, which opened in 1929 as the Little River Mission Club, shifted with the influx of Haitians in 1970s and 80s, and remains one of the few churches to offer three separate Sunday Masses — in English, Spanish, and Kreyòl.
New institutions were being founded as well, bolstering the community with independent spaces to call their own. In 1978, Carmelau Monestime founded the first Kreyòl radio station, a cultural hallmark of Haiti and an integral tool for connecting Haitians in Miami. As Monestime recalled in The Miami Herald, “Several of the Haitians who came in the early 80s ended up at the Krome Ave. detention center with no way to communicate with their relatives in Miami or in their homeland. … The community needed to stand up and organize demonstrations to get them released.”
In 1980, the height of Haitian arrivals, another major institution was founded — the Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church. In 1981, according to the history of their mission, “A wood and iron crucifix was erected … in memory of Haitians who have drowned while attempting to sail to the United States.”
Consolidation and Cultural Expression
As the tumult of the 1980s social upheavals died down, and with the fall of Duvalier in 1986, greater cultural consolidation became a hallmark the Little Haiti community. The year that Duvalier was overthrown by a popular uprising in Haiti, Libreri Mapou opened in Little Haiti, offering Haitian books and literature.
Though social and economic struggles persisted, the 90s saw the development of Haitian-owned businesses and a burst of new cultural pride and vitality. Botanicas, restaurants, and independent entrepreneurs brought a new Haitian style to the neighborhood. In 1990, the Little Haiti marketplace opened, modeled on the Gingerbread architecture of Port-Au-Prince. The first Chef Creole opened in 1992. And the iconic Serge Toussaint started painting murals for businesses in the 90s, using a unique vernacular of color and utility. The neighborhood developed its now iconic blend of Haitian, Caribbean, and Miamian aesthetics.
Increasingly, more attention was paid by outside Miamians and tourists. Little Haiti was redefined as a cultural asset — by both Haitians and non-Haitians alike.
In 2003, David C. Brown started doing tours of Little Haiti. The author of perhaps the only book on the history of the area, The Story of Little Haiti: Featuring Its Pioneers, Brown works with the community’s business owners and develops conversations between them and tour participants.
The Little Haiti Cultural Center opened in 2009. Renamed the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, it brought a new cultural dimension to the area, with exhibition and studio spaces, a theater, and a courtyard. Big Night in Little Haiti, a concert series and street festival, was started in 2011. Recently, a spate of emerging artists and galleries has led to a new artistic boom, with many of the new residents seeking to integrate with the neighborhood instead of obliterating Little Haiti’s cultural identity. The rise of these cultural venues and events has led to the recent focus on Little Haiti as an arts destination, however, has left some long-time residents questioning the effects that this model of community development might have.
Little Haiti, today and tomorrow
To know Little Haiti, one must know Haiti. The recent histories of both remain intertwined. To this day, struggles with development and corruption persist in Haiti, and though there has been a recent drop in poverty, it remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
The devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti resulted in immigration policy changes, culminating in 2014 when the Obama administration announced an expedited family reunification program that would let thousands of Haitians get their green cards two years faster. That same year, Jean Monestime became the first Haitian American chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
However, there remains the fact that a majority of Little Haiti residents cannot afford to own property in Little Haiti, with only 26% of homes owner occupied. And as the neighborhood becomes part of Miami’s status as an artistic cultural mecca, and more artists and galleries move into the neighborhood, there is concern that an even steeper rise in property values could push more Haitians out.
This local reality is set against the international backdrop of migration, with Haitians still fleeing Haiti by boat and dying at sea. Heartrending stories of those who didn’t make it throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and as recently as 2014 illustrate the lengths to which Haitians are willing to go for the promise of a better life. But once they came to Miami, they set about creating a community to make sure that better life was possible.