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Little Haiti unfiltered

Little Haiti has me mesmerized. When I was younger, I would sneak on the bus and head up to Little Haiti, where my grandmother lived, to listen to the music, taste the flavors, absorb the colors, and understand the rhythm of my nation.

When I could hear the drums beating, I would grab my camera and head to the streets to capture the beauty of the concrete jungle paradise called Little Haiti.

Haitian music is probably what attracts me most to the culture. Ever since I was young, my parents had Haitian music playing in the house. Ska Sha, Scoprio, DP Express, just to name a few classic bands.

At night in bed, I could hear the constant rolling of Haitian drum rhythms in my head. At the time, I was living with my aunt and cousin in Kendall. They feared Little Haiti. But I couldn’t keep myself away.

Here in Little Haiti, there are two main bands, Rara Lakay and Kriz Rara. Every Friday night, Rara Lakay takes over the streets, and Saturday is Kriz’s turn. Each band has its loyal supporters or “fanatiks.” I’ve been following Rara Lakay ever since I was in high school and was able to wander Miami alone. Rara music is infectious and these guys know how to play.

Part Vodou, part street parade, rara is a jovial demonstration of culture in the Haitian community. A base drum, a hand and snare drum, kone, bamboo, graj, and various bells and gongs all make up this fast paced band. Rara bands in Haiti typically go out during the Easter season. They also are in full force during Carnival.

The drum is the heartbeat of Little Haiti.

One of Haiti’s master drummers lives right here in Little Haiti. Catelus Laguerre goes by Tonton and is the uncle of the late Haitian drumming legend Frisner Augustin. Tonton has also drummed with the great Ti Roro of Haiti.

When Steve Deats, a New Yorker who studied under Augustin, found himself in Little Haiti, he made sure to arrange a meeting with Tonton. It had been 6 years since they saw each other and the first thing we all did was grab drums, head to the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, and drum our hearts out.

Just next to the cultural center is the Caribbean Marketplace, or Mache Ayisyen, the Haitian Market. It is commonly referred to as the poto mitan, or center post, in Haitian culture in Miami. This typical Haitian-style building is home to many different dance and art studios, classrooms, and a large outdoor stage area where musical events such as ZakaFest and Big Night in Little Haiti take place. I know I am in Little Haiti when I see this building.

But it’s not just Haitian music that can be heard throughout Little Haiti. As one of the oldest bars in Miami, Churchill’s Pub is a cornerstone in this neighborhood. I love when I’m driving down N.E. 2nd Ave., leaving my style of rara and seeing a polar opposite crowd enjoying their own punk rock rara. No matter where you’re from, it’s just about music, drinks, and great company.

While you’ll hear rara bands playing on the weekends, come Sunday morning, the church bells will be ringing. At the Sunday Haitian mass, you are guaranteed to see a church mother avec yon gwo chapo, or with a big hat.

One of my favorite places in Little Haiti is the Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church parking lot. The lot is adorned with mature live oaks draped with wispy clumps of Spanish moss blowing in the wind. It seems more of a park than a parking lot. I love it. It makes me appreciate nature in an urban setting.

Stopping for a snack at the “pate cafe,” as we called it, at the Norte Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church was one of my favorite things to do after mass. Second only to the sounds of Little Haiti, the tastes of Little Haiti drew me in and kept me coming back for more. 

Haitian pate are patisseries filled with chicken, beef, or fish, best served with either Cola Champagne or the ever famous watermelon soda. This watermelon soda has probably replaced half of my blood. My grandmother living here would give me and my brothers a can every time we came and visited. One for breakfast, one for doing dishes, one for lunch, one for snack, and one more for dinner. When I see the cans, so many memories from my youth resurface — and I can’t help but take a sip. There is so much sugar in them, I can’t even finish one whole can today. Yet the memories are still there.

Chef Creole is a staple in Little Haiti. My favorite plate at Chef Creole is the Creole Shrimp with fried plantains and rice and beans. Cook Eddy from Chef Creole is a dear family friend. He has a great smile and his positive energy flows into his dishes.

From the food, to the music, to the murals on the walls, living life in color is what Little Haiti embodies. Color is everywhere in the streets and shops. In the churches, the beautiful stained glass windows, the dresses of the church ladies… They all shout with color.

The fruit stands with the ripest of fruits resemble a freshly opened crayon box on the first day of school. Papayas, bananas, and some leafy greens grow at the Little Haiti Community Garden on NE 2nd Ave. The Little Haiti Community Garden is tended by the people, for the people. Managed on an entirely volunteer basis, this community garden opens the first and last Thursday of every month for regular cleanups and fruit and vegetable sales.

From longstanding residents, to newcomers, many are working hard to keep Little Haiti and their mother country, Haiti, bright green. Born in Haiti, Eddie Rawson started Haiti Friends, an organization that expands awareness of Haitian culture through art while improving environmental conditions in Haiti. Haiti Friends has a push to plant trees in heavily deforested areas in Haiti, and this past summer they planted their 2 millionth tree. They are hosting a program called Pearl at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex every second Saturday to raise money for the effort.

The lush green gardens compliment the colorful murals on the sides of buildings. Murals depict Haitian heroes and native Haitian scenes, pouring color onto the streets. Even during the darkest nights, the people of Little Haiti find a way to make color explode in their fruit stands and gardens, rara bands and Vodou ceremonies. As an artist, this especially attracts me to this beautiful, vibrant neighborhood.

A local mural depicts the Haitian Vodou spirit Ezili Dantor. She is considered the mother of Haiti. It was she that slave revolt leader and Vodou priest Dutty Boukman sacrificed a pig to at the Ceremony of Bwa Kayiman, a secret ceremony at the start of the Haitian Revolution. She is motherly yet very temperamental. She watches out for her children and will protect them by any means necessary.

And off of the walls, manbos, or Vodou priestesses, dance and wave their colorful dresses while a hougan, a Vodou priest, sings and excites the crowd at a ceremony. A manbo also salutes the ancestors with an offering of herbal leaves, yam, and fried fish.

In a place where the colors are so bright, it’s no surprise that Little Haiti has seen a recent rise in art galleries. The Laundromat Art Space on NE 2nd and 59th opened about a year ago and is home to a collection of artists. During the concert series Big Night In Little Haiti, every third Friday, the Laundromat usually opens its doors to the public and has an exposition, free to the public. One of my favorite artists to call the Laundromat home is Ronald Sanchez.

The people of Little Haiti boast with pride when it comes to their neighborhood. In these changing times, this pride is becoming more and more apparent with iconic artists like Serge Toussaint painting a “stand up” mural. One the muralist’s newest works depicts the Haitian Revolution Freedom Fighters such as Dutty Boukman, Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Pétion, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and a few others.

For me, these paintings serve as a reminder to Haitians. We are not a people to back down or be sold off. Businesses can come in, but this area should never lose its true identity. The history on these streets can never be washed away. Little Haiti will always be here and I feel more and more inhabitants recognizing this as well.

Jean Mapou owns Libreri Mapou, an important cultural hub in Little Haiti. Every visit to Little Haiti has to begin at the bookstore to see what he has new in stock. Books in Creole, French, and English can all be purchased here, as well as little Haitian treats.

The popular Fresh Kut Barber Shop is also a source of information, albeit of a different sort — life, health, relationships, and gossip. These barbers are always proud to show off their new shop on N.E. 2nd Ave, promising, “We are not moving out of this area.”

Little Haiti is where these businesses started, and their roots are deep in the soil. It’s where aromas of pates dance through homes and alleyways. Where bright colors adorn the walls, and green trees thrive.

When the rara bands fill the streets, passionate drummers play the rhythm of Little Haiti’s heartbeat. A beat that will always reverberate through the neighborhood, through every business, every mural, every home — in the past, the present, and the unknown future to come.

By Alain Pierre-Louis
Self-taught photographer Alain Pierre-Louis believes that to understand who you are, you must understand where you came from.

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