My parents are Haitian. My dad was born and raised in Cap-Haitien. My mother was born in Cuba, but her father was Haitian. I believe that after her mother passed, he remarried and moved to Haiti with my mom. My parents later met in the Bahamas, had my brother and then moved to Florida and had my sister and me. All that to say that I am Haitian-American.
Growing up in southern Florida, until the age of seven, it was easy to be Haitian. I was surrounded by the people, the language, the music and thankfully, the food. I often forgot that I even lived in America with the tropical weather and being in “Little Haiti.” It wasn’t until my parents moved us to Upstate NY (climate shock!) that I realized that we were “different.”
Being Haitian back in the ’80s was not the easiest, to put it mildly. Haitians were the ones with the “funny” accents and the crazy, mismatched outfits. The kids in my new school made sure they reminded me of just how “wack” being Haitian was daily. Apparently, if I was going to be Caribbean, being Jamaican was much cooler since they had a flag with nice colors, reggae music, Bob Marley, dancehall and delicious jerk chicken. Speaking of food, as much as I loved my mother’s cooking, I yearned for a regular school lunch like a sandwich and chips, not one that consisted of diri ak sos pwa (rice & bean sauce). I just wanted to stop having to explain what I was eating.
The teasing at school was unbearable at times. Once, after my brother Harmel got into yet another fight at school, my dad came to tell the bullies to leave us alone. Yet, his heavy accent only added fuel to the fire. The degenerates mocked him and taunted us even more after he left. I was mortified. I begged to go back to Florida, to stop being Haitian, or to at least change schools.
Luckily, one of those was possible. We ended up moving to a better part of town and I was enrolled in a new school. Although we were still one of the only Haitian families at #23 School, it was a great experience. The school was more diverse and the kids had home training. I became close friends with a Greek girl after we bonded over the “weird” lunches she brought too. Middle school was even better. We often had cultural awareness days and had to share information, bring food or music from our various heritages. I started to brag about being Haitian. I even taught all my friends the popular Kreyol curse words and they taught me theirs. Our parents would be so proud.
Once the Fugees came out in the mid-’90s, it was totally cool to be Haitian. I was liberated. I was a part of the Haitian American Students Association (HASA) in undergrad and professed my love for “Ayiti Cherie” to anyone with ears. So when I moved to NYC, I thought I was armed with everything I needed to be accepted as a bonafide Haitian. Yet, I kept being called a “Yankee” because I wasn’t actually born in Haiti. My Kreyol accent was horrible and I spoke more of a broken Krenglish. I could understand the language fluently, but had trouble finding the words to respond.
So while trying to make it in NYC was my main focus, I also started a separate journey of becoming more Haitian. Years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a dance class with a legend in folk dance, named Peniel Guerrier. That led to joining his dance troupe, Kriye Bode, and traveling to Haiti with him and a group of dancers. I had been when I was ten years old, but that was my first trip as an adult. I loved it. I was back in my father’s homeland and even reconnected with some of my cousins while I was there. I went again this past April and God willing, will return next Summer and in years to come.
My Kreyol (Creole) is much better these days. I can hold my own in a lengthy conversation. Sometimes, I get a little intimidated speaking to an older, native Haitian though. I still need to learn to read and write it fluently, but my accent is a lot more believable. I cook more Haitian food and listen to more Compas (Kompa) and Zouk music. I also have a thing for Haitian men (another post in itself).
In life we often try to shy away from the things that make us different. But we can have much fuller lives when we choose to embrace them and say “Here I am world, take it or leave it.” I definitely had to learn to do the latter. I mean, my name is Fabiola after all. So today when you ask me “Sak Pase?”, I smile and say “Map boule.”