Haitians ate cats. HBO stood for Haitian Body Odor.
Those were some of the taunts that haunted Fabrice Laguerre as he walked the hallways of North Miami Senior High as a teenager.
Today, Laguerre walks the halls of North Miami as assistant principal, surrounded by mostly Haitian and Haitian-American students who matter-of-factly greet each other in Creole, tie Haitian flags to their backpacks–and welcome newcomers who fled the January earthquake.
‘NO ONE REALLY KNEW’
“They picked at the way we smelled, the way we looked, the way we talked, everything,” said Laguerre, 37, who graduated from North Miami in 1990. “No one really knew about our culture or who we were.”
That has changed. Of North Miami’s 2,750 students, 80 percent consider themselves Haitian or of Haitian descent.
After school, Laguerre hears students singing along to iPod playlists that include popular Haitian artists like Daan Junior and Wyclef Jean. A few weeks ago, students performed Haitian-inspired dances and recited monologues depicting heroes like Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the founding fathers of Haiti.
“Haitians were picked on all the time. Now they are a majority in some of the schools; they have become part of the establishment over time,” said Monsignor Jean Pierre, who oversees St. James Catholic School in North Miami, where more than 30 earthquake survivors enrolled.
NO BULLYING REPORTED
Miami-Dade and Broward school officials say they have had no reports of earthquake survivors being bullied or harassed. They say the hiring of Creole-speaking instructors over the years has helped newly arrived Haitians make smoother transitions into their classrooms.
Rose Dorval’s reception was starkly different when she arrived from Haiti at the same age.
She had dreamed of America as a magical country filled with joyful kids. Instead she loathed this new place where classmates at Horace Mann Middle School mocked her uncool outfits: the flowery, poofy church dresses with taffeta underskirts her mother made her wear to school.
She learned to declare in broken English: “I’m not no Haitian.”
It was not unusual for Haitian students to deny their heritage, said Deland Innocent, supervisor of the bilingual Creole program for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
“The students didn’t have many local Haitian role models to look up to. This was before Wyclef and Haitian mayors,” he said. “They tried to hide.”
A quarter century later, the Haitian community’s impact on South Florida is evident in pastel-hued storefronts, elected officials with Haitian surnames and celebrations like the Compas Festival that marks Haitian Heritage Month each May.
But although newly arrived Haitians may find solidarity in numbers, they still carry the burden of being strangers in a new land.
SITUATION NOT ‘ROSY’
Even within the Haitian diaspora, there can be friction between newcomers and those who have been here longer.
North Miami High senior Maxi Samuel, who arrived one month after the earthquake, said some classmates of Haitian descent teased him for being “the boy from Haiti.”