Haiti and New Orleans: Is The Feeling Mutual?

Haiti & New Orleans: Is The Feeling Mutual?

“The connection in New Orleans is all around you, right? It’s in the music, it’s in the food. It’s in the culture with the Carnival. When people get married, when they are put to rest, and die. So, when New Orleans is celebrating its tricentennial, I think it’s only natural that Haiti play its proper role in that celebration. There’s no denying it—we’re kin. You can try to deny it, but you know, history will prove you otherwise.”

This whole series is leading up to the tricentennial of New Orleans—300 years—and there’s definitely no shortage of material. But throughout the past two seasons of TriPod, one place kept coming up: Haiti—and the Haitian Revolution, which remains the only successful slave rebellion in the Americas. That Revolution lasted from 1791 until 1804 and led to a mass migration from Haiti to New Orleans that shaped the city’s culture so intensely, a lot of people here in New Orleans still talk about that Haitian influence—a lot. Haiti remains an important part of the story New Orleans tells about itself. But on the flip side, is New Orleans part of the Haiti story? All of this made me wonder, hey Haiti, is the feeling mutual?

Barbara Trevigne is dressed in all white, from head wrap to sandals. Her immaculate outfit does not stop her from lying face down on the ground of the St. Jude shrine at the edge of the French Quarter. Surrounding candles bathe her in light, as she whispers her prayers into the floor.

As a ritual, Barbara always wears all white when she prays, and she loves to pray here.

“Because of the candles, the saints up there, it feels right.”

She has Haitian roots, and she wanted to meet at this church because it’s one of the spots in New Orleans where Barbara feels most connected to Haiti. She explains her family’s migration from Haiti to New Orleans.

“Mine escaped from Saint-Marc, and some went to Jamaica, and some went to Cuba. And then they came to New Orleans.”

Barbara says having this connection to Haiti helps her know who she is, “who I am and what I do,” she says.

There are a lot of people like Barbara in New Orleans, whose ancestors come from Haiti. But not everyone’s as into genealogical research as Barbara. So, do other people in New Orleans know about this historical connection? Barbara says, yes.

Barbara Trevigne at the St Jude Shrine in New Orleans CREDIT LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON / WWNO

“A lot has been written about it. I have written about it. People do talk about it. So we keep perpetuating it and saying it over and over again to get the word out that you are more Haitian here than anything because of the influx of Haitians that gave New Orleans its flavor and its culture. We’re more Haitian than anything.”

By we, Barbara means native New Orleanians. And then, as if it were a setup, Barbara turns to a woman sitting a few pews behind her and asks, “you have ancestors from Haiti?”

The woman replies that she does not but has friends who do. “Do you know the Burns? Or the Dumas?” “Yeah,” says Barbara. “Those families come from Haiti,” the woman responds. Barbara smiles and says, “ha! Same tribe, same tribe.”

Barbara’s relatives leaving Haiti and making their way to New Orleans is part of a larger migration of people fleeing Haiti during its revolution at the turn of the 19th century. The Haitian Revolution is the only successful rebellion by enslaved people in the Americas. And when it ended, and Haiti became independent, thousands of white, free black, and enslaved people fled or were forced from the island. Most went to New Orleans and Cuba. Then, a few years later, those same Haitian refugees that went to Cuba were expelled from Cuba, so they also came to New Orleans. This was 1809, when 10,000 Haitians arrived and doubled the population of the city. This is partly why so many New Orleans families today are people of Haitian descent, and why a creole culture, born from African and European ancestry, define both places and bind them together.

There are these similarities in heritage and homelands, and there’s also the architecture, religion, music, dance, food, Carnival, and vulnerability to natural disaster. For all these reasons, Barbara believes Haiti is part of her city’s identity, and says other New Orleanians do, too.  I’m not a native New Orleanian, but a lot of locals associate this connection with who they are as people. Even all these generations later. There’s this saying that New Orleans is the northernmost point of the Caribbean that basically comes from the city’s relationship with Haiti and is one reason that New Orleans fancies itself part of the Caribbean and Haiti, in particular, as something of a sister city. But is New Orleans just fancying itself? Do Haitians think of New Orleans this way? Do they think of New Orleans at all? These two places were tied at the hip 200 years ago, but where does their relationship stand today?

This story is told in three parts: the history of the original connection between these two places, what happened over time, and what the future can hold.

PART I: The One-Way Trip

Andre Paultre belts his brains out behind the wheel of his forest green 4runner as it shakily bumps down a dirt road. Andre’s what’s called a fixer; he works with reporters when they travel to Haiti. We’re driving to a city called Jacmel, about three hours south of Port-Au-Prince.

Andre Paultre

Jacmel is right on the coast and feels like a beach town, surrounded by lush, green mountains. It gets more tourists than Port-Au-Prince these days, not only because there are beautiful beaches, but because Jacmel is known for its Carnival celebration. The city is famous for its paper maché Carnival masks that people collect year round and, no matter when you visit, you’ll find artists painting them as you walk through the streets.

Hotel Florita in Jacmel, Haiti

We arrive at our first stop and meet our tour guide for the day, Jean-Elie Gilles. He’s an opera singer, a professor, and the author of many books about Jacmel. He leads us towards the Florita Hotel, where he orders a round of drinks.

“The best rum sour is here in Jacmel, in the Florita Hotel,” Jean-Elie says. It’s the best rum sour in Haiti, because this guy has a secret of doing something—I don’t know what! But it is good.”

That rum sour wasn’t the only reason Jean Elie brought us to the Florita Hotel. First of all, it’s beautiful—the exterior is painted a cream-colored brick, the doors sky blue. Slim columns support an iron-lace balcony off the second floor that has huge ferns with water dripping through the bottom of their planters down to the curb. Everything about it looks exactly like what you would find in the French Quarter.

It’s not just the Florita Hotel. Most of Jacmel is built in the same colonial style seen in the French Quarter, the Treme, the Marigny, and all over New Orleans: two story buildings with wrought iron railings stuffed with hanging ferns, bright colored shotgun houses, creole cottages. It was like a spitting image. To see the connection through this architecture was almost dizzying.

“This is what remains from that connection with Jacmel and New Orleans and Louisiana,” says Andre, which makes it seem like something happened to this connection; something’s changed. But when did this connection start in the first place? Where does this shared history begin?

Let’s start with the Haitian Revolution, says Henry Robert-Jolibois, an architect and historian who lives in Pétion-Ville, a wealthy suburb about 20 minutes—or two hours—south of Port-Au-Prince, depending on the traffic. Most people who can afford it choose to live in Pétion-Ville over Port-Au-Prince. Unlike most towns in Haiti, Pétion-Ville’s got sushi restaurants, yoga studios, iced coffee, and its own private trash pickup service.

A classic lunch plate at Coquille restaurant in Petion-Ville, Haiti

It’s a stark contrast from Port-Au-Prince, where poorer residents often get rid of their trash by burning it on the side of the road. This type of disparity is not new to the island.

“Well, everybody wanted their freedom,” says Henry. Before Haiti was Haiti, it was a French colony called St. Domingue. Sugar and coffee ruled, and made the colony wealthy, on the backs of thousands of enslaved Africans. By the 1760s, St. Domingue was the most profitable colony in the Americas. This prosperity came at the expense of brutal, often fatal labor in the fields. Large numbers of enslaved people fled the plantations for the mountains, where they established maroon colonies—and started planning a revolution.

“The revolution started with the French Revolution,” Henry says. When the French Revolution began in 1789, there was lots of division, to put it mildly. Some whites in St. Domingue opposed the Revolution in France, while others supported it in hopes of gaining the colony’s independence. The free people of color, or gens de couleur, pressed for the equal rights that the French Revolution seemed to promise. Then there were the enslaved and maroon populations—which, by the way, outnumbered whites on the island 10 to one—they saw this political crisis as an opportunity to strike for their freedom, which led to The Boukman Eksperyans, what’s widely considered the start of the Haitian Revolution. This happened in 1791, when a vodou priest named Dutty Boukman led a religious ceremony to kick off the first successful slave rebellion in the northern part of the colony.

Incendie du Cap (Burning of Cape Francais). Revolte générale des Négres. Massacre des Blancs (General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites), circa 1815

“The revolutionaries, their idea was simple: at the end of it all, we will be better able to negotiate agreements and freedom for all,” says Henry. “When finally we stopped fighting, the Haitians had won, and they had created one nation.”

It was 1804, 13 years after the Boukman Eksperyans. The enslaved population liberated itself, and their victory remains the largest and most successful slave uprising in the Americas. This uprising shed the colonial name St. Domingue, and the new black nation was called Haiti. The name Haiti comes from the indigenous language of the Taíno people who were native to the island. It means land of high mountains. So they ditch the French name, and all the French are like, we should probably go.

“They went to Louisiana, because it was another colony of France,” says Henry. “It was part of the French network.”

Now, people had been fleeing Haiti over the course of this 13-year revolution to go live in other French colonies. Some went to Caribbean islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, a lot went to Cuba, and many went to Louisiana. And it wasn’t just white people who fled—a lot of enslaved and free people of color went with white Haitians to New Orleans, either with their master or to escape the violence and turmoil that was happening on the island. When the revolution finally ends, Napoleon realizes he’s spread too thin. He decides to forget about Haiti, and double down on Europe. This led to the Louisiana Purchase.

When you put the last battle of the Haitian Revolution and the signing of the Louisiana Purchase on a timeline, they happened just months apart in 1803. Now fast forward to 1809. Spain’s at war with France—and all that bad blood seeps into the Caribbean. Cuba is a Spanish colony, but it’s full of French emigres who left Haiti during the revolution. So during this war, Spain up and kicks out all the French, which means that all the people who had fled to Cuba from Haiti need to leave again. Where do they know a guy? Louisiana.
Jean Marie Theodat is a geographer who lives in a town also called Theodat. “A part of our society just went to reproduce itself there, like a chemical process. A lot of slaves, a lot of masters escaped from St. Domingue, went to Louisiana, and created a Creole culture.”

Jean Marie Theodat in his backyard in Theodat, Haiti

Almost overnight, 10,000 people of Haitian descent, one-third white, one-third enslaved, and one-third free people of color arrived at the port of New Orleans, and straight up doubled the size of the city. And it shows, Jean Marie says. “I mean, when I listen to your music and sometimes taste your cooking—the dish, I think, this is ours!”

This is how Jean Marie sees it: the St. Domingue colony didn’t disappear; parts of it just picked up and started over again somewhere else, which had a big impact on both economies. The Revolution devastated Haiti’s economy, leaving the new nation with almost nothing but burnt sugarcane fields. But when all these refugees, many of them planters, came to Louisiana, they started new plantations along the Mississippi river. The sugar industry exploded and brought a lot of wealth to Louisiana—and New Orleans. This influx of Haitian refugees also came at an oddly convenient time to reshape the city. Even though New Orleans had been around for almost a century when they arrived, in a lot of ways the city was also a blank slate at that moment. The refugees pulled up to this little frontier town that was recovering from two massive fires that almost entirely wiped out New Orleans in the late 1700s. The first fire happened in 1788 and destroyed roughly 80 percent of the city. And then six years later another fire wiped out another 212 buildings.

New Orleans: Map of 1788 fire, published in 1886

New Orleans was rebuilding itself and, at the same time, had just become an American city. It was a prime time for all of these Haitians to come and develop this old and new town. This is the root of the connection between Haiti and New Orleans: These major migrations transformed the future of the city during such a pivotal time, influencing its culture in every aspect—food, music, art, dance, language—but with all that was brought to New Orleans, was there a reciprocal influence happening back in the new country of Haiti?

Again, Jean Marie Theodat. “I mean, I personally, as a geographer, I know about it. I’ve heard, and I’ve read about it. But still I think that the average Haitian don’t know about that.”

For him, it’s simple. “I look to Louisiana—it’s like another island, far away. It was a one-way trip.”

PART II: Two Islands

My field producer Wynne Muscatine Graham and I are walking around one of the main public squares in Port-Au-Prince called the Champs de Mars. It’s a series of public parks that are separated by large boulevards congested with cars, motorbikes, and colorfully painted public transportation buses called Tap Taps. It’s late afternoon, and street vendors push carts offering freshly chopped coconut, candy, beer, ice cream. Others ring bells as they call out the service they’re offering: a shoe shine or a small bag of drinking water. People walk through the park and pass us in business attire, on their way home from work. Others sprawl out under a shady tree and watch a pickup game of soccer on an open patch of dirt.

We wonder how many of these people know about the connection between New Orleans and Haiti? How many people walking past us in the heart of Port-Au-Prince have ever heard of New Orleans, period? We ask people as they pass by, if they’ve heard of New Orleans. And we did this in a few different cities in Haiti: Port-Au-Prince and Jacmel in the south, up north in cities like Gonaïves, Cap-Haïtien, and villages in between. Everywhere we went we got mostly the same response: No.

Wynne Muscatine Graham interviews people in Champ de Mars, a public park in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The average person on the street had never heard of New Orleans, with a few exceptions. Some high school students had heard of Hurricane Katrina, through hearing it on the news. Others knew that New Orleans celebrates Carnival, just like they do in Haiti. And then there’s someone who knows New Orleans because he’s an NBA fan, “because there’s a good basketball team from there,” he says. Maybe he’s talking about The Pelicans?

Wynne asks him if he knows any people who live in Louisiana. “Well, I’ve heard Haitians live there, but me personally, I don’t have family living in Louisiana. My family lives in Florida or New York City, if they live in the United States.”

Florida and New York. That’s where you’ll find much of the Haitian diaspora today, the man tells us. So, if thousands of Haitians moved to New Orleans 200 years ago, why’d they stop coming? What happened?

“Louisiana has largely forgotten Haiti, and Haiti has largely forgotten Louisiana exists,” says historian George Michel. “Louisiana has sunk into oblivion.” George Michel is knowledgeable and dramatic. He started to list links that once existed between New Orleans and Haiti—links that are now gone.

“When I was a boy, you had a thrice a week direct flight by Delta Airlines from Port-Au-Prince to New Orleans. No more. So that was a link,” he says. This direct flight he mentions was active in the mid-20th Century. He adds that there used to be a Haitian consulate in New Orleans. That’s also gone. George Michel continues. “We used to have shipping lines between New Orleans and the Haitian ports. This is long gone, as New Orleans dropped as an important port in the United States.”

New Orleans still has an active port. But it’s not what it used to be. The port employs many fewer people. Haitians looking for a better life in the United States can find more prospects in other cities, such as Miami, the city with the highest Haitian population (by a lot), followed by New York, and then Boston. There is still an active Haitian community here, but it’s also not what it used to be. New Orleans doesn’t even crack the top 10 for Haitian populations in the United States.

So to explain why Haitians stopped migrating to New Orleans, we arrive at factor #1: Jobs.

Vladimir Laborde, is a Haitian businessman who lives and works in Port-Au-Prince. “New Orleans is not the most prosperous place.” He says when Haitians think of the United States, “you don’t think of New Orleans. And then the proximity, as far as logistics, people go to Miami. Miami is less than an hour in the air.”

Factor #2: Geography. Michèle Pierre Louis is a former prime minister of Haiti who now teaches the history of the Caribbean at a University in Port-Au-Prince. “Getting into the Gulf was too difficult, whereas the tides take you to Miami,” he says. Plus, Miami’s population exploded in the 20th Century. In 1910, Miami was brand spanking new. Only 5,000 people lived there. Ten years later, there were 30,000. And people just kept on coming. As Miami grew, so did the economy. So why go to New Orleans, when you can get to a faster growing city, even faster?

Michèle says Haitians went to cities in the United States, even though they might have felt more at home in a city like New Orleans. “But I don’t think it was in their mindset. They didn’t travel with an idea that that particular state had a connection to Haiti.”

Why not?

“History is not well taught, at all, in Haiti,” he says. Factor #3 to explain why Haitians stopped coming to New Orleans: Education.

“I’m telling you, I’m teaching at the University and I can see the ignorance of our students with so little knowledge of our own history, which is so incredible,” Michèle says. “The dictatorship killed a lot of things here. There was a big darkness, in a way.”

The Duvalier dictatorship started when Haiti elected Francois Duvalier, aka Papa Doc, on a populist platform in 1957. He ruled the country with his own militia called the Tonton Macout. When he died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude, aka Baby Doc, took over.

Haitian president François Duvalier (Papa Doc) meets the Israeli non-resident ambassador, Dr. Yoel Bar-Romi, at Duvalier’s coronation as president for life. 1963.

“Duvalier changed the curriculum of teaching history at the primary and secondary level. Our heroes were the most important,” he says. Michèle’s point here is that Haitians are mostly unaware of the connection that they have to New Orleans, because that’s just one of many gaps in their history curriculum. But it goes both ways—there’s a parallel gap going on here in the United States. Did you learn about the Haitian Revolution in high school?

There’s a big silence on this end.

Dennis Kelly has been doing business with Haiti for the past 30 years and splits his time between New Orleans and Port-Au-Prince. “Many Haitians, or people of Haitian heritage who live here, have never been to Haiti.”

New Orleanians talk about Haiti. But they don’t actually go to Haiti. Factor #4: Not going to Haiti. Which explains why these two islands are no longer close. And they’re being referred to as two islands, but it’s important to remember that one is a small country, one of the poorest in the world, and the other a small city, that’s part of the wealthiest country in the world.

So these two islands are no longer close. Vladimir Laborde, the Haitian businessman you heard from earlier (who actually moved to New Orleans from Haiti with his family when he was a kid and went to high school here), has a phrase for this kind of unconsummated love: affinity diaspora. New Orleanians, he says, “don’t know how they’re related to Haitians. They really can’t put their finger on it. They just feel a connection. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable, because they haven’t been here yet, and they’re talking about something they don’t know.”

Loyola University professor Angel Parham agrees. She wrote a book called American Routes, that traces the experience of Haitian descendants in Louisiana. She interviewed a lot of folks in New Orleans for the book. And how many of those people had actually visited Haiti?

Angel says, “I don’t think any of them have visited Haiti. I do not recall anyone making a real trip to Haiti and really being there for any length of time. No.”

Remember Barbara Trevigne, the woman in the beginning, wearing all white and praying at the St. Jude Shrine? We met at that shrine because it’s a place in New Orleans that reminds Barbara of Haiti. But Barbara has yet to visit Haiti. She wants to, but hasn’t made Haiti happen—yet.

A view of Borgne, Haiti, a village in the northern part of the island

“People may be interested in talking about it,” Angel suggests, “but how interested are they in actually traveling to Haiti? Are they going to feel that it’s a place that they will be safe? Haiti does not have this image like much of the Caribbean as a tourist destination that everyone wants to go to.” A lot of the people Angel interviewed feel this nostalgic affinity towards the Haiti they have in their minds, but it’s almost like they want to keep it that way.

“It’s one thing to kind of claim this Caribbean heritage and memory, but then not to be supportive of it, I think is problematic,” she says.

Some of this could be financial. As Vlad Laborde said, New Orleans is not the most prosperous place. There may be plenty of folks who would love to travel to Haiti but simply can’t afford it. That’s real. But there are other reasons why New Orleanians, and others, don’t visit.

“We have bad press,” says Vladimir Laborde. “The perception is this is a no man’s land. People think of Haiti and they say, ‘dude, I need security you know? My insurance won’t let me go down there.’” And this negative image of Haiti has been broadcast to the world since day one.

“We paid a dear price for that revolution,” said Gigi Dupuis, a Haitian woman now living in New Orleans. It all goes back to the Haitian Revolution. It’s like, what brought New Orleans and Haiti together is the exact same thing that was used to keep them apart, “for doing away with the slave system. And we were isolated because of that,” Gigi says. Architect Henry Robert-Jolibois agrees, “We were punished many times, and many times over, for daring to free ourselves. And we have been paying for it a long time.”

Ron Bluntschli is an American who lives with his wife, Carla, in the mountains outside Port-Au-Prince. They run an organization called NASONJ, which in Creole means We Will Remember.

“They could not accept that a group of black people could win a battle against France and establish their own country and have it work, because that would destroy the whole ideology of racism. Europe, France, and the United States were determined to see Haiti fail from the start. So they set the course in motion to destroy this country, and they never let up,” Ron said.

In the 1820s, South Carolina Senator Robert V. Hayne made the U.S. position absolutely clear when he stated, “our policy with regard to Haiti is plain. We never can acknowledge her independence.” It took the United States until 1862 to recognize Haiti as an independent country…almost 60 years after the revolution.

A group of bikers hang by a sugarcane field outside Port-Au-Prince.

Now fast forward to 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair. Frederick Douglass is the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, and in a speech at that World’s Fair, Douglass says, “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black.”

Dennis Kelly is the businessman who lives in New Orleans and Port-Au-Prince. He says the revolution remained unthinkable into the 20th century, because it overturned white power. “Haiti was still viewed as a slave colony that was insurrectionist and just didn’t affirm any values of the power elite in the South, shall we say. I think that sums it up right there,” he says.

Dennis says that that can likely be traced back to the events of the beginning of the 19th century and the successful revolution. “Absolutely. That’s directly traced to that.”

Haiti’s been painted as a dangerous place since the beginning, and people are still not encouraged to visit there. The poverty, the threat of natural disaster, the political instability, all of this dominates what we hear on the news about Haiti and has done permanent damage to the country’s reputation, economy, and tourism industry. Americans are not eager to go over there. So while many New Orleanians may appreciate all the cultural ties they share with Haiti— he music, the food, the architecture—they’ve never actually seen it for themselves. This is the complicated nature of the current relationship: New Orleans might love Haiti, but at arms’ length.

Andre Paultre, our driver in Haiti, has a cousin named Lionel Pressoir. He’s a tour guide outside Port-Au-Prince. Some of their ancestors actually left Haiti for New Orleans during the Revolution. And Lionel says both places were neck-and-neck back then. But now, he says, they’ve gone in different directions. “There is not the connection that I thought that there was between Haiti and New Orleans. But we are looking for it. We need it.”

Pressoir says it’s not enough just to say that Haiti and New Orleans are Sister Cities.

“You know, we can talk about it. But let’s see what we can do as far as bringing something positive,” he says.

PART III: More Than A Feeling

Gigi Dupuy was born in Haiti, but her family moved to the states when she was a kid. Now her kids are all grown up, and they live in New Orleans.

Gigi Dupuy holds a vodou flag in the Pacot neighborhood of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

They urged her to move here and said she would feel at home. So, she did.

“Leyla, my daughter, called me, and she said, ‘Mom, you need to move to New Orleans. It’s so much like Haiti, you’re gonna love it. There’s corruption, there’s potholes. It’s just an incredible place,’” says Gigi. “Of course that’s not what I love about Haiti but…”

With a last name like Dupuy, a lot of people assume Gigi is from New Orleans. “But it took me a while to realize that,” she says. “Until I went to yoga class. The woman registering participants said to me, ‘What’s your name?’ And I said, ‘well, I’m sure there’s only one Dupuy,’ because there never was more than one Dupuy! And she said, ‘no, actually I have six.’ And I was like what?!”

“You go into the phone book in New Orleans, and it’s like you’re looking in the phone book in Haiti,” says Vladimir Laborde, the Haitian businessman who went to high school in New Orleans, and then moved back to Haiti. “You find Labordes, you find Toussaints, you know. All those people have my family’s last name.”

When Gigi goes back to Haiti to visit her cousins, she talks about New Orleans. “I say it’s very similar. The most similar.”

No matter what’s happened to this relationship over time, New Orleans and Haiti still have so much in

Jazz band waiting for a funeral on the road between Gonaive and Cap Haitien, Haiti

common. And it’s more than names and colonial buildings. When I was there, I saw snoballs, the New Orleans version of shaved ice, I ordered to-go drinks, I weaved around huge potholes, I heard a brass band tuning up for a jazz funeral, I saw people cooking with mirliton, I saw a vodou ceremony, I read the names of businesses spelled out on hand painted signs, I waded through flooded streets up to my knees after a fast and hard rain. I could go on. We’re a lot alike. “The good, the bad, and the disastrous,” says Valdimir Laborde.

“Not only do we have historical and cultural ties, but we have a traumatic experience that almost wiped us out,” he says.

New Orleans has Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city in 2005, and Haiti has its earthquake that hit in 2010. The quake devastated most of the country, leveling cities and destroying major landmarks that, as of 2017, are still piles of rubble. The degree of blight reminded me of some of the largest buildings in New Orleans that have been left virtually untouched since Katrina, such as Charity Hospital in the center of downtown. And, like in New Orleans, the aftermath of disaster isn’t just seen. It’s heard.

The Cathedral in Port-Au-Prince, seven years after the 2010 earthquake

The Cathedral in Port-Au-Prince, seven years after the major 2010 earthquake

Jean-Elie Gilles, the tour guide in Jacmel, gave us a long tour of his house that day, because he has a large collection of Haitian art and antique furniture he wanted to show off. He started talking to us about a coffee table in his living room. There must have been something about that table because, before we knew it, Jean-Elie was back in 2010.

Jean-Elie Gilles speaks to TriPod’s Laine Kaplan-Levenson in his home in Jacmel, Haiti.

“I was living on the 6th floor, and the house went down. I was inside. I was all the way living upstairs, and then I fell. And then I look up outside and I saw the house that was beside me, that was taller, didn’t exist anymore. That house became a pile of crap. And then pretty soon, the house just went down like that. It was like a pile of cards, you know? Like nothing,” he says.

He went on, with no idea how long ago he had stopped at the top of his staircase, looking beyond all of us, past the house we were all standing in, at the house he lost. “Now I am telling you, I am swearing that I could hear the sound of the earth crying. It’s worse than anything that you have ever heard. It’s like the sound of 10,000 women screaming from the womb. Oh it’s scary. I heard it, and I was not the only one! Very painful, painful. OK let’s go.” And then, just like that, he turned on his heels and flew down the stairs.

This kind of time travel, this relived trauma, still happens in New Orleans, too. “New Orleans went through Katrina, so they know a lot about disaster,” Vlad recalls.

And they know what it’s like to see a city full of holes. When our driver Andre gave us a tour of Port-Au-Prince, most of what he stopped to show us were things that used to be there. Things that aren’t there anymore. “And that’s why after the quake we felt like we were lost. Because all the landmarks that we could use to indicate a place…like we say, ‘near the Cathedral,’ ‘near the national palace,’ most of them were gone. Same as after Katrina, I guess.”

After the earthquake slammed Haiti in 2010, and again after Hurricane Matthew in 2014, people around the world asked themselves what their obligations are to this country. A country that, throughout history, has been cast aside, and treated as other. Well, Vlad Laborde says, New Orleans knows what that’s like, too.

A public transportation bus called a Tap Tap

“New Orleans, Louisiana, oftentimes feels apart from the rest of the United States. Haiti often times feels itself apart from the rest of the Caribbean,” says Laborde.

After Katrina, people threw around the idea of not rebuilding the city, period. Like New Orleans was an expendable part of the United States, or not part of it at all. The same way Haiti has been punished for its blackness, New Orleans was shunned, many say, for that same reason. Still, thousands of people did rush in to try to help. Haiti and New Orleans have both been on the receiving end of countless recovery projects and NGO missions. And both places have felt exploited, seeing too many of these fail over and over again. This shared experience and the mutual understanding it creates might put Haiti and New Orleans in a position to work together.

There’s a fear in Haiti that things are disappearing—literally. Much of Haiti’s built environment is deteriorating, whether it’s an earthquake that swiftly wipes huge landmarks off the map or the slow crumbling of a 300-year-old shotgun house. Because New Orleans shares this distinct architecture, it knows how to restore—and preserve—Haiti’s historic buildings. John Williams runs Williams Architects in New Orleans. He’s done more than 500 projects in the French Quarter and has also done a lot work in the Lower 9th Ward since Katrina.

Buildings that are in need of repair in Jacmel, Haiti

A home that’s been restored in Jacmel, Haiti

“I didn’t ever intend to go to Haiti,” he said. Nor did he want to. But after the earthquake, Vlad Laborde came a knocking.

“Well he brought me two bottles of Barbancourt,” he said. (Barbancourt is Haitian rum.) “So it was over then, you know? And I said OK.”

Since then, John’s been to Haiti more than ten times, visiting cities devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes.

“I know little teeny hardware details and woodwork details that I saw in Cap Haitian that are exactly copied in the French Quarter,” he says, which means, he knows how to repair those details.


Street scene in Cap Haitien, Haiti


Creole Cottage in Cap Haitien, Haiti

The crowded Saturday Market in Cap Haitien

This is crucial, says Pierre Chauvin. He’s the former minister of tourism in Haiti and says architecture in New Orleans is a huge attraction for tourists. Those walking tours of the Garden District, they’re all about oohing and aahing at old buildings. An artist named Paul Baruk knows this. “This is what I want Jacmel to look like—Nouvelle Orleans.”

Paul runs one of the many Carnival themed art galleries in Jacmel. When I told Paul where I was visiting from, that’s when she said she wished Jacmel looked like New Orleans—or, even more like it.

Carnival mask artists in Jacmel, Haiti

“Because New Orleans looks like Jacmel, but Jacmel is not well taken care of. New Orleans is well taken care of, you see. And that would bring tourism. That would bring a new life for the people here. And it’s really what we need. Why don’t you send us some tourism?” She laughed too, but she was serious, like she was egging us on to share the wealth, which is an interesting thought. Just because New Orleans can do this stuff, does that mean it should?

Dennis Kelly, the American businessman who works part-time in Haiti says there’s no way New Orleans can be responsible for Haiti or Haiti responsible for New Orleans, “but what you can do is look at what’s coming down the road and say, what opportunities are there that I want to take advantage of? So I would say that there are many opportunities for the city of New Orleans and the city of Jacmel, and others, to mutually benefit one another.”

Vladimir Laborde is all about the mutual benefit and says an obvious opportunity here is Mardi Gras. “Imagine the Miami Herald, the Times-Picayune, and The New York Times: ‘New Orleans and Jacmel, Haiti, Share Carnival 2018.’”

Mardi Gras floats being repaired in Jacmel, Haiti

He sees Mardi Gras as an overlapping tradition that could raise the big bucks to revitalize cities like Jacmel. And these revenue streams will make communities more livable for Haitians and more hospitable for tourists. But these are tricky words in New Orleans. There’s endless debate surrounding who’s actually benefiting from preservation and tourism efforts. There’s skepticism towards these projects; are they actually improving the quality of life for the New Orleanian or the quality of experience for the visitor?

These are some of the questions Haiti has to reckon with as it grows its tourism industry and preservation program. And both those things are important, not only for the economic boost, but for that more existential fear of disappearing.

Pierre Chauvin, the former minister of tourism, will never forget a conversation he once had with a European colleague. “He came to visit Haiti and, after one week, we ask him how do you find the country? And he said, ‘you know, I have come to realize that in Haiti, you are full of diamonds. The whole country is full of diamonds. But you know, diamonds are stones. They have to be polished. Yet in Haiti, you don’t polish them at all.’ And he was talking about these old houses, and our nature, and everything else that we have…and certain things are really crumbling. And you cannot recreate them.”

Haiti’s former prime minister Michèle Pierre Louis says it’s not just about tourism dollars or physical structures. It’s about Haiti reclaiming its image. “It’s extremely important that little students, little pupils know that the country is not reduced to violence and misery and poverty. Because we don’t have just drug dealers and bad politicians! We have Haitians that are great, that are artists, that are creative, that live with dignity.”

The Hislyn Vodou band performs near Port Margot, Haiti.

That’s the vision of Haiti that New Orleans chooses to see in itself. Which is fine, Michèle says, because it’s true. “The spirits of our two territories. There is a strong tie that has to do with what probably is the best of my country’s culture.”

It’s a reminder that so much of what we love about New Orleans, the culture we package to the outside world, and profit off of, a lot of that we got from Haiti. So what can New Orleans do in return? Michèle says stop looking backwards 200 years when you think of Haiti, and make some new memories. “That would be great! That a new generation creates a momentum for, I wouldn’t say reconciliation, but creating a connection back! That’s a good utopia.”

When I got back to New Orleans, I took a walk in my own neighborhood in Midcity. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I saw a group of people standing around this now empty pedestal where a statue of Jefferson Davis once stood. The city removed this and three other Confederate monuments in the spring of 2017. People took turns passing around a crappy PA system and climbing up onto the empty pedestal, sharing their visions of replacement statues. This is where I met Nic Aziz. “Looking forward, I think we need to have monuments that reflect the true identity of the city. For me I think that identity is Haiti.”

Nic Aziz sits on top of the steps where a statue of Jefferson Davis once stood. He shares his vision of a new statue dedicated to Haiti.

Nic is 26. His mom was born in Haiti, and he’s a first generation New Orleanian. “Many people do not realize all the contributions that Haiti has made to this city. I think a lot of the issues that we see, whether it’s violence or economic opportunity or whatever, some of that is rooted in identity issues. And I think if you show people who they are and where they come from, that can have an impact on where they go.”

We’ve heard about folks not visiting Haiti. But Nic is one New Orleanian who did, back in 2011. He was 20. “As soon as I got there I felt something like you just felt…it was one of the most unique feelings of my life.”

But it became more than that. He met family members he had previously only known on Facebook. He played soccer and talked about Kobe Bryant with kids in the neighborhood he was staying in. He got made fun of for not speaking Kreyol…and that’s when Nic was like, yeah, you’re right, I wanna know Kreyol. “I had this very deep desire that I want to find that side of myself more. Because like I said, I don’t speak Kreyol, but I have a Haitian mother, and my grandfather is from Haiti, but still at the same time I don’t feel enough of that side of me.”

In a lot of ways he embodies the utopia the former Prime Minister Michelle Pierre Louis talked about—the young generation returning to Haiti to dig further into their roots and reignite an exchange. When Nic goes to Haiti and talks to Haitians about New Orleans, they learn how they’re tied to the States. That forms them, the way it forms him, Nic says. It’s about shaping his home—both of his homes.

A Haitian man wears a hand-me-down, or pepe shirt with a New Orleans logo.

“There should definitely be like, so much more cultural connecting going between the two cities,” says Nic. “Just creating that channel to share that knowledge will allow both places, you know, really seeing the sides of its identity that you know really doesn’t see and know yet.”

That’s why he sees the New Orleans Tricentennial as a perfect opportunity to move beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings the city has for Haiti and formally to acknowledge it as a key part of the city’s identity, past and present. And he’s got an idea for a new monument to replace the white Confederate statues. Nic envisions a sculpture that celebrates one of the most iconic and meaningful traditions that Haiti gave to New Orleans: people second lining. Second lining has roots in West Africa, but in Haiti it became a celebration called Rara. It came to New Orleans from Haiti during the migration following the Revolution.

“Put a scene that people can obviously identify and resonate with, because everybody in New Orleans knows a second line, everybody loves second lining, that part of our culture,” he says. “But then have a historical blurb by it that shows like, ‘oh wow, I didn’t know this came from Haiti. Wow.’”

Epilogue: Same Same, But Different

A banjo player named Pierre Ronnel Antoine sits in a little coffee shop around the corner from his apartment in Cap Haitien, with floor to ceiling shuttered doors that open out onto the busy street. He talks about his life as a musician in Haiti, about jazz, and why he chose the banjo. He plays one of his favorite songs, a children’s song called Panama M Tombe. It’s based on the Haitian proverb that says: When one’s hat falls, trouble is coming.

Pierre Ronnel Antoine, banjo player in Cap Haitien, Haiti

The song reminded me of a a classic New Orleans tune called Iko Iko about two Mardi Gras Indian tribes that have a confrontation in the street. I play him the version by the Dixie Cups to play for Ronnel. “It sounds like Haitian music,” he says and he starts humming along. “I thought it was a traditional Haitian song when I heard it. It’s the rhythm that does that. It’s almost the same music.”

It’s almost the same he says, not exactly, but almost.

 TriPod is a production of WWNO New Orleans Public Radio in collaboration with the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Midlo Center for New Orleans studies at UNO. This TriPod special was made possible with support from the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University through the Global South Fellowship program. Thanks to Evan Christopher for our theme music, and a special thanks to Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes for providing us with some of his original music that you heard in the program. Eve Abrams is the editor of TriPod.  Molly Mitchell and Jess Dorman are TriPod’s senior advisers, along with the rest of the Tripod editorial board Kevin Harrell, Connie Atkinson, Lee Leumas, Karen Leathem, Charles Chamberlain, Christina Bryant, and Christopher Harter. Special thanks to field Producer Wynne Muscatine Graham, fixer Andre Paultre, sound engineers Thomas Walsh and Peter Klingelhofer, and TriPod interns Ann Hackett, Tori Bush, and Michael Ceraso. Additional thanks to Alexis Erkert and Ben Depp, Nicole Phillips, Jacques Bartoli, Maryse Dejean, Mehdi Chalmers, Ned Sublette, Elektra Carras, Zach Niles, Rolando Bunster, Gregory Mevs, The ASB Hospital in Borgne, Haiti, the George Family in Cap Haitien, Viki Merrik, Maggie Herrman, Sanga Tabb, and Marina Magloire.

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