In 1967 the Haitian government invited Franz Minuty to the national palace to recite poetry.
"They wanted me to recite pro-DuValier [the U.S. backed president of Haiti] poetry, praising him for his birthday, but I refused," recalls Minuty, whose family and friends were threatened and harassed after the incident. Later that year, Minuty emigrated to the United States where he currently works for General Electric and hosts a weekly Carribean radio show.
His story is a bit more dramatic than most, but since the 1960s Haitian immigrants have been coming to the United States in significant numbers to avoid the harsh political and economic coditions on their native island.
Many of them--some estimates have gone as high as 60,000--choose to settle in the Boston areas, which experts estimate has the third largest Haitian community in the country after New York and Miami.
A number of these new Hub residents have found havens in Cambridge neighborhoods like Central Square and North Cambridge.
Josianne H. Barnes, a Cambridge resident who emigrated from Haiti five years ago, ascribes Haitians' attraction to Cambridge to an atmosphere of relative tolerance and a responsive city government. "Cambridge is one of the best places in the Boston area--there's more political consciousness and more racial integration," Barnes says.
Most recently arrived Haitians seem satisfied with life here and are anxious to work hard and save money. But it would not be hard to improve on Haitian economic conditions--the island's unemployment rate is higher than 50 percent and the annual per capita income of only $150.
One seventh month Cantabrigian said through an interpreter that he never had a steady job in Haiti. He now works six days a week as a dishwasher at a Harvard Square restaurant and says "I don't even enjoy my one day off. I like to stay busy all the time."
Among many there is an optimism and sense that everything is possible in this country. "Anyone who works hard can make it in America," said a Haitian cabbie who bought his own cab after two years here.
But to make it in America, most Haitians must overcome a variety of barriers including racial discrimination, difficulties learning English and cultural differences as well as popular fears bred by widely-publicized links between Haitian immigrants and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
"Being a Haitian with a good skill does not help," says a civil engineer who refuses to disclose his name because he believes it might jeopardize his dealings with immigration officials.
He adds that employers classify him by his skin color before they evaluate his skills. "In the eyes of any employer," he explains, "first I am a minority--I am Black."
Haitians seem to be concentrated in low-paying, low-skill jobs primarily in the service and labor sectors, though exact figures are unavailable because many Haitians refuse to speak to government officials for fear of recrimination against their families back in Haiti or because they came here illegally.
The highest daily hurdle they must overcome is English. Haitians speak French-Creole--a combination of French and African dialects. Most arrive with a smattering of English, but few speak it fluently and even fewer are literate in English.
To help the immigrants, several city programs offer English as a second lanuage classes for Creole speakers. In addition, the Cambridge public schools have included sections in French in their general bilingual program since 1973.
But the schools have also introduced new problems for Haitian-Americans, in particular creating friction between parents and their school-attending children. "[Children] get used to the freedom American culture gives them. In Haiti, kids go to school and they want to, now they don't like to study anymore," laments one father of five teenagers. "They don't get enough homework and they watch too much TV." he adds in a discussion of the draw backs of American life.
Widespread publicity about a link between AIDS and Haitians has compounded the immigrants' trouble "You get on the train, start talking French Creole and are Black and people move away from you: they assume you're a carrier [of AIDS]," says Minuty, citing one example of the effect popular lears of AIDS have on individuals.
The Cambridge Haitian-American Association [CHAMA], a private community organization set up to assist Haitian immigrants has received far more serious complaints of discrimination because of the AIDS scare--ranging from housing discrimination to doctors who have refused Haitians medical treatment, says CHAMA Director John A. Barnes '69.
Despite the AIDS uproar and other problems adjusting to their new life, most Haitian-Americans, citing greater political freedom and economic opportunities, say they will stay and even encourage relatives to join them.
"Sure, I miss Haiti, but I came here to work and I'm going to stay," explains one of the new Americans.
As long as opportunities in Haiti remain bleak and those in the United States relatively positive, Haitians will probably continue emigrating--no matter how stiff the barriers.