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The High Cost of Not Trilling an 'R' Spanish-Style

Haitian Immigrant Battles Unemployment and Discrimination

New America Media , News Feature, Text: Khalil Abdullah// Photographs: Joseph Rodriguez Posted: Jun 10, 2008

Editors Note: In Miami, a Haitian immigrant struggles to keep his family together on unemployment benefits. But finding a job is hard when faced with the Spanish language litmus test. This family portrait is one in a series of portraits of families around the country who are involved with the Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign, a national initiative aimed at lifting the voices of working families and developing a national platform based on their concerns. New America Media's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Khalil Abdullah is a Washington, D.C. based editor for NAM.

MIAMI -- If you were from Haiti in the late 1930s, where French and Creole were (and still are) the primary languages, the inability to trill an r Spanish-style at a border crossing into neighboring Dominican Republic could have cost you your life.

Today, 70 years later, some Haitians, Zacharie Desjardins among them, feel they are subject to a Spanish language litmus test for employment in yet another country Miami.

Desjardins would have been willing to share his views on job discrimination during the Equal Voice for Americas Families town hall meeting in Miami on April 12, but the event was on a Saturday. As Seventh-day Adventists, the Desjardins family observes Saturday as the day the Creator rested. They refrain from secular activities out of respect; they rest in humble emulation. Desjardins, his wife Marie, and their six children practice a religion that claims only one percent of Haitis populace. The majority of Haitians are Roman Catholics.
Haitian familyDesjardins and wife Marie with family and friends
at home on the Sabbath after Saturday's church service.

Employment, particularly for a decent wage, was just one concern at the town hall. The event, and similar forums in low-income communities across America, was chiefly underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Nearly 200 South Floridians sought to piece together an agenda for social change across ethnic lines. Immigration policies, crime, transportation, healthcare, and housing surfaced as points of discussion. Desjardins could have made an informed comment about each issue. For example, as to how his health status intersected with housing, Desjardines explained, Im struggling now to pay [the mortgage] because I was hospitalized.

Desjardins was steadily employed as a supervisor for a Miami-Dade County agency, enabling him to qualify for a traditional mortgage. Hes not a victim of predatory lending. He bought a four bedroom, two-bath home about three years ago in Opa-locka, a small city within Miami-Dade County, a short distance west of his former neighborhood in northeast Miami. A majority African-American city, only about three percent of Opa-locka's 15,000 residents are of Haitian descent. As a father, Desjardins remains alert to neighborhood safety. Though the crime rate has declined, Opa-locka once was the most violent small city in the United States, belying the placid palm-lined streets with Moorish-inspired names like Port Said Road or Sultan Avenue.

Easily over six feet tall, Desjardins has a medium build now, but had been carrying far too much weight. I was huge, he said bluntly. Last November, he was diagnosed with diabetes; his blood sugar count had sky-rocketed and the physiological effects proved nearly fatal. When he made it to the hospital, the doctor even told me I should be dead three days before.

Hospitalized for a week, he was ordered to take two weeks of bed rest after his release. Desjardines took one; he was anxious about his job. Though he provided documentation to his employer about his medical status and physicians orders, Desjardins had been replaced in his absence. They give my schedule to that person, who, he said, was one of the Spanish guys.

haitian kidsDesjardins, at the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, sits with one of the triplets on his lap while Kadmiel, in the foreground, sits on his brother's.On the day of the town hall, having just returned from church, the four-year-old Desjardins girls were still in crisply pressed dresses. Their braids remained in perfect equipoise with bright round barrettes as they ran in the front yard under the Florida sun.

Carissa and Catusha comprise two-thirds of the triplets. They are taller and heavier than their brother Kadmiel. He has undergone four medical procedures, including open-heart surgery when he was two-years old to close a hole the doctors thought might heal on its own. Thank God hes safe, sighed Desjardins, but he is concerned about Kadmiels development. The girls are more advanced, he acknowledged.

Three other sons, Shillem, two; Josue, seven, and Zacharie, Jr., nine, in their Sabbath-best, also were in constant motion. Young Zacharie was born in the Dominican Republic. Desjardins had been working there and his pregnant wife had come to assist her mother who was ill in the Dominican Republic at the time.

Haitian parentsMr. and Mrs. Paul, Marie Desjardins's parents. Mr. Paul has since suffered a stroke and is now hospitalized.
Maries parents, Mr. and Mrs. Paul, in their early 80s, also now reside in the Opa-locka home, though Mr. Paul is now hospitalized as a result of two recent strokes. Desjardins has shouldered the responsibility for other members of his extended family as well. He does not separate loyalty from duty, but confides that it has become financially difficult to provide shelter and necessities -- food, utilities, a car note and insurance -- even with Marie now working part-time at the nearby Dollar Store off Ali Baba Avenue.

Desjardins is supporting a household on his unemployment benefits while seeking work. He is hopeful that Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, a resource serving a predominantly Haitian immigrant clientele, can provide him with a lead that could turn into gainful employment.

In 1937, discrimination and employment were at the root of the most violent attacks on post-independence Haitians. Rafael Trujillo, the U.S.-supported dictator who ruled Haitis neighboring Dominican Republic, was so opposed to Haitian immigrants seeking refuge or work in his country that he stationed guards at the border.

Since physical characteristics were not enough to determine who was Haitian, the guards asked those transiting to pronounce "perejil," a Spanish word for parsley. "Perejil" sounds distinctly different in a Haitian Creole accent and those who could not trill the r to the satisfaction of the guards were killed, comprising a percentage of the estimated 20,000 Haitian sugar cane workers Trujillo murdered on Dominican soil.

Unemployment can exact its own kind of psychic trauma, but in the spirit of his religious convictions, Desjardines is a volunteer minister working with Haitian and Spanish youth because the youth is under pressure of drugs, alcohol, sex, and so on. His goal is to become a full minister while continuing his scholastic education. Desjardins prays that the mysterious ways of the Lord will ultimately lead him to employment that will enable him to provide for his family.

As for dealing with those who terminated him, Desjardins initially attempted to fight his dismissal and considered filing a discrimination lawsuit, but time and cost proved prohibitive. He said he has decided to let God do the fighting for me.

Photos Joseph Rodriguez/New America Media

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