Revisiting their Haitian Roots
Expatriates to reminisce at picnic
By Martin C. Evans
They left the old Port-au-Prince neighborhood and went their separate ways as much as a half-century ago, leaving memories embedded in the revered schools, familiar houses and cherished soccer teams that shaped their lives.
Chased from Haiti by political repression, or drawn away by economic opportunity, some went to Paris or Havana or Rio de Janeiro in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Many others settled in Harlem or Brooklyn, and then moved to Uniondale, Baldwin and other Long Island neighborhoods to raise families.
But the years have not eroded the affection many of these expatriates hold for their old Bas Peu De Choses neighborhood- a half-hour walk from Haiti’s Presidential Palace- where their Caribbean identities first took root.
Tomorrow, as they have done in each of the past 12 summers, people from the old neighborhood will gather to share memories at a giant picnic. This year, the picnic with be held near the Forest Park band shell, off Myrtle Avenue in Queens, from 10a.m. to 7 p.m.
“It has become like a pilgrimage to Mecca, like a journey where people get together and share a communion among them,” said Roland Dorsainville, 69 who grew up on an unpaved street, let Port-au-Prince in 1956, and now live in a tidy brick ranch in Baldwin.
Last year’s gathering drew 8,000 people- some of them from as far away as Madagascar- to Heckscher State Park.
The picnic tomorrow is being organized by Friends of Bas Peu De Choses, an organization named for the old neighborhood its members revere. The organization- to which members refer by the French acronym, L’ABAPEC- is part social club, part service group. Its members raise funds for a number of causes, including money to buy shoes for the Victory soccer club, the old neighborhood’s home team.
The neighborhood was once home to a cross-section of Haiti’s middle-class, including shopkeepers, contractors, teachers and bureaucrats. But as Haiti sank deeper into economic and political chaos with the 1957 election of Francois “PaPa Doc” Duvalier, many sough safety and opportunity elsewhere.
Shortly after he came to America, Dorsainville began helping a Haitian priest in Brooklyn- the Rev. Poux- whose missionary work included finding jobs, housing and, sometimes, refuge from immigration authorities for arriving Haitians.
That networking trend continued through the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s as successive arrivals got help from earlier-arrived aunts, brother, parents or neighbors, then reached back to help neighbors and childhood friends gain a toehold of their own.
Pierre Valbrun, 65, now a retired computer technician living in Baldwin, arrived in New York in 1963. “A week after I got here, I got in touch with Roland,” said Valbrun, who once played on a Victory team on which Dorsainville played defense. “Because he was like a brother to me in Haiti.”
But as people left the old neighborhood, careers and family obligations often made it hard to stay in touch. The picnics began 13 years ago, when some of them realized the only time they could count on seeing old friends was when people gathered for funerals.
Jean Gullet Sr., who moved to Uniondale 30 years ago, said he ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in decades at the first picnic. “She used to live three doors from me on Avenue Bouzon,” said Guillot, who produces the televised news and culture program “La Lanterne Haitienne.”
The picnic will feature food and entertainment. A band from the old neighborhood- Shleu Shleu- plans to play a Haitian mixture of compass dance tunes and racine, the Africa-inflected rhythms of voodoo religious ceremonies. Organizers have also booked a choral group, Voix Tambur d’Haiti.
Louis Rodriguez, who came to the United States in 1968, will bring his three youngest children- Samantha 17, Christopher, 15, and Oliver, 12. His children have lived in New York and Long Island all their lives. “I want them to know their roots, who they are, where they come from,” he said.
NEWSDAY, FRIDAY, AUGUST 1, 2003. Page A30