Haitian-Americans seek cultural connection

Students had to talk in kreyol about their partner. Patricia Phillipe (right) is the founder of the Ann Pale Kreyol-Let’s Speak Haitian Kreyol- meetup.
Photos by Tequila Minsky

Children of the past generation of Haitian immigrants are firmly planted in American culture with ties and culture also rooted in Haiti. These first-generation Americans are young adults up through their 40s or more.

As they get older, many of these Haitians, born here, feel an increasing need for a deeper connection with their heritage. Some realize they have a limited facility with their parents’ native tongue. Others are seeking more cultural connections.

First-generation Haitian–American Patricia Phillipe fits into this category. She began to feel she wanted more culture contact and decided to do something about it. Mid-June last year, Phillipe started a Kreyol-speaking meetup group (organized online for those with shared interests to form offline clubs). Phillipe’s meetup is: Ann Pale Kreyol, “Let’s Speak Haitian Kreyol” www.meetup.com/Ann-Pale-Kreyol/.

By now, more than 75 are registered. Those who have joined post their interests on the site–wanting to learn, to strengthen, and speak Kreyol. Others express interest in wanting to explore roots, connect with people of Haitian descent, network or be more involved with the Haitian community.

“We, up to 12 people, meet about twice a month, usually at a restaurant for dinner and we speak Kreyol,” Patricia said. “Sometimes, we meet at Haiti events, frequently, those that are organized by Haiti Cultural Exchange.”

Canarsie-resident Wynnie Lamour studied Spanish and linguists as an undergrad and got a Masters degree in urban affairs and community development. When she isn’t teaching college mathematics at Hostos Community College, Wynnie teaches Haitian Kreyol.

Her one-hour group class of five to eight persons in Clinton Hill has been meeting since August. “I have 25 lessons,” she said that include games, I-spy, crossword puzzles and conversation. She also gives private lessons. She has Haitian-American students.

Lamour began to share Haitian culture at the Brooklyn Brainery, a center for inexpensive classes in Carroll Gardens, where she first taught Kreyol cooking.” We made “boulet”, meatballs, and “diri djon djon”, black rice, Lamour extols. “The Brooklyn Brainery was a great supporter when I was first starting out.”

In addition to her language classes, Wynnie wanted to try something different, an afternoon of culture and language.

Partnering with Patricia Phillipe, who brought some of her “meetup” compadres, and Haiti Cultural Exchange that spread the word, last month, Wynnie conducted a three-hour “Haitian Kreyol Workshop.”

Thirteen, mostly women, showed up in lower Manhattan at the Park51 Community Center, which is open to all kinds of community activities, for a taste of Haitian cultural emersion. Starting with a snack of Haitian herring and cassave, varied activities kept things lively and the anxiety of learning a new language to a minimum. At times, participants worked with partners, a chance to get to know someone new while sharing the learning challenges. Speaking was not effortless for the “advanced beginners,” but everyone was pretty much in the same boat and the exercises were fun.

The afternoon workshop ended with a short slideshow on Haitian art before the students got to eat Haitian meatballs and black rice. Haitian and Haitian-Americans made up one-third of the cross-generational group.

Lamour wants to expand this into an intensive experience and is now developing a full day workshop for June or July.

Language teacher Wynnie Lamour challenging the students with the next fun exercise.

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