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#1544: Haitian American making political gains (fwd)
Published Monday, December 20, 1999, in the Miami Herald
BY SANDRA MARQUEZ GARCIA
Haitian Americans making political gains
El Portal council first with majority
El Portal -- a tiny village of 3,000 people snuggled between Miami's
Little Haiti neighborhood and Miami Shores -- is a replica of small-town
U.S.A. Stroll along the town's tree-lined streets and the passionate
talk of the day is likely to center on how to keep pedestrians from
walking on the well-tended lawns and make sure that newcomers don't
paint their homes an unauthorized shade of green.
But as the nation undergoes a demographic shift, so too El Portal. Last
week, the town of vintage 1930s cottages and old Florida homes set a
national record: becoming the first municipality in the country to have
a Haitian-American majority on its city council.
Vice-Mayor Philippe Derose and political newcomer Laura
Charlemagne-Vancol were elected Tuesday in a race in which 27 percent of
voters cast ballots. Together with sitting Councilman Islande Salomon,
they form a Haitian-American majority on the five-member council. The
other two members are Daisy Black and Audrey Edmondson, making the
council all-black for the first time.
Backyard concerns, not politics in Haiti, were the deciding issues in
this election. Candidates squared off on the need for paved sidewalks,
beefed up code enforcement and whether to hire a village manager.
As news of the historic vote spread, Haitian Americans took to the
streets in caravans of honking cars, reminiscent of their homeland.
Creole-language radio commentators fielded calls from excited listeners
about what the results meant for Miami-Dade's 120,000-member
Haitian-Americn community. ``We want them to succeed,'' said Clomene
Floreal, 40, an El Portal housewife who moved from Haiti eight years
ago. She said the election was a source of pride for her and neighbors.
``We would like for even more Haitians to get elected,
so that all Haitians can advance and for Americans to respect us.''
The vote results come after a series of spirited bids last year by six
Haitian-American candidates for seats in the Florida House and Senate,
as well as the Broward School Board. Although they didn't win, the
candidates exposed the growing clout of the community's strength as a
Marleine Bastien, a clinical social worker who is president of Fanm
Ayisyen Nan Miyami -- an organization that helps Haitian women set up
small businesses, said the ballot box gains are a reflection of a new
mind-set. ``Haitian Americans have matured to the point that they
understand that we want a better Haiti, but we are living here,''
Bastien said. ``We have a responsibility to make it better, not only for
ourselves, but for our children.'' Discouraged by the decades-long
political crisis back home that has not been
resolved despite the intervention of 20,000 U.S. troops in the
Caribbean nation five years ago, Haitian Americans who arrived here as
exiles have started embracing the idea of retiring on this side of the
Florida Straits. ``Now the idea is settling: I am not able to go back as
soon as I thought,'' Bastien said. ``Let me make it as comfortable as
possible. This is my home now.''
Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the New-York based National
Coalition for Haitian Rights, said domestic politics have also driven
the increased participation. ``The other catalyst has been the harsh
immigration and welfare reforms in the last four years,'' McCalla said.
``They compelled Haitians and other minorities to become citizens.''
In 1996 alone, 24,556 Haitians were naturalized in Florida. So far, the
efforts have resulted in a handful of gains. Four Haitian Americans
currently hold elective office in Florida: Derose, Charlemagne-Vancol
and Salomon in El Portal and Councilman Ossmann Desir in North Miami.
Elsewhere in the country, two Haitian Americans were recently elected
to the five-member city council in Spring Valley, N.Y., McCalla said. In
Massachusetts, state Rep. Marie St. Fleur, D-Boston, is believed to be
the nation's highest-ranked Haitian-American elected official, McCalla
and Bastien said. The growing political power is likely to generate
increased expectation. Derose, who made history as Florida's first
Haitian-born elected official when he was elected to the El Portal City
Council in 1993, said he is prepared to deal with that.
``When you make history like that, you have a lot of eyes that are
going to be looking at you: `How are these three Haitians going to be
running the city? Are they going to make it better or worse?' We have to
work together to make the community proud,'' he said.
Born in Liancourt in Haiti's rice-growing Artibonite province, Derose,
47, said he is living the American dream. Married with two children, he
owns a used car dealership in Miami. ``I am very pleased and happy to
live in Dade,'' Derose said. ``Seventy percent of Dade County are
immigrants. That makes it easy for immigrants to own their own
businesses and run for political office.''
The fusion of Haitian and American culture is visible in the streets of
El Portal where big-band style konpa music blares from cars driving past
picture-book homes and the flavorful smell of rice and pork hovers in
the air. About 53 percent of the city's population is black and 44
percent is white. Thirty-eight percent of residents are foreign-born and
more Hispanics have been moving into the village.
Nectalia Villalobos, 22, of Honduras, said El Portal is a nice place to
live. ``We were living in a small apartment in South Beach so my mom
bought a house here,'' Villalobos said. ``It's very quiet; nobody
bothers anybody.'' Jim Mintz, 51, a 16-year El Portal resident, said his
tight-knit street has undergone a demographic shift over the years.
Black families now make up more than half the block, he said, and at
least 10 homes are owned by gay couples. He said he approves of the
city's new leadership. ``It seems to be the way the village is moving,''
Mintz said. ``I don't have a problem with it as long as everyone is
represented.'' Code enforcement is a bigger worry for Mintz. He said
``after dark'' home improvements last year resulted in one neighbor
painting his home lime green and another purple. ``It's obvious that the
people who did it didn't apply for a permit,'' Mintz said. ``It
didn't match any one of the other houses on the block.''