The Underworld of the First World


The Underworld of the First World

From Haiti to the U.S.: In Search of a New Language for Migration and the Encounter with our Demons and Dreams
Erica Joseph
Erica Joseph

Migrating and meeting our demons and dreams

Erica Joseph was born and raised in Haiti. In Chile she earned a bachelor's degree in Public Relations and a master's degree in International Studies. She is the author of the chronicle Necrology of a Haitian Community in Chile.

Migration as human mobility has been controversial in recent years not only in one specific country, but worldwide. In the United States, the narrative around this issue continues to be uninformed, incomplete and dehumanizing. Although these are accounts of human lives, the human component is always either omitted, or told selectively, based on the geographic, ethnic and racial backgrounds of the individuals. As legal subjects, these deals leave too many of us shocked, silently upset, dejected and discouraged, and perhaps more than anything, feeling even more alone and isolated in foreign countries. 
In times of loneliness or emotional upheaval, while locals enter their "panic rooms", go to therapy and/or have morning or evening conversations with the mirror, we, the immigrants, find ourselves shipwrecked between rootedness and exile.

 Human emotions are complex and our responses to various stimuli and situations in our daily lives are subjective. Each emotion has its own distinctive characteristics, and people feel or express these emotions in unique ways. But when you are a human being in a foreign land, in a modern jungle, which you have fought hard to get into, do you really have that space to express your feelings, your emotions? Do you even have the right to emotions? At what point between barely surviving, between maintaining composure and/or appearance, can you consider your emotions? 
In migration, these human emotions intertwine in a subjective dance that is sometimes too changeable. They become even more complex, varied and vivid, and have a profound influence on the nuances of the journey and the everyday experience of the immigrant.

Resilient Journey, Migrants on the Border and in Wonderland

 The United States is widely considered the land of dreams, and the "American dream" resonates beyond all borders or continents

In the years after covid-19, in any gathering of Haitians, conversations always seem to come round to one or other of two topics: Haiti's degrading situation or the Biden, or Nicaragua/Mexico, issue, the latter referring on the one hand to the new humanitarian parole program of Biden's government and on the other, the route from Haiti via Nicaragua to reach the southern border of the United States with Mexico.

"All roads lead to Rome" as they say - one way or another and at any cost Haitians are forging a path from Haiti to the land of dreams, the land of wonders that is the North American Empire. Marie may not be waiting for Biden's confirmation mail (mail that arrives from an automatic USCIS mailbox, with the title IOExxxxxxxxxxxxxxI-134A Confirmation Notice), but she is certainly waiting for her flight to Nicaragua/Mexico. There is no longer any need to define or explain the CHNV program;  just say 'Biden' - somehow, we already understand what that means! It's implicit, because we all KNOW.

The program adopted in January 2023 aims to receive up to 30,000 people a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela (CHNV). Anyone who has a person in the U.S. supporting them financially whose background check is approved and who meets other established criteria, will be eligible to come to the U.S. for a period of two years and be granted a work permit. As of the end of June 2023, nearly 160,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans have legally entered the US under the temporary residency permit process. This includes more than 50,000 Haitians, from the 63,000 who have been screened and approved for travel. Prospective supporters must submit Form I-134A "Online Application to Become a Support Person and Declaration of Financial Support" on behalf of eligible nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Individual support persons and organisational representatives wishing to file for support must have a legal presence in the United States, submit their declaration of financial support during the period of the beneficiary's temporary stay permit, and obtain a background and security check to prevent exploitation and abuse.

So, in the new Haitian language, Biden is no longer just the name of the 46th president of the US ; Biden has become a word that essentially means Saviour, Pope or even Saint Biden. Tiktok publishes news and posts with liberation songs, such as "letènèl papa ou fèl vre", "Plus aucun delai je reçoi mon miracle": these are some of the symbolic songs of Biden's program in Haiti. Unusually, the popular Haitian DJ, Tonimix, took advantage of the momentum to produce the hit of last summer, with the song and remix, Joe Biden, n'ap poulòp sou ou, where the phrase PULL-UP replaces almost any other word in Haitian pop parlance. A reality that reflects how thousands of citizens are forced to flee armed violence and forced internal displacement on the island.

In recent years, violence has settled on the streets of Port-au-Prince like an ever-present spectre. The first quarter of 2024 was a dark chapter in the country's history, marked by cruelty and chaos. The powerful reverberations of the worst crime wave in recent history are a constant reminder of fragility. More than 2,500 cases of violent deaths and serious injuries have left indelible scars on the Caribbean nation, a grim upsurge that exceeds the October-December 2023 quarter by 53%.

Our citizens are fleeing the country at any cost - by land, sea, plane or however they can! Like ants fleeing from the rain! They are fleeing towards a dream far away from those lands that give no respite.

After the wonder and euphoria on reaching the promised land, some quickly go through all the stages of culture shock in their migration process. The weeks go by like a roller coaster of emotions. One day euphoric, that honeymoon stage, falling in love with the "fast life", the next day or even during the same day, you are in the labyrinth of transition, in that moment of panic, emotions running through you like the changeable spring weather of the southern-central USA. Ultimately, "apechugando andas andas" ,you adapt, or at least try to, since there is no other choice.

Life as an immigrant in the United States can be likened to a marriage - marriage as a social and legal institution has traditionally been seen as a way to provide social, emotional and legal stability for both individuals and society as a whole, by establishing a structure for the raising of children, the management of resources and the transferring of property. 
Just like in married life, one moment you're in the honeymoon period newly married and blindly in love. At other times, you are already in that stage of feeling trapped in a marriage to which you have given everything, but wanting at all costs to keep up appearances and the social calm of being "happily married" and "settled down". On seemingly stable days, you are already  'apachugando andas', adapting daily, learning to survive in the infamous paradise of dreams.

Let's go on and read Rose's story, which reflects the silenced reality of the stages of culture shock for thousands of immigrant men and women who have left the pearl of the Antilles for their American Dream. With bitterness and disappointment, some have seen these dreams become living nightmares, as they experience unexpected emotions and disappointments in the underbelly of the American empire.

Thrill of Arriving in Wonderland

On the plane to NYC, Rose was caught between amazement and bewilderment. At 35 years old, despite having completed seven arduous years of dedicated study to obtain her degree in general medicine in the Dominican Republic, and having worked for more than five years as a doctor in a prestigious hospital in the capital, this was her first time on an aeroplane. She thought she had seized the opportunity to further her career and have a better life in the United States. With her suitcase full of dreams and expectations, she began this new chapter of her life, and on the plane she thought: 
- "W kwè se mwen" - I can't believe it!"  Travelling like this to the United States had always been such an incredible dream that even she couldn't believe it!

When she set foot onto American soil at JFK airport, her good friend Suzie was waiting for her with flowers and excitement! They hugged so tightly, you could hear and feel the their bones cracking An embrace that contained amazement, happiness, elation and fascination! A whole range of feelings from excitement to nervousness. 
" I still can't define what I felt that day! Oh I was in ecstasy!" she exclaimed with perplexed laughter.

For the first few weeks, between outings with her friend, new tastes and flavours and the dazzling lights and unfamiliar sounds of the city, Rose was swept up in a wave of euphoria and fascination. New York being home to one of the largest concentrations of Haitians in the United States, she was immersed in a new and exciting cocoon. However, she soon realised that this euphoria was overshadowed by the sense of alienation, the shock of incomprehension of the phonetics of English and the norms and customs of the great American Empire.
The glamorous images of the city contrasted with her own experience of marginalisation and exclusion, and she felt in limbo, belonging neither here nor there.

The Reality of Culture Shock - Welcome to the Underworld

Culture shock hits Rose hard as she is confronted with cultural differences and systemic racism. Aside from Suzie and her circle of Haitian friends, Rose began to meet and spend time with other Spanish-speaking and Black American women, with the idea of widening her circle of adaptation by seeking support and solidarity. Despite being fluent in Spanish, she was faced with the harsh reality that these "black sisters", these Hispanic sororas, do not see her as a sister, but as a foreign half sister from Haiti that they need to save from herself. 
Rose sighed wearily: 
"hermanas, they will never see us as equals!" 
While waiting patiently and bitterly for her immigration papers, Rose was determined to improve her English by studying for her advanced ESL (English as a Second Language), thinking that with Spanish, French and English, she would have an advantage in the job market. However, the reality of readjusting her dreams to a new culture and a new work process soon became apparent. It was like a bucket of cold water, when Rose was faced with the hard truth that her medical degree and experience would not help her find work as a doctor in the Empire's health care system! Her friends advised her to take the Home Health Aide (HHA) course (home health care assistant), or CNA (certified nursing assistant).

Her first thought was: 
"Nan kisa m pran la a!- what is going on ?!" as she imagined starting from scratch again in this new and hostile country, with all her medical training !

" It made me angry and I wanted to go back home! But I wasn't from here or there anymore..." Rose lamented. 
Resigned, and not wanting to be ungrateful, she grasped fate in her hands and took both courses. Despite this, she has to deal with discrimination and cultural differences at work, and has a hard time with poorly behaved patients. As a good Caribbean woman with a warm demeanour, accustomed to a more relaxed and communal environment in Haiti, she was surprised by the coldness and distance in professional relationships within the United States healthcare system. Not to mention the hostility of the local community, as well as negative portrayals of Haitians in the media and literature, depicting us as primitive, barbaric and ignorant. These only intensified her sense of alienation and displacement. Feeling lost in a sea of new rules and fading expectations, Rose was struggling to find her place in such a different environment, one so immune to her warmth.

Resilience and Adaptation - no more hanging on !

Despite the challenging roller coaster, Rose immersed herself in her work, determined to learn the unspoken and understand the intricacies of the American system. Meanwhile, she was becoming more and more hermit-like. Sometimes, out of both anger and sadness, she would just avoid conversing with people outside of her reality, whilst at all times trying to maintain the appearance of happiness and good fortune that this empire had promised. Her former friends and family no longer understand her; taking her silence as rejection, they blame or hate her. 
Occasionally, and as the months passed, she began to feel more confident in her role and to appreciate the opportunities that the United States offered her, despite the ups and downs. She tries to challenge implicitly imposed cultural norms, setting out on a journey of deconstruction, personal decolonisation, and a celebration of her Haitian heritage, to redefine, in her own way, what it means to be a black woman in the diaspora. Secretly, she plans to challenge stereotypes and dominant narratives about black healthcare professionals by demonstrating her worth and competence as a black immigrant.

Rose sometimes tries to find solace in friends already in the empire, already immersed in the reality between heaven and hell. 
" In this country, no one has time for anyone", she exclaims with contempt.
 And without waiting for an answer, she continues her  scathing comments 
"Each person's own emotional problems are more important than anyone else's. There's no empathy!
 We Caribbean people from the pearl of the Antilles, so communal, with our extended families, have already become egotistic and selfish, each of us only concerned with his own things, his own feelings and problems. It is a system of 'Chen manje Chen'- survival of the fittest !  In this jungle of survival, we have adopted the skin of wounded animals, marked by the scars of the struggle for a dream".

After this torrent of words, falling like tears from her soul, Rose finished in a whisper - 
" I walked towards the American dream and it cost me my family, my friends and my soul".

Ultimately, what is the price of empire?

Every morning, you breath in; as soon as you exhale, you fly out, always in a hurry, no time to enjoy those pennies you're running after. 
You breathe imperialism, you breathe individualism,
In every breath you try to take, as you chase this American Dream,
You sweat blood for a nickel and a dime!
Trying to turn this into the American dream, an empire of your own!
You learn to inhale this feeling of individualism as you try to look out for those left behind!
You live and breathe between the border of following your path or helping those left behind,
You're always on the borders!
You don't even know what you're doing anymore, it's a dirty game, the system almost always wins!
All you can do is choose how to play it and try to enjoy what little you can see on the way to the top or the abyss!
Whether it's heaven or hell, burning lava or glowing flowers, let's try to enjoy both the fire and the beauty of the flowers.
If it's fire, let's try to be a phoenix! 
If it's a path of flowers, let's not be roses, let's choose to be sunflowers - at least their yellow will merge with the flames...