Miami | Haiti past, present and future came together earlier this month on an urban oasis in La Petite Haiti. After 10 years of negotiation and bureaucratic delay, an all too rare inner-city, publicly funded, full-size soccer pitch opened May 3 on one-time industrial ground north of downtown.
In the end, consecration of the park became an act of remembrance to Emmanuel “Manno” Sanon, referred to as an “objet d’art du football haitien” in obituaries following his death in February, at 56, from pancreatic cancer. Sanon’s home was in Conway, Florida, outside Orlando, but he had maintained contacts in Miami as well as his broader significance within Haitian culture. His goal against Italy in Haiti’s first and only World Cup finals appearance in 1974 proved, at some level, Haiti’s existence to the world.
Some grumbled that the Sanon Soccer Park had cost too much, took too long to be realized and lacked the necessary amenities, but on opening day it looked like paradise. One would be hard pressed to find such an unbroken greenscape—consisting of a regulation FIFA field and practice area along with airy, covered grandstand—elsewhere in urban America (see also Feb 9).
The atmosphere took on aspects of Carnival with roving bands of konè (trumpet) players and revellers. Pointing to one group that bounced and drummed during a series of three friendly matches, local businessman Edward Leon said, “This is what it is like in Haiti,” referring to the rara festival or Haitian Mardi Gras, the time to acknowledge the return of life. In front of the stadium, kids splashed in a water park surrounded by palm trees; water sheeted from the top of what looked like a giant mushroom. Vendors sold goat’s-meat pies and banaan peze (pressed plantains), accessorized by sugary fruit drinks. A steady kreyòl patter burst from the announcer’s booth—comments on the play and sales pitches for currency-transfer shops and bargains on international dialing rates.
Given its longtime connection with the Haitian diaspora—intellectuals, exiled by François Duvalier, started arriving in Miami and South Florida in the 1950s—Little Haiti, while boasting its own institutions and creative force, has retained some of the factionalism in Haitian society. “There is division here, too,” says Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami). But, echoing the comments of other Miami-based Haitians, Bastien mentions soccer’s rallying power and its capacity to give life a communal purpose. “The only time Lavalas, Convergence and other factions come together is for soccer. Everyone is there. When there is a game, people wave the Haitian flag.”
According to Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, some 400,000 Haitians and Haitian Americans live in the Miami-Dade region, having arrived in increasingly impoverished and desperate waves beginning in the 1970s. A soccer park fills a gap in the slow reconstitution of a neighborhood that many Haitians, once established, seek to leave. Haitians have made their mark locally in creating radio stations and newspapers and in winning political office, but the centrality of football to Haitian life could not find a steady outlet.
Miami attorney Andre Pierre, who emigrated from Haiti in 1983, opened his own firm to emphasize immigration law and has represented several hundred asylum seekers. He played in the opening friendly match on May 3. His recollections of playing street and school soccer in Haiti are strong:
In Haiti, even while you’re in school during recess—they used to call it “gym”—we play soccer. … This is what we do for a living. … Playing soccer, it’s not [just] a matter of being in a sport. [It's] understanding team concept, understanding how to be disciplined, understanding how to be on time. And you’re doing it because you love it.
Tales of gangland violence and Haitian self-loathing add resonance to the statistics compiled in 2005 by the Sant La center. Little Haiti’s poverty rate exceeds 30 percent, with an average annual household income of just over $14,000. Child abuse, domestic violence, violent crime and substandard housing coexist with language barriers, cultural misunderstanding, social isolation and fear to create a malaise that could begin to be addressed with well-managed soccer programs to complement the shimmering new park.
A Miami Herald story appearing the day before the Little Haiti festivities suggests the stresses that mount on newly arrived residents. Nadeige Laleau came to Miami in 1984 with the intent of joining her father. He fled, however, before she even touched American soil, leaving her to struggle for years with chronic depression that once required hospitalization. “I didn’t think I would make it past 18,” Laleau told the newspaper. She only found purpose when a teacher noted her facility for languages; she speaks Haitian Creole, English, Spanish and French.
Further, a loophole in U.S. immigration law puts recently relocated Haitians at jeopardy of deportation from which Cuban Americans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans in similar circumstances are protected. The zeal with which immigration authorities pursue improperly documented Haitians has severed parents from families and created shadow-like figures moving almost daily from one house to another to avoid detection (see Ana Menendez, “Immigration Being Unfair to Haitians,” Miami Herald, May 4).
A soccer park, clearly, will not solve all of these woes. Mario Apollon, who ran the Miami-based Youth Education through Soccer, said he had to fight with his parents to play the sport. In Haiti and Miami, being a soccer player sometimes correlates with, in Apollon’s words, being a “street guy”: “You can have the talent, but that doesn’t mean that you are a street guy. … If you play soccer, that doesn’t mean you’re not educated. I had to fight with that philosophy so my parents can let me play soccer. When I came here I always wanted to prove to them that soccer is not something [harmful].”
Wallace Turnbull, who has worked with Baptist Haiti Mission since 1946, recalls an almost innate appreciation for the sport among the island’s youth. He writes of toddlers kicking avocado seeds and the dangers that thorny acacia plants posed to bladder-filled balls. Solid rubber spheres came to be preferred, although much of Haiti’s vegetation has since been sacrificed for charcoal, part of an environmental catastrophe of which topsoil erosion, water pollution and losses in agricultural productivity are the consequence.
In a highly stratified Haitian society, a centuries-old legacy of an exploitative plantation economy, football has offered some consolation for the perennially poor. Qualification for the 1974 World Cup finals and Sanon’s goals against Italy and Argentina, even though Haiti lost all three of its group-stage games in Germany, gave some exposure to what Jean-Philippe Belleau calls “one of those invisible sports nations.”
University of Virginia Haiti expert Robert Fatton speaks of the Duvalier regime’s partial dependence, “for its well-being,” on the national side’s performance in the 1970s and alludes to particular clubs’ associations with society’s upper tiers (see podcast below). To the mind of Robert Duval, founder of L’Athlétique d’Haiti in Cité Soleil, “The elites have always shied away, the people of money have always shied away from soccer.”
He describes, in fact, his grassroots organization as a model of self-sufficiency, relying on local resources (“those who believe in social justice”) and its associations with mobile-phone company Voilà and Yéle Haiti, the foundation of Haitian musician Wyclef Jean, for backing of its soccer, basketball, athletics and education programs. Given food riots in April, Duval said he now must devise a sustainable agriculture program, on top of his efforts to back a Caribbean soccer league as an alternative to the Haitian system. Although L’Athlétique, established in 1996, has contributed players to the senior national side, Duval says of Fédération Haïtienne de Football, “They don’t give us a dime.”
Sanon and other players from 1974 had their own tribulations with Haitian soccer authorities. Le Nouvelliste, a French-language newspaper in Port-au-Prince, characterized a meeting between the Préval government and representatives of the 1974 team in May 07 as a reconciliation, a belated recognition of what the players had done to place Haiti on the map of world sport. Writer Enock Néré says the meeting “was an act deserving of the [René] Préval government and served to reconcile these heroes, frustrated to have been abused and cheated, without shame, by unscrupulous leaders” (“Pour dire adieu à Emmanuel Sanon,” Mar 5).
The power of deeds such as Sanon’s and those of his teammates lies, however, in their capacity to reach the population directly, without mediation from authorities. Fatton’s connection to this generation of Haitian players came almost accidentally. After living in Spain, he had developed his own artistic flair for prolonged cries of gól and came to the attention of Radio Métropole. “Suddenly,” Fatton recalls, a Métropole producer “gave me the microphone and said, ‘You’re on.’ And that was it. I was on.” A resident of Pétion-ville, Fatton had the opportunity to see Sanon’s rise through local side Don Bosco, a small club compared to Port-au-Prince teams with large followings. The team won the national championship in 1971 for the first time. Feeling for the 1974 national team, says Fatton, was accentuated as a result of the poor infrastructure for athletic training.
You would see them literally in the streets of Port-au-Prince running, because we had very few places where they could run. They would go up the road to Pétion-ville, which is a very tough, long kind of a ride. You would see them several times a week running for four or five kilometers on that very painful road. It was extremely hot. They knew they were representing the country.
Images from Sanon’s 2½-hour state funeral in Haiti on Mar 5 remained fresh in mind two months later. Emmanuel Sanon Jr., asked to dedicate the Miami park, appeared in casual clothes, in contrast to the dark suit in which he had been pictured on Haitian state television in March, along with political leaders such as President Préval and Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis (Alexis was dismissed in April).
Sanon’s funeral had packed Stade Sylvio Cator, named after the Haitian long-jumper and 1928 Olympic silver medalist. Sanon’s death inspired a deluge of homage in the Haitian press, recalling him as the “poto mitan” of Haitian sport. The phrase refers to the center pole of vodou ritual. Sanon had been recognized as a centerpiece of Haitian expression even before his exploits in Munich in 1974. The song “Toup pou yo,” rendered by renowned compas (konpa) musician Jean Elie Telfort (“Cubano”) and released before the World Cup journey, helped make both Sanon and Telfort household names.
The idea of christening the Little Haiti park in honor of Sanon had been hatched only weeks before the opening as city leaders grappled with a contentious suggestion to name the entire Little Haiti project, also including a community center and culture complex, after late Miami Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr.
Teele had been involved in initial meetings on the park in the late 1990s, but his name now is uttered in hushed tones. Tarnished by allegations of corruption, in 2005 he committed suicide in the lobby of the Miami Herald. Present commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, whose constituency also includes Overtown and Liberty City, said the city would name the forthcoming community center after Teele. A public-address announcer dedicated the last goal in the final friendly game to Teele’s memory.
Having spent $25 million on the park, the city did not settle for school-size soccer fields surrounded by metal bleachers. The vision from the beginning was large, originally to encompass 60 acres of blighted industrial ground and trailer parks. Scaled back, the Sanon park nevertheless sets a high standard for urban, public-access soccer destinations, including a grandstand with transluscent cover—essential in the South Florida sun—and floodlights. But members of the Miami soccer community had to turn in embarrassment May 3 at the sight of players changing behind the few trees scattered about. Showers were arranged at a nearby high school.
Spence-Jones acknowledged that the city had not approached the U.S. Soccer Foundation for support, although the USSF sets money aside for development of fields in urban centers. City leaders only learned that changing rooms would be required with recent formation of a soccer committee to help guide the development. “It’s crazy,” Spence-Jones said. “The point is we’re here now. We can at least expand and at least the community will have something.”
Little Haiti had not before had its own park. That it had to fight so long for a place to showcase the Haitian national sport can be read against a long struggle to escape, as Haitians, from overriding perceptions of a dysfunctional people that cannot govern themselves. Comments at public forums preceding the park’s opening gave voice to fears from local business owners that the facility would become another crime center once the inevitable deterioration had occurred.
The park reconnects, via another vital cultural avenue, a vast diaspora community to its heritage. This becomes obvious in passing through the Little Haiti Cultural Center before the soccer matches, where works of local artists as well as paintings from sister city Jacmel, Haiti, occupy new exhibition space. Spence-Jones intends the exchanges to be ongoing, in the visual arts as well as in football.
L’Athlétique’s appearance was the anticipated event of opening day. Duval reclined with pleasure, elbows propped on a grandstand railing, and watched his coaches and charges, many on their first trip to the United States, put the Brazilian-inspired futebol arte on display for eager locals who filled the stand and stood behind police tape ringing the field. Any display of native technical ability from the much smaller Haitian side, opposed by an improvised lineup of talented high school players from Miami, drew cheers. When a diminutive Haitian defender calmly executed a drag-back to evade a towering striker close to his own goal, supporters burst into song and shouts, celebrating the young Haitian’s willingness to play his way out of trouble.
There was no question that the crowd was here to back the team from Cité Soleil. Men in the grandstand wadded up American money and threw bills onto the pitch at halftime. L’Athlétique players put the money into their bags; later, city workers trolled the area in front of the stand, collecting cash in hats. The Haitian team won 4–1.
The work with footballers from Haiti’s most impoverished neighborhood has become “more real” to Duval than his earlier advocacy for democracy and social justice. Such advocacy had earned him confinement in the Casernes Dessalines during the Duvalier regime. (Cells in the military barracks, now planned for preservation as a museum, provide the setting for the culminating tale in Miami writer Edwidge Danticat‘s book of linked stories, The Dew Breaker.) At Casernes, Duval witnessed the deaths of hundreds of his fellows; the former footballer for Violette AC of Port-au-Prince withered, dropping to 90 lbs. Intervention by Jimmy Carter secured the release of Duval and of 105 other political prisoners in 1977.
What Haiti has lacked to this point, according to President Préval, is an accounting of and reconciliation following the Duvalier period from 1957 to 1986. Nostalgia for the jobs, electricity and overseas-study opportunities during the father-son dictatorship suggests that memories of the period’s horrors have not been secured. “In the Protestant faith, when people convert, they speak,” said Préval. “They talk to remove all of their sins from their conscience. That is what we need” (Jacqueline Charles, “Haiti Keeps Alive the Truth of Past Evils,” Miami Herald, Jan 2).
In soccer, fading domestic glories have heightened support for Argentina and for African teams but, above all, for Brazil. Haitian soccer fans, writes Belleau, refer to themselves as “Brazilians.” After 1974, “Haitian society had no occasion to access the acts of collective communion such as those that took place in the [World Cup] participating countries. In the idea the peoples create of themselves, an international victory in soccer yields symbolic capital, and this is precisely because soccer is the most popular sport … the only truly universal religion.”
Along with religious parallels, soccer also offers suitable analogy for Haitian persistence, at home and in diaspora, in working in solidarity to facilitate new businesses, community improvements and education. Soccer fits well with a collectivist tradition of which anthropologist Mark Schuller writes. He quotes a Haitian proverb, bourikchaje pa kanpe—“The overloaded donkey can’t stand still.”
If you face many problems at once, you must keep going.
Stéphanie Renauld Armand, A Taste for Haiti: Haitian Creole Cuisine (n.p.: S. R. Armand, 2004); Jean-Philippe Belleau, “The Country That Would Be Brazil: Soccer, Representations, and Identity in Haiti,” trans. Sophie Hawkes (paper presented at the International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, 2000); Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker (New York: Knopf, 2006); Robert Fatton Jr., “Haiti: The Saturnalia of Emancipation and the Vicissitudes of Predatory Rule,” Third World Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2006): 115–33; Amélie Gauthier, “Haiti: Empty Stomachs, Stormy Politics,” Open Democracy, 21 Apr 08; Kimberly Green, Once There Was a Country: Revisiting Haiti (documentary, 53 min., Green Family Foundation, 2004); Peter Hallward, “Option Zero in Haiti,” New Left Review 27 (May–June 2004): 23–47; Gepsie M. Metellus, Leonie M. Hermantin, and Sophia Lacroix, “Effective Outreach Strategies in the Haitian/Haitian-American Community of Miami–Dade County,” Working Paper Series: SL WPS 04 (Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, Miami), June 2005; Mark Schuller, “Haitian Food Riots Unnerving but Not Surprising,” Worldpress.org, 29 Apr 08.
More than 2,000 packed Little Haiti Soccer Park on Aug 2 for an exhibition between Miami FC and the Haitian national team, according to the Miami Herald. The game ended 1–1.