Grassroots | A big day for Haiti, a big day for little Haitians

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).

Manno Sanon sat for an interview in 2007 that includes discussion of his goal against Italy on 15 Jun 1974. (© 2007 www.haitiantreasures.com)

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.”

Fatton

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