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

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.

Goat’s-meat pie with rice adds savor to a display of futebol arte, the preferred Haitian expression of the game.

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:

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