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An almost uncountable number of Haitian migrants are in transit throughout Latin America at this very moment. From the warm Caribbean waters to the steepest mountains of the Andes, from the tropical forests to the arid Mexican deserts, Haitian migrants are everywhere. Overcoming the limit of what human beings can handle, every day they draw another geography: a geography of possibility.
How can we explain this massive displacement of Haitians? What kind of life can they claim once installed in a foreign land? Why, today, do they still take roads to other destinations? Searching for these answers in the Brazilian context, photojournalist Pierre Michel Jean was invited by Lanchonete.org and FOKAL (Fondation Connaissance et Liberté) to live in the city of São Paulo for three months and closely observe the Haitian community there.
São Paulo is a city with its own history of migration. This migration is both internal, with people coming from the north and northeast of Brazil, and international—it is the city with the highest Japanese population outside of Japan. Nowadays, as a result of a recent wave of newcomers from Africa and Latin America, street businesses and restaurants with foreign cuisines have notably been popping up around the city center.
The Haitian community, however, has its own characteristics. The number of Haitian immigrants has been increasing since Brazil and Haiti signed a humanitarian agreement in January 2012. In São Paulo, they are mostly concentrated in the neighborhoods of Glicerio and Cambuci, strikingly separated from surrounding communities.
Questions of assimilation and integration were on his mind while living in the community. One significant phenomenon he noticed was Haitian men and women who bleached their skin as a way to appear Brazilian by passing as mixed race. This suggested assimilation is a reproduction of a logic intricately linked to a colonial legacy in which Brazilian culture and mind are historically related. Haiti and Brazil differ in this respect; while Haiti’s independence came with the first successful slave revolt, Brazil’s independence was declared by the colonizer.
This tension stemming from Haiti’s unique independence is present in the photos of Pierre Michel Jean that unmask not only the reality Haitians face in the second largest Latin American metropolis, but also their will to be recognized as citizens wherever they chose their new homes.
Throughout his residency, Pierre Michel found that, due to the current political and economic situation, hundreds of Haitians are now making their way to the United States, using Brazil as their trampoline. As reported by NPR in February of this year, approximately 5,000 Haitians have amassed at the U.S.-Mexico border, and according to Mexican officials nearly 4,500 are currently in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It was still under President Obama’s administration that the doors were shut on the Haitians, even though there had been a program to let them enter the United States on humanitarian grounds. It is unlikely that the situation will change under Donald Trump’s administration and his anti-immigration policies. Alternately, it appears that many of the Haitians have now resigned to making new lives in Mexico.
Because Haitians are typically fleeing poverty and not political persecution, asylum is not granted anywhere, making everything more difficult, as returning to Haiti is not an option.
In the Latin American context, one inspiring response to this complex social issue is the Housing movement in São Paulo, specifically from one building known as the Cambridge Hotel Occupation. Since 2015 the occupation has opened their doors to migrants, after a proposal made by Carmen Silva, leader of the Downtown Roofless Movement (MSTC). According to her: “We are all refugees from public policies; why not open our doors to foreigners to strengthen our forces?” This belief in micropolitics, in which different struggles can come together and reinforce one another in a more and more exclusionary world, is where we should keep our hopes.
[All photos by Pierre Michel Jean, resident with Lanchonete.org in São Paulo in 2016. See more at: episodiohaiti.lanchonete.org]
Raphael Daibert is a researcher, cultural producer and activist based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is a founding member of Lanchonete.org and also part of the pedagogical and artistic experiment Free Home University, in Lecce, Italy.