By Raphael Daibert and Pierre Michel Jean
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, 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.
Lanchonete.org is a five-year project that started in 2013 as an artist-led, progressive cultural platform based in the center of São Paulo and focused on how people live in, work in, and share the contemporary city. The project is named after the ubiquitous lunch counters that populate almost every street corner of the city and are the sites of interesting social interactions in open spaces. The platform relates to an idea of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre: the right to the city. In Lefebvre’s words, this notion demands “a transformed and renewed access to urban life.”
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.
Throughout his residency, Jean 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.
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 for 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 of be recognized as citizens wherever they chose their new homes.
Pierre Michel Jean is a photojournalist based in Port-au-Prince. He was invited by Lanchonete.org and FOKAL to complete a three-month residency in São Paulo. Pierre Michel Jean’s entire body of research on Haitians in Sao Paulo can be seen here.
Raphael Daibert is a researcher, cultural producer, and activist based in São Paulo. As a founder of Lanchonete.org, he is coordinating the Zona da Mata project and is the co-curating of a collective curatorial inquiry called Queer City.
[Photos courtesy of Lanchonete.org]