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Haitians adjust to a new pride

Expatriates, some of whom had downplayed their heritage, find camaraderie at eatery.

August 13, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

When Daniel Castin told people he was from Haiti, the response was always the same.

"Isn't that the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere?" they would ask.

So at some point, Castin -- who emigrated to escape poverty at home -- stopped telling people his nationality.

"It's like I was drowning and you were describing the water to me," said Castin, who lives in Pasadena. "Give me a break already."

Roughly 5,750 Haitian immigrants live in California, according to the 2000 U.S. census. But because they are scattered throughout the state and some are reluctant to identify as Haitians, they lack the cohesion of other expatriate communities.

George Laguerre, owner of the popular Haitian restaurant Tigeorges' Chicken, is trying to change that.

Each month at his Echo Park restaurant, Laguerre hosts a gathering for immigrants. By unifying Haitians throughout the Southland, Laguerre believes he and others can help reduce poverty in their homeland by forming organizations to donate food or clothing or to start development projects back home.

At the most recent celebration, several dozen Haitians spent hours dancing to traditional music, eating goat meat and fried plantains and reminiscing.

"What Tigeorges' is doing is unbelievable," said Marc Calix, 36, who came from Santa Monica. "He is bringing Haitians together."

Calix, a neurophysiologist whose grandparents were killed under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, said he used to hide his accent. As he matured, Calix said, he realized the need to recognize the problems that exist in Haiti.

"Yes, we have bad roads and we don't have the best politicians," he said. "In order for Haitians to rise to the top, us Haitians are going to have to do it."

After a recent move from the East Coast, Calix looked up "Haitian food" on the Internet and discovered Tigeorges'.

"I don't care how much you deny it, you are only lying to yourself," he said. "You are always going to crave the food. You are always going to crave the culture. It's something that's in you."

Some say that Haitians' reluctance to embrace their identity stems from the persecution by Duvalier's brutal dictatorship. Others attribute it to an embarrassment about the nation's poverty, crime and corruption. Still others cite the myth that HIV came from Haiti.

Whatever the reason, engineer Remy LaCroix, 54, said Haitians should drop their "inferiority complex" and be proud of their heritage. If they do, LaCroix said, they will be more willing to get involved with organizations such as his, which sends food and medicine to children in Haiti. "Haitians will have a voice," said LaCroix, while listening to music at Tigeorges'. "They don't have a voice in Southern California."

The rise of Haitians such as actor Jimmy Jean-Louis and musician Wyclef Jean has helped some Haitians become more comfortable admitting their heritage. In addition, many Haitian immigrants are encouraged by the government of Rene Preval and the progress he has made in their native country.

"People who were afraid to say they are Haitian are starting to come out," said Wilfrid Colas, 40, a promoter who lives in Orange County.

Though there are more than 2,200 Haitians in Los Angeles County, they have not settled in one area. There are pockets in Inglewood, Los Angeles and Pasadena, said Jean Renaud Guillaume, a pastor at Full Gospel Apostolic Church of God/La Mission Chretienne d'Haiti on West Adams Boulevard.

Guillaume, who gives his sermon in French Creole to about 30 Haitian immigrants each week, said he encouraged his congregants to remember their native country and traditions.

Dorice Ambroise, 47, of Studio City said she rarely sees other Haitians. As a result, Ambroise said, she often feels lost. She sees how strong the Latino communities are and wishes Haitians were the same way. "This is a unique opportunity for me," she said. "This is a place for me to meet other Haitians. I feel a sense of connection."

Laguerre came to the United States in 1970 to attend film school. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles and found a job at a Church's Fried Chicken to pay the bills. "I said to myself, I can do better," he said. That's when he decided that one day, he would open his own restaurant.

He began the monthly gatherings this summer. "Now that I have the confidence in being Haitian," Laguerre said, "I think it's my duty to bring Haitians together."

Castin, who attended the celebration, immigrated more than two decades ago and works as a procurement officer for the federal government. Castin said he now knew that being Haitian wasn't something to be ashamed of -- and that he and other immigrants shouldn't shy from talking about Haiti's problems.

"We have an opportunity," Castin, 47, said. "There are so many of us here in the United States. We have a lot of power from outside."

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