Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince is a new book of oral histories from Haiti. Compiled over the course of four years, starting in 2012, writer Peter Orner and physician Evan Lyon took a non-academic approach: "no message, no lesson, no comprehensive answers, no quick fixes." Rather, their book aims to "debunk the oversimplified notions of life in Haiti, and particularly Port-au-Prince, by providing the curious reader a multiplicity of voices." The book, which came out last week as part of Verso's urgent Voice of Witness series, focuses on what it's like living inside the Haitian capital—"a testimonial city," writes Edwidge Danticat in the book's excellent foreword, "a city of seen and unseen scars." Lavil is a powerful collection of these testimonies, which include tales of violence, poverty, and instability but also joy, hustle, and the indomitable will to survive.
In the following excerpt, we hear the story of Jean Pierre Marseille, a 44-year-old father of six and jack of all trades: journalist, fixer, translator, salesman. Originally born in the Bahamas in 1971 (though no birth records exist), Jean Pierre grew up in Cap-Haïtien on the northern coast of Haiti. He was brought to the US at 12 years old by two strangers his mother had hired. As a teenager in Florida, he got into dealing drugs at 15 in order to gain the social status he craved. He was deported back to Haiti in 1994, where he's faced numerous dangers and struggles in Port-au-Prince before eventually marrying and turning his life around. With the Trump administration's decision to renew temporary protected status through only January, deportation from the US currently hangs more than 50,000 Haitians. Jean Pierre's story is particularly timely in how it shows what potentially life-threatening pitfalls await even the most resourceful and resilient deportees.
—James Yeh, culture editor
I remember it so well. By then, I was 22. Around four o'clock one day, a US marshal comes to our house in a four-door gray car and knocks on the door—boom boom boom boom. My mom goes to the door. The guy said that he had a warrant for my arrest. My mother said, "What for?" The guys said for "a failure to appear for driving under a suspended license and possession of marijuana." A $5 bag of weed. The marshal said, "Don't worry. Just a simple violation charge." When I went to court that Monday, I was afraid, but deportation was nowhere on my mind. The judge told me that, personally, he'd give me time served, but that I had an immigration hold. I thought, Man, this must be a mistake. I have my green card. I called my mom. She found my green card and brought it to court.
Because, you see, you couldn't be deported under Reagan if you had a green card. He was president when I arrived in the United States in 1982. I was 12 when I first came to Florida. I always tell whites from the US that I meet, "You know who my favorite president is? Ronald Reagan." And they can't believe it. "Why do you like Ronald Reagan, man? He was a terrible president." Not for us! Haitians in the United States love Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made it clear—if you had been in the US for over five years, you could have a green card; they would not deport you. I got my green card with the help of Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton became president in 1994. And Clinton's new deportation law hit me like a rock. It turned out you could be deported if you had a green card. If your crime was bad enough.
And my crime was bad enough. I should say crimes. Because my deportation was not based on a single crime. It was an accumulation of crimes. But the fact is you only need one minor felony to get deported. When I appeared in court on the possession, the judge and an immigration official told me they'd been looking for me since my first major charge—a felony for throwing a deadly missile, a brick, into an occupied vehicle. But the reason I got deported was because of a conspiracy charge. It's called "conspiracy to deliver or purchase cocaine within a thousand feet of a school zone." They charged me with that, but they didn't find any drugs. I was selling drugs, but I never got arrested for selling drugs. First it was the possession charge, and then I got roped into the whole conspiracy thing. So they had an immigration hearing and I lost. They put me in the county jail. But they said if Immigration didn't come to get me within a month, they had no choice but to release me. I asked the guard, "Does Immigration not come sometimes?" He said, "Sometimes they don't." So I was counting every day. Twenty-nine days later, a guard called out: "Jean Marseille, [my birth name]." They came at the very last minute. Immigration shackled my feet and wrapped a chain around my waist. For the first time, I really felt like a prisoner. They transferred me to three other county jails until I finally got to Oakdale, Louisiana, a federal detention center where there's a federal administration department and immigration court where they keep people that are about to get deported. I saw these big barbed-wire fences. It was also the first time in my life I saw snow.
"The US marshals went back to their plane. I was getting very scared now. And these Haitian cops started asking us for money."
I didn't think about Haiti very much after my grandmother died when I was in the eighth grade. I didn't go back for the funeral. I couldn't. And I'd never gone back to visit. Never. Not once after I came to the US I thought I was American. I pretended to be anyway. But once I was in Oakdale, I got interested because I knew I had no chance of fighting the deportation. I started studying up on events in Haiti. From what I heard on the news, [Haiti's first democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand] Aristide had gotten pushed out of the country and he wasn't being allowed to come back. His supporters were getting killed in the streets. I also read that the Makouts were back and out there raping and shooting people. I tried to understand the situation there, what kind of environment it was. How could I live in a place with so much violence? Was there even any electricity? What about the roads? And I also heard from someone at Oakdale that deportees sent there were getting shot when they arrived at the airport.
While I was waiting for my deportation hearing, my mom sent me a letter and told me something amazing. She said she went to Haiti with all this pèpè [clothing collected from international donations] and made a killing. And do you know what she did with the money? She bought me a house in Port-au-Prince. Seriously. The house I live in now. She knew I was going to get deported and did her best to set me up here. She sent me the address of her cousin, and told me to contact her when I got to Port-au-Prince.
After a couple months, I had my deportation hearing. My public defender spoke well but didn't know much about me because I had only met him the day of the hearing. And I had a criminal record, so what could he do? The judge sentenced me to deportation.
In the middle of the night, US marshals came and got me and another Haitian guy, a friend of mine named Geral. Once again, I was shackled. I felt so stupid. I wasn't a dangerous person. Why should I be shackled? They put us on a small, private plane like a Learjet, a US marshal's plane. It was not a commercial flight. There were three Jamaicans—dreads—on the plane. They dropped the Jamaicans off first. But only two were taken off. And I'm like, "Yo, man, why you here? I thought you was a Jamaican?" Then, for the first time this guy spoke Kreyol, he says, "I'm Haitian, too." And I said, "All this time we're together on the plane, you're hiding that you're Haitian?" He said, "I have nowhere to go." He was terrified. So was I. I was thinking, "These Haitians are going to kill us." They weren't supposed to deport anybody to Haiti at that time because Haiti was considered unstable. It was so bad that they had already stopped commercial flights to Haiti. But they brought us on a US marshal plane. These Americans were ditching us.
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When the plane touched down, the US marshals grabbed me and the other guy, and took us with our cuffs on down the ramp. It was kind of like when Obama gets off the plane with the Secret Service, walking down the stairs, waving. Except when I got off the plane in Haiti, I saw dead bodies on the tarmac. You think I'm joking? The marshals took us into the Haitian police station in the airport and said, "These two guys were deported." The marshals didn't speak Kreyol, and there was no translator. The Haitian cops didn't understand English. So I translated. My Kreyol was at least understandable. It wasn't as great as it is now, but I left Haiti speaking Kreyol, and I had always spoken Kreyol with my mother. The marshals took the handcuffs off and were like, "Here you are." They handed the three of us to the Haitian cops and took their handcuffs back with them. They went back to their plane. I was getting very scared now. And these Haitian cops started asking us for money.
Before I had signed my name agreeing to deportation, the US marshals gave me ten bucks. That's the money they give to everybody who is getting deported. I also had a little extra money that my parents sent me from my account stashed under my balls. It was like a hundred bucks total. I said, "Hey, listen, I've got family in the government. I'm of the family of Madame and Mr. Charles Cherenfant. Charles Cherenfant was my mom's cousin's husband, a guy who used to work at the White House with Duvalier, an old Makout. He had been shot once and was famous for having only one hand. Because Aristide was gone, the Makouts were in power again. "Oh!" One cop heard the name. "Let me see the address." He looked at the paper I had carried, and said, "You. You move to the side. I know the family." He sat me down. I pointed to Geral, "He's with me." And so me and Geral waited there until that officer was off work. He was so nice to me. The other guy, the dread—I don't know what the hell happened to him.
Outside of the airport, the day was cloudy. There was smoke in the streets and soldiers. We didn't take a car. We walked from the police station. We walked for about an hour through fields and past shanty houses. Again, I saw dead bodies. It turned night. Dark. And I'm nervous. I offer the cop ten dollars, but he doesn't take it. I'm thinking that this cop is going to shoot me in the bushes. And if we do make it to the house I'm wondering—will this woman, my mom's cousin, remember me? Is this cop really a good guy? Will these people accept me? It's been 11 years since I left. All these things were on my mind.
We reached a house, and the cop called out, "Madame Cherenfant. Madame Cherenfant!" My auntie—she's not really my auntie, but I call her that—comes out. She looks at me. "You Jocelyn's kid?" I felt like somebody who was choking that finally gets fresh air. I said, "Yeah." Ahh, it felt really good. I looked behind me. The cop had disappeared. I never saw him again. To this day, I haven't seen that cop again.
My auntie took us in. That first night she cooked us fish. Couple days later Geral went on his way, somewhere. Soon things became pretty tough for me. I mean, I didn't know anybody. No one at all. And Haitians were suspicious of American deportees. They thought all American deportees were killers and murderers and thieves. I had a bald head then and had a lot of gold teeth. Also, I was really fat. Like 195 pounds. Huge belly. Now I weigh 155, 160. People were scared as hell of me. I was the first deportee in my neighborhood.
Then my auntie began stealing the food that my mom was sending me. She'd hide it in her room. Also, she tried to give me a curfew. I just got out of prison, and I have to be back at the house by eight o'clock? Remember I'm 22 years old. I wanted to find a girl. I was lonely. I dressed up and walked around the neighborhood, talking to people with my messed-up Kreyol, trying to get my groove on. But nobody would give me a chance.
Not long after, I met this guy named Fenix. He took me to his house and let me meet his wife and daughter, and we had a real big dinner. He made believe that I was his friend. In Haitian slang, he says, "I know you done been through war 'cause you were deported, you know how to shoot a gun, you know how to do all that stuff, right?" I said, "Yeah, I can do that. I'm tough." I didn't want the guy to think I was a wussie. He explained the plan. It had to do with stealing gas. Back in those days, there were a lot of people selling gas because Haiti had an embargo on it. There was no gas coming in, and so gas was very expensive. We were going to go to a big open field by the airport and rob some gas merchants. And you know, I was tired of sitting at home in my auntie's house. So I said, "OK, I'll do it." I figure I have to do something. How can I make it in this place? Can I make it as a robber? Maybe I can buy some fresh clothes and look good. Maybe I can get some money and get back to the States somehow.
The next day, we parked the getaway car and walked into the big open field by the airport. There was a goat track you would follow through the wild grass. Fenix stopped walking and pulled out a .38. He said, "Here's the gun. You pull the gun out on them, and I'll collect the money." I had an uneasy feeling. I mean, we're talking about gasoline. If I shoot that gun, shit could blow up. I said, "Yeah, give me the gun."
He gave it to me, and I took about five or ten steps back and pulled the gun on him. I said, "You're going to take me home. What are you bringing me on a suicide mission for?" Fenix was scared. Remember, he thinks I'm a high-class criminal from the United States. He says, "Yo, yo, yo, calm down! I'll take you home. Come on, man. Put down the gun." I was shaking. I put the gun in my pants. Back in the car, I told him, "Look, I didn't come here to die ugly." When we got to my aunt's house, I took out the .38, took out the bullets, and gave Fenix back the gun. I said, "Come get your bullets in the morning." I was happy to be alive. I realized that that was not the way out.
I figure I have to do something. How can I make it in this place? Can I make it as a robber? Maybe I can buy some fresh clothes and look good. Maybe I can get some money and get back to the States somehow.
Three months later, I was so embarrassed about my deportation and myself that I removed all the gold from my teeth. I still didn't have any friends. I needed some kind of support that was family, so I went back to Cap-Haïtien. My wife—she wasn't my wife yet—agreed to come live with me in Port-au-Prince. But I had to start making a living. I had enrolled in a program they had to help deportees reintegrate into society. I learned Haitian history and some French. I knew that I needed to know where the heck I was, how to get myself out of certain situations, get information, have a conversation. I found out later that program was just a hustle, but that was OK. The little bit of French helped me get jobs. I could understand French-speaking communities.
Then came the American invasion that brought Aristide back. That saved my life. All those Americans spoke English, and I could relate. The soldiers knew I was a deportee. I didn't have to tell them. The way I talked, the way I looked, my goatee, everything. They knew I wasn't from here. And they didn't know what they were doing here. People were getting rowdy in the streets, and people were killing Makouts—but those soldiers were helpless. I was able to get work, and sell them boots and hustle. I helped them get their freak on, got them weed, packs of cigarettes. They'd give me 20 bucks for a pack of cigarettes. "Keep the change, man. I got you, man. Keep the change."
Around the same time, I got my first real translating job. I went to the airport, and I saw this heavyset white guy with dark hair and some shorts on coming off the plane, and I said, "Hey, you speak English?"
He did, and he worked for NPR News.
I said, "You need somebody to translate for you?"
That's how Money G started getting his hustle on.
If I had stayed in Florida, I would have died in Florida.
If given the choice I would rather come back here a thousand times over going to prison in the US. In some ways now, I figure it was God's plan for me to get arrested and deported. I was either going to shoot somebody, or I was going to get caught up in some crossfire. No question in my mind, if I had stayed in Florida, I would have died in Florida. I wouldn't have my wife and my kids, the people who inspire me, that keep me alive.
Listen, I'm shit in the United States. I'm nothing but a drug dealer, a convicted felon. So getting deported to Haiti was the best thing that happened to me. I've never been in trouble in Haiti. I have a clean record and a good driver's license. I don't steal shit from the people I work with. I don't have no bad reputation. I'm a respected journalist who has worked with the LA Times and the Miami Herald. I'm working real hard so my kids won't have to hustle. I work as a translator, but I do other types of trades in order to make it. I sell Coca-Cola drinks. I have a charcoal business—I sell charcoal made from wood for boiling water and cooking. I sell bags of water, those see-through plastic bags, you see that are sold all over the neighborhoods. Yeah, I sell water, too. Because everything costs something in Port-au-Prince. You gotta buy water. Lucky for me, I have a refrigerator and a freezer at home, so I buy gallon bags for $3 or $4 and freeze them. They sell faster.
Our house is open for business. My wife sells the charcoal. She also sells pèpè and rice and beans out of the house. People come to her. I'm a positive type of guy. I always think I'll be able to pull off a business. No matter what type of business I'll try it and see if I can make it work. Every job's a hustle. There's a word for hustle in Kreyol. Brase. That word's used all the time.
A shortened version of Jean Pierre's longer story excerpted from Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-Au-Prince, edited by Peter Orner and Evan Lyon, by arrangement with Verso Books. Special thanks to senior associate editor Laura Scott and Jean Pierre Marseille.