The (Mawr)velous Adventures of Esteniolla

"...we got so caught up in school being a tradition that we stopped using it as a learning tool..." --Tupac

Still Coming to Terms with my Haitian Identity...

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I wrote a blog post that would capture how heavy I have been feeling this past week about being an English speaking Haitian-American woman who grew up in a bilingual house. Then, I deleted it all. As I re-read what I wrote, I realized that my sentiments were no different from the ones I expressed in the college essay that got me into this great institution. Therefore, it bothered me a lot to know that I am still grappling with the same identity-related questions from two years ago. This realization does not speak to my inability to grow and to own my Haitian identity because I have in ways that I am not able to articulate—I simply feel it. But it does speak to the amount of personal-growth that still needs to be done—i.e. no more feeling like I am not 100% Haitian, no more feeling like I have to be fluent in the  language to be a part of the culture, and no more feeling like I have to prove to anyone but myself that I can claim the culture.

So, in sharing my college essay from two years ago, I am making myself vulnerable to my deepest embarrassment and greatest pride: being Haitian. It is my hope that others will read, relate and realize their own battle with cultural identity no matter their cultural background.  

 

Esteniolla Maitre

Personal Essay for Bryn Mawr College

November 11, 2010

 “Again.”

“Bon-di . . . e deee. Se poo lime fet- . . .”

“Esteniolla you are saying it wrong. Again.”

“I'm trying! Bon-die dee. Se poo lime- . . .”

“Wrong.”

I looked down as my mother’s weathered bible shook in my hands. My eyes filled with tears and the Haitian phonetics blurred from sight.

“We can try again t-t-t-tomorrow Mommy. I'm done,” I choked.

“Ou mèt ale.”

I fled up the stairs to my room, slamming the door with force: BANG! The sound reverberated through the wooden floor, my body, and my heart. I was embarrassed. I hated being forced to learn Kreyòl . Numerous times, I sat before my mother, clutching the book of God, failing to stress syllables, tripping over my tongue, ending each session with the scriptures splotched with tears. My mother did not understand why her language did not run through my blood and spill fluently from my mouth in its musical French phrases.

I did not expect her to understand for I had told no one about the brutal bullying I received from kids at school. To them, Haitians, Haitian-Americans, recent Haitian immigrants were all social pariahs and targets of ridicule. Even when my skin blended with the dark shades of my peers — my school community was about 80 percent African American, Cape Verdean, and Latinos —  a bully would always single me out on the playground with  “Hey, I found a Haitian!” I soon learned that we Haitians were spotted by what we wore (Sunday best clothing even if it was not Sunday), smelled like (supposedly like the fisheries boarding Haiti’s peninsula), and our coarse, thick hair (which the bullies said, “broke mad combs!! Hahahaha!!!”). Negative remarks about my culture struck me like lashes on my back. I was scarred. I got their message: being Haitian was dirty, despicable, and shameful. So, I dropped the culture like a bad habit and conformed to please my bullies. I dressed in the latest fashions, followed the latest fads, sprayed on extra perfume, relaxed my hair, even adopted the Hispanic culture as my own — anything to rid myself from being Haitian.

Years later, these experiences led me to protect myself but also taught me to sympathize with other kids who have  been much less fortunate than I — Phoebe Prince from North Hampton, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover from Springfield, and Tyler Clementi, whose roommate “outed” him with a live video  —  a humiliation that led him to jump off of the George Washington Bridge. I wondered if, in hiding my identity back then, I was being courageous. . . or cowardly.

Only when alone in my room, either after a grueling Kreyòl lesson or a horrible day at school, I allowed myself to feel the guilt and shame that came with hiding. I knew that erasing my culture was hurting my mother and eroding my identity, but I was not yet strong enough to own that part of me. Instead, I spent countless nights masking my hurt by reading books. I devoured Mildred D. Taylor, Tupac Shakuar, and Maya Angelou, all of whom wrote about characters of color struggling to come to terms with themselves. I empathized with Paul-Edward from The Land, as he dealt with feelings of alienation growing up as a bi-racial teenager in post-slavery Mississippi.  In “The Rose Who Grew from Concrete,” by Tupac Shakuar, I was the beautiful rose who was fragrant, not malodorous, when sniffed, who broke from the concrete layers of guilt, shame, and embarrassment to immerse herself in the sun rays of self- and social acceptance. When my imagination ran empty, I delved into the life of poet, Maya Angelou. As “a caged bird,” I longed to free myself from my own fears of rejection, to free my bullies from their ignorance, and to fly to a place where they do more than give lip service to diversity

As I read more books, the stories were no longer words on paper, they were me. I grew braver with each character I met, knowing that I, too, would not tolerate discrimination and would declare my identity to my bullies without fear. To this day, my journey toward self-acceptance is ongoing, but I am comfortable with being a young woman of Haitian descent. Freed from shame, I have immersed myself in Haitian literature by the Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat, a woman who has also faced adversity for being Haitian, and writes beautifully about Haiti’s courage and strength despite years of federal corruption and poverty. In Krik? Krak!, a collection of stories, Danticat writes about the courage of Haitian women, in particular, and how, despite the government’s collapse, they hold family and life together. In one story in particular, a girl named Grace, whose family is living in America, has to negotiate between her mother’s traditional values and her own American identity. This captured my dilemma exactly and gave me a model that showed me that I’d be forever centered in the middle of two identities — part Haitian and part American.

I had this epiphany about identity while a student on a thirty-day scholarship trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where I explored the arts and the culture. While there, I also discovered a world filled with cultural festivities, delicious food, welcoming families, generous individuals, and a life of contentment. I was there and had learned Spanish, thinking it would replace the culture I tried to erase for years. Of course, I was absolutely wrong. Sitting in the green garden of the Arte Institute del Oaxaca, I thought about Krik? Krak! and the fact that I was not Hispanic — that as beautiful as this culture and language was, it was not my culture. For me to experience a similar feeling of contentment, I had to have the courage to accept myself as Haitian.

Now, I want to read, write, speak, and learn to love the language of my mother. I want to share the knowledge I’ve gained: that “hiding from bullies” is a form of self protection, which can keep you safe for a while — but that ultimately; you have to find the courage to accept who you are. If I were to meet my bullies today, I’d say, “Yes, I am Haitian!” And with my education, I plan to find ways to bring my self-acceptance to the people of Haiti, to witness their courage in the face of recent calamities, to help them rebuild their bodies, lives, and enjoy their beautiful culture. I have always been called a leader and I plan to devote my energies to do something useful in the world — and I can think of no better place for my work than Haiti.

Until I find myself an institution that understands women of courage, and will help me accomplish my goals — and I feel that Bryn Mawr is that institution above all others —  I am comfortable with the company of my books, with the memories of Oaxaca, with learning everything I can about Haiti from the news, and with reciting the bible in Kreyòl to my mother.

“Bondye di, 'se pou limyè fèt.' Epi limyè te fèt!”  I declared.

My mother smiled and translated: “God said, ‘Let There Be Light,’ and then there was light.”

 

 

11 Comments

  1. I really like this Esty. I am also so happy that I was part of the reason why you posted this. I think this is an issue that faces many first generation kids today, including myself. Reading this actually makes me feel like I'm not the only one who is going through this. Good job!!!!

  2. Hi Esty,

    I took interest in reading your story because of the title. It's daring... yet so true and so real. You to haveyou no ideaavail how many young Haitians had the same experienced. Are you near Philadelphia? Do you know there is a very active Haitian Community in Philadelphia? I am confident you could be of help to many young Haitians who are or were facing the same identify crisis you experienced. If you would like to contribute to their story let me know. You'll be surprised the impact you will have on them.

    I am glad you met Wyclef. I hope I meet you some day.

    Best and do not hesitate to contact me.

    GranZepon.

    • Yes, I am aware and I am actually looking at ways to be involved. I really need to do more research. Thank you for comment.

  3. Excellent Piece!!!

    I can certainly relate to your story although I was born and raise in Haiti. The main issue which still bothers me today is - Why did my some of my Afro-American peers found it necessary to intimidate and tried to assault every new Haitian students that arrived at the school… I hope you achieve your dreams and keep up Haitian evolution in you!

    Manny,

  4. Esteniolla
    This is a beautiful essay and one that many can identify with. Not only Haitian American but in fact many 1st or 2nd generation or ump-teenth generation. I constantly struggled and still do struggle with my identity of being Puerto Rican. I have had people tell me I wasn't "a real Puerto Rican" because I didn't speak Spanish. In fact it is usually other Puerto Ricans who are so quick to deny my identity and in a sense my experience as a second generation Puerto Rican. Slowly I have been coming to terms with my identity so that only I can define what it means to be Puerto Rican and will not allow others to deny my experience and claims to my identity.

    Kudos to you for not allowing your experience...and many others... to be silenced!

    • Thank you for sharing your own story with me. Yes, this issue affects multiple cultures and generations. I like knowing that I am not alone.

  5. Although I was aware of bullying of Haitians when I immigrated here many moons ago as a young teenager, I never personally experienced it. At the time, it wasn't fashionable to be Haitian, but, burried in my heart I carried with me the pride of being me, and never wishing to be anything else, of knowing that what I had, my food, my culture, my ability to speak two languages, were superior to what anyone else had. In the eighties and nineties, Haiti experience a change which affected Haitians more than any other caribbean nation. The prevailing insecurity prevented us from visiting our native country and moreover, from sending our kids to live their infancy and childhood there so as to immerse in the culture, and to learn who they are, a custom so prevalent the decades prior. Kids your age are the most affected by this menace to destroy of our culture. Fortunately, culture transcends all adversities, and so here you are, thanks to tour mother, embracing who you are to assure that your progeny will know of, and be proud of their Haitian heritage. I'm proud of you.

  6. Wawwwww, I love this. The funny thing about this is that I am just about to write my essay to Bryn Mawr College. I enjoyed reading your essay. That was a wonderful job you did there.
    Amazing
    Keep it up

    • Thank you Fabiola! Good luck writing your college essay! I'm sure it'll be great! Let me know if you have any questions about Bryn Mawr--I would love to help.

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