Cue the upright bass solo in G minor.
All in a long crescendo.
Haitian Fight Song
“My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one,” said jazz man Charles Mingus about “Haitian Fight Song.” “I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There are sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’”
“Haitian Fight Song” is about the victories of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of slave rebellions in Haiti at the end of the 18th Century. Mingus’s tune was circling in my head as I made my way through the temporary Little Haiti, in downtown Tijuana. Thousands of Haitian refugees have nestled on Calle Primera and Ocampo, near Desayunador Salesiano, informally known as “Padre Chava,” a Catholic nonprofit organization that has helped the poor since 1998.
A few years ago, the nonprofit served thousands of deportees every morning. Lately, videos from several news sources show thousands of Haitians waiting outside, pushing and shoving in desperation for food. Since the 2010 earthquake, it seems Haitians have been in a never-ending humanitarian crisis. Hurricane Matthew of fall 2016 exacerbated the crisis.
But it was in summer of 2016 that hundreds of Haitians started to arrive in Tijuana. More continue to arrive today. Like most migrants that come to Tijuana, they are trying to make it to the United States. Some have family in Miami, where there is an established Little Haiti neighborhood. Some receive money from family members all over the U.S. Some say they are not from Haiti, but from African countries in hopes of getting special treatment.
Tijuanenses have reacted with mixed emotions. Haitians have been headline news and, at times, have been the talk of the city. There is fear. There is acceptance.
“Deporten a todos esos negros” (“Deport all those blacks”), someone comments in a news report. “You sound like Trump,” another responds to the comment.
“Imagine in five years a 6´8˝ black Haitian all crazy on meth robbing you at gunpoint at 2:00 a.m.” someone posts on Facebook.
“Why don’t you imagine them opening a Haitian restaurant and contributing positively?” is the reply.
The restaurant is already a reality, as reported by the Spanish language news site SanDiegoRed. The restaurant is located near Desayunador Salesiano. It’s a mechanic shop with a tiny kitchen that used to serve comida corrida, Mexican-style cheap food. But its proximity to the Haitian refugees prompted them to change their menu.
I arrive around 3:00 p.m. hoping for some Haitian fried chicken. The contrast between one block that feels like Tijuana and the next that feels like Haiti is striking. Twenty Haitians (18 males and 2 females) cluster outside the kitchen next to a junkyard of cars. They want some chicken. I wait behind them in hopes of getting some chicken, too.
A Mexican woman, a teenage girl, and two large Haitian women share the cramped kitchen. Piles of garlic, onions, and peppers sit on the kitchen counter next to a blender. Gigantic pots of chicken boil on top of one stove, while the skillets of oil smoke on the other. Twenty minutes pass and no one is getting food. More hungry Haitians arrive each minute.
“What do you want to take pictures of?” José Luis, the owner of the mechanic shop and kitchen asks me. Despairing of ever getting chicken, I’ve picked my way through the junkyard of cars into the back of the kitchen where José Luis sits on a plastic chair. Two Haitian men move buckets of water from side to side and seem to be doing general help in the workshop and kitchen.
“Se alborotan todos si tomas fotos.” José Luis told me it was best not to take pictures, that people would get upset. “If you take a picture, sometimes they get mad and it is hard to control them. I’d rather you not.”
“Who is the reporter?” Señora Rosalía peers out from the kitchen. “Reporters already came this morning. Give me your [phone] number, I’ll send you pictures when we are not busy.”
“Go over across the street. Over there they are already eating. There are reporters over there, and you can take pictures.” José Luis points me in the direction of Desayunador Salesiano. I take a stroll to where Haitians have been living.
Hundreds of Haitians wander around the two blocks. Some walk aimlessly around the area. A cute Haitian girl catcalls me, but I shy away. They all appear to have nice clothes. Many have smartphones, which they use constantly. They chatter in Haitian Creole, a mixture of French, Portuguese, Spanish, and West African.
Haitians have been scrutinized by journalists since they arrived, and I sense they’re starting to get sick of it. So I remain a casual observer and a friend hungry for some chicken.
“Mademoiselle! Madame! Amigo! Amiga! Comida, mas comida. Yo te pago. Dame cuatro!” José Luis is shouting. Chicken is ready.
I head back to the mechanic shop as they start serving food slowly. The Haitians with 100-, 200-, and 500-peso bills, shout and wave the money. The smell of garlic inflames their impatience and mine.
“Ya pague! Plis comida!” A Haitian finally gets a styrofoam box with poul fri, Haitian fried chicken on a bed of rice and beans, and some steamed onions, chilies, and tomatoes.
“De comida, si. Yo, no.” Before digging into his poul fri, a Haitian allows me to take a picture of his food but not him. The shutter of the camera startles some Haitians waiting for food, and they shout at me. One in particular demands to see the pictures, but others defend me and calm him down. “Si, si, si, el pollo muy bueno,” the Haitian tells me, but shies away when I ask him more questions.
“Celular, ese de alla! El mio. Conecta este. Mismo lugar.” The teenage girl fetchs one of the many phones plugged inside the kitchen as she received another one to be plugged. She apologizes and tells the Haitian that it is barely charged. Another Haitian with three phones and a charger asks to be plugged in.
The chaotic action in the kitchen continues. Señora Rosalía serves meals in styrofoam boxes, José Luis distributes the meals as he takes cash. The Haitian women cook calmly and wear nonchalant smiles. More Haitians crowd outside the kitchen as José Luis demands patience. The chicken meal sells for 40 pesos, roughly $2.25 with the current dollar exchange.
A cameraman from Telemundo arrives with a large video camera and a tripod. He sets up next to the kitchen but the Haitians tell him not to film. He probes around but decides to remain distant.
Sticking out like a sore thumb among the Haitians, I’m intimidated when it comes to getting some chicken. “Amigo, amigo, tu eres alto. Mete, mete. La comida no acaba. Si no mete, no come.” The same Haitian that allowed me to take a picture of his food instructs me that if I want some chicken I’m going to have to nudge my way up through the crowd, otherwise I’ll never eat.
Fortunately, José Luis spots me in the crowd and, after delivering four portions to the Haitian next to me, asks me how many I want. It feels somewhat unfair to get some chicken before so many people waiting (though I have waited longer than many of the Haitians). I give José Luis 200 pesos for my two portions and walk away.
A few steps from the kitchen, a Haitian woman carrying a baby and a man holding a bag of diapers wait for the crowd to disperse. I offer them my second portion in Spanish but they seemed confused. I take the chicken out of the bag and give it to the man. “Bon apetit! Bienvenue!” I say, exhausting most of my French. He smiles broadly and says, “Merci.”
Poul fri is marinated with a lot of garlic, lemon juice, and Scotch bonnet peppers, which are replaced by habaneros in this Tijuana version. The chicken is boiled, then fried. A lot of the flavors meld with the rice and beans. The chicken wasn’t very spicy, but the garlic taste lingered on my palate all afternoon.
Later that night I head to a downtown bar near Little Haiti. As I order a beer, I overhear the bartender and customers talking about the Haitians. The bartender tells me some Haitians have stepped in for a beer or two, others simply to use the bathroom, but that they never stay inside the bar for long. When I ask his opinion, he jokes, “Que se queden los Haitianos, y que se vayan los Sinaloenses.” (“Let the Haitians stay, and let the Sinaloans go.”)
Though most Haitians claim their final destination is the United States, not all are going to cross, and not many have the intention of going back home. The maquila industry has offered hundreds of temporary and permanent jobs to Haitians as long as they fulfill their requirements with immigration to work in Mexico. Others have already started to work, getting paid under the table in kitchens and other shops.
Like in many bars in Tijuana, a jukebox stands in the corner. On it, I find a couple of Charles Mingus albums. There’s an album named Tijuana Moods, recorded in 1957 but not published until 1962. Mingus, who grew up in Los Angeles, spent some time in the late ’50s and early ’60s strolling in Tijuana. Legend has it that Mingus has a son that was born and lives in Tijuana.
I drop a coin in the jukebox and select “Haitian Fight Song” in hopes that Haitians recognize the tune and feel welcome.