Friday, October 31, 2014

Miami offers a taste of Haiti, no passport needed

Miami offers a taste of Haiti, no passport needed

From his corner convenience store in Little Haiti, Ashraf Mashni sees a thriving Caribbean village.

It’s a short drive inland from Miami’s trendy South Beach, and it lacks the glassy newness of the city’s condo canyons downtown. The shabby neighborhood can be tough, populated by “your good, your bad and your don’t-know-no-better,” he says. But Little Haiti has something the rest of Miami is often accused of lacking: authenticity.

“Come here and visit and you’ll feel like you’ve got two vacations in one,” Mashni says as a steady stream of Haitian Creole-speaking customers stroll past the red and blue Haitian flag painted on the outside of his store, Jenin’s.

“You’ve got South Beach, and you’ve got a Caribbean island — the neighborhood in the Caribbean island, not the tourist area in the Caribbean island,” Mashni says.

There’s no passport required to find Haitian culture in Miami — just the desire to forego the tourist carnival on the beach and try out the locals’ everyday rhythms.

LITTLE HAITI

The obvious place to start exploring Haitian culture in Miami is the Little Haiti neighborhood, just north of the city’s art districts. While many Haitian-Americans have moved their homes and businesses north of the city, Little Haiti remains the community’s cultural heart.

Red flags proclaim “Welcome to Little Haiti” in both English and Haitian Creole. But those aren’t the only signs to look for.

If South Beach is known for its neon, Little Haiti is known for the colorful storefront murals painted by Serge Toussaint. Look for his signature flourish — “$erge” — in the soda cans he paints into murals outside small grocery stores, and in the portraits he does of saints watching over botanicas, Haitian music stars outside clubs, and well-coiffed ladies smiling above beauty supply shops.

Many of these shops and restaurants along Little Haiti’s main crossroads recently got fresh coats of pastel-colored paint. So has the shuttered Caribbean Marketplace, a recreation of the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince; yearslong efforts to revive arts and business activity at the corner attraction remain in progress.

Behind it gleams the newly opened Little Haiti Cultural Center, which linked an exhibit of contemporary art by Caribbean artists to the annual Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. The experimental Dance Now! Ensemble calls the center home, and weekend showings of Haitian movies are scheduled to begin in January.

ART AND CULTURE

Haitian botanicas lure customers with fresh herbs by the door. Inside, rows of colored candles and matching scarves, vaguely labeled bottles of perfumes and oils, and small saintly figurines are ready for Christian and Haitian Voodoo practices.

To take home a sample of Haiti, though, it’s better to stop at an art gallery specializing in Haitian art, such as the Jakmel Gallery or the Haitian Art Factory; both are a little north of Little Haiti. The newest “it” bag in Miami is a VeVe, from a Voodoo-inspired collection of handmade handbags found at a new Little Haiti boutique, Made in Haiti.