Culture

Haiti Has One Of The Most Expansive And Influential Histories In The World

Located on the western side of Hispaniola, Haiti is a nation rocked by revolutions and steeped in culture. We take a look at 21 highlights of the country’s history ranging from courageous slave revolts, rum-soaked pirates, murderous despots, and change-making visionaries.

The Indigenous Haitians

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Ancestors of the Taíno people, an Arawak-speaking population, were the first to inhabit Haiti. They are rumored to have arrived as early as 4000-5000 BC and researchers of this indigenous group debate whether they originated from the Amazon Basin, the Yucatán Peninsula or even as far as the Colombian Andes. Despite a wave of smallpox and slavery in the 16th century driving the Taíno to extinction, their language is immortalized in Haiti’s name, which is a transliteration of Ayti, meaning Mountainous Land.

The Arrival of Christopher Columbus

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Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on Dec. 5, 1492, whilst sailing around the Caribbean Islands during his iconic expedition funded by the Spanish Empire. In an act of imperial uncouthness, he swiftly renamed it La Isla Española and established La Navidad, the first European colony in the Americas, which was located near to present-day Cap-Haïtien on the north coast. 

Bartolomé de las Casas

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Bartolomé de las Casas was ordained as the first priest in the Americas in 1510. He was one of the first to propose the use of African slaves as a method for offsetting the decline of the Taíno, who were rapidly dying from enslavement and foreign disease. It’s estimated that there were up to 8 million Taíno, before the arrival of Europeans, and by 1548 less than 500 were left. Las Casas later denounced all forms of slavery, but historians and abolitionists have since indelibly labeled him as one of the founders of the transatlantic slave trade.

Queen Anacaona

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Queen Anacaona, born in Léogâne, Haiti, was the last Taíno chief. After being captured by the Spanish and refusing to become a concubine she was executed. Her bravery has been praised in modern Haitian music, such as by Ansy and Yole Dérose.

Bottoms Up

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In the 17th century the swashbuckling Welshman, Henry Morgan, was contracted by the British to invade the colonial Spanish settlements scattered throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Failing to succeed he turned his attention to plundering wealthy Caribbean ports for gold and used Isla Vaca on Haiti’s south coast as a base of operations. After years of government-sponsored marauding, including accidentally blowing up his most prized battleship after a night of hard drinking, he fled to Jamaica with his bounty and bought 5,000 acres of land for cultivating sugar cane for the British. In 1944 his notoriety was spread even further around the world with the founding of the Captain Morgan rum brand.

An Island of Outcasts

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Tortuga Island on Haiti’s north coast was an epicenter for piracy. Previously fortified by the Spanish, a small number of French and English buccaneers began their first attempts to settle here in 1625. Over four decades the nations battled for ownership of the island, with Spain gaining and losing control four times. In 1684, the European superpowers signed the Treaty of Ratisbon, which effectively outlawed piracy and led to many of Tortuga’s settlers to seek out more legitimate work in the navy or cutting and trading wood.

Kings of Coffee

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When Spain ceded Haiti to the French in 1697 it was renamed Saint-Domingue and in less than a century became an agricultural powerhouse producing 60 percent of all coffee and 40 percent of sugar for Europe. So productive was this new French colony that it became referred to as The Pearl of the Antilles.

The Slave Rebellion

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The Haitian Revolution starting in 1791 was the most successful slave rebellion in world history. The three-year rebellion led to the abolishment of slavery across all of France’s territories, the country’s independence and kick-started slave revolts in the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Gunpowder and Guano

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Since 1857 there has been a territorial dispute between Haiti and the U.S. over uninhabited Navassa Island. The US maintains its control under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which was passed as federal law, to allow U.S. citizens to claim unoccupied islands for collecting guano deposits which were readily used in the production of gunpowder and agricultural fertilizer.

Dezafi

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The first book to be written entirely in Haitian Creole, Dezafi by Frankétienne, was published in 1975 and described daily life during the Duvalier regime. It wasn’t until 1987 that Haitian Creole was recognized, alongside French, as the official language of the country.


Good Juju

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There’s a saying in the country that “Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo.” It’s believed that voodoo’s roots go back 6,000 years to Benin and was brought over to Haiti during the slave era where it was practiced in secret. It’s even said that a single ceremony led by Duty Boukman, a voodoo priest, instigated the Haitian Revolution. As a steadfast part of Haitian culture for centuries, it was formally considered in 2003 by Haiti’s Catholic President at the time, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as having equal standing to Catholicism.

Hideouts

Credit: J. Outhwaite & K. Girardet / wilderutopia.com

During the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of slaves managed to escape the French to hide away in Haiti’s mountains. They were known as mawon which means “escaped slave” in Haitian Creole. Their clandestine communities, known as maroons, survived through hunting, agriculture, and capturing and returning other slaves who tried to escape. The most well-known maroon leader, François Mackandal, poisoned the drinking water of hundreds of plantation owners throughout the 1750s.

L’Ouverture’s Vision

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Toussaint L’Ouverture was the eldest son of an African prince. L’Ouverture led the revolutionary forces during the Haitian Revolution and after France abolished slavery he allied with them to overthrow the British and Spanish on the island. After his success, he wrote Haiti’s first constitution. A visionary, he ratified that “All men can work at all forms of employment, whatever their color.” and “There can be no slaves on this territory; servitude has been forever abolished. All men are born, live and die there free and French.”

Record Breakers

Credit: Auguste Raffet / Wikipedia

Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 makes it the world’s oldest black republic and after the United States, it is the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Genocide

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Between 1804-1915 over 70 dictators ruled Haiti. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was the first ruler of independent Haiti carried out the genocide of 3,000-5,000 white native French and French Creoles. The only people spared were Polish who defected from the French army, medical professionals and a handful of German colonists.


The Citadel Laferrière

Credit: United States Army / Wikipedia

The imposing Citadel Laferrière is the largest fortress in the Americas and was built by slave rebellion leader Henri Christophe after gaining independence from France. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, the mountaintop citadel was designed to sustain 5000 men with food and water for up to one year.

Jewel of the Caribbean

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The Sans-Souci Palace, 3 miles from Citadel Laferrière, was the royal residence of Henri Christophe. The palace’s ornate stonework and majestic architecture have been compared to the Palace of Versailles in France.


A Mix-Up

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At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, when Liechtenstein and Haiti unveiled their country’s flags they realized they were identical. Soon after Liechtenstein added a crown to their flag to avoid any further confusion.

Duvalier Dynasty

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François Duvalier was elected as president in 1957. After an attempted military coup d’état, Duvalier’s regime exerted a totalitarian rule over Haiti. He consolidated his power by creating an undercover death squad which Haitian’s referred to as the Tonton Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack) which is named after a local mythological creature that kidnaps children and carries them away in a sack to be eaten. His aim was to spread fear, crush dissent and assassinate his opponents. An estimated 30,000 were killed. Duvalier declared himself President for Life until his 19-year-old son took over in 1971 and ruled until 1986 when he was forced to flee during a revolt.


Military Rule

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard / military.com

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, was elected in December 1990, but in less than a year was overthrown in a coup d’état giving rise to General Raoul Cédras. Under military rule up to 5,000 Haitians were killed and thousands of Haitians tried to flee the country by boat. Between 1991 and 1992 the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted over 41,000 trying to flee the country.

Natural Disaster

Credit: Marco Dormino, The United Nations Development Program / Wikipedia

On Jan. 12, 2010, an estimated 217,000 people were killed by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake which destroys most of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The international community came together to help the country rebuild.

READ: This Tijuana Restaurant Has Become The Hub Of The Haitian Migrant Community Stuck In Mexico

A New Documentary Exposes The Massacre In Porvenir, Texas That Left 15 Mexican-Americans Dead

Entertainment

A New Documentary Exposes The Massacre In Porvenir, Texas That Left 15 Mexican-Americans Dead

porvenirmovie / Instagram

Porvenir is a Spanish word. If you break it down, por venir literally means to come, and the translation is the future. It’s also the name of what used to be a tiny town in Texas located right next to the Rio Grande on the border. The village of Porvenir in Texas, which is a town no more, had roots that reflect the brutal and deadly colonization that this country was built on. 

“Porvenir, Texas” is a new documentary on PBS that brings to light the massacre that happened on the border more than 100 years ago. 

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As the tense immigration crisis continues in this country today, the documentary “Porvenir, Texas” shows how this struggle has been part of our history since the inception of the United States of America. 

The story of the massacre cannot be told before discussing the war between the U.S. and Mexico. While the U.S. continued to expand in the southwest through its war with Mexico, the battle to live and remain in the country affected the most vulnerable people who weren’t part of the war at all. They were Mexicans who lived in Texas and along the border before it was ever part of the United States. However, after Mexico lost Texas to the United States, those living in Texas, became Americans overnight. That didn’t please the incoming residents — white people looking to make the country their home. 

The documentary exposes the brutal killing of 15 Mexican men — some who were American as well — which the U.S. tried to hide from history. 

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With the expansion of the U.S. throughout its new state of Texas, white ranchers staked their claim in areas that were owned by Mexican-Americans. Like gentrification today, Texas was also gentrified during the Wild West, which meant Mexicans, who were now Americans, were displaced because of higher taxes. 

With the revolution still going on in the Mexican border and new white ranchers taking over land, racial tensions were high. White people were told that all Mexicans were “bandits” and Mexican-Americans were in fear for their lives thinking they could be killed based on the color of their skin.

White people were killing Mexican-Americans outright with no consequences, and the film shows graphic images of that. 

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Here’s a summary of that fateful violent night as reported by NBC News: “In the early morning hours of Jan. 28, 1918, a group of ranchers, Texas Rangers, and U.S. Army cavalry soldiers entered the village and rousted the residents from their beds. They led away 15 unarmed men and boys of Mexican descent to a nearby bluff, where they shot and killed them. These victims ranged in age from 16 to 72, and some were American citizens. The town’s women and children fled across the border to Mexico for safety. The next day, the perpetrators returned and burned the village to the ground. Porvenir ceased to exist.”

We have no idea how many other Mexican-Americans were killed with such brutality during this period because there’s no record of it. The only reason the story of Porvenir can be told today is because of two men that documented what happened. 

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Harry Warren was a white teacher that worked with some of the community in Porvenir and wrote about what happened that night. He also was a witness to the bodies.  José Tomás (“J.T.”) Canales, who was a state legislator at the time, launched an investigation against the Rangers, and his depositions and testimony have been preserved as well. 

“There were many cases like Porvenir, where the initial response from the state was to try to fabricate what really took place,” Monica Muñoz Martinez, an assistant professor at Brown University and the founding member of the public history project Refusing To Forget, told NBC News. “It was not unusual for the state to try to justify such acts, by criminalizing the victims. Residents of Porvenir were described at times as squatters or bandits. None of this is true.”

Christina Fernandez Shapter produced the film and spoke about the importance of making sure these stories are never forgotten. 

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“I am Mexican American myself, I am from Texas, my family has been here for generations,” she told NBC News. “And I know we all have stories in our families, sometimes of land being taken from us or other injustices.”

Here’s a clip of the film.

Click here to watch the entire documentary. 

READ: This Exhibition Told The Stories Of Mexicans And Mexican-Americans Who Were Illegally Deported In The ’20s And ’30s

Historic Chicano Murals Were Whitewashed All Over Los Angeles But A New Movement Is Bringing Them Back

Things That Matter

Historic Chicano Murals Were Whitewashed All Over Los Angeles But A New Movement Is Bringing Them Back

Javier Rojas / mitú

Ernesto de la Loza can remember a time when he could walk down the streets of Boyle Heights and be greeted by the sight of vibrant murals. Sometimes, he’d even run into some of his own work on neighborhood walls. 

“Things were different 40 years ago. I saw our community come together and paint our stories on walls,” said De la Loza, 71, who was a renowned muralist during the Chicano Pride movement in East LA in the ’60s and ’70s. “Now, all I see are new coffee shops and yoga studios. It’s not the same.”

De la Loza was behind some of the most iconic murals in the city that included work that highlighted environmental awareness and the fight for equal rights. He recalls the first mural he painted was a Mayan motif at El Sereno Park back in 1968 as a 19-year-old. 

“These murals represented our struggles and our stories that weren’t being taught in history books,” De la Loza says. “That’s why I started painting, to express myself and for the past 50 years I’ve stood true to that.”

De La Loza was part of the “Golden Age of Chicano Muralism” in LA during the ’60s and ’70s. Today, the work from that era is quickly disappearing. 

Credit: Javier Rojas / mitú

He takes me on a tour outside of his work office in Echo Park, a rapidly changing neighborhood in Los Angeles that was once predominantly Latino. He nods to the new art studio near his office opening soon and sighs. De la Loza says that there was once a colorful mural of the Lady of Guadalupe right next to his office but as we make a turn around the block to see it, we find white paint and graffiti covering any resemblance to the mural. 

“This neighborhood had a mural on every corner and you can hold me to that,” de la Loza says with pride in his voice. “It was beautiful.”

De la Loza is right. The streets of LA did indeed have a mural on every corner, or so it sure seemed like that back then. Murals popped up everywhere in Los Angeles in the 1970s as artists took to walls to express views on political and social issues, including student uprisings and civil rights struggles. 

According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, 69, a mural expert and historian, at the height of the mural movement in LA there was an estimated 2,500 murals up on city walls. Then, they started disappearing. 

Due to an increase in city-wide graffiti, weather damage and neighborhood complaints, many of these historic murals began to be whitewashed across Los Angeles

Credit: Javier Rojas / mitú

“Los Angeles was once the mural capital of the world. All over the Eastside of LA there were beautiful pieces of art that celebrated and empowered Chicano culture,” said Rojas-Williams. “There were well over 2,500 murals over the city from Boyle Height to the San Fernando Valley.”

She says that the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights was the birthplace of the Chicano mural movement. Over 90 murals once stood at low-income housing projects where some of the most well-known muralists like De la Loza and David Botello painted work there. Today, there are roughly only 50 murals there. That is due to graffiti and lack of financial funding to restore the murals. 

“There was tagging all over them and that was painful to see because it was our own people behind it,” De La Loza as he looks up to the sky. “We killed the mural movement and that pains me.”

The erasure of murals in LA can be traced back to the ’90s when murals began to disappear due to tagging, damage due to weather and overall lack of maintenance. In return, the damaged murals became “eyesores” to some in the community and complaints to the city followed. Gentrification would also begin to hit Northeast LA during this period which led to a change in demographics in these neighborhoods. 

“They didn’t understand the importance of these murals and what they meant to our people,” said Rojas-Williams. “That was the beginning of the end of the mural movement and then came the moratorium.”

In 2002, the city of Los Angeles essentially banned the painting of murals and enacted a moratorium on murals on private property and businesses. That period is known as the “dark age of muralism in LA”. 

Credit: Javier Rojas / mitú

Los Angeles put a mural ban in place due to advertisers suing the city on 1st Amendment grounds. They argued that while their ads were banned from being placed on city walls, muralists could still create giant pieces of work. In return, city officials opted to prohibit all new murals. An individual who wanted to put up a new mural could be fined or even put in jail due to the ban. 

The moratorium lasted 11 years until it was finally lifted in 2013. A new mural ordinance would also be enacted that protected artists work if ever damaged or attempted to be painted over. The rules permitted new murals in business and industrial zones as long as artists registered their projects with the city and paid a $60 application fee. But for many, the damage was already done.

During those 11 years, hundreds of pieces of art were lost due to the whitewashing of murals from the city. There was anger from the art community and historians like Rojas-Williams, who worked on lifting the ban, says the city painted over iconic murals that can never be reclaimed. 

“It felt like the erasure of our culture and the city did this over a decade span losing hundreds of murals in return,” she says. 

For De La Loza, when the moratorium ended it coincided with another wave of change that came to LA around 2013. Highland Park and Echo Park, both Latino enclaves for decades, saw more gentrification hit and a wave of new owners come to the community. By then, murals in those neighborhoods were long gone. 

“I look around this neighborhood and it feels like we were never here,” De La Loza says as we head back to his office. “We lost more than just a piece of art, we lost our history, we lost years of hard work and more importantly we lost our presence in this city.”

Today, Los Angeles is starting to see some of that creative boom again as new murals have popped up all over the city. Yet, there is still much work to be done. 

Credit: Javier Rojas/ mitú

Artists in LA today have more creative freedom than ever when it comes to putting up new murals. But things aren’t as easy as just simply picking a wall and painting on it. With the addition of fees and permits and an agreement that a mural must remain up for at least two years, the new ordinance had unintended consequences. According to Rojas-Williams, many Latino muralists that she speaks to can’t afford these fees or have the time to acquire permits. De La Loza agrees.

“The ordinance helped but in reality it helped the more affluent and outsider community that was coming into the city,” he says. “It’s obvious when you look around the neighborhood whose art is up. It’s nice art but it’s not ours.”

We return to his office and as we say our goodbyes, he shows me one last thing. It’s a book about murals with his artwork on the front cover. He tells me his niece in college was required to read it as part of her college art history class.

“She told me when she saw the book cover she immediately knew it was my work,” De La Loza says as he wipes a tear. “Knowing that a new generation is getting to know about that history and that period gives me hope that one day it’ll be back. 

READ: Mexican-American Artists Add Their Touch To New Mural Corridor At LA’s New LA Plaza Village