Haitian Unity Parade returns to Mattapan
On a hot and humid Sunday afternoon, thousands came out to enjoy the annual Haitian Unity Parade celebrating the Caribbean nation’s 219th Flag Day with music, food and an opportunity for the community to access health services amid the ongoing pandemic.
The May 15 parade, which spanned a nearly mile-and-a-half route down Blue Hill Avenue starting in Mattapan Square and ending at Harambee Park in Dorchester, was the first in-person event after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Its participants were clearly joyful as floats blared upbeat music and dance groups showed off choreography in bright costumes.
Notable floats included Miss Massachusetts 2021 Elizabeth Pierre, the first winner of Haitian descent, on a display created by the General Consulate of Haiti in Boston and vehicles trailed by dancers from the Area 51 Dance Company and South End Dynamite.
“To see your people celebrating … it’s a nice thing,” said parade watcher Maradia Rene, who said she’s been looking forward to the event since her first one in 2019. A Haitian immigrant, Rene said she loves celebrating her people.
Since 2001 the event has been put on by Haitian Americans United (HAU), a nonprofit organization founded in the Commonwealth “to improve the quality of life for Haitians and Haitian-Americans through education, community empowerment and cultural development,” according to the HAU website. Boston is home to the third-largest Haitian diaspora in the country.
Other organizations co-sponsoring the event included Immigrant Family Service Institute (IFSI-USA), True Alliance Center (TAC), African Community Economic Development of New England (ACEDONE), Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts (HAAM) and the Everett Haitian Community Center.
Pastor Dieufort J Fleurissaint, TAC president and executive director as well as co-founder of the Total Health Christian Ministries, said after more than a decade of misfortune facing Haiti in the form of poverty, natural disasters and political upheaval, as well as the mistreatment of Haitian migrants by the United States, he was thrilled to take part in the event.
“We are so grateful,” he said. “It’s a family event … people are rejoicing. It seems that it is time for them to gather together as a nation, not only to celebrate but to reflect upon the sacrifices our ancestors made to allow us to be free at this time.”
In recent months, the U.S. Border Patrol has made headlines for the brutal treatment of Haitian migrants turned away from the country on the basis of Title 42, which allows the United States to deny migrants entry to prevent the spread of diseases.
Fleurissaint said despite the challenges, Haitians both in Boston and across the world share resilience, faith and strength.
“This community has endurance, because we have been enduring so many hurdles,” he said. “It’s a different culture. We got the language barriers, also the lack of access to opportunities for Haitians. But despite that, they remain so faithful, and remain so resilient, and also remain so hopeful things would get better in the future.”
The original Flag Day, May 18, 1803, marked one of the best examples of Haitian resilience when military leaders from across the country, with cultural differences, united against French colonists. Together, led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave, and Alexandre Pétion, a free Black man, the newly united front created its flag emblazoned with the words “L’Union Fait La Force,” which means “Unity is strength.” Less than a year later, the country gained its independence.
Following the actual parade on Sunday, Fleurissaint emceed as encore performances by the dance groups took place as well as musical performances from the Haitian marching band and speeches from Haitian community advocates and politicians.
Parade Grand Marshal Ashley Louis, owner and operator of Forever Young Adult Day Health Center in Hyde Park, gave remarks to the crowd and thanked all those who helped put the event together.
“We are stronger as Haitians. We are stronger when we work together. As a leader in the community, my motto is not only to work hard, but to lead as I climb,” she said. “We are stronger as one, and I will continue to work with our Haitian community, with my elders and youth, to work towards a better tomorrow.”
Louis told the Banner that “to be able to come together again, after so long, it means a lot. It means that, hopefully, things are coming back to normal. And we’re still here, the Haitian population — we have struggled, we were fighting a war, but we’re here to stand strong, and we will continue to do that.”
Among the politicians who addressed the crowd was City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who made history this year as the first Haitian American to be elected to Boston city government. She said the parade for her is a family tradition, made even more special by her election.
“It was so much fun,” she told the Banner.
Louijeune added that while the Haitian community is not a monolith, “we’re resilient, we’re joy-filled and we’re God-fearing,” and that in Boston, “we are one community, we’re a big family, you know, and families have fights at times. But we all do look out for each other and support each other.”
Asked about what she can do as a city councilor for Haitians, the councilor said, “One of the first things that I did as a city councilor was to pressure the Biden administration to end its racist Title 42 policy that’s expelled Haitian migrants at the border, and really organized other city councils around Massachusetts and around the country to do similarly.”
She continued, “And I think that we need to extend our family reunification to Haitian families [and] we need to make sure that we’re extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) so that folks have the ability to work.”
Other elected officials who took part in Sunday’s festivities were City Councilors Tania Fernandez Anderson, Riccardo Arroyo, state Rep. Liz Miranda and Mayor Michelle Wu. Several candidates for office like Sandy Zamor Calixte, who is running for Suffolk County Sheriff, and legislative candidates Rev. Miniard Culpepper, Tamisha Civil and Eunice Zeigler also carried signs and made small speeches.
For the entirety of the event, several local health care organizations, including Boston Medical Center, Whittier Street Health Center, Massachusetts Department of Health, Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, Carney Hospital and Health Care were present Sunday afternoon offering cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure, vision, dental and mammogram screenings as well as COVID-19 vaccination and testing.
The official programming wrapped up at 5:30, with the weather staying warm and communal spirits remaining lifted. While Flag Day recognizes just one day of Haitian heritage, Haitian Heritage Month spans all of May.