“My friends and cousins and everybody were on the other side of the gate watching us through the fence. I remember looking up at my mom. She was holding my hand and wearing sunglasses, but I saw tears coming down.”
Louis Lainé is a student at Swarthmore College.
My mom and I came here on Saturday, August 2nd 2003. My dad was already here, he came in 1997 to work, and my mom and I lived in Haiti my whole life. We came here for me to get a better education. The transition was hard. In Haiti I took English classes on Sundays, and I watched Cartoon Network, but had no formal English education. I spoke French and Creole. We speak French at home, except when my mom got mad then it was Creole, same with my dad. What catalyzed my English learning—I did not want to be behind. When you are a kid you don’t want to be an outsider. I listened to speeches by Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King, and I read Shakespeare history plays. I still know a bunch of the monologues. I came here in fourth grade.
We had a little apartment in Irvington, New Jersey. I didn’t make a lot of friends early on, but I was able to play basketball. Through sports I bonded with other kids. My dad worked at an ink factory and my mom worked two jobs as a nurse in two different nursing homes. My father became a citizen because of Ronald Reagan. I got my citizenship in 2011. My mom just got her passport two months ago.
The day I left home I woke up very early. I went outside. It was still dawn. I remember standing in a field and looking up at the trees and knowing I would never see that view again. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would because I didn’t really know what that meant, to not be where I had been my whole life. But I just I knew it would never be the same. As the hours went on the house became more and more bare. We sold some things, but most we just gave out to people in the village. I walked around holding my basketball, but no one wanted to play.
Around 2 o’clock, we got on a truck and went to the international airport. There was always a long line going in because everyone wants to leave. My friends and cousins and everybody were on the other side of the gate watching us through the fence. I remember looking up at my mom. She was holding my hand and wearing sunglasses, but I saw tears coming down. I started crying too. When I saw her crying I knew this was real. After we checked in and got on the plane, then I got really sick. I knew we wouldn’t be back.
We got to Newark airport and waited for dad to come pick us up. It was really cold. He took us home and we went to sleep. I woke up and it was my new life. It was just weird. I was used to leaving and knowing I would be back home, but this time the going back part wasn’t part of the story. We got here August 2nd and I started school September 8th. I spoke almost no English. I was the new guy. I felt disconnected.
My first impressions coming here: I thought food was free, and light switches work, that was surprising. Food was available, always a surplus. At home food had to be prepared. Getting it and preparing it was a communal effort. As a kid I spent a lot of time cutting up vegetables and even laundry we would do together.
My parents cook traditional Haitian food. Rice and beans with different sauces. But what I really like is Haitian street food—fried dough-y things with meat inside, all different spices. At home, you went to the market—it was a whole day. There were live turkeys, beets, carrots, melons, tomatoes. Nothing ever went to waste.
I grew up in a very interesting family. My grandmother was the mayor of our town so everyone knew who we were. We felt a real connection to where we were from. I grew up in the capital, Port Au Prince, because my mom worked in public health, but we spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was blind but she always knew when I was there. I wondered how she could not see and be able to do all these things.
My mom didn’t want me to be born here (in the US). She wanted me to have the experience of Haitian culture, it meant a lot to her. It was a good decision, I have my own story, and I am definitely not American even though I have a passport. My mom and I say that this is not home. We keep our connection to Haiti, and I go every other year to visit.
One time I went back to visit, my friends asked me to describe snow and they couldn’t fathom what it was like, so I felt like an outsider. The last time I went was April 1st 2012. I had to give a eulogy for my grandmother’s funeral. Seven priests came, and the whole town. I had to write a formal speech in French. Another student in Haiti helped me to write it. It made me realize how privileged I am to be here, with the resources that that student could have benefitted from. I think about that every day, how lucky I am to be here at Swarthmore College.
I feel like I am performing an American identity. I have knowledge of life in the US but it is a conscious effort. My Haitian heritage is more of a base for me. When I came here to college I was expected to assume an African American identity. I didn’t refute that but it wasn’t who I was. It made me see that I needed to hold on more actively to my Haitian identity. I made friends in the international community more than with the African American students. I get along with the African students. Our parents speak with similar tones even though we are a continent away. I felt a little lost at first because I didn’t know where I fit in.
I went to all boys schools most of my life. In Haiti the best schools were single-sex Catholic schools. For high school I want to Saint Benedict’s Prep, run by a Benedictine monastery. It was very progressive: professing faith through actions and spirituality rather than dogmatic belief. The headmaster was the father figure to so many of us and taught me how to live and how to be a man.
Swarthmore is a free place, sometimes too free—structure is not a bad thing. There’s a lot of room for creativity, but I need a goal, to aspire to something. I received a Truman scholarship—one student, who wishes to dedicate themselves to public service, is selected from each state. I want to work in the Department of Justice. I hope to be attorney general of New Jersey some day.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.
Photo: Jennifer Baker