The Haitian Community of Rockland County Reflects on Its Roots

HASCO Gala. Photos courtesy of Rose Moise-Louis / HACSO

Members of the Haitian American Culture and Social Organization (HASCO) discuss their past and present in the Hudson Valley.

Jean Charlot is a service coordinator with the Haitian American Culture and Social Organization (HACSO), which helps hundreds of Haitians with their immigration status each year. Marie Stanz (his sister) and Rose Moise are board members. All three are in their 60s or 70s and have been living in Rockland County for several decades. The four of us met around a conference table at HACSO in April over Moise’s Soup Joumou and Haitian fritay from local buffet Tropical Island Lounge in Spring Valley.  As we ate griot (pork rinds) with akra (a fried root vegetable), they reflected on their lives between Haiti and Rockland County.

Note: This interview was conducted several months before Haiti’s president, Jovenal Moïse, was assassinated.

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Diago: When did the first Haitians arrive in Rockland County?

Moise: There was a scientist who worked at Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River. I believe he was one of the first to settle here.

Charlot: That was Dr. Edgard Milford Sr., and he was here since 1929. He developed many patents. In the Sixties, after Papa Doc [Duvalier] became president, Haitian professionals left Haiti for the U.S. Many came to Rockland County. There were trees like in Haiti, the schools were also better [than in Brooklyn’s Haitian community], and there were a lot of jobs in the factories. I came when I was 14 years old with my sister, Marie. Duvalier said that he was going to be president for life, so the message was ”You will never become anything.  “

Moise: If you were not part of the regime, you couldn’t do anything. Even to enter University you had to have what they called a “godfather” from within the regime to sign your papers.

Stanz: If they just suspected that you were against Duvalier, or someone just said it, you would be taken away with no proof.

Charlot: One of the Tuskegee Airmen was Haitian and he was related to Marie and I—Raymond Cassagnol. He was flying low over Port Au Prince, dropping leaflets with anti-Duvalier messages. They sent Tonton Macoutes [Papa Doc’s enforcers] to our house, asking if we had heard from him. That is when my parents sent us here. Even in Rockland, you had to be careful talking in a barber shop because Papa Doc had informants everywhere.

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Moise: My aunt was married to Paul Magloire’s [the president before Duvalier] cousin. Many of his brothers were taken to prison, where they died ;three took exile. My mother came in ’68 and worked in Glenshaw Glass, [one of the many factories where Haitians found work in the area]. I came in ’75. The Haitians who come here never plan to stay, but it is hard to return.

Stanz: I think things there are even worse now [then under Papa Doc]. There are so many kidnappings and robberies. Some of the gang heads are former police officers. I have family that can’t go back to their house because their house and land has been taken over, and the judges, the police and the lawyers are all corrupt.

Rose in 1973
Rose in 1973

Diago: What do you miss?

Moise: Cap-Haitien, where I am from, is on the water, and it is beautiful. And the food used to be so fresh. But it isn’t like that anymore. Not everything is organic anymore, and you can taste the difference.

Stanz: I can remember the taste of the delicious carrots from the farmers in the cold region. They would sell them early in the morning, and I would eat them just like that. They were so sweet! What happened is, the U.S. government took over industries; they came in and ordered all of the pigs slaughtered in the ’80s, claiming they were diseased. And in the ’90s, they took over the rice industry under Clinton, so…

Moise: …So Haitian farmers couldn’t stand on their own feet.

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Stanz: Things that were seasonal in the U.S. could be grown year-round in Haiti,. But  when they came to farm in Haiti, they add hormones and chemicals on the farms and they get a lot of production, but eventually they leave and the land is never the same.

Moise: Yes, things are not the same. I think a lot of people are starting to realize that we won’t go back (long silence). The soup is getting cold; why don’t we take a break and eat!

Moise left and brought back a red Le Crueset pot of her Soup Joumou. Hers was less spicy than Timothy’s, with more meat — also delicious. 

Diago: Tell me about your experiences as Haitians in Rockland County. (Charlot, Moise and Stanz all came as school-aged kids.)

Charlot: When I first came here, at school I was surprised there were so many other Haitians. I wrote down all their names and came up with 31 Haitian students. A math teacher, Mr. Moskowitz, started a Haitian club. We did Haitian dance, we had different Haitian programs, we played soccer. There were Haitians from every part of Haiti, but everyone bragged and said they were from Port Au Prince or Cap- Haitien.

Stanz: People used to make fun of us and call us ‘Frenchie’ because we were so proper. Back in Haiti, we used to have to practice posture by walking with books on our heads.

Moise: We were not used to bringing lunch to school. We had lunch periods here, but I would just spend the whole day without eating, because it wasn’t my food.

When I first arrived, we only had one Haitian store: Nicolas’ store [Nick’s Tropical Food]. It had very little of the stuff we use, like plantains…

Charlot: …Limes, manioc. There was also a guy who would come door-to-door named Jean Marie Cham, to see what you would need, and he would go to the Bronx Terminal Market to fill the orders.

Hasco Haiti gala
HASCO gala

Moise: I could never get the chocolate here, though. Cocoa beans are one of the crops in Haiti. They roast the beans over fire, grind them into a paste, and store that paste in banana leaves. The Then you put that in hot water with star anise and cinnamon; some people add a lime peel. I bring it from Haiti. It is crucial to serve that, even here, at communions, along with Soup Joumou and rice pudding. Soup Joumou is served on special occasions, but mostly on Independence Day. Each neighbor exchanges their soup with the others, even though it’s the same thing. By the end of the day, I would have a tummy ache from eating so much. We do that here, too.”

Stanz: It is our prized meal because of what it stands for: freedom. Once we became independent, we said…

Moise: “…Now we can finally cook our soup, and eat it too!”

According to the 1993 report “Haiti on the Hudson,” by the Eighties, Haitian churches were established, Haitian presidents visited, and Haitian artists and art dealers, clothiers, a watchmaker, a tailor, musicians, dancers, and poets all settled in towns like Nyack and Spring Valley.

At the time of the 2016 census, there were roughly 6,000 Haitians in Spring Valley, a town of 2.5 square miles, and the population has likely grown since then, according to our friends at HACSO.

Related: This Haitian Soup Joumou Recipe Is So Cozy and Delicious

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