The island nation of Haiti has both a rich and complex background that has planted some its roots here in Miami—Haitian immigrants have for years been an integral part of this city’s community. At the University of Miami, students of Haitian descent celebrate their heritage in Planet Kreyol, an organization dedicated to highlighting Haitian culture and giving back to their community.
Laura Francois, a senior majoring in public health and French, fondly remembers her yearly trips to Haiti as a young girl. She used to split time between Léogâne, where her mother is from, and the mountainous region of Port-à-Piment, where her father grew up. Francois said she would wake up early to explore the neighborhoods and reconnect with family members.
“Some of my most enjoyable experiences have been in the mountain areas,” said Francois, “which is crazy, because there’s no electricity and no cell phone connection; just pure enjoyment of the region.”
Francois, whose parents moved to the United States in their 20s and raised her in West Palm Beach, still has family in Haiti. But even in South Florida, Francois said she grew up around a large Haitian-American population. “Someway, somehow, we always end up finding each other,” she said.
When Francois got to UM, she wanted to find a similar community among other students. She discovered Planet Kreyol, joined her freshman year, and has been a part of it ever since.
Within the last 12 years alone, Haiti has faced obstacle after obstacle. An earthquake struck the most populated region of the island in 2010, affecting about 3 million residents. Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti as a Category 4 storm in 2016. In 2021, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the southwest region less than a month after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated.
Planet Kreyol aims to help Haitian American students honor this history, keep their culture alive and aid their community. It hosts staple events such as Earthquake Remembrance Day in January, Haitian Spirit Week in the fall and Haitian Culture Week in the springtime.
During Haitian Spirit and Culture Week, students experience aspects of the culture firsthand through food, dance, music and more. One staple event for the organization is the Pageant Competition, where a Mr. and Miss Planet Kreyol are selected as a leadership symbol and spokesperson for the organization. Maydeleen Guiteau Pierre- Noel, a senior music major, currently holds the title of Miss Planet Kreyol.
“It was definitely an experience, something that pushed me out of my comfort zone,” said Guiteau, whose parents are originally from Port-au-Prince, the capitol of Haiti. To prepare for the pageant, she picked a talent (playing a French piece on clarinet), made speeches, answered questions, picked and describe a cultural outfit, chose a pageant dress and picked a charity.
Guiteau said she and her family keep their culture alive at home in West Palm Beach. “My house, we call it our own Little Haiti because we eat Haitian every week,” she said. “Every holiday, we cook Haitian food. We’re always playing Haitian music. Everyone is always speaking Haitian Creole.”
Although most of her family is in Florida, Guiteau said she has visited Haiti twice, and that her favorite memory was seeing mountains for the first time. “It was jaw dropping, especially knowing that this is the country that I originated from, where my family originated from,” she said. “And then also getting to see my mom’s neighborhood and where she grew up.”
In 2018, Guiteau visited Haiti, eight years after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit the capital city where her family that remained in the country had lived. For weeks, she said, her relatives were displaced. “I think it took a long time to get ourselves back up into rebuilding the structures the correct ways,” Francois said about the 2010 earthquake.
“But unfortunately, with this past earthquake, not much of that was done where the buildings were built correctly, so the regions that were mainly hit, they were hit pretty badly,” she said.
Most recently, Planet Kreyol hosted a “Moment of Silence Vigil Event” in August and set up donation boxes for essential items to honor the more than 2,200 lives lost in the July earthquake. “We were really focused on making it impactful,” Francois said. “This is the time we’re going to sit together as a campus-wide community and remember and honor everything that’s happened.”
Co-president Isaiah Alzume, a sophomore motion pictures production and business
law major, said he is excited to be able to attend in person events and experience the organization in a more personal way. The second-generation Haitian American said he wanted to join this organization even before he came to UM.
“I’ve been interested in the Haitian community and seeing how united they were,” he said. “I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of once I got to UM. It really emphasized how great Haiti and the Haitian heritage really is.”
Alzume, who grew up with and learned about his culture through his grandparents, said the first time he visited Haiti was a culture shock. “I really did enjoy it,” he said. “The media has a negative stigma around it like, ‘Oh, it’s just a poor third-world country,’ but there are many parts that are really nice.”
Christopher Clarke, UM’s director of Multicultural Student Affairs and the faculty advisor of Planet Kreyol, said that his role is to guide students and to make sure that the events being planned are feasible, safe and accessible. The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, which Planet Kreyol falls under, aims to create spaces within the university to celebrate diverse cultures.
“Almost half of the student body here identifies in one way, shape or form, as multicultural and diverse. Their identities matter to them, their cultures matter to them. And they need a place where those things can be celebrated in and outside of the classroom,” Clarke said.
For Haitian Americans, Planet Kreyol provides this space where students who share similar cultures and family backgrounds can connect. “Being Haitian, that’s something we all have in common, and I feel like I really connect to them on that level,” said Alzume. “I have something in common to actually talk about when I go there.”
“It’s taught me to be invested in my passions,” said Francois. “Because, obviously, as a Haitian, I’m passionate about my culture, but this has taught me to be more invested
in it.” Sharing this love of her culture with others, she continued, has grown increasingly important to her. “I have this passion, but I want you to have it too,” she said. “I want you to see how much we love our culture, we put a lot of value in it.” Through all the tragedies, Francois said she wants people to know that Haitian people stay true to the country’s motto: “Unity is strength.”
“Despite the earthquake, the hurricanes, the political instabilities for years and years, we stayed true to our resilience,” she said. “We stay true to our rich culture. Yes, there are impoverished areas of Haiti, but just as there’s impoverished areas, there’s very beautiful areas of rich history.”
words_jamie harn.photo_emy deeter.design_keagan larkins.