Cultural Duality: The Unique Experiences of a 2nd Generation Haitian Immigrant

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The experiences of children of immigrants in the United States is a unique intersection of culture, identity and belonging. Sometimes this may be overshadowed when we discuss the complex trials and tribulations faced by the parents of these children when they attempt to start a new life in a new country. However, in order to have a bigger picture understanding of the communities and livelihood of immigrants in the United States, it is crucial to include the children who face a life that is very different from that of their parents. Children of immigrants navigate different journeys than their parents and immediate families, which in turn will impact the reality of their lived experiences in the United States. In thinking of the experiences of children of immigrants, I thought of a very dear friend of mine who is a very unique and special individual. Ianko Joseph, 25, is a child of Haïtian immigrants and currently lives and works in New York City. I knew that I could read and write scholarly texts on this topic, but I find it much more important and profound to learn about the experiences of those close to you. This interview I did with Ianko sheds light on his experience growing up and navigating adulthood as a child of Haïtian immigrants. Ianko is also an extremely talented photographer, and within this interview are a few images he took visiting Haïti. 

Can you introduce yourself, where were you born and raised?

I was born in Queens, New York and moved to Florida with my family because my parents got jobs down there. So I grew up in Florida while my family was in New York and Haïti, and went back and forth between them a lot. From my childhood up to my teenage years, I would bounce around from school in Florida and vacations in Haïti or New York.  I was probably 2 or 3 years old when I moved to Florida. I’m the youngest of two kids. 

Where are your parents from? Are they both refugees/immigrants? When and how did they arrive in the United States?

My parents are both from Les Cayes Haïti, my dad grew up in Jacmel and my mother is a Les Cayes native. My grandfather was the mayor there in the 1970s. My mom migrated over in the late 70s with her siblings and went to high school out here, on Linden St in Queens. And my dad came in 1983 to live with his brother and go to school in Boston.  My parents grew up together, like two houses away from each other in  Haïti. My dad’s best friend is my mom’s older brother. 

Did your parents ever talk about their experiences of being immigrants? 

Yeah, especially towards the early 90s there was a lot of anti Haïtian sentiment because of people moving to the States due to the oppression of the Duvalier regime. It was a part of the reason my parents got sent here in the first place. People treated them kind of poorly, but there were so many Haïtians that it was kind of easy to form your own village to shelter you from that. 

How did your family integrate into the local community when they arrived to the US?

Neither of my parents have many American friends that they hang out with. My mom does now because of her work, but my dad only hangs out with other Haïtians. And my dad lives in Haïti now, so he’ll come here and be with my mom for a little while. My mom still lives in Florida still, in Broward County, and is a project manager. My sister just had a baby, and she lives down there too. 

How has your family’s migration experience shaped your identity and sense of belonging?

I definitely had to grow up with a big chip on my shoulder for being Haïtian, because I was growing up in the era before pop culture claimed Haïti to some degree. People kind of made it hard for me, telling me Haïti was one thing, but I was always going every year and seeing that it’s actually another thing. I have a pretty clear perspective on myself and where I stand in terms of my cultural beliefs and where I’m from. And my parents taught me alot about the past and Haïti’s history,  like not just my parents but also my cousins. They brought us to historical places in Haïti and ran us through the history and why we do things certain ways. I was able to root that into what I learned from being surrounded by the diaspora of other Africans and kind of relate it to what makes sense, what I was taught. They even brought me to Nigeria to show that we are descendants of Western Africa, the Yoruba culture and the similarities. It’s not a common thing among a lot of Haïtian kids, but my parents did go out of their way to make sure I understood where I’m from. I’ve met multiple kids who in their upbringing, it just wasn’t information or content that was enforced on them. I know a lot of American born Haïtian kids don’t even know Creole, don’t know who Touissaint is or can’t even name a single president of Haïti. They kind of only know as much as the cliché, mass American media portrayal of it. It’s mainly because my parents are humanitarians, they do a lot of humanitarian work in Haïti, and they kind of made it a point to show me why we do this. 

When you hear the term “Haïtian” what words or images emerge? 

It’s Haïti, that’s really what it is. The difference to be called Haiti or Haïti. The pure essence of what we know in Haïti is summed up by the word Haïti and where it comes from. To me, it’s the fact that we’re the first Black nation to liberate ourselves, we’re the only nation to liberate ourselves. A lot of power comes from that, a lot of pain has come from global powers trying to stifle that power and what that power might mean. Especially in today’s society, to obtain the means to topple a powerful regime and liberate yourself for what you believe in, is what most global enterprises are afraid of. So I view Haïti as a representation of that, of liberation from struggle and how even though in the moment you may liberate yourself, a lot of times the powers that be will fuck with you for generations. 

Haiti is a Yoruba word that means land of high mountains. It’s one of the only rooted phrases. Creole is like a pigeon language, and we’re not as directly connected to Yoruba culture per se like Cuba is, in terms of how it’s represented in traditional things. The entire island is Haïti, but when they split the island up, Haïti got the more mountainous side, and the Dominican Republic got the more fertile, flat land side. 

Is there such a thing as the typical “Haïtian?” Are there any stereotypes you have heard or have had to face being Haïti / Haïtian American? 

I’m definitely not a typical  Haïtian.  Growing up I went through a lot of questioning for certain ways I chose to carry myself and certain things I believed in. Every culture has archetypes, but I wouldn’t want to typeset any one narrative specifically. I believe that if I could surmise everybody, it’s a high level of self orientation and how your orientation dictates other people’s self orientation, like taking care of people. But also really just following your own path. 

What has it been like navigating the balance between your Haïtian culture and the American way of life?

It’s probably one of the things I’ve struggled with the most to be honest. I don’t know, it’s something that almost all of us are having trouble navigating who don’t live at home, in a different society, it’s like when in Rome. Americans are victims to a lot of things we don’t realize and sometimes that creates a dissonance with how I feel and act. But I never feel more like myself than when I’m in Haïti.

Is there anything else you would add in what ways your parents or your culture has shaped your identity? 

Everybody says I’m both of my parents in equal parts. I’ve gotten certain social benefits from my mom and certain internal benefits from my dad. Is that nature, is it nurture or is it both? I don’t know if that’s my place to say. 

What languages do you speak or understand? Can you read or write in these languages?

Creole, French and lowkey Bushwick has me speaking some Spanish. I can read and write better in Creole than I can in French, and moderately in Spanish. 

Was there ever a moment when you felt extremely proud to be Haïtian?

Every day of my life, when I wake up in the morning! My parents have always told me where I came from since I was a kid. And I know how tremendously slim the odds of being who I am, where I am and doing what I do are. People were imported across the ocean, stripped from their families and forced into slavery, but still educated themselves and did everything they could in the face of the most outright oppression that you could face as a human being, and liberated themselves. That gives me hope that whatever I aspire to do I can probably do it, because they had all the odds stacked against them and Haïti exists.

How does Haïti influence your art?

Color and context. Texture and visual context, but also contextual context. I think of what does the image mean and how does it make me feel, and the difference between what is the image and what does the image itself feel like? Like, what is the texture of the image? Is it wet, is it the ocean, is it breezy, is it the mountains, is it rough, is it the dirt, is it coarse is it a tree? The textures of Haïti inspire what I’m naturally drawn to. 

How do you envision your role in shaping the future of your family and community as a child of immigrants?

I see myself taking over what parents have started. And spending probably the back end of my life in Haïti, it’s somewhere I want to live and my kids to live there. I don’t want what my parents built to crumble, and hopefully I can transition that vision to my children when the time comes.