This Miami Icon Doesn’t Want Young Haitians To Lose Their Heritage In The US

By Leslie Ovalle

In 1977, after one year in prison for discussing his political beliefs, Jean-Claude Exulien—a secondary school history professor—decided to flee his home in Haiti.

Exulien said that there are times in history when a government cannot be criticized, but he is also quick to remind that as an intellectual and educator, it is impossible to suppress critical discussions.

Exulien fled Haiti during the rule of the dictator “Baby Doc”, or Jean-Claude Duvalier, seeking his own and his family’s safety.  He said that if it hadn’t been for Haiti’s suppressive regime many Haitians, including himself, would not have fled the land they feel such patriotism for.

His office in North Miami, decorated with Haitian flags and cultural photographs, is evidence to his love of country.

“I’m a big witness, I would say, of what happened in Haiti during the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier,” said Exulien, “Haitian intellectuals were obliged to leave the country to save their lives.”

Many Haitians fleeing the regime of the time decided to migrate to Montreal, Canada. This is something that crossed Exulien’s mind, but a summer school teaching opportunity and family here in South Florida is what pushed him to make this city his new home.

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“Some friend told me one time ‘it’s not difficult for you, because you used to teach at a higher level.’ I said ‘no it’s not a problem because I love these people, they are my people’. Until today that is my job, to teach them how to write in French, Creole, and English,” explains Exulien.

Knowing Creole, French, English, and Spanish, Exulien embodies the importance of knowing multiple languages in a place as diverse as South Florida.

On his office desk lays an ocean of newspapers—which he refers to as his tools—and in this ocean you can find all four languages. He jokes, although in a serious manner, saying that nowadays if you speak only one language you are handicap.

“Sometimes there are news in El Nuevo Herald or Las Americas and you cannot find the same news in The Herald, for example, so we have to read more than one newspaper and in more than one language,” he said.

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 On the side of his office cabinet hangs a quote by John Dewey, the liberal philosopher that reads, in all caps: “education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Exulien takes education beyond the classroom, besides teaching literacy, history, and anthropology he has a radio show on 1700 AM Radio Mega every Saturday at 11am.

“This is a class, it’s not a radio show,” Exulien said.

His radio segment is 90% Creole and 10% English; where he discusses current events, ideas, and history with his listeners.

A very proud man of his country’s history, he is one of the founders of the Haitian American Historical Society—a non-profit organization seeking the recognition and accuracy of historical events pertaining to Haitians and those of Haitian descent.

In 2007, the organization erected a monument of Les Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Domingue in Savannah, Gerogia. Les Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Domingue was a group of Haitian free men who volunteered to fight in The Siege of Savannah on October 9th, 1779 against the British.

“Haitian people died there, in Franklin Square, for the independence of the United States,” said Exulien.

The organization is now working on erecting yet another monument, in St. Augustine, Florida, commemorating General Georges Biassou—a Haitian forefather who fought with Spanish royalists.

Exulien is also the president of the organization Haitian League for Human Rights, INC.

“We created this organization one year ago, because of the situation of [our Haitian] brothers and sisters in Santo Domingo,” said Exulien.

This article was originally published on Rise Miami News.

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. Anyone can write for us as long as you are fiercely interested in making the world a better place. 

Photo Credits: Leslie Ovalle/ RISE NEWS

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