One Listener Can't Forget 1991 Story On Haitian Cane Cutters

Originally published on May 6, 2021 10:31 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED turns 50. Joel Abrams of Boston recalls making dinner one night in 1991 and listening to a story about Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. Here is an unnamed cutter heard through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) When you live here, this is all you know - cutting cane. Even if you're born here, if you have skin as dark as I do, you are Haitian - you cut cane.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Abrams says the story changed him.

JOEL ABRAMS: If you had asked me was I interested in farm workers in Haiti, I would have said no. But I listened to this, and it really made me care about them and brought them to life as people for me and in a remarkable way.

SHAPIRO: Living among the Haitian workers was a Canadian Catholic brother.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's strange that these kind of practices can keep going through history for such a long time after slavery was supposedly abolished.

CHANG: Another worker, Lulu Pierre, spoke through an interpreter and echoed Delaney.

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LULU PIERRE: (Through interpreter) They sold us to this place here. They give us a machete and a plastic jug for water. We had to bring in the first cart full of cane before we could eat anything. When I went to the cane field, on the first swipe I cut my foot. With the second, I cut my hand. I said, I can't do this work, so I resolved not to do it and see what God is going to do with me.

SHAPIRO: Reporter Sandy Tolan describes the living conditions.

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SANDY TOLAN: This batey is a village of squat, tiny houses made of thatch or crumbling bricks and long concrete dwellings, rows of single rooms for newly arrived migrants. About 1,500 people live here. There are no paved roads, no plumbing, not even outhouses. Black pools of open sewage surround the buildings.

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DADA PIERRE: No, no.

TOLAN: Outside a concrete row house, a young woman uses a plastic pail to bathe her baby daughter. In the doorway, holding their 3-year-old son, is her husband, a barefoot, wiry man in cut-off pants who's just returned from the cane.

JOHN JA: (Through interpreter) My name is John Ja (ph). I live here in batey No. 5.

PIERRE: (Through interpreter) My name is Dada Pierre (ph). We live here with our children, Juniya (ph) and Philnejan (ph). We have to sleep on the floor. I don't think that is natural. It's not good.

JA: (Through interpreter) Any kind of animal can bite us - mice or rats. Then there are spiders. That is no good for us.

PIERRE: (Through interpreter) I see that the company takes away most of what my husband makes. I can't buy the things I need to make the food. I see my children go through a whole day without me able to give them anything to eat, and that hurts me.

ABRAMS: I think it was the storytelling and the way it brought these people's lives to me and in a way that really, like, brought depth and made me understand them as people in a way that I really wasn't expecting to.

CHANG: Joel Abrams of Boston, remembering the Haitian cane cutters who've stuck with him since he first met them on this program back in 1991. It was originally brought to us by Sandy Tolan and Alan Weisman.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL PERRO DEL MAR'S "DARK NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.