Amid the rubble in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Neg Marron statue across from the crumbled National Palace still stands. The statue means so much to Richardson Pierre-Louis, he had an image of it tattooed on his chest.

Amid the rubble in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the "Neg Marron" statue across from the crumbled National Palace still stands.

The statue means so much to Richardson Pierre-Louis, he had an image of it tattooed on his chest.

The "Neg Marron" is a tribute to the slaves who successfully rose up in revolt against the French in 1791, establishing the first free black nation in the western hemisphere, said Pierre-Louis, a resident director at Bridgewater State College.

The famous work of art depicts a slave who has broken free of his shackles, on his knees but straining for the sky.

In one hand, he holds a conch shell, used to call the troops, and in the other hand a machete. Once the tool of the slaves in the sugar cane fields, it became the weapon used to defeat the French.

The statue is a symbol of freedom and the spirit, courage and yearning of a people for justice, of a people who said, “No more.”

For Pierre-Louis, who moved to America from Haiti when he was 9, it is also a symbol of his love for his home, he said.

And now more than ever, it is a symbol of hope against a backdrop of tragedy.

Walking zombies

Pierre Louis’ cousin Ruthva Joseph, a nurse who lives in Bridgewater, was visiting Haiti on Jan. 12 with her husband and 2-year-old child when the catastrophic earthquake hit.

A small piece of bad luck saved their lives, Pierre-Louis said. They were about to go into a store but could not find a parking space. As they circled around, the entire block was leveled in front of them, Pierre-Louis said.

The family was able to get a ride home on a military plane and then a commercial flight.

“I was explaining to her, I’m struggling to sleep. She said she’s still waking up in the middle of the night scared,” Pierre-Louis said.

If the images of the earthquake and the suffering are haunting them, how must it be for the people of Port-au-Prince, he wonders.

“We can turn on the TV and distract ourselves. If we’re hungry, we can go to the kitchen. If we’re thirsty, we can get water. I can go home and hug my 5-month-old daughter,” he said.

“The people in Haiti have to deal with hunger, thirst, fear. Psycho-socially, a huge segment of the population is walking zombies. How are they functioning?” Pierre-Louis asked.

He recalled a news story about a woman who was pulled out of the rubble after many days.

On the first day, she heard screams of pain, but also people trapped nearby talking and encouraging each other. By day three, there was silence. And by day five, she smelled decaying bodies, he said.

He is inspired by the reports of people reacting joyfully to be rescued many days after the earthquake.

But he can’t help wondering what awaits them in such a devastated city.

“My reaction is, ‘My God, a month from now, will they wish they were dead?’”

One of Pierre-Louis’ brothers, who owns a business in New Jersey, went to Haiti as part of the relief effort in the first few days after the earthquake with one of their uncles.

Their uncle’s mother was killed when a building collapsed on her, Pierre-Louis said. The uncle hired a truck to remove the rubble, but then had to personally dig her out and place her badly decomposed body in a coffin, so she could be buried in a cemetery.

There was no one else to do this for his mother. It must have been incredibly difficult, Pierre-Louis, said. He doesn’t know if he could have done it. But the alternative was for her to remain buried among the ruins.

“These are the thoughts permeating my brain. How can I get involved? What can I do?” Pierre-Louis said.

His journey

Pierre-Louis, 36, immigrated to the United States in 1983. His father had come here two years before and his mother three years before that while he and his three older brothers lived with their grandmother in Haiti.

It was bittersweet to leave his friends and the land of his birth though he longed to be reunited with his mother after so long. While she was away, she recorded tapes with messages to them and sent photographs home.

In Haiti, there is no free public education.

Families often can afford to educate just one child or none. Malnourishment is common in rural areas. But Pierre-Louis’ family was middle class, so he and all of his siblings were educated. They never went hungry or suffered from poverty.

“I experienced what poverty was like from a distance,” he said.

Some of his cousins are able to attend school only because of the remittances his mother has been sending home for 32 years, and the help of his siblings and himself.

A nursing assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, his mother is not wealthy but still manages to send money, food and clothes back to family members in Haiti.

Pierre-Louis’s first trip back to Haiti was in 1989 for his grandparents’ funeral. In the past five years, he has been back three times.

He studied Haitian history in college and has studied up on it more because of his job at Bridgewater State College working with students.

There are about 20 Haitian students living on campus and many more Haitian students who commute, for a total of at least 500 Haitian students of the school’s population of 10,000, Pierre-Louis said.

The earthquake is particularly heartbreaking because Haiti was making economic progress lately, he said.

“This is a huge blow. The country will regress years as a result of this disaster,” Pierre-Louis said.

Pierre-Louis said his own family was, for the most part, lucky. None of his cousins were killed and the family home in Carrefour in Port-au-Prince was spared.

But he worries they will struggle even more than before the disaster.

“Before this, they lived day by day,” he said.

Pierre-Louis said, “What I wish for Haiti is for a new generation to rise up.”

He is not talking about another violent revolt, but a peaceful determination to say “no more” to the corruption and deprivation amid the promise that is Haiti.

“My beef with Haiti is folks have a dog-eat-dog mentality, ‘I’ll live for today and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.’”

Many Haitians living abroad dream of one day returning to Haiti. Pierre-Louis said he can imagine retiring to the tropical, mountainous island of his birth. He said it is a land of great beauty.

“You have to go to the island and smell the air and experience the people to understand Haiti,” Pierre-Louis said.

He said a friend was visiting from Haiti and he asked her what she thought of New England’s beaches. She said, “What beaches? There is no tree, no shade, no beautiful wind, no character, just water and sand.”

God pressed pause

As for life now in Haiti for his family, Pierre-Louis said he doesn’t know. Family members called his mother to let her know they are OK physically.

“The way it was explained to me, it’s like God decided to press pause. One moment, you’re living your life, and then everything just stops,” Pierre-Louis said.

People who have family in rural areas might be able to return to their villages, but for others whose homes were destroyed, who perhaps lost family members, parents, husbands, wives, children, who lost jobs – what will they do, he wonders.

“You’re stuck amongst the dead,” he said.

It has been painful for Pierre-Louis to watch news reports about the earthquake. Not only is the human suffering profoundly disturbing, but he also cringes at the obligatory sound bite to describe Haiti, “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.”

“Poverty is the only story you hear about Haiti. They never tell you about the proud history of Haiti,” Pierre-Louis said.

“Just once, I’d like CNN to start a story, ‘Haiti, the first black nation in this hemisphere’ instead of ‘Haiti, the poorest nation on this side of the world,’” Pierre-Louis said.

A new day

When he was a young boy, children would call Pierre-Louis “Neg Marron” to put him down for his dark skin, comparing him to the black statue, which looks as though it is cast in iron. That’s one of the reasons he got the tattoo.

Even in Haiti, where black slaves successfully revolted against their white oppressors, lighter skin and straighter hair is considered the ideal of beauty, even among black people, a corrosive legacy of colonial rule, Pierre-Louis said.

“I feel I’m blessed. I’ve always loved my skin tone and the texture of my skin. So, I turn it around and hold it near and dear to my heart,” Pierre-Louis said of his tattoo of the dignified, heroic statue on his chest.

The "Neg Marron" stands in front of the ruins of the National Palace. Pierre-Louis said it is heartbreaking to see the beautiful white-domed structure, the face of his country, destroyed.

Over the centuries, a series of presidential palaces have occupied the site. The present one was built in 1914. 

To Pierre-Louis, it has stood as a constant, a reminder of the promise of his country, even as it has struggled with a series of oppressive dictators, bent on furthering their own self-interest instead of the good of Haiti.

“That to me is the symbol of this travesty, looking at the collapse of the National Palace,” Pierre-Louis said.

He looks forward to the day it is rebuilt, not a replica, but a new symbol of independence and freedom for a new day.

“I want something of similar magnitude and beauty. It was a building that stood the test of time,” he said.

Bridgewater Independent