BY TRENTON DANIEL, tdaniel@MiamiHerald.com
On Sunday, Haitians celebrated Flag Day as they've done for years: Motorists cruised through the pastel-hued streets of Little Haiti and other Creole-speaking enclaves, red-and-blue flags flapping atop their cars.
For years, the month of May in South Florida has been set aside as Haitian Heritage Month, offering organized opportunities to eat spicy griot or sway to the long crescendo of compas. The month gives all an excuse to revel in Haiti's lesser-known cultural exports.
But this year it's been different.
''It's evident that what's going on in Haiti . . . . has had some subtle impact on the people,'' said the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, the head priest of Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Little Haiti.
Food riots, the prime minister's ouster and soaring living costs in Haiti seemed to have eclipsed what was supposed to be a month of feel-good festivities. Instead of dance performances and art exhibits, the month has taken on a much more somber tone.
Elected officials from Miami-Dade to Palm Beach counties have stepped forward to launch food drives, with the goal of shipping non-perishable goods to the hungry in Haiti. Even students from Coral Reef Senior High have pitched in, spearheading their own food collection, the Haitian Relief Project.
On Tuesday in New York, hip-hop sensation Wyclef Jean kicked off Together For Haiti. Backed by the Pan American Development Foundation, World Food Program and Yéle Haiti, Jean's foundation, the project seeks to raise $48 million for food distribution, job creation and agriculture programs.
One longtime organizer of cultural events in the Miami area has found the month to be one marked by tough times -- not just in Haiti, but here in South Florida.
''Haiti has gone through so much,'' said Emeline Alexis-Schulz. ``We have to agree on a prime minister. The cost of living is going up. People are feeling the pinch here.''
Alexis-Schulz hatched the month-long event in 2000 when she worked under former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Celebrations also take place in New York and Massachusetts.
In addition to recognizing the birth date of the Haitian flag, the month celebrates Gen. Toussaint Louverture's birthday (May 20) and the unity of black and mulatto officers to fight against slavery. The last Sunday in May is recognized as Mother's Day.
To be sure, there's been plenty to do -- the city of Miami threw a day-long party at the Little Haiti park opening and compas lovers jammed a downtown Miami music fest.
Not all the events have occurred in Creole corners either.
The Coral Gables Congregational Church organized a month full of activities, including a three-hour tour of Little Haiti. On Sunday, the church will screen a documentary about a kept-under-the-rug topic in Haiti: homosexuality.
The film, Of Men and Gods, explores gay identity in Haiti through Vodou circles. Several openly gay men meet community disapproval.
''What we want to say is that this is happening worldwide and Haiti has a particular concern about this issue,'' said the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner, the church's senior pastor.
Through the forums, Hafner said she hopes participants leave with a better grasp of the complicated Caribbean country. Said Hafner: ``I would love folks to walk away with a deeper understanding of that particular culture.''