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Haitian Immigrant Street Peddlers Try to Get a Leg Up

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Jul 31 2010 (IPS) - Gaston Dorelus has little education, no vocational training, no extrinsic qualifications to make his way through life any easier.

Gaston Dorelus sells ice cream on a stick to local children. Credit: Jon Anderson/IPS

Gaston Dorelus sells ice cream on a stick to local children. Credit: Jon Anderson/IPS

But he does have one asset that has ensured his survival: his indefatigable legs.

Gaston walks. He walks great distances, and his invincible spirit undoubtedly lends to his youth that extra bit of strength needed to overcome the obstacles he faces as a Haitian immigrant to the Dominican Republic.

“Man, you are really strong!” says Amiano Lopez who lives in Villa Sonador, when he hears about how Gaston came to work as a “paletero”, or ice cream peddler.

Dominicans are ready to praise such hard-working Haitians, but they are much less ready these days to work at such low- end jobs since the fast pace of development on this side of the island has made them undesirable.

Relying on the kindness of strangers

On the lowest rung of street workers are the beggars. Since the earthquake, their presence in the provincial towns has grown considerably, though no one as yet knows their numbers with any certainty. Dominican paranoia about the growing Haitian population as a whole has people citing exorbitant figures as high as two million for all immigrants, of which the beggars would form a small but very visible portion.

Julíta stands in front of a Pizza House restaurant window, staring at a family eating at the benches inside. It is an old trick: stare them down, guilt them into coughing up a few pesos. Her mother Cecile has taught her well.

She says she is eight years old – her mother says nine, but she looks barely big enough to flesh out seven. Ask where she is from and she answers, "La Ocho", a low rent neighbourhood in Bonao where Haitians have settled.

Ask her origin and she perks up, "Haiti!" But what town? "The 'campo' (countryside)." She has no idea what her hometown is called. Haiti is her symbolic home and as such it exercises a powerful allure. But it remains a dream of home.

Wearing a dusty black dress, she treads the hot pavement barefoot. She clutches a purse with a broken strap, an accessory of which she is obviously proud. She fiddles with it, keeps it tightly secured at her armpit.

"Dame algo (give me something)," she repeats all day long, jutting her hand in the face of prospective Samaritans. She doesn't take no for an answer.

But she doesn't play the sorrowful waif. She is disconcertingly cheerful. If the mark ignores her, she launches a sermon: "Why are you like that? Jesus loves you. Give me something."

She is obviously bright and has made the best of the lessons that the street has taught her. But she has never stepped inside a classroom and cannot read or write. What math she knows she learned by adding up the pesos she cadges.

"I earn 50 pesos a day," she claims proudly. Not quite a dollar and a half, but a solid contribution nonetheless. It guarantees that the family will have enough plaintains for the evening meal.

With such simple calculations, one survives but the loaves and fishes never multiply.

Ambulatory street peddlers, or “chiriperos”, are at the bottom rung of the informal economy. They sell anything from sweets to clothing to cellular accessories. In this country, anyone having to get around on foot is stigmatised.

“No Dominican does what I do,” says Gaston. Some do, in fact, but they get preferential treatment, better routes, less supervision, fewer hassles.

Nevertheless, most chiriperos these days are likely to be Haitian, whose numbers have swelled dramatically since the earthquake.

“Jeepetas” – Prados, Monteros, and other four-wheeled fantasies of conspicuous consumption – fly past Gaston as he plies the shoulder of the treeless highway that cuts through the open rice fields of this valley.

The ball of fire above throbs monotonously like a cosmic headache, and all that Gaston has to protect himself against it is a tattered baseball cap. He can’t afford sunglasses to alleviate the obliterating light.

“Lleeggooooó Yos… mata el calor.” “Yosé is here… kill the heat.” The children come running like mice to the pied piper.

That little ball of sweet coldness in a cone costs 10 pesos, about 27 cents, of which Gaston receives eight. On a good day he makes 13 dollars, on a bad day, five or six. And he sends 110 to 138 dollars back home monthly to his family.

That doesn’t leave much room for future savings or for daily needs. He wears the same clothes day in and day out, eats the same scant, starchy diet.

“I can save a bit, but I don’t eat well. For breakfast I eat guineo (green bananas) and spaghetti, I don’t buy anything at midday, and for dinner I prepare some rice with something on the side.”

Keeping pace just behind him, his wife Ketya peddles cheap clothing. The clothiers would appear to have the most difficult job, walking as they do with a large tub overflowing with belts, underwear, shirts, pants, dresses and shoes. But they cut the most gracious figure of all street peddlers.

In traditional Haitian style, the tub perches above one’s head, steadied by a kerchief or towel wrapped tightly like a crown over one’s skull. The rest of the body is put to work too: on each extended arm hangs a variety of articles. They are walking closets.

Ketya buys wholesale in Santiago or Dajabon, so her profits are cut significantly by travel costs. On a good day she may earn about 14 dollars. But good days are rare.

“I like it here,” she says haltingly, either because of her imperfect command of Spanish or her ambivalence. “I can earn more and be with my husband.”

But she cannot be with her children, who are still back in Haiti. “No,” she says quietly, “I want to be with them, but I can only visit them for now.”

Of all the peddlers, the most ubiquitous are the pirates. They too are known by their appearance – a backpack, music on CDs in one hand and films on DVD in the other.

The selection is pretty uniform: bachata, reggaeton and merengue in the right; blockbusters, juvenile, kung fu and porno in the left.

Unencumbered by food carts or tubs of clothing, these peddlers travel the farthest, covering miles per day in their effort to sell their wares.

Johnny, 23 years old and newly arrived, earns about 200 pesos a day. “Things are bad,” he complains in his slightly accented but adequate Spanish. The speed with which these immigrants learn the language is testament to their will to survive. Necessity is a stern taskmaster.

Johnny is unburdened by immediate family. He is free to make his way as he wishes, unlike Gaston. But his freedom hasn’t yet brought him the rewards he seeks.

“I’m not earning any more here than I did there,” he laments. Too much competition and nothing to set him apart. Stand on any corner for more than five minutes and you will see three or four more just like him hawking the same wares.

He wanders the blistering, treeless streets of Bonao till nightfall. Then he heads home to a small village nearby. For dinner, it’s starchy tubers or a bit of rice with an even smaller bit of meat.

Whatever their station, they all dream of one thing: halting their long walk toward their daily bread. Gaston has plans:

“I need about 50,000 pesos to set up a little business, selling agricultural products to Haitians. The produce is cheaper on this side of the border. I also want to buy a little motorbike and rent it out to a responsible person.”

Modest dreams, perhaps, but nirvana for someone looking to rest his weary legs.

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