The first Haitian restaurant has opened in Tijuana.
It’s at Avenida Negrete near Avenida Juarez, not far from the city’s Revolucion tourist strip.
A couple years ago, Haitians began streaming into Tijuana to ask for asylum in the United States. They were coming all the way from Brazil. Their stories were stunning. They had left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and migrated to Brazil where there was work building the facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games two years later.
But even before the Games began, Brazil’s economy was collapsing. Now without work, many of the Haitian migrants – first hundreds, then thousands – embarked on a journey across nine countries, braving nasty cops and bad weather, climbing mountains and fording wild rivers, some drowning or falling to their deaths.
Those who trekked on connected meanwhile via WhatsApp with their families back home. They crossed Central America and into Mexico, then the full length of the country before ending up in Tijuana.
Their arrival was a new thing for the town, which was of course used to migrants coming from the south, just not black migrants who didn’t speak Spanish. (Here’s a report I did for KCRW in 2016, as Haitians were beginning to arrive.)
Many of the Haitians stayed, mired in bureaucratic limbo. Then the U.S. State Department said it would not grant the migrants asylum, but instead deport them home.
So, stranded in Tijuana, they have melted into the city’s economy. Three taxi drivers I met said the Haitians were well known for their work in the construction industry. I saw one guy working in a shop making tortillas.
“These guys work hard,” said one driver. “You see them everywhere, selling candy at the traffic lights.” (Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a great story about this.)
It was a matter of time before the Haitians began forming businesses, importing something from home. At the restaurant, where I had grilled chicken, rice, beans and salad, I spoke with a man named Ramon, who said he was the owner. The place had opened in November, he said. It still had the Tamales sign of the previous occupant. But outside and in, it was all Haitians.
Speaking in a mix of poor French, Spanish and English, I was able to glean that some 2500 Haitians now live in Tijuana. A young guy named Roselin told me he worked making furniture for a shop on Revolucion. This was a trade he either learned or perfected while in Brazil.
The restaurant, which appears not to have a name, also sells cosmetics from Haiti. Light-skinned face cream and Afro Marley Twist hair extensions. You can also call Haiti or Canada from the restaurant. Next door is a barber shop, which now appears to cater entirely to Haitian clientele.
But what else do you need to confront a new world like Tijuana more than the most intimate things from home – food you know, to look good, and to call the family every once in a while?
A few of them have Mexican girlfriends. So I suspect in a few years we’ll be seeing little Haitian-Mexicans running around Tijuana.
This is how community begins.