North Miami, FL – When Josaphat Celestin was sworn in as the mayor of North Miami last month, it seemed like the ending of an American fairytale for an immigrant who left Haiti in 1979.
It may also have marked a clear sign of the growing political power among Haitian immigrants who have become a force in South Florida.
"The Haitian-American community has been a sleeping giant in Miami-Dade County," Celestin said. "We now have over 100,000 Haitian Americans (as) registered voters in Miami-Dade."
Like Cubans before them, Haitians fleeing unrest in their home country have learned how to play the politics game in their new country. And the numbers are certainly there. The 2000 U.S. Census showed North Miami’s black population at 56 percent, with a big chunk of those Haitian Americans. There are an estimated 500,000 Haitian Americans across the state.
"It's a great American story," said Leonie Hermantin, of the Haitian-American Foundation. "You know, people come here by boat or by plane, but (as) immigrants, with a feeling of being disenfranchised, disengaged. But this electoral process has given them an opportunity to be part of this great system of ours."
Along with Celestin, Haitian Americans can boast a member of the state legislature, Miami Democrat Philip Brutus, among their number. It’s an important step for a group that was once largely ignored but is now casting more ballots every year.
It's the way immigrant groups often claim their piece of the American pie, says Alex Stepick III, an immigration expert in the sociology and anthropology department at Florida International University.
"It’s usually not until they get enough registered voters and then they come out and elect their own that people begin to hear their voice that was there all along," he said.
And North Miami’s mayor sees no reason why that trend should stop at city hall. He said he’s ready to take it as far as it can go.
"Maybe governor one day," Celestin said, laughing.