By Yansi Murga
Carmen Michel is a Haitian auntie living in Queens, NY who loves cooking, traveling, and listening to Haitian folk and jazz music. She was the third of five children: two brothers, and three sisters, all of whom grew up in Jacmel, Haiti. Despite growing up there, she was the only one of the five who was not born in Jacmel. While her mother was pregnant with her, she went to visit her sickly mother (Michel’s grandmother) in a village called Decouze when suddenly she went into labor and gave birth to Michel. Although Michel is proud of her training as a teacher and nurse, she believes there is more respect to the roles that ‘aunties’ play in Haitian communities.
Jacmel, Decouze pride
In Jacmel, she said: “Everyone lives together. Everyone in your community is your family. Neighbors give each other food, clean, and cook for each other—help each other always. As a young person, you call everyone ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ as a show of respect to your elders. You don’t even know them, but you call them auntie and uncle,” she said.
In regards to her blood-related aunties, Michel had three, but two stayed in the countryside, while her Auntie Loramane, who lived with Michel and her family, played a much larger role in her life. Michel was seven years old when her father passed, so her Auntie Loramane was of huge help to her mother, raising five children on her own. Her Auntie Loramane worked hard helping Michel’s mother sell sugar and flour in the marketplace, but also helped make sure that they all got an education.
No to Voodoo
In Jacmel, there were also many people who, unlike her and her family, practiced voodoo. She explained that they would do voodoo dances, always accompanied by cooking and drinking and that their mother told them the loa (spirit in Creole) was inside them when they danced. Laughing, she said: “But when we were kids we always said ‘it’s not true’ it’s the alcohol drink that made us so lively. That’s why.” Still, Michel’s mother, a devout Catholic, always warned her and her siblings against voodoo, saying that the devil would come for them if they practiced it. So, Michel avoided voodoo and grew up Catholic and attended Catholic school—a fact that she is very proud of.
Studying in school was a great joy for her. Although her mother could not afford to send her to a school in the capital, she did go to a local college where she trained to become a teacher. A Catholic nun from her college even hired her to teach there, where she taughter on the faculty for about four years. It was also a Catholic sister from her college who one day presented Michel with the opportunity to teach French to a German colleague. Unbeknownst to Michel at the time, her new German student would present a pivotal opportunity in her life that would eventually bring her to the United States.
Her travel Visa to USA
“I went to visit that woman, my boss’ colleague, one Friday afternoon and the first question the woman asked me was: ‘Have you ever visited the United States?’ I said ‘No, because the visa costs too much money.’” The woman then mentioned to Michel that she would help her. She had a friend who was an American consulate in Haiti. “This chance conversation led me to action.” After obtaining all the necessary documents and appearing at the U.S. embassy in Haiti, Michel got a five-year visa to travel to the United States. Laughing, she recounts the moment she was given her visa: “She said to me ‘I’m going to do everything to help you, but you must come back.’ I said ‘Yes, I will be back.’ But I knew it would be a long time before I could come back.”
Moving to Queens
Thus, in April 1979, Michel left Haiti and arrived in New York City to begin building a new life in the United States. In 1981, she married her husband, who was her next-door neighbor back in Haiti. She said she did not become romantically involved with him until they met again in the U.S. After some time, more of Michel’s family moved to the United States. She and her sister Yviana started working at a hospital in NYC—where they began the susus that Michel says has allowed her to accomplish many things for herself, her family, and her Haitian community.
A susu is an informal community bank system in which members can build wealth by agreeing to contribute a set amount of money every week or two, with the person who is cashing out rotating every 1-2 weeks as well. Michel’s sister Yviana started the susus at the hospital they worked. She knew lots of Haitians at the hospital and recruited from within their tight-knit community. The Haitian susu is considered among the most strict and prestigious susus. Not everyone gets admitted into a Haitian susu. It all depends on one’s honesty, integrity, and reputation. Someone in the specific susu must vouch for you. Susus exists in many Caribbean countries and cultures throughout the world. This is probably why those who ended up agreeing to and participating in the susus at the hospital were not only Haitians, but also Jamaicans, Latinos, and even white Americans. Even after her sister moved away to Florida and began organizing and managing other susus there, Michel continued to manage her susu in Queens for 33 years—from 1984 all the way until 2017, two years after her retirement.
Managing a susu
The susus Michel ran always looked different, both in the number of participants and in the amount of cash contribution. In a year, the susu payouts happened about 2-3 times with 25, 20, or fewer people participating. Susu participants usually pay their amount — from $100 to $300, every two weeks for a payout of about $3,000-$4,000, although an $8,000 payout was not unusual. Susu payments are always made in cash and held by the person running the susu until the individual cashing out picks it up from them. Susu money is never put into a bank account as the money there is always taxed, defeating the purpose of the susu, and could even be considered an attempt to steal the susu money.
Trust is Key
Michel points out that susus are all about trust. People can steal the money and, because of the informal nature of the susu, you cannot take them to court if they do so. Further, if you allow someone into the susu and they can’t pay on time or say they can’t make the payment at all, it falls on the person running the susu to put the money in for them or find a replacement for that person. “I remember one time,” she said, “I put my husband’s friend on a susu. I put him in for $100 dollars. He paid the first week. When he had to pay the second week he said ‘I don’t think I can afford to do it.’ At that time I asked my husband: ‘Do you want to put the 100 dollars for him?” It was his friend, after all.” The person would eventually get their money back when their replacement collects it. But it fell on Michel to find a replacement for this person or to find the money to put in herself. That’s why, she said, she only allows trustworthy people she knows to be in her susus.
Self, community empowerment
People participating in susus do so for a variety of reasons having to do with self-empowerment and helping the community — to buy a home, travel, and pay for a college education, Michel says. If you want to buy a house, rent an apartment, or you want to buy something or you want to travel, you and your friends can each put in money and use it to do those things. In her own case, she has used susu money to finance a trip to Europe, pay off a car, and buy a variety of home items and repairs.
Sending barrels home
She has even used susu money to help support the Haitian community after the 2010 earthquake. She still buys barrels from the supermarket for about $20 and fills it with rice, beans, cornmeal, tomato paste, clothes, shoes, towels, soap, toothpaste; “anything in the house that I don’t need I send to Haiti,” she said. She calls up a Haitian contact she knows who comes to pick up the barrel from her and gives her a form to fill out with her information and that of the person the barrel will be received by in Haiti. She pays them $175 and, as the barrel is delivered by cargo, waits for months before it arrives. This is something she does all the time and suggests that people do the same with anything in their home that they do not use.
Help to nieces, nephews
Today, most of Michel’s family is in the United States; they are in New York City, Connecticut, Florida, and Georgia. She never had any kids of her own. So she is especially thrilled to be the auntie to ten nieces and nephews whose accomplishments she is incredibly proud of. “I was the one who applied for them. I sponsored them to America,” she explains. “I applied for my mother … when my mother applied for my brother and I saw a lawyer the lawyer said ‘you could still apply for your nieces and nephews too’.” She added that “they came to America, attended schools, and achieved something.” She has nieces and nephews who are police, nurse practitioners, social workers, eye doctors— all sorts of professions and life paths. With great pride she declared: “They all attended and graduated from schools, earned degrees, got married, and have purchased their own homes–all of them! Truly the American dream fulfilled!”
Food for mind, body & soul
Now, she says, each of her nephews and nieces has their own kids. She gives them all advice, guidance, friendship, and travel companionship. Laughing, she said that she even gifts them gold chains, gold earrings, jewelry, and money to put in their bank accounts. Additionally, she does a lot of cooking for her nieces and nephews. Michel cooks a wide range of side dishes, starches, condiments, and soups, especially Joumou, a traditional pumpkin soup. At age 19 she attended a French cooking school and French Creole Haitian cooking is her favorite thing —and her nieces and nephews love her cooking too! Her favorite thing to make is seafood, like bacalao, crab, and conches. But she also likes making Haitian beans and vegetable soups that use all sorts of vegetables, fruits, and greens like cabbage, chayote, watercress, spinach, and eggplant. Some of her Haitian main dishes include Poulet Aux Noix – Chicken and cashew nuts; Mayi Moulen ak Sos Pwa, Poul an Sos – cornmeal with beans and stewed chicken; Griyo – fried pork; Lanbi an Sos Lanbi Kreyol – conch in Creole sauce; Mayi Moulen Kole ak Legim – cornmeal, beans and vegetable stew; and Haitian Black Rice – rice cooked with dried black mushrooms djon djon, lima beans, scotch bonnet pepper, blended herbs, cloves and more blended spices.
With joy in her voice, she said that her nieces and nephews will often ask her to season food for them and they take it home and cook it—that’s how much they love Auntie Carmen’s special culinary touch!
Laughing again, she said that her favorite part about being an aunt is the chorus of her nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews all going around calling out her name — “Auntie Carmen, Auntie Carmen, Auntie Carmen!” This, she said, is a great pleasure for her. Haitian aunties, Michel says, are expected to be “like Godmothers and mothers’ and maintain the Haitian culture–language, food, music, and more.” With her memories of Haiti and her knowledge of and experience with Haitian food, music, and customs, it is safe to say that Carmen Michel is an excellent auntie and will continue to pass down aspects of Haitian culture for as many generations of her family as she can.