Jean Marseille: An Introduction

Jean Marseille was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents during what his mother and father thought was only a brief stop. This was in 1970, during the waning days of Papa Doc Duvalier’s dictatorship. Life in Haiti had gone from worse to unimaginable. As Jean once put it to me, “At that time, the Tonton Macoute”—Duvalier’s vast network of henchmen—“would kill you for anything.”

Laurent Dubois, in his book Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, quotes a resident of Port-au-Prince telling a journalist in the late sixties, “Duvalier has performed an economic miracle. He has taught us how to live without money and eat without food.”

When Jean’s parents, like so many others, decided to risk their lives in search of something—anything—different, they scrounged up enough money to buy passage to the Bahamas. The plan was for the two of them to proceed to the US from there. But the baby, Jean, came early and scuttled his parent’s plans. After six months or so, Jean’s mother sailed for Florida, leaving Jean’s father with the infant in the Bahamas. His father, in turn, packed Jean up in a cardboard box and hired a woman to carry him back to Haiti on a boat. Whenever Jean tells me this story, and it is one he tells often, he always includes the detail that his father fixed him up a little bed in the cardboard box. Jean calls this journey from the Bahamas back to Haiti his “first deportation.”

Yet he remembers his childhood on his grandparent’s farm outside Cap-Haïtien as a happy one. There were cows and goats and donkeys and miles to roam. His grandmother was especially affectionate. “She super-loved me,” Jean says. But he missed the mother he’d never known. From Florida, his mother would send him cassette tapes.

The first time I heard my mother’s voice was on those tapes. Think about that. Your mother’s voice comes in the mail. That’s my life.

When he was twelve, his mother sent for him (by then his parents had split up) by paying a couple to pose as his parents and smuggle him into the US—his second deportation, this one from Haiti to the US. Jean spent the next fourteen years in Florida, where he became an American. But things were never easy. In school, kids made fun of him for his English. He told me he got his ass kicked more than a few times. When he was fifteen or so, Jean got into drugs, both buying and selling. He wanted friends, girlfriends; he wanted to be cool.

You could make good money selling. I had other jobs, putting people’s groceries in bags and stocking shelves, but that’s $3.25 an hour at minimum wage. I was tired. I had to go to school. I’d get to work at 3:00 a.m… The first time I sold I made $400. Sometimes, in a day, I could make $600 or $700. Then, I didn’t get beat up so easily.

The drugs led to arrests and two serious charges: conspiracy to distribute drugs within a thousand feet of a school and, as he tells it, “for throwing a brick, a deadly missile they call it in the law, at a moving a car.” He says the woman was trying to run him over.

He was living the high life, buying cars, beating charges, but he knew it wasn’t going to last. What he didn’t expect was an immigration hold. Jean said, “I thought I was an American.” And he was. Also, he had a green card. As Jean explains it, his understanding at that time was under US law, if you had a green card, you couldn’t be deported.

I always tell whites from the US that I meet, “You know who my favorite president is? Ronald Reagan.” And they can’t believe it. “Why do you like Ronald Reagan, man? He was a terrible president.” Not for us! Haitians in the United States love Ronald Reagan. He made it clear—if you’ve been in the US for over five years, you could have a green card; they would not deport you. I got my green card with the help of Ronald Reagan.

Prison, sure, possibly, but not deportation. Yet, under Bill Clinton, things changed. Clinton’s deportation law hit me like a rock. It turned out you could be deported if you had a green card. If your crime was bad enough.

After many months in a federal detention center in Louisiana, Jean was deported, flown back to Haiti, shackled—his third deportation, this time courtesy of Bill Clinton. His grandparents had long since died. There was no farm anymore. Aside from distant relatives, he knew nobody. When he got off the plane Jean says there were bodies on the tarmac, presumably political opponents of the regime who’d been shot by the Haitian military.

There will always be more of Jean’s story to tell. How Jean—who barely spoke Kreyòl—created a life for himself in Port-au-Prince. How he met (or rather re-met) a childhood sweetheart, the woman who would become his wife. How he became a loving father to four girls and three boys (five of his own, a stepchild, and his wife’s sister’s child, orphaned in the cholera outbreak that followed the earthquake). How he hustled to make ends meet then, and how he hustles day-in, day-out to (barely) make ends meet now.

I met Jean in 2013. I’d come to Port-au-Prince to work on a post-earthquake book for Voice of Witness, a nonprofit publisher devoted to capturing living history through oral history. It was my third book for Voice of Witness. I’d edited one on undocumented Americans and co-edited another about Zimbabwe. I was pretty confident I knew what I was doing. As is well known, Haiti, and Port-au-Prince in particular, was struck on January 12, 2010, by an apocalyptic earthquake that left more than 300,000 people dead. My plan was to speak to earthquake survivors about how they managed to stay alive. Jean and his wife and children survived, in large measure because Jean was lucky enough, at that time, to own a sturdy house. It’s important to note that many tens of thousands of deaths were caused, less by the raw power of the quake itself, than by the collapse of substandard buildings. In a sense, the devastation was man-made.

Jean met me at the airport. I remember vividly the way he looked me over, as if he immediately saw through my low-rent swashbuckling writer act—my sunglasses, my notebook, my pen in my mouth, my digital tape recorder, my clunky camera—and understood, without needing to say a word, that I had no clue where I’d just landed. He knew that I wanted to see the wreckage and the suffering up close. That I wanted, right away, to write about it, to capture it in recordings, on film. And then, as quickly as possible, I wanted to go back home to my life in San Francisco, to my apartment, to my wife and kid.

Three years after the earthquake Port-au-Prince was still utterly ravaged. The majority of the capital’s population was still living in tent cities with plenty of hunger and desperation and ruin for me to explore, even right there at the airport, where hundreds of people jostled each other to get the attention of foreigners like me—a few journalists here and there, but mostly NGO types who were scooped up by SUV’s and spirited away to Petionville, the city’s high-end district. And even though I had a much lower budget, at least I had a budget.

Jean, as I say, saw right through me. I would fly in and fly out. Sure, I’d worked on two earlier oral histories, but those were about subjects and places I knew something about. Here, I knew very little about Haiti and could not speak French, let alone Kreyòl. But at the same moment that Jean sized me up, he also understood how we might work together. He knew I had my hustle, just like he had his. Mine was just more lucrative. As he’s said himself about Lavil (Kreyòl for “the city,” which is what Haitians call Port-au-Prince):

In Lavil, they’re hustling. Everywhere. In every neighborhood you go, you will find people selling. Yes, everybody’s selling something. That’s the life in Port-au-Prince. Everybody’s making commerce. You don’t make much, but you make something for tomorrow.

My father was a glorified ambulance chaser in Chicago for forty-nine years. My father’s favorite word, like Jean’s, was “hustle.” My father would tell me, “Look, kid, if you don’t hustle, you’re nowhere. Period.”

And sure, yes, I had my budget, and out of that meager amount, I was going to pay Jean for his services as my “fixer,” driver, translator, all-around consigliere. He wasn’t going to abandon me at the airport for being a dipshit with a pocketful of American cash. I could be useful, yes. But here’s what’s special about Jean: he was also generous to me in those first moments. He gave me the benefit of the doubt when I least deserved it. He said, “My name is Jean Marseille. I was born in the Bahamas, raised in Haiti and Florida. Three-time deportee. You can call me JP or Johnny or Johnny P or Money G, that’s my internet name. I’ve worked with CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, Al Jazeera.” But under his words, he also conveyed, “Okay. You’re all right. Let’s get a hustle on together.”

The big guns of journalism had pretty much cleared out of Haiti by then, and Jean was left with me. He and I would walk the streets and the tent camps of Port-au-Prince, interviewing people. One day we came across a guy selling ice cream. I suggested we talk to him, and so we did our thing. Jean would speak to a subject in Kreyòl, explaining that I was an American journalist interested in their post-earthquake lives, etc., etc. (Journalist was a fiction but it sounded official.) I’d ask questions and Jean would translate. Then he’d translate the person’s answer back to me and we’d go on like that. This is what the ice cream vendor told us:

The music is what calls all the kids. People hear the music, they know it’s me. They run and say they want krem, give me krem. I have chocolate, vanilla, mayi—that’s made with grits. Not white grits; yellow grits. They’re seven gouds. I’ve been selling ice cream for seven months. It doesn’t work well. At the end of the day, I hand back the distributor the money and he gives me back a little bit out of it. The distributor has a lot of people selling. A lot of people. He’s a cop… I’m twenty-seven. I don’t have money to do anything else, and don’t want to be just sitting around. So I just live with the little profit. Until I can find something else. I do mason work besides this. But I don’t have any special trade.

As we walked away I told Jean I thought that was pretty good, and it is. The ice cream man’s story is an insight into the day-to-day, which is what I was looking for. We got into the specifics. The distributor, the cop, taking most of the money, and still the guy was hanging in there. Jean agreed, but he also said this:

Let me tell you a secret. We can go to a thousand merchants in this city. None of them is going to tell you, “My business is doing good!” Never. Especially if they’re talking into a microphone. They’re always going to tell you it’s going bad, you know? Because they’re looking for an angle. That’s the hustle. The hustle is the work… The ice cream man, he’s going make it. Because he’s resilient. He’s used to suffering. But somebody who’s going hungry for the first time, it’s the most painful shit ever. Like when I first came here. I couldn’t take the hunger.

Clearly, you get the idea of Jean’s world view, a view he shares with millions of people, including my late father. But again, note the generosity. The ice cream man’s going to be all right. That’s Jean. His cynicism, as I see it, is only honest; it doesn’t degrade. He roots for people, not against them.

After that conversation I realized something that should have been obvious from the beginning: Jean should be the one conducting interviews, talking directly to people, the people he knew so well, not acting as a middleman. And this is how it went as we worked, together, for the next four years, along with many other people, including co-editors Evan Lyon and Laura Lampton Scott, on the book that eventually became Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince. (Evan is a physician and writer who has spent years working and treating patients in Haiti, and Laura is a writer and professor in Portland who has also co-edited these dispatches.) Lavil makes for some rough reading, and let’s just say it didn’t exactly become a bestseller. But we did our best to capture life in the streets of a remarkable city. The book holds Jean’s entire story, as well the intimate and sometimes gut-wrenching interviews he conducted. When he talks to people, Jean is fully absorbed. He listens with his brand of almost fervid curiosity. I have a photograph of him in the rubble of what you used to be downtown Port-au-Prince. In it he is holding a recorder and listening to a woman who was selling dried fish on the ruins of what had been a municipal building, just across the street from what used to be the National Palace, what Haitians call the White House. Here’s what she told Jean:

I am under the sun every day. Yes, dried fish is my business, Aranso, it’s called. If someone wants it for twenty Haitian dollars, you sell. If they want it for ten, you sell. For five dollars, even if it is one goud you sell. You sell, you sell, you sell. It’s a business that goes up, it goes down. You have to be in the street every day. I walk through street singing. Aranso! Aranso Sel! Normally, you make fifty dollars a day. Sometimes you make sixty. Other days it’s thirty. I pay the children’s school. I have six kids of my own. I have another child of my little brother who is in my hands. If I have even a a hundred dollars, I stretch it and send my children to school. I buy a pair of shoes on credit. My children need shoes for school. All this on a little case of dried fish. Six kids…

Jean is a singular journalist. He may not have a degree in journalism, or any degree at all, but I’ve never in my life seen anybody as conversationally fearless—he’ll talk to anybody about anything, at any time. Once, he struck up a long and fascinating conversation with a guy in Port-au-Prince’s Grand Cemetery. The man’s job, to watch over the grave of a dead general. All day long the man sits in front of the ornate tomb of one of Papa Doc’s henchmen. (A family member of the general’s paid him a bit of pocket change every week.) Jean’s specialty is understanding the economics of how people get by when they’ve next to nothing to get by on. He understands the hustle of survival because he lives it. And as he’d said, interviewees were a lot more candid with him than they ever would have been with me.

One essential thing he taught me: patience. He’d spend time with his interviewees, often hours. You talk, you talk about all kinds of things, you talk again, you stay in touch. Jean’s technique sometimes involves asking, let’s say, unconventional questions. Once, because one of his interviewees was talking a lot about her problems with love, and men in particular, Jean asked, “How do you know when a man loves a woman?” The woman answered:

If a man is willing to help me, I’ll open my heart to him. I don’t like to date people just for their money. Men don’t have to support me, because I always find jobs to take care of myself. I know there are some bad people out there, and I’ve already told you I’m not lucky in love. How do I know when a man loves a woman? I don’t know. One day I’d like to know.

Since Jean and I last saw each other in 2016, we’ve done our best to maintain our friendship through email and phone calls. I’ve kept up with his hustles. A few years back he had a bike rental business. He’s sold BBQ, water, candy, cigarettes, ice cream. And when journalists come to Haiti, Jean always stands ready and able to assist with a story.

But it hasn’t been easy, and as the situation in Haiti has deteriorated, the challenges of Jean’s already difficult life have increased tenfold. Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in his own bedroom, a hundredfold. In July, the criminal gangs that now control much of Port-au-Prince took his son, Diego age ten, hostage. In order to pay the ransom Jean turned over the last of the inheritance his mother left him in order to save his son’s life. Diego was held for seventeen days.

Not long after Diego’s release, in July Jean’s house was taken by force, along with many others along his street. Jean’s wife and three of their children managed to escape to the city and are now living in Cap-Haïtien. Jean, however, remained behind to secure passports and visas for his family to leave the country.

While making these recordings, Jean has been living with his second oldest son, Macdonald, on the streets of Port-au-Prince—an already battered, starving capital city that has descended into unprecedented chaos and violence. He’s unable to leave the city, because, at this point, the exit points are all controlled by armed gangs.

Jean needs money. He always needs money. Though I’ve done what I can to help (and so has Jean’s good friend, the writer Joe Mozingo, whom he mentions in the dispatches), our connection is rooted in the fact that we both recognize and appreciate the hustle in each other. It’s an elemental thing. We’re always trying to come up with the next one. And we’re still at it. This piece for McSweeney’s is a new hustle—thank you, McSweeney’s—because Jean will get paid for recording dispatches from Haiti. The money will help Jean secure a place for him and his son to sleep each night. With the luck Jean always seems, somehow, to find, the money may eventually help him and his family get across the border to the relative safety of the Dominican Republic. But right now he’s there, on the ground, and able to tell us what he sees and hears. As there are very few journalists, Haitian or foreign, still able to operate in the city (Jean wrote to me an hour ago to say that another Haitian journalist had just been murdered), he will be providing information and insight here that can’t be found anywhere else.

Even so, as much as he never fears a challenge, he’s getting tired. I can hear the exhaustion in his voice when we talk on WhatsApp. Jean has never been able to afford to let up, and the stakes are now as high as they’ve ever been, when each day is a struggle just to make it across the hours.

— Peter Orner

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Jean, as I say, saw right through me. I was going to fly in and I was going to fly out… But at the same moment that Jean sized me up, he also understood how we might work together. He knew I had my hustle, just like he had his. — Peter Orner

Dispatch #1: 10/18/22

It’s very hard for me to go to sleep. You see where I’m sleeping at? I have to wait until about two or three in the morning, when everybody’s asleep, before I can go inside and take a nap myself. That’s when I can find a place to lay down.

I was deported back to Haiti in 1994 for some things I did back in the day in the United States. I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve talked about it enough. And ever since I’ve been here, it’s been really hard. And look, I lived through the earthquake of January 12. I’ve seen a lot of people die. And these days, since the president was assassinated, the killings, they just haven’t stopped.

People will kill you just for a misunderstanding about something you said. Or they might kill you for liking someone that’s in power. The streets are full of gangs. Killers. Murderers. And they’re killing people, people who are just trying to survive.

Just yesterday, in this neighborhood I’m staying, this guy, he just walked into a young girl’s house and told the father, “Make sure you bring her to my house tomorrow so I can do whatever I want with her.” So, well, the girl escaped. But guess what? The guy came back last night. I’m sorry to say that he killed the old man, the girl’s father. The young girl, she’s still on the run.

And money? You want to know about money? It’s always a problem. Everything costs too much. Haiti doesn’t have free schools. There isn’t any canteen you go to for food. There aren’t any government food stamps either. Food, gas, education, it’s all very hard to come by in Haiti.

It’s always been hard for me as a deportee. Hard to get work. People don’t always trust deportees. They wonder what you did to get kicked out of the United States. Ever since I came to this city, the only way I’ve been staying alive is through the international community. When reporters or people who work for NGOs come to Haiti, I get some work, as a driver, fixer, translator—I help out in all kinds of ways. And even when they leave, a lot of these internationals keep me in mind, and help me and my family out a little. I used to do a lot of work with a woman with the Miami Herald. Lately I got in contact with this woman. And she’s been saving me. Otherwise I might already be dead. Some way, somehow, I’ve always managed to stay alive. It’s because of my intelligence. Thank God for that. And the friends that I have. Why do they help me? Because they see what’s in my heart. But now I just want out. It hurts me to death to have to be here.

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Jean and the editors would like to thank Yukiko Tominaga and Jeffrey Wolf for pivotal assistance with audio transcription for editorial and audio transcription assistance, as well as Sarah Royalty Pinkleman and Christopher Monks.