How a 2010 earthquake led thousands of Haitians to flee to Chile.
Today, we offer episode 2 of “A Line in the Land,” from our friends at Texas Public Radio and the Houston Chronicle. It’s a podcast that explores the human story behind the Haitian immigration journey. On this episode, hosts Elizabeth Trovall and Joey Palacios try to answer the question of why many Haitians went to Chile after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. And what happened to those refugees when the Chilean government became more hostile to immigration.
GUSTAVO: Hey, what’s up. It’s Gustavo Arellano and you’re listening to The Times, essential news…from the LA Times.
Today… episode 2 of “A Line in the Land,” from our friends at Texas Public Radio and the Houston Chronicle. It’s a podcast that explores the human story behind the Haitian immigration journey. .
It’s Tuesday, August 9, 2022.
On this episode, hosts Elizabeth Trovall (TRO-vall) and Joey Palacios try to answer the question of why many Haitians went to Chile after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake…
And what happened to those refugees when the Chilean government became more hostile to immigration…
(Eli) Hey! There are episodes of Line in the Land in English and in Spanish. This is the English version. Para escuchar en espanol, vuelve al feed para encontrar la versión con el título “La Línea.”’
It was January 12, 2010 – a month before Jean Sony Eugene’s 20th birthday. He was at his girlfriend’s house when suddenly…
“Escuchamos el ruido…”
They heard a rumble around them.
SFX: CBS_Earthquake CLIP (screaming)
A major earthquake hit the city.
SFX: NPR NEWS CLIP: inskeep - this morning we’re bringing you updates on the earthquake that struck Haiti yesterday. It was a mag 7 quake and it was centered just a few miles from the capital Port au prince.
Woman: we’re told that houses went sliding down hillsides in a city where many buildings are unsafe even in normal times.
One of the worst natural disasters in modern history.
SFX: Obama sound byte on earthquake
(Eli) Eugene avoids my eyes as he recounts what happened to him that day. These are difficult memories – he struggles to open up at first.
“Ese dia estaba con mi amigo y tenia mi novia…Estuvimos juntos en la casa de mi novia”
(Eli) His girlfriend’s house survived the quake - so they were spared injury. But his own home wasn’t so lucky.
“Cuando llegó destruyó completamente la casa…
(Eli) When I got there, my house was completely destroyed, he says.
“Había otra personas que quedaban en la casa este día, esas personas perdieron la vida.”
(Eli) Everyone inside died under the rubble.
(Eli) His mom and brother weren’t at home and survived. Still – for Eugene – the loss was unmanageable. He remembers the days that followed. Neighbors pulled corpses out from the rubble – he was weak with grief.
“No podía no podía no podía porque me sentía muy débil. Yo perdí a mi prima, algo que me dolía mucho este día.”
(Eli) His cousin was among the hundreds of thousands dead.
“Tuvimos que ir a un lugar en un terreno donde no hay casa, un terreno vacío y fuimos toda la gente de esta zona.”
(Eli) One and a half million were displaced, like Eugene (EH-oh-jeen). They had to sleep somewhere. They brought tents, sheets, anything they could find to build shelter on some open land. Here’s a PBS NewsHour report describing how Haitians who had lost their homes built a quote constellation of teeming cities within a city:
SFX: “Settlements have no running water, no garbage collection, few systems for collecting human waste...the Haitian government has scrambled to put together a plan to house hundreds of thousands of people before the spring rains begin… even as new makeshift camps spring up on every patch of ground.”
(Joey) In the wake of the disaster, while thousands moved into these tent cities... Some returned to homes in the countryside -- others went overseas...(pause) In fact -- over the next decade, thousands were forced to leave the country altogether. (pause) Many ended up in... Brazil."
“...because Brazil was getting ready to build for the Olympics, for the World Cup, they needed manual labor, they needed workers.
(Joey) This is Guerline Jozef (GAIR-leen JOE-sef) again, an advocate who works with Haitian immigrants along the US Mexico border. We heard from her in episode one.
“So as part of that program, people went to Brazil, and they were part of the group that went there.”
(SFX: World Cup cheers – pop and fade under)
(Eli) That’s right – those soccer stadiums teaming with international fans during the 2014 World Cup — (POP GOOOOOOOL THEN FADE).... Haitians helped build some of those. (POP WORLD CUP SFX AGAIN AND FADE OUT)
(Joey) Some Haitians ventured even further…to the skinny, mountainous country at the far Southwest edge of the continent: Chile.
(Eli) And some went to both countries – one after the other.
(Joey) It took Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) several years to get to Chile…
(Eli) Those final years in Haiti were tough. He lived two years in a tent city. Then his mom was killed in an attempted robbery.
“No sabia que voy a hacer porque fue ella, mi mama, que me ayudó en todo.”
(Eli) I didn’t know what to do, he says, because it was her, my mom, who helped me with everything.
(Eli) It was time for Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) to leave Port-au-Prince. A cousin – who had been living in Chile since 2012 – did him a solid. He convinced Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) to join him abroad. He bought his plane ticket and promised to let him crash with him. Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) agreed. He still remembers the cold winter day in 2015 when he got off the plane in Santiago, Chile.
“Cuando me bajé del avión y al salir del aeropuerto el frío me dijo ‘bienvenido’ me pegó en el estómago. Ahí me di cuenta que no estoy en mi país.”
(Eli) The cold told me “welcome”: it hit me in the stomach, he says, that’s when I realized I’m not in my country anymore.
(Eli) Chile became home for Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) and many other Haitian migrants. But a sudden rise in immigration to Chile from Haiti and elsewhere EVENTUALLY led open doors to close. BY 2018 Chile HAD BECOME a more hostile place to outsiders.
(Joey) … which eventually sparked thousands of Haitians to pack up their lives in Chile and head north…to the Texas border with Mexico… continuing their odyssey in pursuit of a better life.
(Eli) Texas Public Radio and the Houston Chronicle spent months reporting on this story – we went to the forest of Colombia, Mexican migrant shelters…
(Joey) We spoke with Haitians across the Americas… in person, through Whatsapp and video calls with folks in Santiago, Chile… in Monterrey, Mexico…
(Eli) The people who can best tell this story…
(Joey) Who can help us understand why so many people took this perilous journey…
(Eli) And how immigration policies in the Americas played such a pivotal – and in some cases devastating – role in their lives.
(Joey) I’m Joey Palacios with Texas Public Radio.
(Eli) And I’m Elizabeth Trovall with the Houston Chronicle.
(Joey) This is Episode TWO of LINE IN THE LAND…
MUSIC CUTS OUT
(Eli) When Jean Sony Eugene left Haiti and got off that plane in Santiago, Chile… It was a major life change. Besides the chilly mountain air, he had to adjust to a new language… a new culture… but eventually he was able to get on his feet.
(Joey) Because Chile… had a strong economy, with lots of jobs for immigrants like him.
“During the 90s and early 2000s, Chile started doing very well. In, and also it is the experiment of neoliberalism.
(Eli) That’s Chilean immigration expert Marcia (MAR-see-uh) Vera (VER-uh) Espinoza (Es-pin-OH-zuh) from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh (Ed3-in-burh-uh):
“So the country really is, you know, portraying themselves as a very good model in the southern American context.”
(Joey) Chile also didn’t require a special visa from Haitians to get there like other countries. They could arrive as tourists and switch their visa when they found a job. Word started to spread… Chile became an immigration destination.
And at first, local businesses welcomed the influx.
“People from the business organizations, they were like, ‘Yeah, Chile is growing so much that we need migration, and we need labor, you know, because we are a small country, so we really need labor.’
(Eli) But…Chile wasn’t really prepared for an influx of foreigners…Partly, because of the country’s really unique geography. Here’s a youtube travel guide:
SFX: TRAVEL GUIDE TO CHILE Travel Guide to Chile - YouTube
“As the longest, thinnest country in the world, Chile stretches all the way from the borders with Bolivia and Peru in the north 4,500 kilometers to Tierra del Fuego in the south…” (FADE TO LOW)
(Joey) Chile has long been ISOLATED by that geography — Wedged between the Andes mountains and the pacific ocean… Some Chileans even say “Chile is an island”.
“...An economically sound country that is fastly becoming a first world nation, Chile has a huge amount to offer the modern traveler.”
(Eli) Around 15 years ago, Carl Abilhomme (AbIL-ohme) was himself intrigued by the country. He moved to Chile from Haiti to study. Over a shaky video call from rural Chile he says when he first arrived, he was all the rage back in university…
“Era el furor.”
(Eli) As one of the few Black people in Santiago, he remembers feeling kind of like a celebrity. Strangers would literally stop and ask to take a photo with him.
“Era ‘una foto contigo, una foto contigo una foto.’ Todo el mundo quería una foto.”
(Eli) It was weird sometimes – but he felt like it all came from a good place. He even fell in love with a Chilean.
(Joey) But… partly because of its unique geography – and the legacy of colonization on the continent - Some Chileans can be closed off, classist and racist. Many locals pride themselves in looking light-skinned and European.
(Eli) Peruvian immigrants and indigenous Mapuche people have long spoken out against the stigma that comes with being dark-skinned or indigenous there.
(Joey) So when planes started bringing more and more Haitians every week – like the one that brought Eugene – it was… at the very least unsettling to many Chileans. From 2015 through 2017, more than 170,000 Haitians arrived in Chile along with more than 300,000 Venezuelans, tripling the immigrant population.
(Eli) The demographics of Chile were changing in real time. A large Afro-Chilean community emerged – and drew attention.
(SFX: News clip Haitiano gana campeonato de cueca – :23 to :37 – fade to low)
(Joey) This local TV news story… is celebrating a young Haitian-chilean boy, showing off his cueca skills - Chile's national dance..." (SFX fade out)
(Eli) Some Chileans embraced the newcomers – in the YouTube comments under this video, many loved the cultural crossover.
(Joey) Others weren’t too happy about it. Chileans were witnessing a lot of rapid change in a short amount of time.
(Eli) In fact, other comments on that fluffy news story show the tension that was growing.
(Eli) Some troll the news program asking --- why don’t you just replace all the anchors with Haitians, if you like them so much…others say it’s a shame to see a Haitian dancing Chile's national dance... a few comments even got violent…
SFX: Inédito registro de la marcha contra migrantes en el norte de Chile - YouTube
(Eli) This footage from September 2021 was captured by national tv station Tele13. It’s an anti-immigrant protest in northern Chile. Chileans are screaming “Chile first” and “immigrants, get out!” (SFX: Fuera ONU, Fuera migrantes)
(Joey) The angry mob went to a plaza where Venezuelan migrants had been living. The Chileans grab the Venezuelan’s tents, strollers and chairs, throw them in a pile…and set them on fire. (SFX Throwing stuff, bonfire)
(Eli) In another shot a group of Chileans corner some migrants in a shop. (SFX: Screaming at the end of video) Children are crying as protesters scream at them.
(Eli) Chileans became more hostile towards immigrants – and so did the country’s policies.
(Joey) When Haitian migration reaches its peak in 2017, Chile elects a new president.
Right-wing candidate Sebastian (Seb-as-tee-YAN) Piñera (Pee-NYER-uh) vows to crack down on immigration.
“Mire, nosotros propusimos una nueva ley de migración que Chile ya no tiene…(FADE DOWN AND POP PART ABOUT CRIME) Open the doors to those who are good for Chile, those who abide by our laws, work in our country, contribute to our development and integrate into our society and, of course, build a new life…
(Eli) He says he’s proposing a law to open doors to law-abiding, working immigrants who can contribute to society… and closing doors to people bringing in crime.
>> IN SPANISH: “But we are going to close the doors to those who come to hurt, those who come to bring crime, drug trafficking, organized crime.”
(Joey)Even though Chile’s Center for Investigative Journalism – CIPER (SEE-per) – found no evidence that immigration had increased crime in Chile, Piñera did crack down on Haitian and Venezuelan immigration.
(Eli) He made it hard for Haitians to fly into Chile – and for Haitians already in the country, he made it more difficult to get new visas, to stay legally. Piñera’s policies clouded futures for many Haitians – like Domingue Paul…
“Ese nuevo presidente que te pone la cosa difícil…” (Paul)
(Joey) More on that, when we come back
SOUND SHIFT HERE – CAMP AMBI - MAJOR TRANSITION…
(Eli) We’re back. At a makeshift migrant camp in Acuña, Mexico across the border from Del Rio, Texas…I’m with Domingue Paul. While we talk, one of his kids walks up with a small toy car.
SFX: Playing with Domingue’s kiddo…
(Eli) Originally from Haiti, he moved to Chile in 2018. He says even though his kiddos are Chilean citizens and he had a job in Santiago, it was tough to get his and his wife’s immigration paperwork figured out..
“Bueno, yo elegí abandonar Chile por el tema del documento. Porque no quiere legalizar.”
(Eli) He explains the painstaking process of getting the required criminal background checks sent from Haiti to Chile… paying a friend to pick up the paperwork, a five month wait for the international delivery… All worth it to get his immigration status in good standing.
“Cuando anda va a hacer el trámite. Tan sencillo. Me dijo que ya no sirve en donde va a tener que regresar de nuevo.”
(Eli) Then when he showed his paperwork to immigration officials – before the deadline – they told him the paperwork was no good and to try again. So he gave up.
“Mejor que me abandonó el país.”
(Eli) On top of the bureaucratic nightmare, he also says he faced discriminatory treatment. Like when a cashier randomly claimed his 10-thousand peso bill was fake and just took it from him.
“Porque me iba a pasar algo como lo que pasó a George Floyd en Estados Unidos.”
(Eli) I thought something was going to happen to me like what happened with George Floyd in the U-S, he says. Another time he was stopped by Chilean police for being out in public during the pandemic.
“Y yo veía a chileno que pasó, ellos no lo agarran, que muchas veces ellos no hacen su trabajo.”
(Eli) I saw Chileans walk by, but the police…they never stop them, he says, this is why it didn’t hurt me to leave Chile.
“A mi dejar Chile no me da pena.” (10 DOMINGUE CONT – 2:51)
MUSIC BREAK HERE - TRANSITION
(Eli) Let’s circle back to Eugene (EH-oh-jeen)... after losing his house in the earthquake, and his mother in a robbery… his luck turned around after he moved to Chile. He worked decent jobs, got married and eventually started his own business… a little shop where he sold snacks and cigarettes in a Santiago neighborhood called Quilicura, where a lot of Haitians live.
“Yo monté un negocio en Chile que no era un negocio grande. Con esto yo empiezo a ganarme la vida.”
(Eli) It wasn’t a large business, he says, but with it I started to make a living.
But then…one day…he gets to the shop –
“Me quitaron muchas cosas.”
(Eli) Someone stole his inventory. He goes to the Chilean police to file a report. They say they won’t help him because of a paperwork issue with his business.
“Me dijeron que no, no puede poner la denuncia porque no tengo este papel.”
(Eli) He and his wife decide to dip into their savings to restock the empty shelves. But the attacks continue. One day, six guys show up to his shop.
“Uno se saca una arma, uno de ellos, saca una arma ‘entrégame el dinero’.”
(Eli) One of them pulls out a gun and says, give me the money. He pretends to reach for cash, but instead hides behind a wall. They shoot at him – but miss. He collapses in shock as the group flees the scene.
“Me quedo asustado en el suelo…”
(Eli) He calls his wife. This was it. His business was not something worth losing his life over – like what happened to his mom.
“Por culpa de este negocio puedo perder mi vida, no puedo seguir así no puedo no puedo no puedo.”
(Eli) He closed his business in July 2021. They sold their car, their belongings and decided they would start over – again – in the country he’d heard about since he was a kid: the United States.
(Joey) (energy shift) The US seemed like a viable option to Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) and a growing number of Haitians in Chile and Brazil. It had a strong economy, a large Haitian diaspora…
(Eli) And when Joe Biden took office, many believed that border officials would be friendlier to migrants – especially compared to former President Donald Trump.
(Joey) Haitians got word that the U-S would let them in at the border. And that was largely true, when they were coming in smaller numbers.
(Eli) These reports spread quickly over Whatsapp and social media.
(Joey) Movement was also encouraged by fixers and gangs that profit off migrants to make the trip…
(Eli) It didn’t help that they didn’t really understand U.S. border policies…
(Joey) Not a lot of people do…
(Eli) So many Haitians in South and Central America took a huge gamble.
(Joey) They made the long journey by land across the Americas, through the infamous Darién Gap that connects South America to Central America. By 2021, thousands were making this trek.
— BEAT —
(Eli) In our next episode, we’ll bring you along on that journey through South and Central America – a trip so terrible Eugene (EH-oh-jeen) says if he had known it was going to be so dangerous, he never would have gone…
“Si sabía que la ruta era así no me arriesgaba… es muy peligroso.”
(Joey) That’s in the next episode of LINE IN THE LAND...
MUX IN TO FADE OUT
GUSTAVO: And that’s it for this episode of THE TIMES, essential news from the LA Times.
LINE IN THE LAND is reported and produced by Elizabeth Trovall (TRO-vall), Sofia Sanchez, Stephania Corpi (CORE-pee)… And Joey Palacios. Their editor is Alisa Barba (BARB-uh).
Cultural competency assessment by Myriam Chancy (Meer-ee-am Chaw-see). Sound design and music by Jacob Rosati.
Audio mixing by Bennett Smith. And special thanks to Dan Katz, Lily Thomas and Maria Reeve.
LINE IN THE LAND is a production of Texas Public Radio in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle. You can find and follow the show and binge all the episodes in season 1 on Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
The Times is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Brousalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera. Our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen.
I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.