Being asked to interview TiGeorges is a bit like being asked to eat at his restaurant– something I’d gladly do anyway, and something that is sure to go away me with some new pieces of wisdom and insight. A lot has been happening in Haiti even before the earthquake, and now as Haiti is in the international eye way more is being said and written. “Kreyol pale Kreyol kompran” goes the proverb– Kreyol spoken is Kreyol understood– and one among the various meanings of this proverb is that those native to Haiti are the ones who are truly qualified to discuss it. With that in mind, I sat down to talk to TiGeorges LaGuerre, the proprietor of TiGeorges Chicken (in Echo Park) and the man who not only introduced me to Haiti, but also taught me to speak Kreyol.
Tom McNalley: As two people who’ve traveled around the world, we always discuss how a culture manifests itself for the visitor in its art/music and in its food. As a chef, how does Haiti show itself in its cuisine?
TiGeorges Laguerre: Well, Haiti has a most complex cuisine– one because Haiti was colonized by both the Spaniards and the French, and being African, we mix those things together. So Haitian cuisine might be very difficult to research, because there are so many influences. But that mixture makes Haitian cooking the truly Creole cuisine.
TM: Additionally they do loads with relatively few ingredients..
GL: Well, people always say that Haiti is the poorest country this and that, but in cuisine we actually take care of business– you possibly can go to the bottom of the barrel in Haiti and you’ll still have a fantastic meal. As a matter of fact, I grew up on sidewalk cuisine– my grandmother used to cook food so well that all of the Europeans used to return eat her food, and eventually they asked her to come back and cook for them, which basically how my family life started to be built up from poverty into having some money, through my grandmother’s cooking over 100 years ago. And then my mother continued that.
TM: And you’re doing it here in Los Angeles
GL: That is right. We take food very seriously in Haiti! We do not eat just to fill up the stomach– we eat because we need to enjoy something good and have the pleasure of every others company. That’s what Haitian cuisine is really all about.
TM: After we’re in Haiti we usually only eat one meal a day– I do not really notice until I get back to the States and am eating more than that, but maybe you could have an avocado or an orange in the morning, but mainly you are eating one small meal at about 4 or 5 within the evening, and that’s enough.
GL: Well, like I said, its the concept of eating something of quality, and Haiti is well-known for that. Even the fruits and vegetables, they’re naturally grown. We don’t use fertilizers or chemicals, and therefore while you eat something in Haiti, you do not need to eat a big portion of it to be satisfied.
TM: It is like what Remy said in Anse-a-Foleur: Americans are so crazy about organic this and that and all Haiti uses to grow its food is sun and rain! (laughs)
GL: That is correct– so cuisine is like the backbone of the culture!
TM: One thing that ties the cuisine to other aspects of Haitian culture is the extent of creativity involved– art, music, you name it– but the very idea of creativity is very valued in Haiti.
GL: Creativity comes about in a society that has little or no– you see these kids who take a plastic container and make a toy car– and they’ll use each piece of that container to make the car. It’s free, nothing goes to waste– low tech at its highest level, and yet, the creativity. Because someone truly needs to be a thinker– and Haitians are thinkers. We would like to ensure, I do not know if its a good thing sometimes, because what happens is that we would like to make sure before we jump– we’re not going to leap until we’re certain, because we do not wish to deal with failure, the negativity that comes with it– that may very well be a bigger pill to swallow! Like with homework, we’re going to pass the information along to Jerry, or a couple of other guys, so three or four people could have access to the data before it is submitted to the principal– to make it possible for it is correct.
TM: It makes for a very philosophical society, too. I mean, you and I know guys who live on a mountain in the midst of nowhere who cannot even read or write, but have wisdom beyond wisdom– you might bring them any problem and they could solve it.
GL: (laughs) Ooohhh yeah! As a matter of fact, if you really need to resolve a problem in Haiti, go check out a peasant. That guy provides you with wisdom that in your wildest imagination– I swear, you would have a PhD and his answer will make it seem like nothing! It’s a sad thing that that guy cannot read and write, and he pays a really expensive price for it– peasants are the majority, however the minority (meaning the elite class) somehow muffles it. Like they do everything in writing and in French, and the peasants do not speak French or read, so it’s almost like they are torturing the peasants with French. I think this is certainly considered one of the biggest problems that must be solved in Haiti– Kreyol needs to be put in the forefront. It is an efficient thing to talk French, it is an efficient thing to speak Spanish, it is an efficient thing to talk English– but Kreyol is actually the native tongue of Haiti. And this has been abandoned in the political landscape since day one! However the peasant is the one who has the wisdom.
And guess what? It is the peasant who cultivates the land. He’s the guy who’s going to bring food to your table– however the guy who is speaking French, or enforcing the French, makes the peasant feel so embarrassed, so intimidated, so ashamed of who he’s that he tries to maneuver to the city and mingle with the French speakers– this is the failure of Haiti also, because the guy who must be cultivating the land is in the city. And I am not saying the quake is an efficient thing it was a really bad thing, however it did function a wake up call and now quite a lot of the peasants are returning back to their land. But those peasants provided a service– and they are the backbone of the society. But when you leave the mountain and attempt to mingle in town and you can’t read, can’t write, well how the hell are you going to function in a society that operates on those things? It isn’t going to happen. But when they return to their land and cultivate it, that’s what goes to move Haiti to the next level.
TM: And at the identical time, we’re seeing reports of individuals being pulled out of the rubble six, seven days later they usually’re still alive– this is the blood of the peasants– survival.
GL: Definitely. These are people who have endured injustice, intimidation, they’ve been embarrassed on all possible levels and yet these are the people which have the strength, stamina and determination to move forward. And the federal government of Haiti has truly neglected its peasants. Like Edna (Delvarais, a mutual friend who lives in Port-au-Prince), she told me “Don’t be concerned about me, I can manage my hunger for five days.” In Haiti I do know people who for sure only have 10 meals monthly, and you wonder how they go concerning the day-after-day, keeping their heads up and everything else.
TM: And you won’t ever hear them complain.
GL: Haitians usually are not complainers. What is actually required to satisfy us is so minimal– we search for the small things, that is the mindset.
TM: It’s even in the language, like Dayanna (Georges’ cousin in Port-de-Paix and a very good friend of mine) was explaining– when someone asks how you are doing, you say, “N’ap Boule,” “M’ap kampe”..
GL: Yeah, we’re standing up, things are good..
TM: But when your home just burned down, both your legs are broken and your family has all died, then you would use, “Pa pi mal” (“Not too bad”).
GL: Well yeah, because you’re still alive. You understand, even me, living in America all these years, there are particular things which have been disconnected. But I’m going to Haiti and listen to Haitians using certain terms, and sometimes I attempt to undo that– are you sure you want to simply accept and tolerate all that? And I believe the international community takes advantage of that– they are likely to view Haitians as weak people, whatever they’ll feed us is acceptable– however the Haitian won’t complain in public. Behind closed doors, when he goes to bed and he’s meditating, thats when he’s going to say “look what so-and-so did to me”. But he won’t ever fight or go and show that he was disappointed with what was said or what was done to him.
TM: It’s like several gift, it doesn’t matter what, shall be taken with humility, love and graciousness– that’s one line you don’t cross.
GL: Definitely. Definitely.
TM: Another thing that a lot of people do not know about is the role of women in Haitian society. Could you talk about what you might call the Haitian Feminism?
GL: Well, I can discuss my grandmother and my mother, because a lot of the education that I received came from them. Women in Haiti run Haiti– you may not see them within the forefront, but when you really want something to get done, you’d better call a woman. I am not putting Haitian men down, but their tendency towards that sort of macho behavior– he is the man, is job is to offer economically and that’s it– the ability is with the women.
I always put my grandmother within the forefront. She taught me so many things, including the right way to cook. It’s because of her that I opened TiGeorges Chicken, because she said that when life gets difficult, you need to return to your roots.
My mother is a nurse, she is a mother of 10 kids, a merchant and still conducting business at the age of 90, she’s a tough working person! She is the person that always made sure that money was within the house. And that i can truly call my mother the iron fist. I remember something my mother had done, back within the 60’s, I do not know if anybody could have those guts, the nerve and the audacity to do– only my mother could try this.
Through the Duvalier years we had the Tonton Macoutes, they’d more power than they would ever need to run the country. But there was this guy who had a Tap Tap bus that went from Port-de-Paix to San Louis du Nord. It was a 1955 Chevrolet flat bed, and he had really made it look nice, prefer it was brand new again. That was a nice piece of machinery! So one morning the chief of police (a Macoute) says to him “I want to drive this car,” and he says “Over my dead body, you ain’t gonna drive that car!” So the Chief of Police was so embarrassed, he took him to jail and started beating the crap out of this guy, from like eight o’clock in the morning until about 2pm, like torture, you already know. And my mother heard about this, and she walks into that jail, pulled that guy out and said “you’re all a bunch of criminals.”
It took me years to know why my mother was able to try this. My mother has a book that has the name of probably 75% of the people in Port-de-Paix, and in some form they all owed her money. Guess what? She never collected, never harassed them for it but I assume she used that and that’s how she gained power in town. For her to walk into that jail cell and basically save that guy’s life– well, no one ever said anything about it. That is the kind of woman my mother is, gutsy and with an iron fist!
TM: And your father?
GL: It is due to him that I am involved in coffee– he was the director of customs, but when Duvalier came to power, you realize when governments change, everything changes? Well he was now not director of customs. So he went to Anse-a-Foleur and began to grow coffee there. My father could be very proud of me right now for having continued his work and to see what has happened by way of the expansion of that town.
TM: Would you talk slightly bit about your coffee operation?
GL: Like I said, my dad would be very happy to see me going into the deepest part of Haiti to bring coffee back. We still have more work to do, however the product is such an important product and by way of Haiti it has been neglected. So I’m trying to put Haitian coffee back into the world market, and hopefully in the next couple of years Haiti can be up there competing with all of the opposite coffee producers.
TM: You really have a robust relationship with the people there too.
GL: Oh yeah, I am not interesting in taking their coffee after which just keep moving. No. I am not within the business of dictating to them how they should grow or do anything like that. It has been 300 years, they should know the right way to grow coffee. It would be very disrespectful for me to go and coach Haitian coffee growers! But they’re my friends, and that i like to help them wherever I can, whether it is with tools or whatever they need. But I do not promote the concept of giving money without spending a dime, I’m more enthusiastic about giving the tools and resources and business that they should elevate themselves. And so they do it, too. The people living on that mountain are not starving, because they are cultivating the land.
TM: One thing that Haitians are talking about but not many others is the impact of the earthquake when it comes to the category barrier– nobody will sleep indoors, so the rich and poor are both sleeping in the streets. We were just talking in regards to the peasants and the elites, can this leveling result in a new unity in Haitian society?
GL: Well, one thing that is occurring which is a really bad thing is with all these people who’ve died and are dying, they are being put in mass graves. All of them. Rich, poor, Catholic, Protestant, Vodou, foreigner, MINUSTAH, they’re all buried together. I do not know what the impact of this shall be on the society, I don’t think anyone will truly know for many more years, but it is a very bad thing on all possible levels. Do you think we are going to excavate those mass graves? I don’t think so. The bodies have deteriorated already. Also individuals are always saying that Haiti is the poorest country, and full of the worst diseases– and yet we are finding out that there are a whole lot of foreigners in Haiti– they’re in these mass graves too– so maybe we have to ask what they were doing in Haiti in the event that they think it’s so bad. Or else banish the thought altogether, because either they simply loved Haiti and living there was great, or that they had some type of business there, or something else good was keeping them there. Nobody can identify their loved ones– so Haitians are mixed with everybody else. With all these people buried together maybe it’ll put a stop to the divisions that exist in our society. It goes beyond rich and poor.
TM: And the way concerning the survivors, moving forward?
GL: Oh yes, there might be more unity, nevertheless it is not going to be as fast as people would like. Haitians are still reluctant to quit what little they’ve– whatever class they are. And that is actually a strength of Haiti, because it has helped to keep quite a lot of international forces at bay, but in this case it would mean taking more time than we would like.
TM: A lot of people want to help but don’t know the way. What’s your advice?
GL: Anyone who wants to assist Haiti must make some serious preparations. You can’t truly help Haiti without knowing the people and how we live. This implies you need to talk some Kreyol, and learn the values of the Haitian people. You can not come here and attempt to enforce your values when you don’t even know the values of the people– they usually already know your values! But Haitians are crying for people to know their values. How can someone who does not speak one word of Kreyol understand the way our society functions? We don’t operate like the western world, we operate like Haiti. And yet people need to are available in and change the best way we do things without understanding why things are that way.
Numerous doors are shut for Haiti, and Haiti can never be Haiti. It is rather sad, on the international level we aren’t invited to participate in a variety of things. Cuba, Dominican and Puerto Rico get together but they do not invite Haiti– we buy their products, but they do not buy ours, and the way do you advance a society like that? For the past 200 years now we have been trying to deal with the debt that France gave us after our independence, but we cannot do it alone. People may look at Haiti and say that we have no government, but that could be a false statement. Among the people, now we have government.
TM: Speaking of which, there’s talk of either Prime Minister Louis or Aristide himself returning to Haiti. What’s your take on that?
GL: Well, I don’t know. The issues of Haiti right now are so complex, and I am not a politician– I do not think I’m equipped to know their views. When Aristide came to Haiti and was the first president to win an election with 90% of the country behind him, I took such a terrific pride as a Haitian living abroad. I said to myself, eventually Haiti has an opportunity! He was the first president to really start speaking Kreyol and he really embraced the peasants. But on another political level, I don’t know if his return would be a very good thing for the country, I can not really comment on that.
TM: Rush Limbaugh said earlier within the week that he didn’t think that the United States must be helping Haiti. In your mind, what sort of help should Haiti be sending Rush Limbaugh?
GL: Well I don’t think Rush Limbaugh is equipped to assist Haiti. If you’re going to help someone, you must know what they are about. Someone like him, I doubt if he speaks a word of Kreyol or if he has ever been to Haiti. Without that knowledge, you could have a billion dollars and never be in any position to help. He makes his money by utilizing fear and belittling people, and I am quite sure that he will continue on that road.
TM: According to people in Port-au-Prince, most notably Amy Goodman and Richard Morse via Twitter (not to mention the people actually living in those neighborhoods), aid (via the US military and the UN) is just not getting to areas like Carrefour and other “poorer” neighborhoods. Some say it’s on purpose, some say it’s due to logistical problems. Do you think there’s an underlying reason?
GL: I’ll say this: At my age, 56 years old, I cannot recall a time when help had been delivered to Haiti and that help had not been broken. Meaning that the people giving to Haiti did not have Haiti at heart– just helping for publicity, or that money had to pass through too many hands or something. There are always strings attached, which is part of the rationale that Haiti remains to be in the condition that its in. How are you going to have the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been poured into the country over time and the country still looks like that? Like I said, if you are going to help Haiti, it’s a must to know the country. Anyone who does not know the people couldn’t deliver excellence. Whenever you get to the nitty gritty of helping people, you’ll be excluded if you can’t communicate with them. If there’s a breakdown in communication, then your presence is not needed. Go and make yourself acquainted with the people of Haiti, they may guarantee your education!
You know, it is like that first time after we went to Haiti together, and we were at the airport coming home. The lady who checked you in spoke to you in English, and also you responded in Kreyol to her. By the point it was my turn, she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong and she said that each one day long she checks in foreigners, whether they’re missionaries, MINUSTAH or whatever, people who’ve been here for a very long time, maybe even years– and here was this white guy from America who spoke to her in her own language. That probably had more impact than most of the aid coming to Haiti, and I’m sure everyone she knows heard about that.
Being at the restaurant I’ve seen over the last couple of years and especially since the earthquake numerous Americans who come with an interest in Haiti and they are learning to speak the language. This is what can truly help my people, because guess what– these people are going to go to my country, and get to know my people, and they will see the great thing about Haiti. Then so many of the lies which have been told about Haiti shall be corrected by people who went to see it for themselves.
TM: How about rebuilding efforts in Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel and other cities that have been destroyed?
GL: What I am hearing about Port-au-Prince is that maybe they are going to start from ground zero somewhere else– new palace, new city hall, new everything– with infrastructure and everything. Create a new town, and in Port-au-Prince where there have been buildings, demolish them and make public parks as a reminder of what happened there. Buildings which can be still there can stay, but public domain areas.
TM: Just like the Dunham Botanical gardens? Something that’s both ecologically restorative and a public area?
GL: Exactly. That’s what I’m hearing, I do not know what they are going to do. But I do know that this idea is a very expensive proposition. But with those gardens, you are going to bring trees, birds, all these things, and it can be a very good thing.